RenMen A Night at the Opera
Go beyond Aida, Bohème, and Carmen in this celebration of rarely performed men’s ensemble repertoire by composers primary known for their contributions to the operatic stage. Featuring works by Rossini, Richard Strauss, and Rufus Wainwright. Major pieces include Jake Heggie's A Hundred Thousand Stars and the North American premiere of Bizet's Saint Jean de Pathos. Mozart's Die Zauberflöte overture gets a bit of an overhaul. And how could we give a concert called "Night at the Opera" and not feature the Marx Brothers in some way? Who knows? Maybe your favorite RenMan will toss in an aria or two
May 12 2018 at 7:30 PM
St. Mary's Episcopal Church
May 13 2018 at 3:00 PM
Gordon Chapel, Old South Church
ABOUT THE PROGRAM
Opera is an addiction, a ceaseless voice in the back of one’s mind as infernally beguiling as that of Antonia’s mother in Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Today’s program seeks to explore, in some tangible manner, the qualities that continue to make opera so habit forming an experience for its performers and audiences members alike. Almost since the founding of Renaissance Men in 2014, an opera based project has sat on the back burner, taking on many different forms over the years as we endeavored to flesh out a vague concept into programmatic solidity. To remain true to our roots as a vocal ensemble, we needed choral music alongside the traditional operatic fare, and preferably choral music of a quality beyond the compositional throwaways that are often a chorus member’s lot during the course of your average opera (not every opera chorus can be on par with “Va, pensiero”). And, of course, the repertoire search was further restricted by our all male configuration. Did genuine men’s ensemble music exist by our favorite operatic composers that recalled the best qualities of their stage works? Was there a tune you could hum? Vocal virtuosity? A heightened sense of drama? Would the audience stay awake? While a defined academic concept is all well and good, we RenMen are performers first and foremost, and we hope that today’s concert entertains at least as thoroughly as it edifies!
While some operas (such as La Bohème) begin in medias res, most utilize an overture to immediately establish a mood. For a brief time, the conductor gets to be the primary star, commanding all attention before those pesky singers take the stage. Albert Lortzing’s Ouverture von der Opera Die Zauberflöte is a uniquely challenging piece, setting Mozart’s bumptious instrumental work to lightning fast German text. Lortzing, although not one of the most immediately recognizable names, was a respected German operatic composer of the early nineteenth century, perhaps best known for his singspiel Zar und Zimmerman (Tsar and Carpenter). His professional knowhow manifested in the exactitude with which he reproduced Mozart’s music, utilizing its inherent dramatic shifts to depict the fraught argument of the text. There are numerous esoteric references therein: composer Carl Maria Weber, characters Max, Kaspar, and Samiel from his opera Der Freischütz, composers Wenzel Müller, Gioachino Rossini, Gaspare Spontini, composer and music publisher Hans Georg Nägeli, and composers and pedagogues Rudolph Kreutzer and Anton Schweitzer. Of course, these names fly by in all of this purposeful cacophony, and Mozart unequivocally wins the war for superiority in the end.
Speaking of war, after a healthy dose of Puccini (what would an opera program be without one?), our martial instincts are roused by Verdi’s Inno Popolare, commissioned as a battle hymn for the Revolution of 1848. Although the piece didn’t become the “Italian Marseillaise” as desired (the Austrian Empire won this particular battle), its dotted rhythms and rollicking oom-pah-pah accompaniment (both Verdian signatures) impart an infectious good humor, eliciting inevitably lusty, operatic vocal stylings. In contrast, Gioachino Rossini’s Preghiera is shaded in the most delicate of hues, requiring the poised, legato vocal line and attention to beauty of tone that are the hallmarks of true bel canto singing. To achieve maximum effectiveness, its plaintive melody must unfurl smoothly and naturally, even when easy access to challenging range extremes is demanded (such as the bass low C and tenor high C on the final chord).
