Thursday, May 29, 2008

Deborah Voigt as Isolde - Gotta give her credit

I have always had interesting feelings about the talent of Deborah Voigt. However, I've really got to hand it to her for her Isolde in this season's TRISTAN UND ISOLDE from the MET.

I won't go into great detail here with my long-held opinions, based on years and years of careful listening, about Voigt's voice. Suffice to say that I admire her art immensely, and I very much respect but don't love her voice. She also -- thank God for her, overall health-wise -- recently lost a significant amount of weight, quickly, through surgical procedures, and it has definitely altered her vocal instrument.

However, I listened to the MET radio broadcast of the TRISTAN when it aired in early Spring, and just watched/listened to the PBS (NYC WNET) telecast of the opera, and I have to give Voigt a lot of respect for her work. Again, despite certain things that I probably would not have liked very much before her recent physical changes, despite the effect of those changes, and despite the fact that she basically does not have a voice large enough to sing Isolde in the "traditional" way (I won't elaborate--I'll save that topic for another post), she sang with her version of power and with pathos and drama. She was tireless in the role--unflinching even at the most overwhelming of James Levine's Wagnerian orchestral tidal waves; singing with "her voice" and still getting over the orchestra rather handily. I even found myself caught up in the drama and not thinking about the voice on numerous occasions throughout her extended scene in Act I and the Act II Love Duet. Voigt's "Liebestod" at the conclusion of the opera was also immensely heartfelt. I must also say that she looked beautiful.

I actually ran into Voigt at a restaurant near Lincoln Center after the radio broadcast--that evening, I was meeting another great soprano (a dear personal friend) in the same restaurant where Voigt had her post-performance dinner. Another mention of how she looks: she not only lost such a dramatic amount of weight that she is now very slim, but she even looks somewhat small. I always saw her in the past as someone of a certain height but the weight loss made her, at least on the occasion of that evening in the restaurant, seem to be a more of a "compact" person.

When, as I awaited my other diva friend, I saw Voigt giddily leaving the restaurant -- as well she should! -- with a group of her friends, I did something that I would not ordinarily do. I grabbed her by the shoulder and just said "awesome today". She very sincerely -- I mean genuinely so -- said "thank you so much".

One minor note on the telecast: I noticed that they must have cut in a different take of the "Liebestod" for the telecast--the radio broadcast performance was the one transmitted live in HD to movie theaters around the country/world. I remember that Voigt flubbed the final climactic note of the "Liebestod" (on the words "in des Weltatems") on the radio broadcast, which, frankly, didn't matter because her overall performance of the aria. On the telecast, the flub on the grand note on "Welt" was not there. Ah, digital technology! :-)

Here is her "Liebestod" (audio only) from YouTube:

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Reichsorchester: The Berlin Philharmonic

One of the topics I find most fascinating is the role of art during the Nazi era. In this light, I've very much wanted to see the new documentary entitled "The Reichsorchester: The Berlin Philharmonic" by Enrique Sanchez Lansch (Arthaus Musik DVD). I decided today to treat myself to the DVD.

Lansch's documentary, from a book by author Misha Aster called "The Reich's Orchestra", chronicles the Berlin Philharmonic during WWII. In addition to remarkable historical footage of great conductors leading the BPO during the period (e.g. Wilhelm Furtwängler, Erich Kleiber, Hans Knappertsbusch and others), there are compelling interviews with living members of the orchestra who played throughout the war and the children of other members. The interviewees, with a complex perspective, "true" or not, describe their connection to the time as artists, musicians, citizens, observers... The view of these players and their descendents of the Nazis and their willingness (or requirement for survival) to perform in an orchestra that celebrated both great art but also the "mission" of the Nazis during this atrocious period in history should be seen, IMHO, by all. Every viewer of Lansch's documentary will come away with different conclusions, but you will have heard first-hand accounts of the period and experience something never really seen, collectively, before.

The 2007 documentary was released on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the founding of the Berlin Philharmonic (1882). This is a bold and interesting statement--to point-blank face the issue of the Nazi period as a representation of the anniversary of the orchestra's origination.

