Category: voice

Paul Appleby, Music Fan

Paul Appleby tenor

Tenor Paul Appleby (Photo: Jonathan Tichler)

What do you think of when you read the words “new opera” ?

Some may think it’s a contradiction in terms, that opera is and must be, by definition, something old, irrelevant, and fusty, full of big wigs, big dresses, buckle shoes, and powdered faces. There’s a feeling by that opera cannot possibly, with its array of seemingly outré storylines, deal with anything approaching a timely reality.

Yet new opera has taken its seat at the opera table in many different ways. A slew of companies devoted to new works, to say nothing of the many established companies and festivals presenting modern compositions, proves there is not only an interest in such work, but a deep passion that is re-shaping the ways in which audiences are experiencing the art form. Composers have long worked to create work that is not only a reflection of the times but a commentary on them, with productions that are aimed as much to provoke as to entertain. A number of organizations have regularly featured such works, including (but hardly limited to) Santa Fe Opera, Opera Philadelphia, the Canadian Opera Company, the Royal Opera Covent Garden, the Salzburg Festival, Glyndebourne, and yes, the Metropolitan Opera.

Muhly Appleby Met opera

Paul Appleby in Two Boys (Photo: Ken Howard)

Contemporary composer Nico Muhly, whose latest work (an opera adaptation of Marnie) recently opened at English National Opera, had his Two Boys produced at the Metropolitan Opera (who commissioned it) in 2013; the work was far from the company’s first new work, of course, but it created a buzz that made me very curious to attend.

(Another buzzy new work is on this season at the Met; The Exterminating Angel, by Thomas Adès, is based on the surrealist Buñuel film of the same name, and will be covered in a future feature at this website. Stay tuned.)

Based on a true story that unfolds in the early days of the internet, Two Boys revolves around a teenager becoming entangled in a web of obsession and murder; the work was especially notable for its integration of music and technology both within the score as well as in a carefully controlled production by director Bartlett Sher. The work offered a dramatic exploration of modern life, sexuality, and the entangled relationship between each. I came away from it bowled over by the lead performance of tenor Paul Appleby, who played Brian, a lonely figure who gets sucked into a nasty catfishing scheme with a very surprising source. Vulture’s Justin Davidson described him here as “a marvel: an intelligent young singer equipped with the elegance and expressivity of an old pro, impersonating a lost soul of a kid.”

Paul Appleby Meistersinger Wagner Met

Paul Appleby in Die Meistersinger. (Photo: Ken Howard)

For contrast, I recently turned on a 2014 Met remount of Otto Schenk’s traditional production of  Wagner’s epic 1868 work Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, in which Paul performs the role of David, apprentice to Hans Sachs, one of the titular Master Singers. Re-watching the lengthy work (which is more timely than one might initially think) reminded me, hoary as it may sound, of the extreme versatility demanded of singers in this day and age; nothing could be further from Two Boys in content or in staging or style, but Paul’s ease with the score, his loving embrace of the diction, the sparkle in his eyes singing — it was all magic, and reignited my excitement for the possibilities of the art form.

Adams SFO rehearsal

Girls of the Golden West music rehearsal with (L-R) Davóne Tines, Paul Appleby, and Hye Jung Lee. (Photo: Cory Weaver)

It’s inspiring to think of Paul’s latest role, in another new work, this one by American composer John Adams, with a decidedly female-forward viewpoint. Called Girls Of The Golden West, it has its world premiere this coming Tuesday (21 November) at San Francisco Opera. As New York Times classical writer Michael Cooper rightly notes of Adams, “(t)his onetime enfant terrible has grown into an elder statesman.” An Adams premiere is an event, not just for opera, but for culture as a whole. Does opera have anything to say? Should it? Can it? These questions are, perhaps, most clearly confronted at premieres like the one happening in San Francisco this coming week.

They’re also questions singers contemplate, even as they dissect scores, learn marks, and explore characters. A graduate of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, Paul made his Met Opera debut in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos and his San Francisco Opera debut in 2016 in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute); he’s acclaimed for his Tamino in that opera, as well as other Mozart works (including Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutte), as well as those by Berlioz, Handel, Britten, and Stravinsky. Paul recently took time out of his busy rehearsal schedule to chat; along with being a classical lover, he’s also a keen Bob Dylan fan, a dedicated recitalist, and, as you’ll hear, a performer with strong opinions on why new opera matters.

(Sidenote: Paul is known — and rightly celebrated — for his Tamino, not his Papageno (both characters in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte) as I say here. Please pardon the silly / mortifying mix-up.)

Dominik Köninger: “Everything comes in its time”

Baritone Dominik Köninger / Photo: Tom Schweigert

So many things struck me the first time I saw Dominik Köninger perform live. Watching him, one senses an innate musicality combined with a natural confidence and stage presence. No wonder he’s a rising star in opera.

A native of Heidelberg, Dominik was a member of the International Opera Studios at Hamburg State Opera in 2007; from 2010-2011 he was a member of the Bavarian State Opera. In 2011 he won First Prize in the Wigmore Hall / Kohn Foundation International Song Competition and was also a Recipient of the Wigmore Hall / Independent Opera Voice Fellowship. He has performed at the Stuttgart State Opera, the Theater an der Wien, the Volksoper Wien (Vienna), the Deutsche Oper Berlin, and the New National Theater Tokyo, to name a few. In 2012, he became a member of the ensemble of the Komische Oper Berlin (or KOB; I’m a fan of their work), and has performed works by Offenbach, Gluck, HandelMonteverdi, Rossini, Puccini, Mozart, as well as Oscar Straus. He’s also done extensive festival work, tours, recitals, orchestral appearances, and recordings. This season sees him in five KOB productions, as well as performances at the Opéra-Comique, Paris and a tour to Japan in the spring. “Hektisch” seems too mild a word to describe it all.

