Inside Opera with Robert Holliston is moving online. Robert Holliston, the regular host of Inside Opera and of Pacific Opera’s pre-show Lobby Talks, presents a series of invigorating chats about everything opera-related. Recommended for newcomers and opera aficionados alike, Inside Opera Online is insightful, friendly, and funny. It’s also available on demand whenever you feel like listening.
Robert Holliston and Timothy Vernon get high on one of their favourite subjects – singers they’re wild about. Each has been asked to choose just five – admittedly an impossible task, but one they are tackling with relish. Timothy and Robert point out that a great voice is not just beautiful; it’s personal; it’s unique. You can often tell with the first note who the singer is.
As you listen to these fanboys rave about their favourite vocalists, expect to feel envy – Timothy has heard all his selected singers live, and Robert has had lunch with at least one!
Afterward, make sure to check out Robert and Timothy’s Youtube selections below and see if you agree with their choices!
Robert and Timothy’s Favourite Singers on Youtube
Robert: #1. Catalan soprano Victoria de los Ángeles communicates in such a warm, natural, humane way that you can feel the smile through the music. Meeting her audience on a personal level meant a lot to her: she made a practice of performing recitals in advance of her staged opera appearances.
Here is Victoria de los Ángeles singing “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì” (“Yes, they call me Mimì”) from Puccini’s La bohème on the Bell telephone Hour in February 1960. Brian Sullivan appears as Rodolfo.
Timothy: #1. Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson was a phenonemen. She could ride the Vienna Philharmonic like a pony, says Timothy, and the force and gleaming beauty of her voice could nail you to your seat. Here she sings “Ewig war ich, ewig bin ich,” from the final scene of Siegfried at Bayreuth in 1960. The tenor is Hans Hopf (who is clearly inspired by Nilsson). Rudolf Kempe conducts the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra. Timothy again: The first of her high Cs at c 3:40 is stunning, out of the blue; the finale’s notes are indescribable. This also shows her way with gentler, espressivo lines – overlooked in most discussions.
Robert: #2. Dame Janet Baker is an English mezzo soprano, acclaimed as an outstanding artist and musician, whose intelligence with text is dazzling. Born in Yorkshire, Janet Baker never had a formal musical education. Her repertoire encompassed a wide range of baroque and early Italian opera, works of Mozart, Strauss, Donizetti, Britten, and Mahler, and the Didos of both Berlioz (Les Troyens) and Purcell. Here is her legendary performance of “Thy hand, Belinda … When I am laid in earth” Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Glyndebourne, 1966. Conductor: Charles Mackerras.
Timothy: #2. Timothy first heard German mezzo soprano Christa Ludwig when he was a student in Vienna in the 1960s. He describes her voice as like deep dark chocolate, always soulful and musicianly. Now 92, Ms. Ludwig published her autobiography In My Own Voice: Memoirs in 2004; Timothy and Robert both recommend it as funny, down to earth, and informative. Here she sings the fourth song in Mahler’s cycle Rückert-Lieder, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I am lost to the world”) with Otto Klemperer conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra. Stunning, says Timothy. She makes Klemperer’s stretched tempi sound inevitable. That voice!
Robert: #3. An album of Christmas hits with Herbert von Karajan introduced Robert to the American soprano Leontyne Price. With her Incredible legato line and amplitude of sound she set the standard for Robert for the great Verdi roles. And she owns the role of Leonora in Il trovatore – the role in which she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1961, alongside tenor Franco Corelli – also debuting with the company —as Manrico. It was a legendary night, ending with an ovation that lasted more than half an hour.
Here is Leontyne Price singing “D’amor sull’ali rosee” (“On the rosy wings of love”) in a 1963 Metropolitan Opera telecast of Il trovatore.
Timothy: #3. Canadian tenor Jon Vickers was renowned as one of the great interpreters of Wagner. His wasn’t necessarily the most beautiful of voices, but his intensity, expressiveness, and integrity could keep you riveted; there was something epic about him.
This performance of “Wintersturme” from Die Walküre was recorded by the CBC Festival Orchestra in Toronto, with Karl Böhm conducting. An aside from Timothy Vernon: There are better recordings of him, but this one is worth the watch. His voice is fresh – not as forward perhaps as it later became. But the filming is period/hilarious – he looks as if he’s been hired to fix a streetlight, standing in a bigger version of one of those buckets…
Robert: #4. American soprano Jessye Norman was noted for the size and amplitude of her voice, her soaring vocal line, her larger than life stage personality and an intense, incredible, fiercely controlled pianissimo. Music critic Edward Rothstein said of her voice, It has enormous dimensions, reaching backward and upward. It opens onto unexpected vistas. It contains sunlit rooms, narrow passageways, cavernous halls.