An excerpt of the documentary can be found here:

Monday, May 26, 2008

Sunshine in NYC!

It is FINALLY sunny and warm in NYC! It has been chilly and gloomy throughout May.

I've said it every year for the past several years... we don't get the extended, brutal, subzero (Fahrenheit) January and February weather of the past -- most likely a result of global warming -- but the cool, yucky weather lasts a lot longer. I've said to friends who also live in NYC (I'm a life-long Manhattanite and have seen many, many New York winters and springs), "we don't have the terrible winters anymore but the cold lasts until May or even June". Everyone to whom I say this, every year over the past decade, has dismissed it, even though they live through and complain about the "new" weather each year.

With escalating real estate, fuel and other prices affecting everything in New York -- quality of life, service, dining out, attitudes (a lot of discussion about this topic but I will leave it for another post/several posts in future), etc. -- and the cold, dark spring weather (something I've hated since I lost almost 150 pounds more than two decades ago) make it harder and harder to justify living in what, arguably, is still, despite its many long-time and newer flaws, one of the greatest cities in the world.

For today, however, even though I've been recuperating from an illness throughout May -- I had an unexpected stay in hospital (for the first time in my life) a couple of weeks ago to battle an infection -- I will definitely take a walk and enjoy the beauty that is Manhattan in the sun. :-)

Sunday, May 25, 2008

SciFi Japan - Great Information

For anyone interested in "Kaiju Eiga" cinema, don't miss the great blog/information resource called SciFi Japan. It covers far more than just Godzilla and his cohorts and has excellent photos and links to other Sci-Fi resources.

Shimura Takashi - The Great Man of Japanese Cinema

There have been many remarkable actors in the history of Japanese film. None, however, surpassed the late, magnificent Shimura Takashi (志村 喬) for introspection and dignity. Where Mifune Toshiro (三船 敏郎) was the power of the genius, Kurosawa Akira's (黒澤 明) finest work, Shimura was its heart and conscience.

Shimura was the leader of the Seven Samurai (七人の侍), considered one of the greatest-ever Japanese cinema masterpieces, the eyes of the wood-cutter in the other great Kurosawa work, Rashomon (羅生門), appeared in numerous other Kurosawa landmarks, as well as those for other cinematic masters such as the pioneering Mizoguchi Kenji (溝口 健二), for Inagaki Hiroshi (稲垣浩), Okamoto Kihachi (岡本 喜八) and many more. Of course, I will always most fondly remember his work in "Kaiju Eiga", particularly his most well-known role to Western audiences, that of Dr. Yamane in the original Godzilla.

IMHO, his best work ever was in Kurosawa's Ikiru (生きる). In it, he plays Mr. Watanabe, an ageing, droning government functionary who learns that he has stomach cancer and only months to live. When he receives his diagnosis, he goes off on a journey of self-exploration that brings him not to some radically different place as would be the cliché, but to a return to bureaucracy and a triumph over it--securing a place for a simple children's park. The most special moments of the film come when he begins a fascination for a former government subordinate, a young woman who leaves her post to work in a toy production company. Watanabe falls in love; not with the girl, but with her lust for life. The pathos of Shimura-san's performance in his final scenes with the young woman, again IMHO (though the opinion is shared by many in the film community, have never been surpassed. Just look into those deep, emotional eyes and they tell stories that a thousand actors and actresses cannot tell with countless words.

Shimura Takashi's career spanned 45 years. There are so many films in different genre's to choose from. If you've never seen a Shimura film, you've missed a wonderful experience. Here's a chance to "catch up":

Friday, May 23, 2008

Joy Behar - The Most Honest Woman on (American) Television

I LOVE Joy Behar. There is no one else on (U.S.) television, with 95% of it being completely calculated and scripted, who puts forth her/his thoughts and ideas in such an uncensored manner. She is very progressive and sees right through the B.S. of everyone with whom she banters, interviews, etc. on the daily morning show, "The View". When she can't be 100% honest, she just doesn't say anything. I'm almost surprised that a woman of such candidness is still on a major television program.

