Thursday, August 20, 2009

Cultural Thursday

I may love a diet of goth-punk, but I also love my opera. Yes, opera. Bite me.

When the world ponders who are the greatest singers of the modern era (an era which I choose to define as the period between the first performance of Sibelius's Lemminkäinen Suite and the release of Oops, I Did It Again by Britney Spears) two names continually surface: Pavarotti, and Maria Callas, and for good reason. Both had voices that can rip a human in two.

There have been many great opera singers over the time, but these two stood out because they could do something the others could not... they could bring emotion into the arias. See, it's one thing to hit a note, but it's a whole other thing to hit the note and bring agony / joy / longing / pathos or whatever into it as well as be technically perfect. In fact, it is often said of Maria Callas that she wasn't techically perfect at all - there were other singers that hit the notes more powerfully or perfectly - but she could bring such a range of emotion to the works that her vocal limitations became irrelevant. To a purist, she is flawed, but to the rest of us, like, 99.9999% of the world who are not operatic purists, she's da shiz, because we can identify with her voice.

She had an interesting life. Her mum made her sing to German occupiers in Athens (which caused problems in post-war Greece), she got married young and fat, fame hit her before she was ready, she had eating and drug problems, had a dismal affair with Aristotle Onassis (he dumped her for Jacqui Kennedy) and she died in New York, mostly washed up, as a result of prescription drug abuse. Her last words were, "I need a coffee."

I met her sister when I lived in Athens. I had read her book about her famous sister and in it she mentioned she went to the same place for breakfast every morning, so I went there and had a quick chat. She must've been 80 or so when I met her, but looking into her eyes you could see some of her sister's beauty. Or rather, spunk. Callas was sex, and sass, and spunk... not so much 'beauty.

But more than anything, she had the voice. Oh god, that voice. The Gods made Pandora and failed, but their next experiment, Callas, was a success. They built her to sing one song.

Down below is Callas singing 'One Fine Day' from Madame Butterfly (sorry, a fan put it together, there's no real footage). It is, I think, the greatest operatic combination in history - Callas singing this song, as if she was born just to sing it. It's a fine song anyway, but nobody before or after Callas can do it justice.

The song is sung by the character Butterfly. See, her lover, a sailor, has left her and he promised to come back. Here, she sings that 'one fine day' she'll see his ship and he'll come back to her. Seems basic enough, but ay, here's the rub: When it's sung by anyone else, it is what it is. A song about a woman waiting for her lover to come back. But when Callas sings it, it turns on its head, because she brings the agony, and when we hear her sing it we know that Butterfly knows he's never coming back.

When she hits that big note at the end, I die a little every time. Along with that snare stab that opens 'Like A Rolling Stone', her tragic wail near the end is one of those split-second musical moments that can inspire a world.



Ramon Insertnamehere said...

Can anybody think of an opera where everybody doesn't die horribly?

squib said...

I did the whole lonely living in a coastal town thing many years ago with you know cigarettes and Zoloft and a broken heart. Anyway I had Vogliatemi Bene from Madam Butterfly on a CD that came with a book I never read. I played that song over and over in a misery loop

During that time, I met a sailor (how embarrassing). It ended badly but now that I think about it, there I was playing Puccini and I had no idea (until now) that I was playing the soundtrack to my own life (with some plot changes such as I'm not Japanese and I have not stabbed myself to death obviously)

Other than that, I know nothing about opera

Perseus said...

You just out-goth'd me, Squib.

Ramon - your point? The best Shakespeare plays are the ones where someone / everyone dies.

squib said...

Speaking of goths, it is free dress at school today and BigSquib went as a goth. She left wearing lots of a black eyeshadow and a black mantilla over her head

Ramon Insertnamehere said...

What I meant was, one of the things I like about opera is that everybody dies horribly.

WitchOne said...

Speaking of opera, which I am not, has anyone else read the Twilight series? I found it to be the biggest piece of utter crap that I simply could not put down. I read the whole series in 6 days and 2 states and still managed to look after the kids and fiancée, do housework (not much of that obviously) and have a social life.

Now I just need to find something relatively intelligent as riveting and I'll be sorting out my cultural education. Rather than coming here for it..

WitchOne said...

I meant to say, I did love the song, I had it playing to the kids at full volume, thankfully they didn't understand a word of it.

Come to think of it, neither did I.

Leilani said...

I just finished the Twilight series and also thought it was a gigantic,steaming pile of shite. I don't know how you can make vampires, mutant babies and werewolves so fucking boring.I felt it was my duty as a parent to read it, it's like the Flowers in the Attic for this generation.

Perseus I think I know the perfect girl for you.

WitchOne said...

Oooh oooh yes!! Perfect way to sum it up. Thankfully it's not all about incest though, let's face it, FITA was more than just a little bit sick.

Melba said...

I read the Twilight series. Also as a parent to keep up with what daughter is reading. I think the writing is better (if possible) than the Mortal Instruments series (another thing she is mad for) which I'm dragging myself through but I preferred the Phillip Pullman Golden Compass books. Of course. She's also into the Luxe series which I haven't read, which is all big dresses and coachmen, but again with a strong female character. She likes the Cherub series which is for boys, about kid spies. And it's got a central boy character who's a cheater arsehole. This also serves an educational purpose for her. She's read some of the John Marsden Tomorrow series but they got too real for her, she might go back to them

Flowers in the Attic were such crap. At least these books are imaginative and we talk about the girl characters being strong and doing things for themselves (Mortal Instr) vs having to be saved all the time (Twilight) and whether you could really find an Edward in real life, no, he's too perfect vs Jace who is much more human, even though he's a Shadowfighter (half human, half angel.)

