Have you ever read the book "The Secret Garden?"
It's a really lovely story, more geared toward children, but nevertheless moving. Lucy Simon must have thought so too, because she put pen to paper and wrote the music for the musical adaptation. Lucy Simon is Carly Simon's sister and a fantastic songwriter. I've never seen the musical, but I listened to the recording all the time growing up - my sister and I would even put on a two-woman show and play all the characters and sing all the songs together. It was a blast.
The story, though, is not a light-hearted one for the most part. In this song, Lily's ghost, a woman who passed away years ago, sings to her still-living husband about her love for him and why she still feels guilty for having left him alone. As he is a hunchback, the fact that a woman as beautiful and charming as Lily could love him was unbelievable; when she died, he lost everything, including his confidence in himself.
Singing this is not easy; vocally, it isn't too difficult, but emotionally it's hard not to imagine speaking to my own husband if, God forbid, something were to happen to me. The reason this song is so affecting is because we don't often imagine the pain of the person who passed away, who sees the world from beyond and hopes that everyone is well. There's a reason that the play "Our Town" is so emotional - it's a similar situation.
The way that Lucy Simon writes this song is brilliant because she begins with almost nothing happening underneath Lily's melody; it isn't until she addresses her husband directly, saying that she feels his pain and can't ask him to move on but that he has to do it himself, that the full orchestra comes in to support her voice. That's exactly when Lily would need the support of the orchestra. Then, as she asks for his forgiveness, the vocal line gets higher, which sounds more like she's pleading with him. She wants him to move on.
What do you think of this song? Have you heard of this musical? Let me know in the comments!
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So you've just started listening to opera. You began with the beginner's guide to opera playlist, and now you want to know WHO you're listening to.
I've got you covered.
Here's a list of some of the biggest names in opera, and each of them are held up as an example to young opera singers for their own unique reason. Let's get started!
1. Maria Callas - You can't really talk about opera without talking about Maria Callas, at least in my opinion. She is known as one of the great actresses of her time, and she has earned that reputation. In opera, there's a style of staging we jokingly call "Park and Bark," where a singer will just plant herself onstage and not move till the end of her aria. Maria Callas would NEVER have done that. She cared too much about the story and her character. You can hear it in her singing. Although she wasn't known for the beauty of her voice (in fact, many people openly said it was an ugly sound), the expressiveness in her singing is incredible. As an audience member, you're on the edge of your seat listening to her. She was also fascinating as a person: opera was her life, and she knew it. She was dramatic, unpredictable, and mesmerizing.
2. Joan Sutherland - On the other end of the spectrum we have Joan Sutherland. Sutherland's voice is simply beautiful - it's really hard to argue with that, even as a subjective statement. But she was the epitome of "Park and Bark" - for her, opera was about the voice, and it pretty much ended with that. She was incredibly consistent. As a singer, she is commendable for her technique - she sings flawlessly and knew exactly how to use her voice. As an actress...well, that's a different story. Listen to how easily her voice seems to move - it seems as if she really had no struggles at all, and making opera singing sound easy is a true feat.
3. Janet Baker - Janet Baker is an English mezzo-soprano (a lower voice than soprano) who was also known as a singing-actress. What I love about her, though, is the color of her voice. I chose a song for this playlist rather than an aria so you could truly hear her voice - it's strong but soft, colorful but piercing.
4. Samuel Ramey - I love Sam Ramey! The first time I saw him in a performance was in the Met's production of Don Giovanni. My father had bought the DVD recording and showed it to us when I was about twelve, and I think I just about fell in love with him after hearing his beautiful bass voice. He is charming, fun, and his voice is stunning. Because Don Giovanni can be sung by a bass (the lowest male voice type) or a bass-baritone (second lowest), hearing it sung by a bass is really exciting because the voice sounds rounder as it gets into the lower ranges.
5. Bryn Terfel - Another bass! One of the things that humans find exciting is seeing the absolute limits that the human body can reach, so hearing the extremes of the human voice can be breathtaking. We often get distracted by the highest notes, but hearing the lowest notes in a bass' range is as, if not more, shiver-inducing. Bryn Terfel is one of those basses whose voices is intoxicating. If you like musical theater, he also performed the role of Sweeney Todd! I chose his rendition of Shenandoah for this playlist because, one, I love this song, and two, his version is one of my favorites. He has such a soulful voice and I love the way he spans the notes.