Joy reminds me very much of my mom. They look similar -- Joy and my mom are New York born-and-bred Italian-Americans (Behar is a name from Joy's previous marriage) who say things like "pasta fazoole" (in the Neopolitan dialect) instead of the proper, Roman "pasta e fagioli" -- both have that straightforward, no nonsense delivery and both can really be hilarious.

May Joy remain on TV as a standard-bearer for years and years to come!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

So You Think You Can Dance - Its Back!

IMHO, the BEST REALITY SHOW on T.V., is back for another season... So You Think You Can Dance. It is, again IMHO, the only reality show on television that really requires talent to move into the finalist rounds and win. It is also the only reality show that actually educates--I personally have learned so much about dance by watching it. Except, of course, in the obligatory "auditions" episodes, there is none of the senseless banter of the other shows. The comments are always intelligent from people in the business who are not only financially successful but who also genuinely know what they are talking about.

I especially love the very thoughtful, emotional, clearly brilliant and completely REAL judge, Mia Michaels.


Visit the show's official website for more information:

Jennifer Hudson - Star

When I wrote my congratulations to David Cook for winning this season's "American Idol", I omitted one important name of the few winners and runners-up who went on to true success after the show. Arguably, the most accomplished of all... Oscar® and Grammy®-winning Jennifer Hudson. I didn't mean to forget her; I guess my short-term recall doesn't let me remember Jennifer Hudson as an Idol contestant.

To me, in terms of true artistic quality, the only other successful Idol on par with the wonderful Ms. Hudson is Chris Daughtry. Even the fine-voiced singer, Clay Aiken, ended up deteriorating... going the same route as many trained voices (some like Aiken, David Archuleta, etc. on Idol are trained; others are obviously not) wherein commercial success demands that they strain and stretch their instruments out of shape.

I'm eager to hear Jennifer Hudson's new album and to see how her in-person appearances hold up. She has not made a lot of widely-televised live singing appearances since Idol or her Academy Award®-winning turn in the film version of Dreamgirls. I assume this is wise. Time will tell. But Hudson's is undoubtedly a superior voice.

Again, my apologies, Ms. Hudson, for the egregious omission.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Congratulations David Cook

Though I confess that I was rooting for "the other David", I am almost equally happy that David Cook just won "American Idol". Where his fellow top-finalist, David Archuleta, has the superior vocal instrument from a pure vocal perspective, Cook is already experienced, well packaged and makes everything he sings contemporary... and HIS OWN.

I feel that David Cook will actually be one of the rare (!) Idols that continues to be successful after the show--like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, and runners-up, Clay Aiken and Chris Daughtry.

I'm thrilled for him.

The Sooner the Better!

He's getting closer... Let it finally happen.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Donnie Yen - The Master

When Jet Li or Jackie Chan are said to be -- following the tragic death of the inimitable Bruce Lee -- the greatest martial arts stars of the last three decades, I bring up the name of the one who, IMHO, surpasses their remarkable gifts: Donnie Yen.

Born in Guangzhou, China, and raised in Boston, MA and Hong Kong, Donnie Yen Chi Dan (Zhēn Zǐdān, 甄子丹), is the son of a martial arts master, his mother, Bow Sim Mark (麥寶嬋), founder of the Boston-based Chinese Wushu Research Institute. He has studied classical martial arts and modern fighting techniques since childhood. He is also a fine actor of great gravitas.

His earlier films such as Tsui Hark's (徐克) Once Upon a Time in China II (黃飛鴻之二男兒當自強) -- where he is pitted against Jet Li in a magnificent fight -- and the very fine Iron Monkey (少年黃飛鴻之鐵馬騮), directed by master martial arts choreographer, Yuen Woo Ping (袁和平), show great range both in his fighting skills and dramatic range. Later, one finds Donnie Yen as Jet Li's first opponent in Zhang Yimou's (張藝謀) wonderful, Oscar-nominated cinematic "opera", Hero (英雄) in a highly-stylized fight scene, and other popular hits. Among the very best of his films is Sha Po Lang (殺破狼 or "Kill Zone"), where a fight scene with Chinese actor Wu Jing (吳京) is among the most exciting I've ever seen on-screen, and he is also up against the legendary Sammo Hung (洪金寶).