Dominik Köninger (Nero) and Alma Sadé (Poppea). Photo: Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de

We spoke this past spring just after I’d seen his riveting performance in Die krönung der Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea) as the corrupt Emperor Nero. Not only did composer Elena Kats-Chernin’s creative reworking complement the beauty and majesty of Monteverdi’s original (elements of folk, tango, and jazz were perfect), the performances, together with Kosky’s sexy direction, made it into something for the 21st century. Poppea‘s portrait of a rotting, decadent world was presented with every bit of panache, beauty, and flair one would expect from the company, but ugliness was not avoided. (The deaths of both Seneca and Octavia inspired audible gasps from the audience.) Nero, while written for a much higher voice type, perfectly suited Dominik’s baritone; he shaped the words beautifully, layered vowels with beautiful textures, modulating his coppery baritone to handle the score’s difficult runs and recitatives (recits) with complete confidence.

Dominik Köninger (Pelléas) and Nadja Mchantaf (Mélisande) / Photo: Monika Rittershaus

Debussy’s Pelléas is a perfect vocal fit, having been written for what’s known as a baryton-martin, a range that falls between the traditional tenor and baritone. Considerably more modern than Monteverdi but no less difficult (some argue it is one of the most challenging roles in the baritone repertoire), the 1902 opera, based on Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck’s play, revolves around a troubling love triangle and has been described by Sir Simon Rattle as “one of the saddest and most upsetting operas ever written.”

This Sunday (October 15th) Dominik makes his role debut as the ill-fated character in Pelléas et Mélisande, in a debut production for KOB (a co-production with Nationaltheater Mannheim), conducted by Jordan de Souza and directed by Barry Kosky, who recently noted that the psychological landscape of the work reminds him of Edgar Allen Poe. The production also features soprano Nadja Mchantaf as  Mélisande and baritone Günter Papendell (whose Don Giovanni I so enjoyed this past spring) as the jealous Golaud. Along with Debussy, Dominik will also be performing at the end of this month with the Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin at the Chamber Hall of the Philharmonie Berlin in a special Halloween-flavoured program that includes works by Schubert, Purcell, Grieg, and Saint-Saëns.

Photo: Jan Windzus Photography

A beautiful voice alone is enough for some, but blending the art forms integral to opera in a way that fits score and production, and connects with the audience, while casually carrying an innate, sparkling star presence — that’s the stuff I find truly exciting, and what makes me run to the opera house, over and over. As you’ll see, this is one direct singer; he likes to be challenged by new material but has no time for social media. (Don’t expect a Facebook page anytime soon.) He likes old work but has every curiosity for new stuff. He’s fine with the “barihunk” label but refuses the pressure that comes with technology. Dominik Köninger is, quite simply, his own man.

What’s it like to prepare for concerts versus opera?

That’s a good question. It depends on the role. A full recital is much more demanding than an opera. Let’s take Le nozze di Figaro: you’re on stage half of it or even less, and so it’s demanding of course, because you have to keep up the energy and all that. But to do a recital, I would say, the longer the better for preparation — a year at least. Sometimes it goes faster. You only have this one shot, this one-and-a-half hour block of time and you want to present everything you have in your mind, and the better you rehearse it, the better you can get it out there.

… and it’s just you. It’s just a series of solos.

All eyes just on you. All ears just on you.

Just people carefully listening.

That’s why I love it. You really can communicate much better with the people, you can look at them, smile at them — or not — and you can see how they react.

It’s a more intimate relationship with your audience.

Yes, and I really miss that, and I’m happy to be coming back to it.

Günter Papendell (Golaud) and Dominik Köninger (Pelléas) / Photo: Monika Rittershaus

And you’re singing Pelléas as well.

This is my absolute dream role since I was 21.

What’s that like to prepare for something that’s been your dream for so long?

Difficult, to be honest. On the one hand I’m already familiar with it, because I sung parts of it in university but … on the other hand you have so many expectations of yourself, and this means pressure. So you have to release the pressure a little bit. It’s actually not so much a vocal issue, it’s more of a brain issue. I just need to stay relaxed. I’m really looking forward to it.

Is French opera something you enjoy?

I think it fits quite well to my type of voice. You know the lighter, higher-placed baritone, not the deep booming sound, that’s not me. French music is beautiful. I love it and I love the language. It’s my favorite language to sing in. I would love to sing Mercutio in Roméo et Juliette . This sounds cocky to say, but sometimes you discover that your soul —this means the combination of your soul and voice and all that — is predisposed to certain composers. Like, when I start a new Mahler song for example, I feel like I am already there. There’s still lots to improve of course, but it’s just… there, and it’s the same for Debussy songs and Fauré songs, it’s just there. That music goes into my voice so much quicker.

Dominik Köninger with Dagmar Manzel in “Die Perlen der Cleopatra” (The Pearls of Cleopatra) / Photo: Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de

Owing to live streaming and the Live in HD series, many singers feel they have to look perfect — what is that like to deal with?

That’s the reality today. That’s the thing. The better you look, the better you sing, the better you sell.

And you are on Barihunks.

This is really flattering, I have to say.  I was and am always flattered when I read things about me. Those guys are ripped!

Keeping in shape is important for singers, though.

I feel better singing when I’m fitter, of course. I have great respect for older singers who can still produce all that sound and stay through a whole Tristan, or whatever they sing. I need to do just a little bit of sports to sing better.

