Grace Slick, Art Song Pioneer


Yes, THAT Grace Slick, the irrepressible 77-year-old threatened the other day with a “death sentence” by the pastor who preached at Donald Trump’s inauguration for her “sin” of donating royalties to LGBT charities.

But “art song pioneer”? Really??? Yes, definitely – provided one can accept my positing that art song should never be defined as the exclusive province of classical composers.

This fall will bring the 50th anniversary of the release of Jefferson Airplane’s After Bathing at Baxter’s – a suitable excuse to show some love for Slick’s pair of extraordinary songs on that album. While Baxter’s is justly considered one of psychedelic rock’s defining milestones, Slick’s “Two Heads” and “Rejoyce” stand apart from the other tracks, occupying timeless outsider territory that transcends the unique musical-lyrical idiom fashioned by San Francisco’s leading band of that turbulent era. The two pieces form not only the high-water mark of Slick’s all-too-brief compositional creativity, but can arguably be labeled the most outstanding examples of late ‘60s rock being transmuted into the more expansive universe of art song.

Nearly making the cut is Slick’s earlier “White Rabbit,” with its bolero rhythm and startling dynamic build. (Roy Orbison’s 1961 pop masterpiece “Running Scared” is its rarely-noted precursor.) “White Rabbit,” unfortunately, became so overfamiliar in the culture as to be regarded a caricature of hippiedom’s excesses. This remains the wrong reading. The references to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and the hallucinations called forth by psychedelic drugs were poetically handled and totally apt to the zeitgeist.

Those who already know Slick’s songs on Baxter’s will find reinvestigation worthwhile, as her amazing lyrics (see below) were not included with the original LP.

“Two Heads” is a powerful slice of pure surrealism, its texts left wide open to multiple interpretations. Musically, the song bears few resemblances to rock; the instrumentation is stripped down and stark, the dominant instrument neither guitar, bass nor drums, but what sounds like an electric harpsichord or perhaps an early version of the Hohner Clavinet. The structure is comprised of two distinct verse elements and lacks a chorus, though the second half of each verse functions as one. The rhythm of the first half is a sort of modified march, a perfect minor-mode setting for Slick’s terse, tense and dense lyrics. The second half is a gently rolling ride with only an implied rhythm (arpeggiated keyboard figures underpinned by a moving bass line). This creates a welcome major-key feeling of release before the song snaps back into its grim minor march.

Slick’s declamatory and highly expressive singing is all, riveting the listener’s attention despite the elusiveness of the lyrics. In the last 44 seconds she splits off into an abstract, double-tracked vocal that deconstructs and virtually demolishes the song in this-is-the-way-the-world-ends fashion. After this stunning outburst, one of the most striking in the kaleidoscopic galaxy of 1960s rock, “Two Heads” ends with a soft, upward moan and spent gurgles from the instruments.

The deconstruction and demolishing seem to me the key to understanding – or at least appreciating — what has come earlier in the lyrics. Grotesque Dali- and Picasso-like images abound throughout “Two Heads,” along with evocations of alienation, dysfunction, hypocrisy, despair, ennui, violence. The piece is surely a nightmare parable of American materialism and all its destructive contradictions — a favorite Slick topic. That’s what I’ve always taken away from the final verse, which seems to be contrasting inner city misery (is the “comb like an axe” a reference to an Afro Pick?) with suburban bedroom obsessions prior to Slick’s defiant vow that “no child of mine” should live in such a corrupted world. The first two verses appear to address private psychological material lurking in the human personality which underlies the corruption she references.

Whether or not my guesses are correct, “Two Heads” is a tour de force that has never lost its punch.

“Rejoyce” is even more astonishing — not only in its well-chosen appropriation and adaptation of materials from the famed author’s Ulysses, but in its largely jazz-derived music. Slick herself plays piano, accompanied by Jefferson Airplane’s terrific bassist Jack Casady, drummer Spencer Dryden and a handful of L.A. studio musicians, one of whom (believed to be Gene Cipriano) plays a beautiful, snake charmer-like oboe solo. I can think of no precedent in the rock canon for this eerie and very poetic track. The truth is, it’s not rock — but a strain of art song that could have sprung only from the time and place it did.