Here she performs “Mild und leise wie er lächelt” (“Mildly and gently, how he smiles”) from the Liebestod, the finale of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Herbert von Karajan conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in this 1987 concert performance.
Timothy: #4. German tenor Fritz Wunderlich had a gorgeous, effortless timbre, full of warmth and shine and vigour. Despite a tragically short career (he died at 35, just before he was to have debuted at the Metropolitan Opera), he is recognized as one of the great voices of the 20th century.
Here he sings “Wandern, ach, Wandern” from the obscure 1880 operetta Der Rattenfänger von Hameln (The Rat-Catcher (Pied Piper) of Hamelin), by Adolf Neuendorff. Wunderlich conveys the Rat-Catcher’s life story with ebullience and pathos as required – a great but generally unheralded performance. Werner Eisbrenner conducts the FFB-Orchester Berlin (Orchester des Radio Forces Françaises de Berlin).
Robert: #5. English tenor Peter Pears, though rarely mentioned when we think of “beautiful” voices, was an outstanding vocal interpreter in the repertoire that suited him – and proof that it takes more than simply a great voice to make a great singer. As Timothy Vernon points out, How fortunate we are that Benjamin Britten fell in love with this wonderful tenor and created such iconic roles for him – among them Albert Herring, Captain Vere (Billy Budd), Aschenbach (Death in Venice), and, above all, Peter Grimes. Robert notes that it is always instructive to go back to Pears after hearing other great interpreters of the roles that Britten wrote for him.
Here is Peter Pears in the final mad scene of Peter Grimes, with Heather Harper as Ellen Orford and Bryan Drake as Balstrode. The Ambrosian Opera Chorus and London Symphony Orchestra are conducted by the composer in this 1969 BBC film version.
Timothy: #5. German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, a consummate artist with a beautiful, expressive voice and a phenomenal mastery and understanding of text, restored German art song to prominence in the 20th century even as he excelled on the opera stage, recorded a massive discography, painted, conducted, and wrote more than a dozen books.
Here is the finale of “Der Abschied” (“Farewell”), the last song in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) (beginning at 55:32). Leonard Bernstein conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in this 1966 recording. Timothy Vernon notes Fischer-Dieskau’s impeccable technical control, surely, but in the service of a profound engagement with this great masterpiece – and recalls, I was present at rehearsals and the performances which preceded the recording. I’ll never forget it.
Feel free to rewind to the beginning to hear the entirety of this iconic recording, in which tenor James King sings three of the six songs.
Episode #5: Opera and Social Justice
Friday, July 17, 2020
Robert Holliston talks with Michael Hidetoshi Mori, Artistic Director of Tapestry Opera, about operas that have grappled with the pressing issues of their time.
From Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro to Beethoven’s Fidelio, from Dead Man Walking and Oksana G to Les Feluettes and Missing, opera has always had something to say about social justice. Such iconic works as La traviata and La bohème are revered as great art, not just because they are beautiful, but because they pack an emotional punch that goes hand in hand with insightful and passionate social commentary. As Michael and Robert acknowledge, experiencing opera can open our hearts and minds … and let us walk out a bit more human than when we walked in.
Michael Hidetoshi Mori is an award-winning Canadian/American stage director, and the Artistic Director of Tapestry Opera. He holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in opera performance from the University of British Columbia. Recent directorial projects include the world premières of The Pencil Salesman at the Westben Festival and Rocking Horse Winner for Tapestry Opera, as well as TAP:EX Augmented Opera with Tapestry Opera, Maada’ookii Songlines for The Luminato Festival, co-directing Shanawdithit for Tapestry Opera and Opera on the Avalon; Rigoletto for Sacramento Opera; and Il trittico for West Bay Opera. As an artist-activist with a passion for collaboration and innovation, Michael founded Indie Opera T.O, an association of Toronto companies working together to forge a vibrant underground opera scene. Tapestry Opera’s Youtube Channel
Episode #4: Art in a Time of Pandemic
Friday, June 19, 2020
Robert Holliston joins Pacific Opera’s Artistic Director Timothy Vernon and accomplished opera and theatre director Glynis Leyshon for an eloquent discussion of the importance of the arts at this time. They speak with passion and compassion of the devastating impact the pandemic is having on artists and of the danger that we may lose a generation of great artists. The conversation also touches on the value and limitations of the technology that is right now displacing live performance and of the enormous but inspiring challenge of creating digital performances that can somehow transmit the immediacy and sense of personal connection that so many of us are missing.
Episode #3: So, you wanna try opera?