What about after a performance?

I want to go home and watch “House of Cards”!

Do you ever see other productions?

When I was in Amsterdam this past spring, what I did was a bit crazy. I had a day off and nobody was there with me, so I enjoyed my time and went, on the first nice spring day — it was the end of March, really nice weather, at 2pm in the afternoon — I went to see Wozzeck at the opera. Really dark, really depressing, but good singers… great singers.

So many things are live-streamed these days. Does being filmed ever make you self-conscious?

If I started to think about all that onstage, I would be even more tense, so no. Somehow I manage to make myself free of it. I don’t think about how many people are watching and “Can they see into my mouth?” or whatever.

L-R: Günter Papendell (Golaud) Dominik Köninger (Pelléas), Nadja Mchantaf (Mélisande) / Photo: Monika Rittershaus

Is this why you’re not on social media?

I’m not interested. I have my family, I have my friends — there’s enough going on in my life. I’m always loyal to my friends, I write them on Whatsapp or message or call, but it’s enough. Sometimes people say to me, “If you were on Facebook, maybe your career would’ve been much better!” I’m like, “Or not!” It’s not my thing.

But being part of the Komische ensemble is pretty good, isn’t it?

This is how you see it, it’s how I see it, some people see it differently, and some need to sing in Vienna and LA and Moscow.

And you might do that anyway.

Yes, everything comes in its time.

Marveling at Monteverdi With The RIAS Kammerchor

Looking up at St. Hedwig’s Cathedral. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

At any time of year, Berlin is a treasure trove of cultural riches, especially for music lovers. One is spoiled for choice with numerous symphony orchestras, opera outfits, quartets, quintets, and chamber groups. Being in the city for the final week of the annual MusikFest (which you’ll be able to read all about in a future edition of Opera Canada magazine) however, it became extremely clear that Berliners take their music very seriously; the annual event (part of the larger Festspiele) is an expression of a culture that is firmly part of every day life, not an accessory to it.

One of the most unique events was the Monteverdi program programmed and presented by the RIAS Kammerchor (or chamber choir) of Berlin. Who was Monteverdi, and why should you care? He’s the father of opera, and, in a broader sense, a very important guy in the history of vocal music as a whole. The composer, who links the Renaissance and Baroque eras, even has a whole box set of his works called “The Innovator.” 2017 marks Monteverdi’s 450th birthday, so many groups are marking the occasion with performances.  Though I didn’t get to hear a lot of vocal music this time in Berlin, I did experience some very special music moments, and Monteverdi as presented by the RIAS Kammerchor had a lot to do with it.

RIAS Chamber Choir 2017-18 © Matthias Heyde

The group, which dates back to 1948, were named after the US-run radio station “Rundfunk im amerikanischen Sektor (or “American-sector broadcasting”) and participated in the opening concert of the Berliner Philharmonie in 1963. What started as a post-war regional group grew into a highly respected ensemble with an international reputation. With an original founding principal to promote new music, the choir has premiered works by, among others, Aribert Reimann, Paul Hindesmith, and Pierre Boulez. (A gorgeous new concert hall in Berlin was named after the latter, which hosts a variety of concerts and recitals; it was one of the locales for the Kammerchor’s MusikFest concerts.) In the early 2000s, the Kammerchor’s mandate was extended to include early and Baroque works, in collaboration with a number of prestigious conductors who excel in that repertoire, John Eliot Gardiner among them. English-born Gardiner got his start in the music world conducting Monteverdi’s “Vespro della Beata Vergine” (Vespers for the Blessed Virgin) which was one of the works presented by the Kammerchor at MusikFest, and one which I’m hoping to see performed again when I visit Italy next month. (Gardiner is currently touring Monteverdi’s three surviving full-length operas with the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists.)

Claudio Monteverdi; portrait by Bernardo Strozzi.

So why do we still care about Monteverdi? Well, to paraphrase what Justin Doyle (Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of Kammerchor, who is also a permanent conductor at Opera North in Leeds) says in my interview with him (below), the Cremona native invented a lot of the musical concepts we take for granted today — things like instrumentation, vocal exchanges, balance, phrasing, melody, harmony. Kammerchor performed two of his works as part of this year’s MusikFest in Berlin, the Vespers and another religious piece, the shorter “Missa in illo tempore” I heard the latter performed first, in the middle of a chilly, bright Saturday afternoon at the round, grandly austere St. Hedwig’s Cathedral; the Vespers was presented at the modern, elliptically-shaped Pierre Boulez Saal (Hall), where various soloists (vocal and instrumental) were choreographed to move around in the space, delivering lines from all angles within the hall . Both presented some very different experiences of some very old music, in ways that made it sound very new, and very alive.

The RIAS Kammerchor at St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, 16 September 2017. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

While the wide, open spaces of St. Hedwig’s allowed the sound to swirl, and occasionally submerge the audience in graceful (if sometimes challenging) harmonies, the Boulez warmly enveloped listeners, forcing a simultaneously careful listening experience and a thoughtful spiritual exercise. The poetic sounds of the Capella de la Torre (an incredible ensemble who play authentic Renaissance instruments) were so wonderfully attuned to Doyle’s directions, and the beautifully contrasting tenors of Andrew Staples and Thomas Hobbes, calling as if from dreams at points, collected, merged, and contrasted with the ethereal sopranos of Dorothee Mields and Hannah Morrison. What made the concerts particularly profound was hearing how completely conversational Monteverdi’s work is, vocally and instrumentally, and just how much drama has been naturally woven into the sonic framework. Forget bland, unchanging religious music; this was dramatically gripping and spiritually moving on every level.