What is sometimes forgotten about the ‘60s pop music milieu is its astonishing level of stylistic cross-pollination. The curiousity and openmindedness of the players involved has never been faintly approached since. As with the Byrds and the Doors, there wasn’t a single experienced rocker in Jefferson Airplane’s ranks. The band’s primary influences were folk, jazz, blues, classical, the leading rock competitors of the time and even soul music. Prior to Slick’s replacing of the wonderful Signe Anderson in late 1966, the group had already perfected a new and highly original form of folk-rock, displayed magnificently on its debut album Takes Off. In less than a year, the music had morphed into the wild experimental stew offered up on Baxter’s.

The four-minute-long “Rejoyce” could only have been written by someone with wide-ranging and unusually refined taste (in literature as well as music) and the determination to create an exceptional piece without regard to commerciality or the baseline level of musical understanding to be found in the average rock fan. Not surprisingly, “Rejoyce” was received initially with as much puzzlement as awe.

It begins with an ominous piano arpeggio under which Casady places a downward chromatic bass glissando. The message is unspoken but clear: “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” Slick’s vocal entrance – “Chemical change, like a laser beam … “ – is the song’s sole psychedelic touch. What follows is an immaculately structured composition with cannily conceived dynamics and musical elements that include the “jazz waltz” idiom, Mideastern modality, Spanish rhythms, the harmonic world of Gil Evans and a type of dramatic expression encountered only in art song or cabaret of a high artistic level.

But “Rejoyce” is no pastiche; its music is strong and integrated. Slick’s singing and lyrics carry it the rest of the way to greatness. Stream of consciousness is her medium of choice in the text, beginning with the afterglow of sex: “Smiling in my room, you know you’ll be inside of my mind soon.” But this, the only contented moment in the song, is quickly swept away by a lament in 6/8 for the position of the free-thinking individual in a conformist society: “There are so many of you. White shirt and tie … wedding ring.”

This brief section ushers in Slick’s clever borrowing of the Ulysses characters – Leopold and Molly Bloom, “Blazes” Boylan and Stephen Dedalus – for an 86-second episode bisected by a piano riff in 7/4 and the hypnotic oboe solo. The lyrics again touch on alienation (“Mulligan stew for Bloom, the only Jew in the room”), sexual longing and frustration (“Molly’s gone to Blazes, Boylan’s crotch amazes”), before climaxing on the fierce couplet “War’s good business so give your son, and I’d rather have my country die for me.” The latter is Slick’s paraphrase of a Dedalus retort to the menacing English Private Carr in the “Circe” chapter of Ulysses.

This is followed by another unusual instrumental break utilizing odd meters before the “there are so many of you” motif reappears (this time explicitly referencing American society). The music gathers momentum and existential despair (“All you want to do is live … but somehow”), punctuated by woodwind chords, until finally finishing with the near-inconsolable pathos of “It all falls apart” and a hanging, unresolved tone cluster.

The level of inspiration and sophistication displayed by Slick in “Rejoyce” has been matched only a handful of times in the history of rock.

Do have a listen to these two songs – and marvel anew (or for the first time):
“Two Heads” —
“Rejoyce” —


You want two heads on your body,
and you’ve got two mirrors in your hand.
Priests are made of brick with gold crosses on a stick
and your nose is too small for this land.

(Reflections from a door of a green Volkswagen … )
Inside your head is your town,
inside your room your jail,
inside your mouth the elephant’s trunk and booze,
the only key to your bail.

Two heads can be put together,
and you can fill both your feet with sand.
No one will know you’ve gutted your mind,
but what will you do with your bloody hands?