6. Luciano Pavarotti - If you haven't heard of Pavarotti, get ready! Pavarotti is probably the most famous opera singer of all time, and for good reason. His voice shimmers and he sings with precision, fluidity, and beauty. In a way, he's very much Joan Sutherland's equivalent - he would "Park and Bark." In spite of that, though, he really is the epitome of an operatic tenor.
7. Anna Netrebko - Anna Netrebko has been at the top of her field for about fifteen years now, and as her voice has changed, she's confidently moved from role to role. When she burst onto the scene, she was stunningly beautiful and could portray the part of the ingenue with finesse. It's interesting to see how she has navigated different operas as her voice has gotten heavier. My favorite recordings of her, though, would have to be when she was young and singing coloratura roles (music where there are a lot of notes that move very quickly).
8. Elīna Garanča - Another present-day singer, Garanča is an incredibly talented mezzo-soprano. She has flawless technique which allows her to sing with ease, and she's exciting to watch onstage as well. She is a truly well-rounded opera singer, and she's gorgeous to boot.
9. Renee Fleming - Fleming is the most famous soprano of our time. I actually sang for her in a masterclass about two years ago, which was really cool! She sang the national anthem at the Superbowl a few years ago, sang on the soundtrack of Lord of the Rings, and has starred on Broadway as well as at the Met. As she's gotten older, she's taken a few more liberties with her singing that I personally don't really like, (sliding around the note instead of being precise), but in her prime, her voice was stunning.
10. Plácido Domingo - Plácido Domingo was the third of the three tenors, and although he has less fame in the wider world than Pavarotti, Domingo is probably the most famous tenor-turned-baritone in the operatic world. (He became a baritone as he aged, and he's still performing at the age of 78.). As Pavarotti is to Sutherland, Domingo is to Callas - he is known for his acting and embodying his characters as he sings with power on the stage. I chose one of his most famous roles for this playlist - the opera I Pagliacci (The Clowns) is a wonderful vehicle for any great tenor.
Did know you know any of these singers? Who did I leave off the list? Let me know in the comments!
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Does a sleepwalking opera sound crazy to you?
It did to me when I first heard about it! La sonnambula, or The Sleepwalker, by Vincenzo Bellini, begins with the celebration of the engagement of Amina and Elvino. Over the course of the opera, Amina wanders into another man's room while she is sleepwalking and falls asleep on his couch. Believing her unfaithful, Elvino breaks the engagement, not believing that she is a sleepwalker. Not until she is walking precariously across the unstable mill bridge asleep does Elvino realize his error, and the two are reunited (...as soon as she wakes up).
This is an opera written in the bel canto style, which means beautiful singing. The accompaniment is simple and allows for the singer to embellish the written melody in any way he/she wants to. The text is usually repetitive and gives the singer room to imbue a different subtext to the same words. It's really freeing, as a singer, to have so much flexibility in your interpretation of an aria!
This aria is sung by Amina while she is crossing the bridge, right at the end of the opera. Asleep, she is mourning the loss of Elvino's love. It's interesting that Amina is actually sleeping while she sings this. It made me wonder how I, as an actress, could show her distress while also conveying her sleeping state. When taken out of context and sung as a stand-alone aria, I don't think it makes sense to sing this in a dream-like way - rather, embrace the sentiment and the words and actually mourn the loss of love.
So how can we relate to this? This seems like such an absurd plotline, but in fact, it's not. Many times in relationships, there is turbulence based on misunderstanding. Elvino doesn't know the whole story, and to be fair, neither does Amina! Amina doesn't know that she sleepwalks, so she can't really correct Elvino's mistake.
Amina is in pain because her fiance broke up with her and it's all over a misunderstanding. I think putting the emotions in a more modern context makes it easier for us to understand and relate to. And that's all that's happening here. Think about how human she is: even in her darkest moment, she looks at the flowers she holds in her hands and distracts herself for a moment with the idea that she could revive them. Then she immediately remembers that she can't revive Elvino's love for her.
I mean, it doesn't get more relatable than that.
Do you like this aria? Have you heard it before? Let me know in the comments!
Opera. A word that conjures up different images for different people and encompasses a whole lot in just a few syllables.