The RIAS Kammerchor at the Pierre Boulez Saal, 16 September 2017. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

They were also intriguing for their sonic intricacy. One word Justin Doyle uses a lot in this conversation is “polyphonic,” which relates, of course, to polyphony. Merriam-Webster defines this as “a style of musical composition employing two or more simultaneous but relatively independent melodic lines.” Think of singing “Frere Jacques” and “Row Your Boat” at the same time. Got it? You can thank yer man Claudio for this, and many, many other bits of musical wonder. A music website focused on early music (especially Baroque) usefully describes the role of polyphony and church music thusly:

During the Renaissance, it was common for composers to set the Ordinary to music, the first large–scale form in western music. The texture was polyphonic, at first based on the underlying plainsong melodies of each section. Such was the paraphrase mass, in which an existing melody, albeit in a usually embellished form, was used as the basis for one or more movements.

As you’ll hear, Doyle is passionate about this music — and why not? You don’t have to belong to a specific faith to enjoy the riches it offers, or to hear how unusual, innovative, complex, and enlightening it is. Monteverdi may be 450 years old, but he’s still as fresh as a daisy, thanks to ensembles like the RIAS Kammerchor.

“The True Sound Of The Human Voice”

Photo via Opera Royal de Wallonie

Being in Europe again is a special sort of a treat; there’s an overwhelming number of cultural options at any given moment, and it can be easy to choose one thing, only to find out later there’s something else at the exact same moment that you just can’t miss.

One place I’d really love to be right now is San Francisco, specifically because of Berlioz, and more specifically, because of who is singing it. Thursday (that’s tonight), Friday, and Saturday (May 4, 5, 6), Maestro extraordinaire Charles Dutoit leads the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus in performances of Berlioz’s magnificent Requiem, which features none other than American tenor Paul Groves, whose work I so thoroughly enjoyed on my last opera trip to Europe in February, when I heard him sing another work by the great French composer, his immense La damnation de Faust at Opera Royal de Wallonie.

I’ve always loved French opera, but Groves’ performance as Faust (which he stepped into at the eleventh hour, after the scheduled lead was ill) brought a whole new level to my appreciation, with his incisive phrasing, beautiful diction, and warm tone not only complementing the intricacies of Berlioz’s challenging score, but highlighting its power and poetry. It was exquisite, divine.

A proud New Orleans native, Paul was a winner of the Metropolitan Opera’s prestigious National Council Auditions in 1991, and is a graduate of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artists Development Program. He has an impressive roster of performances to his credit, and has appeared at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Los Angeles Opera, Madrid’s Teatro Real, Theater an der Wien (Vienna), Opéra National de Paris, and the San Francisco Opera, among many others. He returns to the Metropolitan Opera in NYC this December, as Danilo in the very fun, apologetically frothy The Merry Widow.

I had the chance to catch up with Paul as he prepared for his next Berlioz in San Francisco. Just like the man in person, Paul is forthcoming in his opinions, unpretentious, funny, generous, and warm, and like I said, he has a knock-your-socks-off voice, too. Bien sur!

What do you think the big differences are between French opera and other forms, like Italian, and German opera?

There are a few big differences between French opera and other forms, but the biggest has to be the language itself. French operas are built around the language more than any other forms. This is why it’s is so difficult to translate into other languages; I’ve never heard or sung a convincing translation of a French opera — whereas I have sung many wonderful translations of German, Italian and Russian works.

Therefore, it is particularly important to pay close attention to diction and vocal production when studying, and finally performing, French opera.



What kinds of demands does French opera place on you vocally?

I feel the language is very helpful for vocal technique — the closed vowels tend to keep the voice gathered when pronounced correctly. The demand comes from the extended tenor range of many French operas. A majority tend to be at least a step higher than most Italian or German romantic operas.

One of the reasons for this is the tenor technique was completely different at the time these operas were written. The tenors these roles were written for approached the high notes in a supported head voice, and the modern tenor technique is more of a chesty, manly sound in the high register. Now, this makes singing the role more difficult, but it’s also much more thrilling.

Why is Berlioz so special for you?

Berlioz was many years ahead of his time when you consider what was coming out of France and Italy at the time. His music wasn’t well-accepted until later in his life, and still today, many musicians have their doubts about what he intended with his orchestration. I’m doing one of his pieces at the moment which has a bass trombone-and-flute duet. Strange, but amazing when performed correctly.

In his operas, the drama is written into the orchestration and text is not necessary to feel the full power of the drama. An example is “The Ride to Hell” in the last part of La damnation de Faust.



Describe your first powerful opera memory.

Well, my first powerful opera memory is Pavarotti’s recording of Canio’s aria. My father, who was a conductor, brought home a Pavarotti album and after hearing it a few times, I conveniently added his album to my collection of records, which was mostly a Led Zeppelin and Beatles collection. 

I was completely blown away, but had no idea that all opera singers (tenors) didn’t sound the same. I found this out when a traveling opera company came to my town a year later to perform the complete opera. I was so disappointed in the tenor’s performance. Looking back now, he was probably fine. Who could live up to my expectations at the time? Only one guy!!!!!

Photo: Nicholas Roberts for The New York Times (via)

You’re going to be at the Met next season in The Merry Widow; how do you approach performing comedy versus tragedy? Do you have a preference? 

I don’t have a preference between comedy and tragic opera, but I get to do comic opera so infrequently that I really look forward to the fun and laughs, not only from the audience, but in the fun we’ll have in the rehearsal room. I’m playing opposite one of my best friends and opera soulmates, the lovely Susan Graham.

