Friday, July 26, 2013

Great Voices Sing John Denver

Placido Domingo & John Denver, ca. 1980
I associate John Denver with road trips: rolled down windows, long ribbons of asphalt, and a carful of untrained singers happily caroling "Take me home, country roads." I think of his singing as characterized by a simplicity redeeming a sentimentality that might otherwise seem oppressively earnest. The project of having opera singers interpret these open-air ballads was one I viewed with intense if somewhat skeptical curiosity. The undertaking was the brainchild of Denver's arrangers, and facilitated by the considerable influence of Placido Domingo (more details here.) I couldn't resist the opportunity to review the resulting album, especially since I'm currently staying with my mother, whose adolescence coincided with Denver's heyday, and who therefore led Denver sing-alongs on road trips. Her enthusiasm for the project was great; and so I undertook my critical listening with her helpfully at hand as a one-woman control group for my bias towards loved singers and potential indifference to Denver's lyrics. The album's attempt to find a meeting ground for Denver's music and operatic voices met with decidedly mixed results. Too many of the arrangements were dominated by sentimental strings wallowing in the predictable harmonies common to many classical crossover or pseudo-classical albums. I thought that allowing the participating artists to cross further over into Denver's musical language--or, indeed, simply a greater variety in the arrangements--would have been, on the whole, more felicitous. On the whole, I'm inclined to regard the disc more as a curious conversation piece than anything else, but my mother enjoyed listening to it enormously (including the heckling of misfires), leading me to the conclusion that it may be more successful with John Denver fans than diehard opera lovers, for situations where those two categories don't overlap.

In setting out to review this album, I've been hampered by enduring ambivalence. With a couple of exceptions (the insistent crescendos of "The Eagle and the Hawk" and the guitar-less "This Old Guitar," with Rod Gilfry inexplicably crooning with intense seriousness) I didn't feel that any of these rather unexpected ventures were outright failures, but the album as a whole left me somewhat cold. Some of the finest voices on the album (Dolora Zajick, Denyce Graves) seemed mismatched with their material. The pleasing tenor of Daniel Montenegro was better-matched with "Goodbye Again." Danielle De Niese took "Rhymes and Reasons," which she performed with excellent diction, making me wonder about the possibility of Gilbert and Sullivan in her future. "Perhaps Love," with Placido Domingo duetting with Placido Domingo Jr., was shamelessly schmaltzy, but I found myself willing to forgive it much. Having heard Rene Pape swagger successfully through "Some Enchanted Evening," I was expecting and hoping for more Broadway-style self-assertion in "Follow Me," but it wasn't sluggish. Matthew Polenzani also acquitted himself nicely in "For You"; the gratuitous translation into Italian was utterly inexplicable to me, and best passed over in (comparative) silence.

Shenyang's cheerful, lilting "Shanghai Breezes" was a nice tonic to the CD's tendency towards excessive seriousness. Thomas Hampson's refreshingly assured, comparatively light-hearted take on "Sweet Surrender" was possibly my favorite, helped by a comparatively light arrangement. As previously noted, I like Patricia Racette's brassy cabaret style, and her unapologetic "Leaving on a Jet Plane" left the schmaltz to the string section (and had my mother humming along.) I double-checked the booklet to make sure that it was indeed Stuart Skelton singing "Fly Away"; he didn't sound like Siegmund at all, but seemed to have a fine sense for the song itself. I wish the rest of the album had been as successful.



  1. High art will always be for a minority.... It’s as simple as the Bell Curve of standard distribution of IQ. Think about it: one of every two persons you meet in all walks of life, is necessarily, by sheer statistical theory, of below median intelligence! Call me elitist if you will, but individuals in the two halves of the Bell Curve will necessarily have very different tastes and attention spans. This is precisely why there are so many different entertainment options, and artists who cater to different populations. Some people will like Justin Bieber and Britney Spears. Others will like Hans Hotter and Yvonne Minton. Will these populations ever overlap? Never.