But here's the thing about opera. If you haven't been raised on it, you don't know where to start. And if you start in the wrong place, it's easy to become deterred forever. A simple example: if the average person listens to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, he'll probably run screaming for the hills. Or at least fall asleep. The opera is approximately four hours long, and even though there are some beautiful moments, it's helpful to understand some structures of music theory to really appreciate the opera as a whole. (Although, to be honest, I'm not a Wagner fan for many reasons, not the least of which was his horrible anti-Semitism.)
So I've put together a Beginner's Guide to Opera. I think opera is so incredible, and with a helping hand, it can be a lot of fun to learn about and to enjoy. But first, let me answer a few questions regarding opera.
Why do your voices shake so much? Opera is one of the few art forms where we don't use microphones. In 2,500-seat houses, we have to sing resonantly enough to be heard at the very back of the auditorium with a full orchestra behind us and no amplification. One of the things that allows our voices to carry is something called vibrato. Vibrato is the shaking sound you hear, and it's what allows a singer's larynx to move with flexibility as well as helps the voice carry resonantly. In addition, vibrato is something that sounds much better in person - recordings don't ever do voices justice.
Why is everything so dramatic? - The same reason that we watch movie and TV shows where dramatic things happen all the time! Opera takes every day life and magnifies it so that we can see the most extreme of emotions play out in front of us.
Why are operas so long? - Because opera uses music as its language to convey emotions, drama, and suspense, things take longer to build. As well, each aria (song) gives the character time to process their emotions in almost what would be real time, and gives the audience the opportunity to process those emotions along with the character.
Follow me on Spotify to find this playlist here, and you'll be able to follow along with me as I discuss each piece and why I chose it. Don't be surprised if you've heard many of these arias before - they've become standard in commericals, movies, and TV shows!
1. Nessun dorma! - You've heard this aria before, but you've probably never thought twice about it. It's a stunning piece written by Puccini for his last opera, Turandot. In the opera, Turandot, a princess who has challenged any man who wishes to marry her to answer three riddles correctly or risk being beheaded, has met her match in Calaf, a prince of a fallen dynasty who has answered her riddles correctly. Calaf has fallen in love with Turandot, but she doesn't ever want to be married, and so Calaf has presented her with a response: if she can discover his name before dawn, then she can kill him. "Nessun dorma" is the song he sings that night, certain she will not discover his name and that he will have victory. Here are the lyrics:
None shall sleep! None shall sleep!
Not even you, oh Princess,
in your cold bedroom,
watching the stars
that tremble with love and with hope!
But my secret is hidden within me;
no one will know my name!
No, no! On your mouth
I will say it when the light shines!
Vanish, o night!
Fade, you stars!
Fade, you stars!
At dawn, I will win!
I will win! I will win!
Luciano Pavarotti made this aria famous because he sings it so effortlessly, and let me tell you folks, this aria is not easy. Listen to the rising of the violins at the beginning, rising in hope. But everything is calm and steady in the accompaniment at the beginning reflecting the night sky and the calmness that Calaf himself feels that he will win Turandot's heart and hand. It isn't until we get to the second verse that the accompaniment takes on a new tone and doubles the melody with more colors. The anticipation builds until the last moment: I will win!
2. Sull'aria - If you've seen the Shawshank Redemption you've heard this one before! This is a duet from the opera The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I sang an aria from this a few week's ago, and you can see that video here. This duet is one of the most beautiful pieces ever written, but the subject matter is more than just a discussion of beauty.
In the story, the Countess' husband has been pursuing her maid, Susanna. In order to catch her husband out and plot against him, the Countess has devised a plan: she'll have Susanna write the Count a letter, telling him to meet her in the forest that night. Instead, the Countess will be waiting there in disguise. The duet is the Countess dictating what Susanna should write in her letter. Here's the translation:
On the breeze
What a gentle little zephir
This evening will sigh
Under the pines in the little grove.
And the rest he’ll understand
Certainly, certainly he’ll understand.
(h/t Lyrics Translate)
When the notes of a chord are played in succession, that's called an arpeggio, and Mozart writes arpeggios for the orchestra to make it sound like a soft breeze. You can also catch the interplay between Susanna and the Countess, as Susanna catches the Countess' drift and they plot and laugh together. But the music itself is so captivating, it's like accidentally picking your favorite flavor out of a chocolate box: an unexpected and delicious little morsel in the middle of The Marriage of Figaro.