The challenging part for me and most singers is always the dialogue — how to make it real and heartfelt. We’re so used to relying on the music to help, but when the music is missing, it feels like we’re standing up there with our pants down!!

The one thing all newcomers to opera should know is…

… be prepared for the power of the unamplified human voice! This is the one thing that newcomers are so shocked about.

It is my life and art form, but I still get goose bumps when I hear a powerful, beautiful, natural voice. This is what separates opera and classical singing from all other art forms. Amplified performances can be enhanced, tuned and sometimes lip-synced. That’s not the case in classical singing; what you hear is the true sound of the human voice with all its flaws and gloriousness.

Darling George

photo via

I have known and loved the music of George Michael for almost as long as I have known and loved opera. The sound of that creamy tenor has been as omnipresent in my life as the sounds of Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti. It was strange, and strangely satisfying, to see the idol of my youth aging and growing as an artist, cultivating his talents while expanding his range, repertoire, and sound with quiet determination.

The grimness of 2016 intensified with news of his passing on Christmas Day. I learned the news as I imagine many others did, on Facebook, noticing the update, “RIP to the best pop star of my life” from music writer Maura Johnston. I didn’t need to click on the link she’d posted to realize, with an awful sinking feeling, who she was referring to. Maura and I share a deep, abiding love of George and his music; we had traded tweets and notes about it over the years, and I had even contributed a piece to her magazine about that passion, which became part of a multi-issue, George-Michael-focused release. Maura has penned a perfect tribute for TIME and another, more personal piece for The Guardian; the latter is filled with smile-worthy memories and brilliant observations, this one striking so many recognizable chords:

While I was initially drawn in by Ridgeley’s cheekbones, I stuck around through Wham!’s breakup, and Michael’s eventual solo career, because the songs were thrilling, spinning like tops perched on a ledge, ready to fly off in another direction at any moment. Michael displayed reverence for all the right things – compositional craft, searing vocals, kindness, writing pop songs to make the world feel, briefly, like everything was OK – while also feeling ambivalent toward the aspects of his job that distracted from them.

I can’t be sure, but I suspect I am the only classical writer who contributed both to that all-George issue of Maura, and to Torontoist, in the form of a live concert review — which strikes me as funny and quite delightful, especially since one of George’s most memorable concerts in the last decade happened at the Palais Garnier. Indeed, George (it feels strange for me to call him anything else, though I never got the opportunity to meet him) was the first contemporary artist to play the historic opera house, and, all things considered, he seemed eminently suited to it, not only because of his then-recent Symphonica release, but because his deep and continuous cultivation of musicality, music history, the ever-changing pop idiom, and his place as an older artist.

(photo: Caroline True, via)

As a current opera writer with a pop-loving past, I tend to live in multiple sonic worlds that embrace rock, funk, R&B, hiphop and country right alongside classical. My current work and the way I’ve grown to listen and pay attention to performance and voice have opened the door for a broader appreciation of the musical gifts George Michael offered over his almost four decades of output. That magical tenor of his was far more agile, sensitive, and expressive than has been sometimes been acknowledged; over the years I’ve heard it called “flat,” “bland,” “too smooth” and “devoid of emotion.” Such criticism always struck me as facile at best, and snobbish at worst; they pointed to a kind of passive-aggressive whisper of, “that music isn’t real music” and “he isn’t a real musician.” As a teen, I’d hurriedly point out he played all the instruments on Faith and even did the backing vocals; it wasn’t vanity, I said, it was talent, an intentional exercise in creative control. What is “real” music anyway?! There are any number of overwhelming examples to point to that might explode such a ridiculous accusation, but more potent than all of them was the live experience.

My first big stadium concert experience was attending the gargantuan Faith tour in the late 1980s. Outside of hearing my favorite singer with tens of thousands of other cheering fans (I recall it being overwhelming at times), hearing that voice, live, was  —and there’s no other way to say it — life-changing. Even amidst tends of thousands of screaming teens, with amplification and effects, that voice was incredible; it swung, it swooped, it mewled, it roared. Having seen Pavarotti and Domingo live at the Met as a teenager, I knew the effect a beautiful voice could have — on me, and on others. I didn’t understand technique back then, and I didn’t fully appreciate what I was hearing, but listening back to both his live and album material now, as an adult, I am, more than ever, struck by the myriad of ways George could shape and bend his sound, to say nothing of the length and power of his vibrato to make a sound that glistened, floated, soared, or roared, cut, slashed; George did it all, with class, style, and elegance. He wasn’t a screamer, and he didn’t feel the need to be. In an era where “soft” was equated with weakness, and “sensuous” with vulgarity, he became the object of ridicule. Throughout my high school years, when being out wasn’t even an option, he was laughed at, his music met with eyerolls; George wasn’t “macho” enough for many of my fellow students to like (or at least admit they liked) —but it was always the lack of screaming, the lack of roughness or aggression that I liked.

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The fact he was also blessed with good looks, great style, and a clear need to move to a beat helped. When acts like New Kids on the Block and Milli Vanilli cropped up, I curled my nose. How were they more acceptable (or even better) than George? Aside from their music holding no appeal, respective choreography seemed forced and joyless; by comparison, George’s hip-shaking, arm-waving, and bum-wiggling seemed fun, sexy, and frankly, familiar. He seemed like he’d be so much fun to go out dancing with. Also, I couldn’t listen to either Kids or Vanilli for very long; those voices were, to my ears, not good.  I’d been so spoiled. The way George had performed Black Cherry’s classic “Play That Funky Music” live, for instance (as part of the Faith tour), was saucy, playful, and very funky, with all of the original’s bounce intact, but a keen awareness of pace and rhythm. It was deeply musical and fun and smart and… you could dance to it! The combination was intoxicating, and remained so, through many decades.