Despite Donnie Yen's many career achievements -- now including, in addition to his acting, a lot of work both in Hong Kong and Hollywood cinema as an action choreographer -- I feel he has never really received the "star treatment" that should have been accorded to him. I'm not sure why. Still, his legacy is well-recorded for generations to come.

Here (below) is that astonishing fight scene with Wu Jing from "SPL"--Donnie is in black. The power, speed and excitement of the action choreography raises the bar for all martial arts performances. I hope that if you do not already know Donnie Yen's work, watching it will inspire you to see more.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Hula Girls - Don't Miss It!

I can't recommend more enthusiastically the adorable Japanese comedy, Hula Girls (フラガール Hura Gāru). It is directed by Korean director, Sang-il Lee, and features a wonderful ensemble of Japanese actors. Hula Girls is the story, set in 1965, of the people of the economically depressed mining town of Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture. When unemployment became rampant in the town -- because coal was being replaced by fuel and mines were progressively shut down -- the mine owners turned to new sources of revenue. In this case, they decide to build, in this cold, northern Japanese prefecture, a Hawaiian theme park and recruit local girls to learn to dance the Hula (and a feisty dance teacher from the big city to teach them) at the park and on tour. I won't reveal much more, but suffice to say that what occurs is the stuff of great, sometimes hillarious, sometimes sentimental humor.

Among the film's greatest virtues is the musical score by the
Japanese-American ukulele virtuoso (!), Jake Shimabukuro. An example of his incredible gifts can be found in the video clip below. Very special.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Sir Run Run Shaw - Big News for the Legend

Living legend, Sir Run Run Shaw (邵逸夫), the cinema pioneer (an understatement!) who turned 100 last October, is still actively making news.

First, as "the most generous individual Hong Kong donor to relief efforts in earthquake-devastated Sichuan when he pledged HK$100 million for rebuilding schools in the province" (from The Standard, May 15, 2008).

Second, within the same week, with the announcement that he plans to sell his stake in TVB, the television network that he and the other Shaw Brothers founded--see this article, also from the 5/15 online issue of The Standard. This news has the Asian markets buzzing.

Sir Run Run, Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1977, would continue to be one of the wealthiest people in the world had he not given away a great deal of his vast fortune throughout his life. He's left an extraordinary legacy.


One of my top 10 favorite films of all time is Martin Scorsese's Kundun. It is Scorsese's brilliant telling of the story of the early life, and escape to freedom from Chinese oppression, of His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet.

For me, among the most important elements of the film is the inimitable, Oscar®-nominated score by the other of, IMHO, the greatest late 20th Century classical and cinematic music composers, Philip Glass. I feel the score to Kundun is Glass's finest film work--this even considering his majestic music for The Hours, Mishima and the "Qatsi" Trilogy.

I cry every time I hear the music from the final part of the film--represented in the YouTube clip below.

Midnight Eye - AWESOME Resource

Midnight Eye is one of the best online resources for those interested in Japanese Cinema. It features hundreds of articles, reviews and interviews about, and with, the great Japanese masters in all cinematic genres.

If you love Japanese movies, don't miss it. You'll always learn something new and interesting! :-)

Takemitsu Toru - Remembering the Genius

I just re-watched, after a very long time, Kobayashi Masaki's (小林 正樹), magical 1964 film, "Kwaidan" (怪談), on the still-beautiful Criterion Collection DVD transfer. The film is a collection of highly-stylized treatments of four ghost stories by the noted 19th (to early 20th) Century expatriate writer, (Patrick) Lafcadio Hearn (小泉八雲).