3. Brindisi from La Traviata - Another absolute classic is the opening from La Traviata, an opera by Giuseppi Verdi. This is the beginning of a tragedy, if you can believe it, given the lightheartedness of this first scene! Verdi introduces us to the two main characters and their views on life in the first ten minutes of the opera - Violetta, who lives only for now, and Alfredo, who wants more. Of course, within a few moments and throughout the opera, it becomes clear that living this material life is, in fact, meaningless and the only true happiness could be found in a serious, loving relationship. But Verdi's brindisi is famous because it is so tuneful and truly captures the intoxication of a lively party filled with libations. And from the beginning, the audience knows the chemistry between its two main characters.
4. Toreador Song - This is one of two arias I picked from Carmen, an opera by Georges Bizet that contains so much incredible music it's difficult to narrow it down for this list. Carmen, a gypsy who can seduce basically anyone but cares for no one longer than a moment, has ensnared Don Jose. But the toreador song occurs in the middle of the opera and introduces us to Carmen's second love interest, a bullfighter. This is the entrance of a conqueror, a man who has returned victorious from a bullfight and is pulsing with pride and masculine energy and is looking for love. Here's a portion of the translation:
The arena is full, from top to bottom;
The spectators are losing their minds,
The spectators began a big fracas!
Apostrophes, cries, and uproar grow to a furor!
Because it is a celebration of courage!
It is the celebration of people with heart!
Let’s go, en guard! Let’s go! Let’s go! Ah!
Toreador, en guard! Toreador, Toreador!
And dream away, yes, dream in combat,
That a black eye is watching you,
And that love awaits you,
Toreador, love awaits you!
This is like the entrance song for a UFC fighter or a boxer! This is the Rocky theme, just back in 1875! He's getting his audience hyped up and also doing a little seduction of his own! One of my favorite things Bizet does in this aria is that each time the text builds up to "Toreador!" it pulls back to reflect what's happening in his mind during the bullfight - and inside his mind it's quiet even as the audience screams and yells.
5. O mio babbino caro - Another one you probably know! This aria cracks me up. The music is incredibly tender and beautiful, which is what the composer, Giacomo Puccini (who also composed Turandot) wanted to convey, but with a wink in his eye. Lauretta, the young woman singing this, is telling her father that she'll throw herself into the Arno river if he doesn't let her marry her boyfriend. She's playing Daddy's Little Girl and Puccini pulled one over on the whole world, because everyone takes this out of context and is entirely convinced by the emotionally charged music! Of course, the piece is beautiful and Lauretta is sincere in her words - but it is funny to think of this aria in context.
6. Habanera - Another classic from the incredible opera, Carmen. This is Carmen's introduction to the audience and boy, does she know how to make an entrance. It is interesting to note that she and the toreador are similar in many ways, including the way they are introduced by Bizet. Carmen enters with a rose and a song meant to entice all the men surrounding the cigarette factory, where she works. She then sings:
Love is a rebellious bird
That none can tame,
And it is well in vain that one calls it,
If it suits it to refuse.
Nothing to be done, threat or prayer;
The one talks well, the other is silent,
And it's the other that I prefer;
He said nothing, but he pleases me.
Love! Love! Love! Love!
Love is a gypsy child,
It has never, never known the law;
If you don't love me, I love you;
If I love you, do stand on guard!
If you don't love me,
If you don't love me, I love you
But if I love you,
if I love you, do stand on guard!
The bird you hoped to catch
Beat its wings and flew away.
Love is far, you can wait for it;
You no longer await it, there it is.
All around you, swift, swift,
It comes, goes, then it returns.
You think to hold it fast, it flees you,
You think to flee it, it holds you!
Love! Love! Love! Love!
(h/t Lyrics Translate)
In this description of herself, we immediately learn who she is and who she has targeted as her next victim: Don Jose. She goes on to throw her rose at him, marking him as her prey. The sensual nature of the habanera is completely reflected in the text-setting.
7. Largo al factotum - Ever heard someone sing "Figaro, Figaro, Fiiiiiigaaaaarooooo!" and think, that's opera? This is the aria that's from! The Barber of Seville is a wonderful romantic comedy by Gioachino Rossini. We have two lovers, a count in disguise as a starving artist, and a young woman who has little freedom. Figaro, the barber himself, is the aide to the two lovers, making their pining love a reality. This aria is another entrance aria, like Carmen's or the toreador's, and it defines Figaro in an instant. Here's some of the translation:
All after me, all inquire for me,
Both young and old, mistress and maid:
"My wig here!" – "My beard here!"
