Friday, June 29, 2007

I'm Really Trying, Honest!

Given the recent uptick in popular discussion of opera, owing in large part to the success over in the UK of amateur Paul Potts on Britain's Got Talent, I've been giving more thought myself to opera, spurred on in part by this discussion over at Mazurland (although originally initiated by my own viewing of Mr. Potts' original performance, so nyah, Mazurs, I saw it first! I'm a hipper internet junkie!).

Over the years, I've tried, usually in vain, to "get into" opera. After all, I have a PhD, so I'm supposed to be all cultured and stuff, right? And I really like other forms of classical music, both instrumental and "vocal" (or whatever the proper general term is for classical music with sung lyrics). My favorite piece of classical music is, in fact, Beethoven's 9th Symphony, and many of the best parts of that are, indeed, lyrical (moreover, I actually know the lyrics found in the fourth movement in their original German and have been known, from time to time, to sing them, poorly). And yet, my attempts to enjoy actual opera have been met with disappointment and lack of interest, time after time.

I think I have discovered a primary reason for this. It is rooted in this recently realized fact about myself: I am a musical misogynist. That is to say, I just don't particularly care for music sung by women. This is not to say that I think women are inferior in the musical arts to men, or that there are no personal exceptions to this "rule", but when one peruses my collection of music, very few female artists are present, and I am certainly in no rush to correct the imbalance. I am not entirely sure why I do not care for the vocal talents of women, but I believe it has something to do with a particular vocal range that I find unpleasant (and often unintelligible) to my ears, and this range is largely the domain of female songstresses (it IS a distinct range, however, as I enjoy songs sung in both lower (usually by men) and higher (typically by women) pitches -- although timbre plays a part too). Owing to my lack of musical erudition, I can't put a label on this range, but I'm sure it corresponds to a contiguous set of singing "types" a la soprano, tenor, etc. (not to imply that those two are the "types" to which I refer -- just explaining what I mean by "types" here -- I might as well be a chimpanzee for all my technical knowledge of music).

This relates to my thwarted attempts to gain an appreciation of opera thus: Much, if not most, of the opera I have picked up (too dumb to name any names, sorry) contains both male and female parts, and I often become distracted, bored, or turned off when the women start singing. For instance, I actually do enjoy Orff's opera (well, cantata, according to Wikipedia, but close enough for my philistine tastes) Carmina Burana, but several of the songs therein contain solo parts sung by women, and I have noticed that I tend to skip those tracks.

I think my hope of recovery lies in collecting arias (or whatever they're called) sung by men of note and gaining an appreciation of those particular works, before moving on to complete operas, and just sucking it up when the women sing. To that end, I leave with this clip, provided in the above-linked comment thread and by which I was greatly impressed, of Roberto Alagna performing La Donna e Mobile from Verdi's Rigoletto:

P.S. Elephants Yea indeed.



Anonymous Marty said...


Here are a few more suggestions to broaden your appreciation of vocal music. First, if you like solo voices, try some German leider. Schubert, in particular, is a good start. He wrote many songs and song cycles for both solo male and solo female voices. One for a male voice is "Die schöne Müllerin", The Beautiful Miller Girl. It's a silly song cycle about a young guy vagabonding about who spots a pretty miller's daughter and is made gaga over her. Much angsty German wanking ensues. It is love in vain as the miller girl falls in love with a hunter, the vagabond youth despairs, and drowns himself. As cheery as Krautish songs get. OK, maybe not so great for a first crack at lieder, but great music. A

Another thing you could try is pure choral music. Often, extended choral pieces do involve male or female solos, but some don't have much of that. One of my all-time favorites is Brahms Requiem. It is one of the most beautiful pieces of music of any kind. It is not a typical Requiem set to the Catholic Mass for the Dead, but rather a series of excerpts from Scripture on the themes of death, judgment, and mercy, set to awesome music.

SOme of my favorite choral pieces are indeed Requiems. Many are written to the standard format of the Requiem Mass. But, like Brahms Requiem above, some are not. An excellent choice in the latter category is Faure's Requiem. It was written in the late 19th century and early 20th (composed over some years). It is very ethereal in parts, and the soprano solo might be listenable to you. It is angelic.

Of the traditional formats, I'd recommend Mozart's Requiem (powerfully emotional, not as "pretty" as much of Mozart's music), and Verdi's, with its explosive Dies Irae.

Other good choral music has been written by Bach (cantatas, both sacred and secular, and Masses), Vivaldi, Rutter (modern) and many others.

5:46 PM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

Thanks for the tips, Marty. I've listened to, and enjoyed, several of those, including Mozart's Requiem and Verdi's Requiem. I can handle choral stuff pretty well, be it male, female, or both -- the unpleasantness of female solo arias gets washed out, I think. I'm also fond of Handel's Messiah, which I had the great privilege to see live at Benaroya Hall in Seattle, as performed by the Seattle Symphony (and a bunch of singers, of course). Despite our last-row-of-the-top-balcony seats, I was blown away -- there is no bad seat, acoustically, at Benaroya.

I'll have to check out the leider, though. I like a good rousing German song.

7:56 AM  
Anonymous Marty said...

By the way, I spelled "lieder" two different ways in my comment. One of those ways, "leider", was wrong.

9:15 AM  
Anonymous Chris said...

I don't understand this aversion to the female voice. I personally love it, provided it's the right selection. For instance, not whiny Judy Collins cr*p.

If you have an iTunes account, may I suggest a few songs?":
1) "Something's Got A Hold On Me" -Etta James
2) "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive" or "Won't Be Long" -Aretha Frankin
3) "People Get Ready" -Eva Cassidy

10:47 AM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

Like I said, Chris, there are exceptions to this rule, and I think it's a specific range (or perhaps disjoint set of ranges) of vocal ability that I find unpleasant. This range seems more often than not to be sung by female operatic performers. Because my wife is a fan, I know I can tolerate Etta James; I tolerate Norah Jones as well, who I believe sings in a similar range. There are some female pop/rock singers I can stand as well(who I won't list here out of sheer embarrassment, but Jewel was one of them until she went all batty, but that's just why you don't give recording contracts to homeless snaggletooths, regardless of talent or mouth-closed hotness). But like I said, I AM trying to work on it.

And Marty, try to get it right. This is my musical future we're dealing with here!

10:57 AM  
Anonymous J to the D said...

You know, speaking of opera, I was watching some mob-type movie (the name of which currently escapes me), and I realized that I really enjoy opera when performed in Italian by men. I've intended to begin playing it around the house, just to give it that classic cinematic vibe. However, it's usually accompanied by slow-motion gunfights, which I'd rather avoid, so the jury's still out on that one.

That said, I'm quite a fan of some female vocalists, but like you, I'm a bit weary of the tired BritneyXtina whininess. I personally like Joss Stone, Nikka Costa, and especially Bjork. (If you really want a head trip, check out her stuff in her native tongue...great stuff!)

1:34 PM  

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