Its greatest virtues are its stylish visuals (brilliant lighting, set pieces and camera work), but even moreover, the magnificent "musical score" of the late 20th Century's great classical and cinema music composer, Takemitsu Tōru (武満 徹). I put the term "musical score" in quotes because, in this film, Takemitsu's music is largely a series of magnificent, atmospheric sound effects which become part not only of the drama but almost characters of their own.

Takemitsu wrote more than 100 film scores in his life in addition to his legendary classical scores for "western" orchestras and traditional Japanese instruments, chamber music, guitar pieces (among the most important in musical literature) and many more. If you've not experienced the music of Takemitsu, you've bypassed an essential part of the world musical dialogue. If you are not a lover of "straight" classical music, do at least hear his music on film. His scores for such classics as Teshigihara Hiroshi's (勅使河原 宏) Rikyu (利休) and Oscar-winning Woman in the Dunes (砂の女) and probably most famously, for Kurosawa Akira's (黒澤 明) Ran (乱) are not to be missed.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Barack Obama - Give Him the D#$%ed Nomination Already!!!

It is time. Give Barack Hussein Obama the Democratic Party nomination for the U.S. Presidency for 2009. The ongoing process is NOT, IMHO, creating more debate and thought... it is dividing a political party which, despite its many, many flaws, MUST win the November 2008 election.

People spew a lot of diversionary tactics. CHANGE IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF THE NEXT PRESIDENCY... PERIOD. DONE. No more questions. The face that Obama would put on the U.S. Presidency, especially in terms of the way the rest of the world looks at our country and what he would represent, and especially in response to the xenophobic horrors and religious fanaticism of the past 8 years of a Presidency which has arguably become the most tragic "joke" in American history, is more relevant than anything else that can be argued.

It is time.

Alessandra Marc - Diva Assoluta

I have been a champion of the great American Dramatic Soprano, Alessandra Marc, for two decades. When I first heard a very young Alessandra Marc in 1987, on a scratchy "live" recording of Respighi's LA FIAMMA from a Carnegie Hall performance with Robert Bass and the Collegiate Chorale, I was blown away. In 1989, I first experienced this magnificent talent live: a thrilling Carnegie Hall concert performance of Richard Strauss's 1938 opera, FRIEDENSTAG, with the same ensemble. Half way through the opera, this voice soared through the theater in a way I had never experienced before in my life.

I've followed her complex career ever since. MET appearances in AIDA and her signature TURANDOT, countless concerts, particularly her truly grand, to-the-manor-born Strauss and Wagner.

This is a voice, still in its prime -- audiences don't realize that she is still a mid-career singer because she started her career so young and her contemporaries were more than a decade older -- which should not be missed. She will sing her TURANDOT again in July at the 2008 Puccini Festival at Torre del lago ( and has concerts in the Washington, D.C. area in the 2008-2009 festival that are must hear/sees. It is time that the arts scene in New York offers her the recognition that she deserves--honoring this remarkable artist with an appearance in one of the great theaters (the MET, Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall) with companies like the MET, the NY Philharmonic, other major international orchestras, etc.

(Alessandra and me, March 2008, NYC)

Check out an example of Alessandra in glorious voice in Maryland at a special gala 2008 concert honoring U.S.-based artists from China. She sings "Io son l'umile ancella" from Cilèa's ADRIANA LECOUVREUR. (see below)

Friday, May 16, 2008

YMO Happy!

I have been a fan of the great pop, film, symphonic, jazz, even opera (!) and other musical composer and electronic music/multimedia pioneer, Sakamoto Ryuichi (坂本 龍一) for more than 25 years. His work in every genre consistently surpasses itself.

My latest Sakamoto pleasure is a set of videos on YouTube of his recent tour with his original J-Pop band, Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) , featuring his original collaborators, Hosono Haruomi (細野 晴臣) and Takahashi Yukihiro (高橋幸宏). My favorite is this one, Human Audio Sponge (HAS):

Very cute!

Kingu Kongu tai Gojira - Great for convalescing!