"Here, bleed me!!" – "Quick, the note!"
Figaro! Figaro! Figaro! etc.
Oh, what a crowding! Oh, what a fury!
One at a time, please, for charity's sake!
"Hey, Figaro!" – I'm here.
Figaro here, Figaro there,
Figaro up, Figaro down.
Figaro is everywhere and everyone wants him! He is a pro at what he does and he's proud of his work. He's full of himself and is absolutely hilarious!
In the aria itself, there are a few things to notice. It begins with the Figaro offstage - that's why he sounds distant in the recording. Because this is a comedic opera, you'll notice that he sings about a million words a minute, and that's called patter: it's something that audiences thought was hilarious at the time. It has translated into modern musicals as well. Lastly, one of the things that I love about this aria is when Figaro imitates people calling him all over the city - keep an ear out for it!
8. The Barcarolle - This is stunning. I mean, absolutely stunning. A barcarolle is a traditional Venetian song sung by gondoliers, but this duet from the Tales of Hoffman by Jacques Offenbach has become known by that name. The duet opens the third act of the opera and is sung by Hoffman's, the main character, third love interest, the courtesan Giulietta, and his muse, Niklausse. The music is seductive and sensual, and is somewhat sinister as we transition into the final story of the opera:
Lovely night, oh, night of love
Smile upon our joys!
Night much sweeter than the day
Oh beautiful night of love!
Time flies by, and carries away
Our tender caresses for ever!
Time flies far from this happy oasis
And does not return
Embrace us with your caresses!
Give us your kisses!
(h/t Lyrics Translate)
Imagine the skies of Venice as you're floating in a gondola while you listen to this, and I think you'll understand what Offenbach was trying to convey. Since Giulietta is ultimately going to betray Hoffman, there is a calmness in the regular rhythm of the accompaniment that seems meant to calm, as if to lull Hoffman into a false sense of safety.
9. Pur ti miro - This is an aria from one of the first operas ever written! The Coronation of Poppea, or L'incoronazione di Poppea, by Claudio Monteverdi, was premiered in 1642 and it was the first opera to be based on history rather than myth. It tells the story of Emperor Nero and his affair with Poppea even as he was married to Octavia. It's amazing to hear the difference between the earliest operas and what we would consider standards in the operatic repertoire as of now. Many of the instruments we think of now as being integral to an orchestra hadn't been invented yet, or were in very different forms than we see now. That's why the accompaniment is so limited!
This is the last duet in the opera, after Nero and Poppea have finally rid themselves of everyone in their way and Poppea is crowned empress. The story is oddly immoral, as the "winners" of the piece have destroyed everything in their way in order to be with one another. The clashing of certain intervals in the voices (which is called dissonance) is utilized here, even in a love duet, to show the underlying evil of the two characters who have pursued their lust and love.
Another thing to note is that even though it sounds like two women are singing, one of those voices is actually a man. One of the voice types in opera is called countertenor, which is a man who is trained to sing in his falsetto. Originally in the operatic world we had castrati, men who were castrated as young boys to retain the beauty of their young voices. Of course, this practice was ended a little over a hundred years ago but had tapered off long before that. Now, we have countertenors who are simply men who can access that part of their voices with training.
10. Vissi d'arte - Another Puccini opera and aria? You bet! This aria is from the opera Tosca which is absolutely incredible. It is one of the most dramatic operas ever composed. Puccini was so concerned with the construction of this opera as a dramatic piece that he almost cut this aria from the opera because he thought it slowed down the action. Thank goodness he didn't, since it's one of the most beautiful arias ever composed!
In the opera, Tosca, an operatic diva, has been put in a terrifying position. Her lover is being tortured by the evil Scarpia, and Scarpia has told her that he will release her love if she sleeps with him. She turns to God and sings:
I lived for art, I lived for love,
I never harmed a living soul!
With a discreet hand
I relieved all misfortunes I encountered.
Always with sincere faith
rose to the holy tabernacles.
Always with sincere faith
I decorated the altars with flowers.
In this hour of grief,
why, why, Lord,
why do you reward me thus?
I donated jewels to the Madonna's mantle,
and offered songs to the stars and to heaven,
which thus did shine with more beauty.
In this hour of grief,
why, why, Lord,
ah, why do you reward me thus?