    Now of course there are people who love several genres of music including opera (I’m one of them, and most of us are). That’s not what I mean. The point I’m trying to convey is that lovers of some kinds of vapid, mindless, superficial, low-quality pop music won’t overlap with lovers of opera. Go out there and actually find the people who love Justin Bieber and Britney Spears, try to expose them to opera, and see how many converts you’ll make. While all rules have individual exceptions and I was talking of two *populations*, I’d say that it would be close to zero percent. Not zero, but close to zero, simply because those folks lack the necessary FOCUS, ATTENTION SPAN, PROCESSING ABILITY, UNDERSTANDING, AND SENSIBILITY to be able to appreciate opera. And again, they might like some bits, laugh at some comic opera scene, find some melody beautiful, and all, but they won’t become opera lovers. Similarly, take a very seasoned and sophisticated opera lover and expose him/her to Justin Bieber and Britney Spears: the person won’t have any patience with this kind of music, as a rule (some individual exception might still happen, although it would be hard to find one). Populationally speaking, though, no, there wouldn’t be an overlap. People think it’s a bit extreme – no, it isn’t. There are millions of people who like Justin Bieber and Britney Spears. There are a few million people who are committed to opera. No, these populations don’t overlap.

    Every time this debate comes up, someone says, “well, but opera at one point was very popular, like in Venice when several opera theaters catered to the masses and were frequented by the masses like today’s cinematic multiplexes....”

    Sure. But those were different times. Opera was THE ONLY game in town. It occupied that niche. Still, it was mostly a certain kind of opera that achieved that sort of popularity – the buffa kind; with exceptions, of course, but mostly, as a heir of the popular commedia dell’arte. Those theaters weren’t bringing to those masses, some sort of long, sophisticated French baroque serious opera sung in French. No, they were showing the SLAPSTICK KIND, in Italian. Otherwise, opera throughout its history has always been more geared towards the elitist side.

    I once, for fun, estimated the conversion rate of *my* efforts to introduce opera to the graduate student population I teach to, in one of the elite universities in the United States (a really, really, really elite one). Of all the students I expose to opera, what percentage of them actually do become bona fide opera lovers, buy tickets, buy recordings, attend opera, and continue to do so after they graduate from my teaching? I came up with 6%. This, in a population of graduate students in one of the top ten universities in the United States. Not more than 6%, unfortunately. Well, hopefully it is better than that in the long run, since maybe I’ve planted some seeds, and opera is an acquired taste. Similarly, if you expose children to coffee, they won’t immediately become coffee drinkers, but eventually, they will.

    So, clearly, opera is *not* for everyone.

    Hopefully the blogger 'Zerbinetta' at Likely Impossibilities and her 'progressive' minions (including Zachary Woolfe) will finally get the message.

  2. What percentage of those new to opera have the time and inclination to devote to sussing out the nuances of a given piece?

    In terms of inclination it’s usually nil, in my experience.

    I find mostly people think (or claim) they want to go in cold, and I suspect this is because they’re thinking of it strictly as narrative, and they don’t want to know how things play out in the same way they don’t want to know how a movie ends. (Of course it could just be that nothing disheartens them more than the idea of me going on about what a cool thing Handel/Mozart/Verdi/Wagner/Berg does right there in the strings/woodwinds/brass/etc.)

    But the end result of this is the score becomes merely the SOUNDTRACK to the action onstage, and the whole experience ends up being generally forgettable, including the singing.

    I don’t think this has to do with genetics or education, but rather with what people think opera is versus what it REALLY is.

  3. Funny, I got that same comment word for word as the one from "Anonymous" above under a very different post on my blog. Spamming and trolling (this requires a new category -- troll-spamming?) is getting stranger and stranger on these shores... (DtO here)

    1. Mark Berry (Boulezian) is an imbecile.

      After the Tannhauser cancellation a few months ago he wrote:

      "Struggling to understand how people who have not seen a staging agitating to have it closed down is any different from Nazi cultural policy"

      This line of so-called "thought" has been rebuffed so many times over ad nauseum it is not worth responding to.

      Also, to cover all of the bases -- YES, the earth is not flat; and NO, Adam & Eve did not ride on the backs of dinosaurs.

      Another tempest in a teapot (pat. pend.) descending into asininity.

      So now, according to Professor Berry, you're a Nazi if you want to criticise an opera production without seeing it.

    2. Opera connoisseurs of Mr. Hansen's kind have always been a minority in the opera audience. People go to opera for all kinds of reasons, just as people go to movies for all kinds of reasons without necessarily being David Bordwell. Opera is large; opera contains multitudes.