Friday, May 15, 2020
Today Robert Holliston chats with two other opera experts – mezzo soprano Rebecca Hass, who is Pacific Opera’s Director of Community Engagement, and Giuseppe (Joey) Pietraroia, Pacific Opera’s Chorus Master and Associate Conductor. Our trio recall their first opera experiences (spoiler – they all started with Puccini!) and recommend a few starter operas for newbies. They also talk about what people look for when they come to the opera – great theatre, athletic singing, eye candy … the reasons vary a lot!
There are also some true confessions about falling asleep at the opera. Shockingly, even people who know, love, and LIVE opera have been known to doze off during a performance!
Episode #2: Carmen in Popular Culture
Sunday, April 26, 2020
Today, Robert Holliston talks (and sings!) about the opera Carmen and its extraordinary position in popular culture. His tribute to Carmen touches on the manic piano playing of Vladimir Horowitz and introduces Carmen Jones, an African-American adaptation of the opera. Robert also subjects us to an episode of the sitcom Gilligan’s Island that mashes up Shakespeare and Carmen in an inspired bit of silliness.
Along the way, we also encounter a singing orange, the Swedish Chef, and the great bass Samuel Ramey hanging out with Muppets.
Here are links to the Youtube videos that Robert talks about. Enjoy exploring these wonderful (and bizarre) incarnations of the music of Carmen.
Gilligan sings Hamlet’s Soliloquy to the tune of the Habanera from Carmen in this jaw-dropping collision of highbrow vs lowbrow art. From Gilligan’s Island, October 3, 1966 (featuring Phil Silvers and co-directed by Ida Lupino).
More from Hamlet on Gilligan’s Island with a bit of Carmen thrown in. This time Polonius (the Skipper) gives some sage advice to Laertes (Mary Ann): Neither a borrower nor a lender be … to thine own self be true … sung to the tune of the famous Toreador Song.
Pearl Bailey: Beat Out That Rhythm on the Drum”. The Carmen story is reset to the African American south in Carmen Jones, a 1943 Broadway musical by Oscar Hammerstein II and a 1954 film directed by Otto Preminger, with Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen, Harry Belafonte as Joe (Don José), and Pearl Bailey as Carmen’s friend Frankie. Enjoy this excerpt with its exuberant choreography and Pearl Bailey’s warm voice. Just try not to dance along!
Carmen Jones: The Habanera with Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte. Dorothy Dandridge was nominated for an Academy award for best actress for her performance in the title role. Although both Dandridge and Belafonte were fine actors and vocalists, they were not opera singers, and their voices in the movie were actually dubbed by a young Marilyn Horne and LeVern Hutcherson.
Dorothy Dandridge sings “Taking a Chance on Love” from Cabin in the Sky at the Velvet Nightclub in 1953. If you don’t know this wonderful singer, here’s a chance to hear her perform.
Samuel Ramey and the letter “L”. Join the Sesame Street gang for a rousing ode to the letter “L” with the great operatic bass Samuel Ramey as Escamillo the bullfighter, complete with glittery Toreador costume. Ramey sings the Toreador Song (with quite different words). Do sing along … La, la! Olé!
An orange sings the Habanera. Sesame Street presents an operatic orange, all dolled up as an occasionally off-tune Carmen who knows a thing or two about fluttering her eyelashes.
More Muppets: The Swedish Chef and Beaker try their hand at the Habenera. A surprise guest joins them at 52 seconds in. You don’t need to know the words to sing along.
Vladimir Horowitz: Variations on a theme from Carmen. In the 1920s the great pianist Vladimir Horowitz composed a set of variations on the Gypsy Dance in Carmen (“Les tringles des sistres tintaient”). Here he is playing this virtuoso showstopper at a Carnegie Hall concert in 1968.
Beyoncé Pepsi Commercial.
With apologies for such blatant product placement, here is Beyoncé singing The Joy of Pepsi, a 2003 commercial, to the tune of the Habanera from Carmen.
Episode #1: Five Operas for a Desert Island
Sunday, April 5, 2020
Pacific Opera’s Artistic Director Timothy Vernon joins Robert Holliston as the two make some life-altering decisions. If they were stranded on a desert island (or self isolating at home) with just five opera recordings, which would they choose? And does Wagner’s Ring Cycle count as one opera recording? or four?
Get a head start on exploring some of the operas Robert and Timothy recommend with these excerpts from other companies’ productions.
The trio “Soave sia il vento” from Mozart’s Così fan tutte with Nicolas Rivenq as Don Alfonso, Miah Persson as Fiordiligi and Anke Vondung as Dorabella. Glyndebourne Festival, 2006.
“O soave fanciulla” from Puccini’s La bohème with Nicole Car as Mimi and Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo. The Royal Opera Covent Garden, 2017.
“I know a bank” from Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with countertenor Christopher Lowrey as Oberon. Grand Théâtre de Genève, 2015.
“Ein Schönes war” from Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos with Jessye Norman as Ariadne. Metropolitan Opera, 1988.