These words are so powerful in the moment of her despair, and Puccini sets them beautifully. It's all a cry of grief, of pain. It starts off with disbelief, slowly as she processes the information, and then suddenly, a cry to God. All of a sudden, the orchestra takes on the melody. I love that the orchestra is doing something totally different than what she's singing - there's no support in it, but everything is in the same vein of pain.
The singer in this recording is Maria Callas, who you also heard sing the Habanera. She was one of the most famous opera singers who ever lived, and for good reason. She was an incredible actress and known for making operatic characters feel real. She also happened to be beautiful. Listen for the way she uses the words to express her meaning.
What did you think of this playlist? Are there any arias I left out that you think I should put in my next one? Let me know in the comments!
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First off, watch this video before you read this, as there are subtitles on the screen so you'll know what's happening!
This is one my favorite arias in the repertoire.
It's like chocolate. It's decadent and creamy and wonderful. I know it's weird hearing someone talk about music like it's food, but sometimes there's no other way to describe it! The chords that Puccini wrote are so beautiful and heavy, in a way, that the most similar comparison is to food. And this opera is one of his best. I mean, it doesn't get any better than this. I could talk about "Mi chiamano Mimi" for hours on end, but I'll keep it to what's relevant to us now: Spring.
La bohème means "The Bohemians" and it's about a group of (literally, much of the show) starving artists who find and lose love. Although it sounds incredibly cheesy, it's not, for the simple fact that Puccini makes his characters wonderful and fun and deeply human. Mimì is a young woman who comes to her neighbor Rodolfo when her candle has blown out and she has no more matches. After he lights her candle, she realizes that she has lost her key in his apartment. After helping her look for it, Rodolfo realizes he wants to spend more time with her, and pockets the key once he finds it so they can get to know each other a bit longer. (Cute, right?)
As they talk, they each sing an aria and we quickly learn that Mimì loves the spring and its warmth. It seems sweet at the beginning, but as the show goes on, it becomes clear that Mimì has consumption. Consumption is an illness that leaves you cold all the time - the warmth isn't simply nice, it's life-saving. Mimì loves the spring as no other character can. She sings of the sun with adoration. You know that feeling of stepping in a hot bath after being in the snow all day? Imagine that times a thousand.
Listen to the way Puccini sets the section where she talks about the sun. All of a sudden, the entire orchestra is working in tandem as Mimì lets the idea of being warm spread through her. Puccini also sets the entire aria conversationally; notice the way Mimì repeats herself because she doesn't know what else to say, or the fact that she, embarrassed, says she doesn't know how to talk about herself after she spent the whole aria doing so!
This aria is truly a masterpiece, and perfectly appropriate for today, the first day of spring!
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Last week on my Instagram stories, I asked if you wanted to know what I listened to besides opera. I think people get the impression that because I'm an opera singer, I only listen to classical music. I definitely love classical music, and it has a time and place, but I've got a whole host of other albums on my Spotify that do not fall into that genre.
Many of my musical tastes are inspired by my dad. He loves music and introduced us to his favorites when we were children. Now I appreciate my taste in music; growing up, I was the odd one out who never listened to the top 40 and probably couldn't have told you what the Backstreet Boys' newest song was. That doesn't exactly line you up for popularity as an 8-year-old.
When I got to college, I quickly learned that having a unique taste in music was interesting.To be fair, I was surrounded by other opera singers, so we all had eclectic playlists, but it was still fun to be able to mix in some oldies with more modern music.
My favorite genres are probably jazz and rock/soft rock. Jazz appeals to the very classic part of me that enjoys the idea of swing-dancing with my husband while a big band plays. The image of that is so lovely, and I love the music that accompanies it. Rock is just awesome to listen to while you're driving along on a sunny day. So without further ado, here's a list of a few of my favorite singers and bands in no particular order:
1. Frank Sinatra - I mean, honestly. All of the best songs that were written during his time - he sang them. And he sang them in the most Frank Sinatra way. He knew how to swing, and dancing to his recordings is a ton of fun. He's really just unbeatable.
2. Seals and Crofts - Seals and Crofts are so interesting. Their songs really are the perfect music to accompany a day at the beach. The first time I heard their voices, I thought they sounded funny, but as I listened to their album more and more, I found that I couldn't stop.
3. Benny Goodman - You know his music even if you don't know his music. Google "Sing, Sing, Sing" and you'll hear one of the recordings that he's most known for. He was a jazz clarinetist and his big band was one of the most revered of the 1930's. He was the man known as the "King of Swing."