While Don José’s “Flower Song” requires no introduction, Saint Jean de Pathmos is almost as obscure as the Carmen aria is old hat. It barely exists as a footnote on Bizet’s list of works, easily overlooked by the wandering musicologist. Somewhere between 1865 and 1868, the young composer was commissioned to write this piece for a Belgian festival, though which one remains unknown. In any event, the piece didn’t exactly catch on - I’ve uncovered no evidence of it being published since 1901. A great pity, for the work is almost a miniature opera in its own right, Saint John’s disturbing visions depicted with a fervent zeal. The range of vocal colors required, from hushed awe to brazen declamation, is extreme, and the hyper sentimentality of Victor Hugo’s text demands unstinting dramatic concentration. Given the work’s difficulties, it seems little wonder that it hasn’t been picked up and dusted off in recent years by your everyday men’s choir!
Our second act opens identically to that of Die Zauberflöte, with Sarastro’s first aria. In typically irreverent RenMen fashion, we chose to juxtapose the meditative spirituality of this work with the decidedly secular musings of the master’s Leck mir im Arsch. Composed around 1782, unsurprisingly in Vienna, the canon doubtless served as a great party piece for Mozart and his friends, though the text was modified slightly for public consumption when Constanze Mozart sold the manuscript for publication upon her husband’s death. Fortunately, we present it today unfettered by such prudishness, our tenor and baritone voices trumpeting its altitudinous lines with gusto (and our basses sitting back and enjoying the view, as it were). As he so often does, Wagner breaks up the party with An Weber’s Grabe. Written in 1844 for the reburial of Carl Maria Weber’s remains in his hometown of Dresden, the piece is a study in uninterrupted solemnity, its gravity looking forward to the extraordinary Pilgrim’s Chorus of Tannhäuser, written only a year later. While the text is perhaps a bit heavy handed (Wagner would insist upon writing his own poetry), the music itself glows, expertly shifting between keys while remaining rooted in a warm D flat major. His writing for the high tenors is particularly inspired, their clarion thrusts above the staff amply suggesting the still youthful composer’s veneration of his distinguished predecessor.
Rufus Wainwright’s song Damned Ladies is an admittedly eccentric addition to today’s program. While Wainwright has since composed operas, this particular number, first encountered on his 1998 eponymous debut studio album, is mostly significant for the genius of its lyrics. To quote Wainwright, "In the song, I lament how these women are constantly dying brutal deaths, which I can see coming but cannot stop. It gets me every time.” As a lifelong diva worshipper, I pay personal tribute to a few of my most beloved operatic heroines here. A Hundred Thousand Stars captures a similarly haunting, wistful quality. The piece lies at the heart of Heggie’s choral/stage work For a Look or a Touch, which was co-commissioned by the Seattle Men’s Chorus and The Boston Gay Men’s Chorus in 2011. Drawn from journal entries and true stories about the persecution of gay men during the Holocaust, the piece is an exceedingly rare example of a quasi-operatic love duet between two men.
To close today’s program, we return to our usual ebullient high spirits with Cosi Cosa and Insalata Italiana. The former, a quintessential tenor showpiece that has its origins in the Marx Brothers’ 1935 comedic hit A Night at the Opera, is an almost mandatory addition to any self respecting pastiche of operatic hits. The latter is purely adorable kitsch, which, in spite our our best efforts, RenMen thankfully has never quite been able to resist. This “Italian salad” was penned by Richard Genée, a Prussian librettist, playwright, and composer best known for the libretto of Johann Strauss the Younger’s hit operetta Die Fledermaus. Written in a similarly frothy vein, the piece lampoons Italian Grand Opera finales with smarmy good cheer, achieving maximum vocal effect while saying pretty much nothing. As its final notes linger on the ear and we take our bow, we hope that the spirit of a Night at the Opera has been achieved, though our concert is comparably brief and doesn’t include sopranos. For those audience members who keenly feel the dearth of time and treble, never fear - a reception awaits with more arias and high notes in abundance!
Anthony Burkes Garza