While at home recuperating, I find myself drifting back and forth between work on projects for my company, Mitra Creative, where I have the concentration, and watching something from my vast collection of DVDs (cinema, music, etc.).

This afternoon's treat was one of my all-time favorites, King Kong vs. Godzilla (キングコング対ゴジラ, Kingu Kongu tai Gojira). I've been a fanatical Godzilla (ゴジラ Gojira) fan since childhood and expanded that love and fascination to almost all aspects of Japanese cinema.

Today was like a return to my childhood on a "sick day" from school. Me at home, eating Progresso chicken noodle soup and watching KK vs. G! Here, via YouTube, is the trailer, featuring Godzilla, King Kong, the direction of Honda Ishiro (本多 猪四郎), the special effects work of pioneer, Tsuburaya Eiji (円谷 英二), and the glorious music -- whatever was left in the U.S. version (they cut a lot of it and replaced it with music from previous U.S. monster films... ick!) -- of the great Ifukube Akira (伊福部 昭):

MET Peter Grimes

I very much enjoyed last night's Metropolitan Opera HD telecast on PBS in New York of Benjamin Britten's opera, PETER GRIMES, conducted by Donald Runnicles, and featuring the quite remarkable Anthony Dean Griffey as Grimes with a fine supporting cast. I am a long-time contributor to the international discussion group, OPERA-L and wrote a review of the telecast yesterday that resulted in a very nice response.

I will share my OPERA-L review here:

"I did not have a chance to hear/see the MET's new PETER GRIMES this season until the telecast. I heard moments of one of the Sirius webcasts and was quite impressed, despite some of the negative reviews of the production on OPERA-L, but tonight was my first full view/hearing.

I have to say that this GRIMES was one of the most satisfying MET musical experiences I've had in a very long time. The orchestra under Donald Runnicles was magnificent--colors, texture, emotion, pacing. (Anthony Dean) Griffey is most impressive, IMHO, as Grimes; the perfect combination of the heroic and lyric--not at either extreme. He is, and has always been, a fine actor, and his portrayal was, again IMHO, spot on. He made the character human, not particularly "mad". I felt Grimes to be misunderstood but not an outsider as he is often played. His mad scene in the final act was really a tour-de-force.

I'm not a fan of Patricia Racette. I admire her commitment and intelligence, but often find her voice somewhat bland and she is almost always a notch too light-voiced for the spinto parts that she takes on. Not here... she really, really impressed me as Ellen Orford with smooth, powerful vocalism and with more than her common VOCAL emotion (she is often a very dramatic on-stage performer but not with the voice itself).

Jill Grove really stood out as "Auntie" with a far more than "comprimario" voice. Felicity Palmer as Mrs. Sedley, now somewhat dry of sound after a long career, acted brilliantly and would occasionally surprise with some nicely-supported tone breaking through her other vocalism (she also sings the English text with so much refinement). Anthony Michaels-Moore's voice has always been a bit nasal for my taste, but he puts out a consistent, burly sound and, from a dramatic perspective, makes a wonderful Captain Balstrode.

I found the set very interesting... it engaged me more than I thought, bringing me into the drama in a way that made all of the performers onstage, even when many, quite close to the audience. The chorus, btw, performed stunningly... grasping Runnicles' brisk but sweeping tempi and articulating the text with great strength.

I'm so surprised to be this excited about something from the MET! :-)"

First Personal Blog Entry

Welcome to the first entry of my personal Blog. For a long time, I've wanted a forum for my own words... to write about subjects such as opera and classical music, cinema (esp. Asian cinema), other music, arts, culture, theater, pop-culture, food, travel, trends, politics, life in general and more. I look forward to providing many entries in the months and years ahead!

Note that this first entry comes while I am recuperating from an illness that caused my first-ever (in my life) hospital stay. 6 days of IV antibiotics to fight an infection. Yuck! I'm home now, still too weak to do anything particularly constructive but my mind is going a million miles a minute so I'm climbing the walls.

Again, more to come... :-)