4. Chicago - "Saturday in the Park"? "25 or 6 to 4"? Are you kidding me? Those songs are the epitome of awesome. I used to listen to them on the way to high school in the morning, and now they feel interconnected to my high school experience.
5. Ella Fitzgerald - Ella is stunning. She is truly one of those singers who makes you feel good every time you listen to her. She can scat like no other and her voice is delectable. Check out her live albums - you'll get to know her personality and love her even more.
6. Blood, Sweat, and Tears - David Clayton-Thomas' voice is so great. He sounds like a grumpy old man singing rock at you. Why is that attractive? I honestly couldn't tell you, but it works for him. And the instrumentation in their songs is totally different from what you're expecting.
7. Mel Torme - Known as the velvet frog, Mel Torme lives up to his name. I think my favorite rendition of his is "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square." It's soft and romantic, and you can luxuriate in the tone of his voice.
8. Doobie Brothers - I saw this band live a few months ago. As you may have guessed, I was the youngest person in the audience. And they rocked it. They still had as much energy as they did when they were at the top of their game in the 1970's. They've got a unique sound and they utilize rhythms in a way that most rock bands don't.
9. Bill Evans - He's just one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time. No biggie.
10. Nat King Cole - I love Nat King Cole. Whenever he sings, it sounds like he's smiling. I think I first heard his rendition of "L-O-V-E" in the remake of "The Parent Trap," and after I heard it, I begged my parents to let me buy a Nat King Cole album. The fact that Nat King Cole was a pianist before he was a singer gives him a unique grasp on musicality, and he's got a special something that is really fun to listen to.
Special Mention: James Taylor - He doesn't really fit into jazz or rock, but James Taylor is one of my favorites. His music pulls at the heartstrings and doesn't let go.
Who are your favorite singers and bands? What genres do you enjoy listening to? I'm so curious! Let me know in the comments below.
There is something amazing about the Star Spangled Banner.
The drama starts in its range - the song spans an octave and a half. It continues with its lyrics, written by Francis Scott Key as he witnessed Fort McHenry being bombarded in the War of 1812. The lyrics look like this:
O say can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
I hadn't known previously that the poem ended in a question mark, and all of a sudden the American anthem became so much more potent to me. This was a man asking if the flag still stood, if the symbol of our freedom still waved in the air, not declaring it. Now, in our time, the onus is on us as a people to make sure that our flag still represents all that we stand for.
When I sang the national anthem, I was asked if I wanted accompaniment. I responded that I would rather sing a capella. The reason is this: the words of the Star Spangled Banner are reflective of our nation. The music is representative of our national pride. And so I choose to sing it bare-bones so that people can actually hear what I'm singing about. The distraction of the rock or pop versions of the Star Spangled Banner are not my preference - I prefer to give this incredibly important song the deference it deserves.
So why do I love to sing the national anthem? Because I like to remember what this country is all about in its purest sense, and to share that national pride with my fellow Americans.
What are your thoughts on the national anthem? What's your favorite version? Let me know in the comments below!
When you were a little girl, did you ever imagine yourself as one of the evil stepsisters when you were watching Cinderella? No? Me neither.
But a year ago, I was presented with that exact opportunity. I was given the chance to sing the incredible role of Thisbé, a woman who is totally self-absorbed, totally obsessed with becoming a princess, and has no truly redeeming qualities.
Let me tell you - that is a dream role.
I've played the ingenue before, and that is more tricky. Being a totally innocent and naive character can be hard because you have to convince the audience that it makes sense why you would fall into bad circumstances. But when you're making the circumstances yourself as the "evil" character? That's when the real fun starts.
Thisbé's big scene is her aria in the third act, which on the recording is called "Dieux!" She sings about losing the prince just as she thought she had him. She laments that she's being passed over, and that a mystery girl, also known as Cinderella, has stolen the prince right out from under her nose.
That is a totally reasonable feeling to have - it's not so far-fetched that we can't relate. So all of a sudden, this character that was totally evil became, for me, easier to grasp.
One of the interesting things about playing an evil character on stage is that you can't judge her from the outside - you have to be inside her head and understand her decision making. So instead of saying, "She's completely self-absorbed," you have to say, "I feel like I deserve a prince. I deserve to be queen, and I deserve to be loved." Acting in opera is really an exercise in empathy, because it can affect how you sing a certain line - if you sing it with tenderness or with deceit.