Fucking hell.

I'm just rapt she's reading, and that none of the titles have bums or farts in them. And I manage to get my books in between so it's not all her stuff. She loves being able to discuss these books with me, and talk about them. Endlessly. If this is how I stay connected to my daughter through the fast-approaching teen years, I can think of worse ways than reading.

Sorry for the long comment.

Melba said...

Perseus this recording of Callas; whenever I hear it I get the tears at that point you describe near the end. Once I listened to it with my sister, we were kind of moving around the room, she was picking stuff off the floor, tidying up after her kids, I was maybe getting a drink, and at that exact moment we looked up from what we were doing and at each other across the room, both with tears, and both making a noise like a kind of mewling; the emotion in it is wonderful.

Perseus said...

Leilani - you can't leave a comment like that and not elaborate. Email me. Unless by 'perfect woman' you mean Sarah Silverman (who I'm a bit in love with anyway).

Leilani said...

Sorry Perseus the idea came into my head as I was reading about your love of opera. I was thinking of a discussion I had with a friend on Monday night who also loves opera.

And then I thought, you know, I reckon you would go mad for her. She's 29, highly intelligent, very articulate, bit of a rock chick look going on with the whole black hair vintage clothes thing, into the live music scene quite heavily, an avid reader (book a day kind of person and seriously the fastest reader I've ever come acrosss) really likes kids (even mine) and no doubt wants them at some stage when the right guy comes along. She lives in Fitzroy though, I have never discussed the country life with her. I think she's fantastic. Did I mention she has a rocking body?

I haven't discussed this with her though - I'm just throwing it out there.

Perseus said...

Well, bloody set me up on a coffee date or something!

Or, email me and I'll send you the details of when my band is playing and she can anonymously check me out. Though, we haven't played in nine months. We'll be rusty as all hell. Maybe just the coffee.

eat my shorts said...

Yes, opera. Bite me.

Can't. Promised I'd stop doing that to people.

I refuse to read Twilight, just like I refuse to read Harry Potter. I'm incredibly biased against Twilight because one of my students has been obsessed with the series since way before it even became popular. I had to make her promise not to twist every response in the Year 9 SOSE test (on Weather) into something related to Twilight. We came to a compromise where she used stuff from the series to remember the info, but didn't actually write that shit down on her test paper. She was hard work, that kid. She'd get crazy eyes every time she started talking about the book. No wonder I don't want to read the bloody thing.

Anonymous said...

My problem with opera is that I just don't know enough about it to find the good stuff. Can anybody make any recommendations?

Puss In Boots said...

EMS, I am exactly the same. I don't see why grown adults are reading children's stories. I haven't and never will read/see either Harry Potter or Twilight.

How was anything on your weather exam related to vampires anyway, EMS?

Melba said...

Alex, there is a CD available called "The World's Best Opera" or similar. You can get it at Borders; it's a compilation of opera greats. I was told by someone else "it's all the opera you'll ever need," or something like that.

If you are really keen, I'll try to get the exact name of it for you.

Ramon Insertnamehere said...

Can anybody make any recommendations?

You're pretty safe with anything by Verdi.

Music you can hum afterwards and plots which are reasonably easy to follow.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Melba, after a quick look at the Borders' website, I came up with three possibilities:

1) Best Opera Album in the World...Ever! - The closest match to the title you suggested, but with less than 40 tracks, it hardly seems like "all the opera you'll ever need".
2) 100 Best Opera Classics - Seems to have the right quantity but the title is a bit off.
3) World’s Very Best Opera for Kids... in English! - If this is the one you were talking about, very funny.

You're pretty safe with anything by Verdi.

Thanks Ramon. Are there any particular performers, orchestras or performances that I should look out for or avoid?

eat my shorts said...

How was anything on your weather exam related to vampires anyway, EMS?

Nothing was remotely related to vampires on that test, she'd just find whatever weak link she could and go from there.

Some kids stories I love though. I'm mad keen for Roald Dahl and I can't tell you how many times I've re-read The Wizard of Oz.

Anonymous said...

I can't tell you how many times I've re-read The Wizard of Oz.

The one book or the whole series?

Anonymous said...

Also, in keeping with modern times, Verdi is a particularly green choice.

Mr E Discharge said...

Buying the greatest hitscompilations isn't the answer if you want to get an appreciation of what Opera is about. The Arias lose a lot of thier impact when heard out of context.

Buy the whole Opera.

Turandot- Pucini.
La Traviata - Verdi.
La Boheme -Pucini.
Madame Butterfly -Pucini.

Perseus said...

Alex, I'm with Mr. E.

My suggestion is to ignore 'greatest hits' and composer compilations, and instead, get into an actual opera, start to finish. Buy the actual CD with booklet, words translated, back story and so on. Mr. E's suggestions are okay, but I personally prefer the German operas.

'Salome' by R. Strauss is my all time favourite. Full of sex and gore and agony. And blasphemy (we get John The Baptist's head, served on a platter!) It's awesome. Some of the music is the most powerful I've ever heard.

'The Flying Dutchman' by Wagner is pretty hot, too.

Ramon Insertnamehere said...

Verdi is a particularly green choice

Very droll, Boogey.

Mr E Discharge said...

'Salome' by R. Strauss is my all time favourite.
Some of the music is the most powerful I've ever heard.

Easy does it, Pers. Let's not throw Comrade Alex in at the deep end. The whole "tone poem" structure takes a lot of getting used to.

If sheer power is what you're loking for, look no further than Wagners Ring Cycle conducted by Georg Solti on the Deutsche Grammophon label.