However, the past few years deepened my appreciation of his vocal gifts. George had a warm, wheaty timbre he could expertly wield to accommodate any number of styles, including classic ballads, soul, funk, rock. His skill with balladry was on full display in the astonishing “One More Try” from Faith; he lived the words of that song, lovingly infusing each one with a profound, personal meaning that makes listening to it almost unbearably personal. The halting quality in his voice as he sings “stranger” and then “feet” in the second verse, then the sharp, biting contrast with singing “danger” and “heat” in the second couplet, reveals a world of heartbreak and thwarted hope that colored so much of his later work. It was one of George’s most famously soulful moments, and I feel, one of his most operatic.

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Similarly, many will recall his soaring performance of Queen’s “Somebody To Love” in 1992. Who else could have realistically stepped into the shoes of the great, opera-leaning Freddie Mercury, and done such a bang-up job? He wasn’t Freddie — but he didn’t aim to be. “I work hard,” he declares at the start of the second verse, improvising a higher melodic line and threading it in with the main melody. Simultaneously buoyed by a monstrously wonderful backing choir and a regal authority, his was the performance everyone remembered from that tribute concert. (It was lovely to come across a video recently showing David Bowie smiling at that rehearsal.) Near the song’s end, George soars into a smooth if equally impassioned falsetto with the ease and grace Mercury excelled at, bringing a raw vulnerability to a raucous, jaunty rock and roll classic.

Years before this performance, he’d caused shock with “I Want Your Sex” but I suspect it wasn’t solely the title or song’s content that caused controversy. The way George sings it is just deeply, deliciously dirty. His is a throaty, pushed kind of growl, one cleverly combined with whispers, shouts, and whimpers. One of the supreme pleasures of re-listening to the entirety of Faith over the last few months has been how nicely the material, and this song in particular, translates into adulthood. We (us fans) all merrily sang along to “I Want Your Sex” as teens, screamed it back at its creator live, winked and giggled and may have done some theatrical pelvic thrusts on the dance floor on Club Med vacations, but hearing it as a woman, the reaction is (for me at least) less outward, and more quietly confident, a seduction delivered in slow smiles, eyebrow raises, lingering stares. The subtleties of the song — and they are myriad! — reveal themselves in George’s exquisite vocals, which are brilliantly contrasted by the repeated, organ grinder-esque synth lines and a squishy, pumping rhythm. The simplicity of the arrangement echoes that other perfect synth masterpiece, “Everything She Wants” but contains its direct opposite in experiences, while holding the same musical tension and intensity. Near the song’s close, as his own backing vocals provide a rhythmic, staccato-like declamation filled with a sort of hip-thrusting jubilance (“Hua, SEX!“), George’s knowing vocal punctuates the line:

I’m not your father
I’m not your brother
Talk to your sister
I am a lover

These lines are delivered as statements, full stops, declarations; the confidence of the vocal is breathtaking, to say nothing of the beautiful howl that erupts at the end of that, followed by a carefully-pitched, descending moan. Every time I hear it now I think of Camille Saint-Saëns’s famous “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” from the opera Samson et Dalila — each being, for me, a delicious, potion of desire, fever, seduction, even romance — a fervent paean to being alive, a shiny talisman against despair.

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And this, in the end, is George Michael’s catalogue to me. I haven’t even mentioned the many beautiful collaborations he did with favorite artists — Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, and many others — or the sparkling cover versions he did of of songs new and old. His music (whether it’s specifically his, or music he has made especially his own) isn’t so much a tie to a rosy, cozy pat as it is a flowing river connecting that past with a harsher present, and ever-shifting future. He was magic, he was opera, he was a legend, but he was also defiantly, utterly himself — and in that act, he whispered, moaned, shouted, crooned, and pleaded, with that magical voice of his, for me to be myself. We never got to go dancing (something I’d dreamed of as a teen) and I never got to shake his hand (something I dreamed of as an adult) but he showed me how to listen for the beat, to create my own steps, to choose my own partners, and to walk off if things weren’t working. I owe him so much. We all do. George, you have been loved.



When We Were Young

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Lately I’ve set myself the task of slowly cleaning out my house, bit by bit. In the process, I’ve run across a fair amount of stuff that’s reminded me of my younger days: an old sweater, a pair of earrings, high heels.

“I wore this to that show,” I’m reminded, “and I remember loving this look at that party.”

Alas, I can’t remember quite what I wore to see Stone Temple Pilots when they played Toronto’s historic Masonic Temple (then a concert venue) back in the early 1990s. It was winter, and awfully cold in the hall, at least until the concert started, when it got steamy; whatever I wore, it was layered, and one by one, those layers, like those of my youthful self-consciousness, were peeled off as the show progressed, until I was left in a tank top, shrieking, sweaty, and wild-eyed at an amazing, beautiful, pure rock-and-roll sound that stays with me to this day.

I’d seen other bands in small and big venus before, but the crowd for STP was different — saucier, louder, more diverse, with a whole lot more young women, one of whom, I distinctly remember, mixed high-waisted mom jeans (then deeply unfashionable) with a tight hornet-green tank top and wayfarer sunglasses. She knew every word of every song, and rocked out from her front-balcony position, trading points and gestures with Scott Weiland now and again, as the lead singer stalked around the space, spitting, crooning, gesticulating wildly; seducing us one moment and ready to punch us the next,  he was, unlike so many other figures I’d seen live or on TV, seemingly unconcerned with garnering good opinions. And he was, I suspect, for so many in the audience that night, me and mum-jeans girl included, the antihero we didn’t quite realize we wanted, but nonetheless found ourselves gravitating towards. We may’ve been outsiders beyond the walls of the Masonic Temple, but we were welcomed within it that night.