Understanding a character like Thisbé and her motivation was actually a wonderful thing. It made me aware of the selfish tendencies that I have, and how those behaviors can manifest if taken to their extreme. Having the opportunity to actually experience that self-absorption at its highest level, and then having her get nothing from her actions, was an education in itself. Take a look at the people you know who seem to demonstrate qualities that you don't like - if you can try and understand their behavior, then you can recognize and take measures against falling down the same rabbit hole yourself.
If you're interested in listening to the opera, you can listen to it on Spotify or click the picture below to get your digital download from Amazon! (I'm listed as Abigail Shapiro, because that is my maiden name.)
*Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links, which means I may receive a commission if you click on a link and purchase something.
I normally sing opera, but this time I made an exception.
The musical Kismet, with lyrics and musical adaptation by Robert Wright and George Forrest, was written based on musical themes by Alexander Borodin. Borodin is an incredibly interesting historical figure: he was a member of a group of Russian composers known as "The Mighty Handful," men who wanted to remain true to Russian classical music rather than learning from Western ideals. Borodin was also a chemist, which is kind of amazing.
Many of the themes of Kismet are based on his music, and this particular song is based on his String Quartet No. 2, Movement 3. The music is so incredibly stunning, you can understand why they would want to turn it into a musical! The text of the song is as follows:
Dawn's promising skies
Petals on a pool drifting
Imagine these in one pair of eyes
And this is my beloved
Strange spice from the south
Honey through the comb sifting
Imagine these in one eager mouth
And this is my beloved
And when he speaks and when he talks to me
And when he moves and when he walks with me
Paradise comes suddenly near
All that can stir, all that can stun
All that's for the heart's lifting
Imagine these in one perfect one
And this is my beloved
In this song, Marsinah, a young woman, has met a man who she has immediately fallen in love with. When asked to describe him, she can only do it in metaphors. When she describes the way he looks, his eyes and his mouth, the music is pensive and thoughtful, as though she's thinking through what she wants to say. Then, as she begins to describe their interactions, the music begins to pick up speed. She's excited just thinking of it, and she's flustered as well. By the end, she calls him her "perfect one," finally saying what she's wanted to express all along, just as the music rises to its climax.
But what can we take from this? Marsinah is a woman completely infatuated with first love. When you've first fallen in love, you call your partner perfect. You describe him with metaphors and with the idea in mind that no one understands him as well as you do. He is everything and there is no question about it. It's only as time passes that you see beyond the immediate excitement and begin to know the deeper meaning in your relationship. These things remain true, and he is your beloved, but you also begin to see what makes him human. And that's just as endearing.
Love should have these feelings bound up in it - but just because those feelings aren't at the forefront of a relationship as it settles doesn't mean that the love has faded. It means that it's transforming into something even better.
The Marriage of Figaro is one of Mozart's greatest operas. It's hilarious, complicated, and moving, all at the same time, and you'll find yourself laughing and tearing up throughout.
One of the most interesting characters in The Marriage of Figaro is the Countess, a woman who has been cheated on by her husband countless times. This aria, "Porgi, amor," is her introduction to the audience. It's usually staged with her lying in bed, morose and depressed that her love is being taken for granted. Here's the translation of the aria:
O Love, give me some remedy
For my sorrow, for my sighs!
Either give me back my darling
Or at least let me die.
That's the whole thing! She expresses her deep sadness in just those four short lines. How does that work? Mozart fills in all the gaps for us. When she asks to die, he moves the vocal line up in stepwise motion until it sounds like a cry for help. She is in pain, and we as the audience are given the opportunity to understand her motivation before she cooks up her plan.
Because that's what she does! She and her servants work together to trick the Count into seducing her while he thinks she's another woman. Then, when he realizes his mistake, she hopes he'll recognize how unfair he has been.
So what's the lesson? What do we take from this?
First, feel your emotions. When something bad happens to you, let yourself grieve and mourn. It's okay to feel bad when you're heart is broken.
But then be proactive. Figure out what your next steps are, what you're looking for, and how you want to proceed. Then make it happen. I do want to clarify that I'm not trying to tell you that if you're partner cheats on you, you should just take action and try to fix everything. I'm looking at this aria from a modern-day perspective. And what I am trying to say is when you're dealing with heartbreak, take action. Learn from the Countess - get your butt moving and make a plan of attack for whatever it is that comes next.
What do you think the meaning of this aria is? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!