ALEXANDRA – Mixing pop and opera: Triumph or trouble?

Mixing pop and opera: Triumph or trouble?In the music world, sometimes the concept of mixing vocal genres in the same performance works well, and sometimes it creates trouble.In July, I reviewed in Todayand#39s Zaman two Istanbul concerts that dealt with this issue: One was a jazz saxophonist who suddenly burst into opera arias in the middle of his set, and the other was the estimable jazz singer YIldIz Ibrahimova, who used her operatically trained voice to fashion superb andldquoscatandrdquo artistry.

In the saxophonistand#39s case, his sudden stylistic departure caused a disconnect though his singing was remarkably good, it was a stylistic jolt for the audience. In Ibrahimovaand#39s case, she was the only one on stage in a large group and had the expertise to create an artistically satisfying experience.

Combining vocal styles can be a tricky thing the success or failure depends on several factors.Two concerts in Berlin one, a premiere of a rare work by operetta composer Emmerich Kalman and the other, opera singer Angela Denokeand#39s solo project of the songs of Kurt Weill, recently gave perfect examples of triumph and trouble, respectively.

Adding pop to operettaThe triumph was the Komische Operand#39s Berlin debut of operetta composer Emmerich Kalmanand#39s last opus, andldquoArizona Ladyandrdquo on Dec. 21, for which director Barrie Kosky assigned two pop musical stars to join a cast of opera singers for a concert version of the work.

The results were remarkable, not only because all the singeractors involved were top-notch in their respective styles, but because Kosky allowed his performers full freedom to be themselves in a piece that essentially called for such a creative mixture — andldquoa bouillabaisse from Kalmanandrdquo remarked the director from the stage. andldquoArizona Ladyandrdquo was written in 1953, but its score was a retro excursion through Viennese operetta, Vaudeville, 1920s Jazz Age, American musical theatre and other Americanisms — with an especially big tip of the hat to the andldquosinging cowboyandrdquo phenomenon of the 1940s and 50s.

The performance featured TurkishGerman actor Serkan Kaya as Cowboy Roy Dexter and Katherine Mehrling as Lona Farrell, the proprietress of the Sunshine Ranch in Arizona Both are top stars of musical theatre in Germany.Their splendid operatic colleagues were soprano Mirka Wagner, tenor Michael Pflumm, bass Jens Larsen, and buffo-baritone Stefan Sevenich.

The polished five-man Lindenquintett Berlin as The Arizona Boys provided the mellifluous vocal convention established by the Comedian Harmonists in the 1930s, and the companyand#39s expert chorus and orchestra, performing the premiere of Norbert Biermannand#39s lush orchestrations, were conducted by Kai Tietje (who also played accordion and harmonica from the podium).Kaya, in a magnetic performance, sang with a remarkable blend of pop-rock fearlessness with touches of classical phrasing, matched by physical and emotional naturalness in his acting.

(The fact that Kaya is Turkish was used to good effect: he introduced himself as andldquoDexter from Kreuzbergandrdquo — the Turkish area of Berlin. Lona referred to him as her andldquoTurkish cowboyandrdquo and he later made a pun on the Mexican burrito andldquoItand#39s andlsquobr-ito,and#39 letand#39s get it right!andrdquoandndash referring to Turkish brek).

Mehrling, whose musical comedy chops are exemplary as a lead ingandeacutenue, tuned her emotive Broadway style vocalism, which included a yodeling sequence, to the perfect frequency for this elegant setting. Because these various performers were true to their own vocal realities and strengths, the concept of mixing genres — but especially informed by Koskyand#39s deft theatrical timing — was a resounding success.

Following the show, Christoph Felsenstein, the son of the Komische Operand#39s founder, announced to the crowd, andldquoLadies and Gentleman [because of Koskyand#39s aenturous admixture of styles], the Komische Oper lives on!andrdquoDenokeand#39s disasterAs I sat listening to international opera diva Angela Denokeand#39s evening of songs by Kurt Weill, entitled andldquoTwo Lives to Live,andrdquo at the smaller of the two Berlin Philharmonie halls on Dec. 1, I kept hearing Duke Ellingtonand#39s famous song lyrics andldquoIt Donand#39t Mean a Thing if It Ainand#39t Got that Swing.

andrdquoDenoke has had an admirable career as a dramatic soprano singing most of the heroines in grand opera Her decision to venture into musical territory, which required, to some extent, adding swing to her singing was, in my opinion, misguided.andldquoSwingandrdquo is musical delivery that has an organic rhythmic underpinning which grounds it so the performer can play with it in an improvisational spirit.

That playfulness is the essential nuance that differentiates it from classical music. Not all of what Weill wrote required swing, or even a Broadway-style voice.

But her chosen companions that evening, pianistaccordionist Tai Balshai and saxophonistclarinetist Norbert Nagel, thought so and they fashioned swinging arrangements perfect for a singer who could match themFor those songs from Weilland#39s famous andldquoThreepenny Opera,andrdquo andldquoThe Rise and Fall of the City Mahogany,andrdquo and andldquoHappy End,andrdquo Denokeand#39s renditions were more or less a truer match to the music. But for pieces that required even a modicum of swing, like the snazzy duo arrangements with bass clarinet andldquoSpeak Lowandrdquo and andldquoSeptember Songandrdquo and other up-tempo ballads, they lacked the required combination of backbone and looseness to be even moderately effective.

Perhaps an even more serious issue was that Denoke had transposed almost all the songs to artificially lowered keys this robbed her voice of its true colors and vitality, which normally bloom in a higher range than the one she was singing in. The results were pallid, boring and oddly inexpressive.

Throughout the evening, I was silently thinking of Eileen Farrell, the late great American opera diva, who made a controversial album in 1960 called andldquoIand#39ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues.andrdquo Sheand#39s one of the very few who have successfully crossed over from classical singing to material that requires different expertise — one that makes blues and ballads believable — that thing called andldquoSwing.


SOURCE: Today’s Zaman