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Stone Temple Pilots were just emerging as a loud rock outfit back then, with a few elements of the then-huge grunge sound, trying to get out from under the overbearing mound of Pearl Jam comparisons. They’d made a few videos but no one could quite get a handle on them, except of course, to compare them to others, and to try to strip them of any semblance of originality. Even at the time (never mind in retrospect), it seemed wildly unfair and frustratingly reductive. They were deeply of and yet simultaneously beyond their time. As Rob Harvilla noted, the band became, by the mid-90s, “the armadillo-trousered ’70s arena-rockers of their dreams, a T.Rex for the Jurassic Park era.”

As someone who grew up deep into pop as well as the classic sounds of Motown, jazz, and of course, opera, rock and roll was a bit of at thing apart in my house; Queen was okay, Metallica was not. My gravitation toward rock and roll coincided with the rise of so-called grunge and I loved “Sex Type Thing” and “Plush” the first time I heard them— the raw, bitingly aggressive sarcasm of the former, the swirling, surreal sensuality of the latter (and still do) — they’re thrilling pieces within the rock pantheon. As years went on, my love of the band’s work wavered, but the one thing I always loved, through “Big Empty” and “Interstate Love Song” and “Vasoline” and “Big Bang Baby”, through the cacophony of noise both in and outside the band, was the wonderful husky bray of Weiland’s voice, a lush baritone call that could be romantically plaintive one moment and blazingly angry the next. It was a voice made for rock and roll, made for belting not above but inside the noisy guitars and thumping bass lines and thrashing drums, straight into the minds and hearts of listeners. It’s a voice that still makes me pause in a way that very few in the rock world do. I wish I’d heard it live more often.

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Pop culture is littered with figures who serve as torch-bearers for people who feel the world doesn’t understand them. But such a position feels too cliched for someone as vulnerable and self-loathing as Weiland. The last decade or so, he simply didn’t look like he had the strength to be any kind of torch-bearer, much less the desire. He wanted to be a rock star, and he was, but he was much more, too. I watched him slink off the stage that night, long ago, and as the lights were just coming up, a thought hit me, quite suddenly, that he looked so small and so damn lonely.  I suspect Weiland cared a great deal about what others thought — what artist doesn’t? — and found himself thrown aside, like so much useless detritus. I’d rather not be the one carrying bones of a beloved antihero into some highly stylized, steampunk version of eternity; unbundling the mundane details of a present reality is always more complicated. Weiland passed away at the age of 48, not 27, and had neither burned out nor faded away, but he was clearly damaged, for so many reasons, many of them made baldly public.

We all carry a certain amount of damage around. As I continue clearing out my house of old mementoes, I’m reminded of the person I was then, and can’t help but compare that girl, with all of her insecurities and anxieties, with the woman I am now. Some of the old worries are still there, but many have been replaced, if not vanished entirely. Damage isn’t something I want to romanticize, but it isn’t something to ignore, either; some very eye-widening things can result from some very horrific things. It’s not my place to draw lines between Weiland’s life and his art, and now, alas, his legacy — but I know one thing for certain: he was the first rock star I saw live who really made me lose my shit, but at the same time, made me think about… everything. I came out into the cold winter air after STP’s show that night bathed in sweat, and, for weeks afterwards, kept thinking about him, his voice, the show, that girl in the mom-jeans. Rock and roll has real power; every time I hear his voice, I’m reminded of that. It’s the most obvious thing in the world, and yet it bears repeating. it’s time to put on Core, Purple, and all the rest; it’s time to feel the power again.

Thank you, Jimmy

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A wave of deep sadness washed over me as I learned the news of Jimmy Scott’s passing. After that, gratitude. I am so blessed to have seen Jimmy Scott sing live.

It was a steamy June evening in 2012, in the basement supper-club of the popular Red Rooster Restaurant in Harlem. Amidst the distant clattering of dishes and the clinking of wine glasses, Scott entered, humble, and clearly moved by his ecstatic reception, wheelchair-bound and physically frail, but with a fierce determination and passion that flickered across his smiling face. A microphone was lowered, and for the next hour or so, Scott closed his eyes, furrowed his brow, and had the intimate room spellbound.

I first stumbled across the recordings of Jimmy Scott as a teenager. Some of the artists I admired had mentioned him as an inspiration in interviews, and, trusting them as great arbiters of taste, I followed their advice. This time period coincided with my discovery and embrace of a lot of jazz sounds: Ella Fitzgerald (whom I saw live a few years later), Miles Davis (who I’d already seen live, scant months before his passing), Dizzy Gillespie (who again, I saw live before his passing), Billie Holiday (alas), and Frank Sinatra (who I wish I could take a time machine to see live in the 1950s). While Little Jimmy fit within that jazz world, to say he was a “jazz singer” would, for me, be sticking him in a bin that was a bit too narrow for what he did, and really, who he was. Just as he himself defied norms (not at all by choice), his voice — and the way he used it — defied conventional categorization. He belonged in an ornate church the way he belonged in a smoky jazz club; that is to say, he was a bit of everything, embracing, synthesizing, integrating influences and styles, but then re-making, re-creating and expressing something wholly and entirely his very own. As Anthony Hegarty put it to The Quietus in 2011, he “sings like a sobbing diamond.”

It’s this very individuality and subsequent beauty that so astonishes and quiets us.