      As for the original poster, I don't understand why she has such a grudge against Zerbinetta and Zachary Woolfe; neither of them seem to me to be aesthetic populists of the type she sneers at. I don't think that people like Zerbinetta who advocate revisionist productions are necessarily under any illusion that they will attract the Bieber-listening masses to opera. If anything, people like Zerbinetta may be aiming for the sort of more or less intelligent people who read literary novels, go to art films and the like; the sort of people we tend to dismiss as mere elitist academic snobs on this list, but they are at least open to something new, demanding and unfamiliar. (The BAM crowd, in New York City terms.)

  4. I'm bewildered by the quantity of irrelevant vitriol here. I'm with Anon 3 in the belief that a) opera is a wonderfully diverse art form, and b) opera's audience is, at least potentially, equally diverse. And I personally have watched and enjoyed many operas "cold." I've also spent many leisure hours poring over scores, historical background, scholarly interpretations, what have you. But I suspect styles of absorbing opera are highly individualized, and I would certainly not attempt to foist what works for me indiscriminately on others.

    Further irrelevant vitriol, ad hominem attacks, etc, will be summarily deleted.

    1. Oh, good. I thought I missed something tying the first comments to your review. But the disconnect is real. I, too, appreciate your review. I also remember the original Domingo/Denver album, released when I was working in a record store (yes, that's how OLD I am!) I figure there must be merit to this project, as I trust Thomas Hampson (and others, but mostly him) to do something for artistic reason, and not just commercial.

    2. The madness is real! Thanks for the sane comment. :) Alas for the record stores of yesterday; where are the snows, etc. Hampson is on record as saying he's planning to add some John Denver to his Song of America recitals. Judging by this showing, I'd think it should work nicely.

  5. I note the use of "on this list" in anon 3's comments, which makes me wonder if all of these comments have just been cut-and-pasted from Opera-L for reasons beyond my ken.

    A very honest but tactful review of Great Voices Sing John Denver. Which it seems does exactly what it says on the tin: for those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they will like. :-)

  6. Lucy,

    Ugh, some really ugly comments above... Especially the ludicrous notion by Anon 1 of a link between a person's cognitive ability and aesthetic sensitivity (!)

    "opera's audience is, at least potentially, equally diverse"

    Well this I disagree with.

    Yes, there might be a couple operas that one can appreciate and love at first but (in general) opera requires a degree of focus and concentration and a willingness to subsume oneself in the art form.

    Since the meaning of opera is fundamentally musical (its essential argument is posed in musical language) it follows that the truest lover of the art form will choose to spend his or her leisure time in contemplative study of recordings. Opera will never, ever be a medium of wide popularity. Its appreciation and love will always be confined to a relatively narrow segment of the population. Why? Because listening to, assimilating and internalizing the great masterpieces requires a level of commitment and patience that most people are not prepared to give (or, more likely, interested in giving).

    1. I'm in complete agreement with you about the sophistry of drawing a proportional relationship between... can we say sense and sensibility? I'm afraid I can't concur with your assertion that the "truest" opera lover will study operatic music in isolation from the art form's other components. I think it's probably true of opera (as it is probably also true of wine, or Mannerist painting, or landscape design) that those prepared to devote a great deal of energy to contemplating its finer points are few. But I don't think it need follow that opera is disbarred from wide popularity. I enjoy Riesling, and Bronzino, and Capability Brown, despite the fact that I am not prepared to give to them anything like the attention they might deserve, or that I do give to opera.

  7. Thanks so much for the thoughtful and frank review. As with any musical work, we never expected this album to be everything for everyone - but we think the performances say a lot about the universal messages of love, nature and wonderment (hmm, is that word?) that appear in John Denver's songs. A great song is a great song is a great song, and many great songs have been performed and interpreted by many great singers from all kinds of genres.

    I was a kid when Placido Domingo and John Denver worked together to record "Perhaps Love" in 1981 - my dad used to play it all the time - and Domingo and Denver were good friends and collaborators until John Denver died. That's why Placido Domingo was so excited about bringing his opera friends together to make this album.

    Thanks for sharing GVSJD with your readers.

    1. Hi, Erika! Thanks for commenting, and for sharing information both professional and personal. Wonderment is not only a perfectly good word, but arguably an underused one. And far be it from me to claim that opera has a monopoly on greatness.


Start a conversation!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...