And yet, some might argue it cost him mainstream success. Jimmy’s name isn’t as well-known as say, Sinatra, or Dean Martin, or Tony Bennett. He doesn’t have the cachet of his jazz-singer brethren. But again, Jimmy wasn’t just one thing. He worked with Lou Reed and David Lynch; he was in a Hal Willner-produced tribute concert for Harry Smith; he was name-checked as inspiration by a variety of artists, including Nick Cave, Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna, the latter saying Jimmy was the only singer “who’d ever really made me cry.”

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Lou Reed had said, “we all bow at the altar of Jimmy Scott.” Lou, I think, understood Jimmy in a profound way; both of them appreciated the deep relationship that has to exist between identity, artistry, beauty, and authenticity. Lou got it; Jimmy got it. And, in the brief moments the world had them, we, the audience, got it.

To say the experience of seeing Jimmy live was special would be far too reductive and trite; to say it was akin to going to church would be too predictable. There was something other-worldly, haunting, and wholly transcendent about hearing him live. Recordings may flit at the edges of his greatness, but, like a great opera singer (Pavarotti) or a wondrous instrumentalist (Gillespie, Davis), the nature of art, to say nothing of how we, the audience, experience it, changes in a dramatic way within the live realm. Never mind style; Jimmy Scott’s whole soul — in life, in love, in art, in sound and fury — was expressed in the blessed short hour I and the rest of Ginny’s Supper Club had with him that night. Experiencing Little Jimmy live re-affirmed the centrality of music and culture in my life, and reminded me of my responsibility to the authentic in everything I write and do. Sometimes we are all motherless children; Jimmy made us know, understand, and find the beauty in the pain, the pain in the beauty, always, unquestionably, unapologetically himself.

I Get So Emotional, Baby

The news of Whitney Houston’s passing went around on Facebook like wildfire, probably mere moments after the first murmurs of her demise began circulating on Twitter. Whitney became famous before the advent of social media, but it seems as if her debut album was issued to every household in 1985. Tonight everyone’s sharing a memory of their younger selves: seeing one of her videos, dancing in their bedrooms, running to buy her record at the local mall. I’m pouring over my own memories too. Whitney was the first female pop star I outright adored.
At the time it wasn’t totally cool -at least in my super-Wonderbread neighborhood -to admit you liked Whitney’s music, so I’d covertly hide my cassette tapes in coat pockets and big bags. There weren’t too many twelve-year-old girls in the ‘burbs who loved opera, Abba, Johnny Cash and Whitney Houston with equal passion. I remember so many snowy days, sluggishly making my way to school, bright red wool cowl around my head, pointy-toed winter boots on my feet, sunglasses in place, making my way along the grey dull suburban streets, with Whitney sweetly singing through the headphones of my Sony Walkman: how will I know if he really loves me? how will I know? Whitney’s music inspired me to investigate gospel. Eventually the LPs of Mahalia Jackson, Etta James, and Aretha Franklin appeared next to the Duran Duran ones. Whitney Houston was my gateway drug to soul and Motown – and to brighter visions of a better, more exciting life, one where being loud, bold, brilliant, and female were rewarded and celebrated and encouraged. I’ve found the greatest love of all…
When 1987’s Whitney came out, I immediately gravitated to the dramatic stuff, with “So Emotional” becoming my mantra, though I had no one to sing it to except the fantasy boys in my head. But Whitney’s vocal urgency, her drama, her sense of excitement, and enjoyment, and sheer joy of singing, were and remain astonishing to listen to. To paraphrase the saucy title character from Bizet’s Carmen, “I’m singing for myself, and there’s no law against it!” Still, as Maura Johnston of The Village Voice notes, “Houston’s voice was criticized by some for being too much—too strong, too showy, an exemplar of the excess that epitomized pop music in the ’80s.” My mother used to crinkle her brow whenever she heard her music pumping out of my bedroom: “That isn’t singing -it’s shrieking!” Her cover of a beloved Dolly Parton classic grated, and the movie it came from, though a massive success, was horrendously bad, a soppy, maudlin embodiment of the gigantic music industry- machine she seemed to never quite fit in with.
As the years passed, she became simultaneously less interested and more desperate to fit in to that world. It was painful to witness. Marriage, addiction, bizarre interviews, bad live dates, frightening photos – it was like a laundry list of public humiliation, made all the more horrifying because of Whitney’s refusal to never, ever play the role of the simpering, whimpering victim, even when she was clearly suffering. There were highs, lows, exposures, embarrassments, headaches, heartaches. It couldn’t have been easy trying to dim your light around a man clearly threatened by your success, or attempting to throw a determined monkey off your back amidst the snide smirks of a public who once worshipped you awaiting your next fall with claws and fangs exposed. I think few knew or understood the nasty nature of fame and the “industry” side of the music industry the way Whitney Houston did.
There have been many, many candidates for the throne of Ultimate Soul Diva. But might look it, but they’ll never be it. Whitney poured her whole life into that voice, sounding sweet one minute, steely the next; she was as confident with the saccharine balladry of “The Greatest Love,” as she was with the survivor sass of “It’s Not Right (But It’s Okay).” It would be too easy to assume she’d made some Faustian deal in order to have a voice like that, but she did have demons. Regardless of who put them there or why they stayed is no matter. Her demons were hers. Right up to the end she seemed determined to remind us of that. We were blessed to have had her voice in our midst, serenading us through all of life’s moments big and small, leading us through the snowbanks and into a place less dull, more bright, more beautiful and big and exciting, where being female didn’t mean being soft, quiet, meek or comforting. Dear Whitney, make you shake the heavens the way you shook this earth. Make thee a joyous noise.

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