(Reflections from a door of a green Volkswagen … )
Your lions are fighting with chairs,
your arms are incredibly fat;
your women are tired of dying alive
— if you’ve had any women at that.

Wearing your comb like an axe in your head
and listening for signs of life.
Children are sucking on stone and lead
and chasing their hoops with a knife.

(Reflections from a door of a green Volkswagen … )
New breasts and jewels for the girl,
keep them polished and shining;
put a lock on her belly at night, sweet life,
for no child of mine.


Chemical change, like a laser beam
You’ve shattered the warning amber light
Make me warm
Let me see you moving everything over
Smiling in my room
You know you’ll be inside of my mind soon.

There are so many of you.
White shirt and tie, white shirt and tie,
White shirt and tie, wedding ring, wedding ring.

Mulligan stew for Bloom,
The only Jew in the room
Saxon’s sick on the holy dregs
And they’re constant getting throw-up on his leg.

Molly’s gone to Blazes,
Boylan’s crotch amazes
Any woman whose husband sleeps with his head
All buried down at the foot of his bed.

I’ve got his arm
I’ve got his arm
I’ve had it for weeks
I’ve got his arm

Stephen won’t give his arm
To no Gold Star Mother’s farm;
War’s good business so give your son
And I’d rather have my country die for me.

There are so many of you.
Sell your mother for a Hershey bar
Grow up looking like a car.
There are …
All you want to do is live
All you want to do is live
But somehow
It all


Some words from Ben Makino

Ben and orchThe conductor of the recording last summer of my opera “Home Is a Harbor” recalls his experience shepherding this piece to completion. It’s a fun read!

How I Spent My Summer Vacation, Part 1

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

By Opera Memphis Music Director Ben Makino

The time from June 1 and August 1 this year, the interval I am officially away from Opera Memphis, was a period filled with various activities, some mundane and many musical. It came immediately on the heels of a trip to Japan that Sarah and I took, meeting my father on our arrival in Tokyo. My brother has lived there for (I think) ten years now and was recently married, and my uncle turned out to be visiting at the same time, so in many ways it ended up being an ideal time to be there, to catch up with family and see the city where my father spent the first few years of his life.

Of course there were future performances to prepare for, which are now approaching at a seemingly ever increasing velocity: with some very good luck that will always be the case. There was some more serious work on the languages I study, which is an ongoing and eternal project of mine. There was the three day meeting of the Opera America Leadership Intensive in New York the last weekend of July–those sessions are something I always look forward to, but will have to be explored more fully at some other time, if at all. For now, please allow me to describe two projects which largely defined this summer, the first of which being recording Home is a Harbor.

I was approached in late winter by soprano Jamie Chamberlin about a project in which she was involved with composer Mark Abel. Jamie and I had attended UCLA together, and she was about to appear in Long Beach Opera’s production of Marilyn Forever, but we hadn’t spoken much since our last project together in 2010. She and soprano Ariel Pisturino had recorded an art-song album with Mark the previous summer and were going to be recording a new opera over the summer that he was just finishing. I had met Mark previously at a performance I gave of Hindemith’s Das Marienleben in Orange County but had never worked with him before. Jamie asked if she could put us in contact, as there was no conductor yet involved in the project. Looking forward to the opportunity to work with them both again, of course I replied “yes.”

Mark and I spoke briefly over the phone about the project–a short three-act opera titled Home Is a Harbor. He wrote the libretto himself, which follows the lives of two sisters from Morro Bay coming of age in the mid to late 2000s. The project sounded interesting in itself, although it was Mark’s personal story and the chance to work with some longtime colleagues and friends that fully convinced me that I wanted to take on the project. I received the scores around March, and Mark flew out to go over the score in the first week in June to review the piece.

Mark is a unique personality in the already highly diverse group of composers I have been fortunate enough to meet. Early in his musical career he was a rock guitarist and producer in New York. Frustration with the popular music scene at the time resulted in a hiatus of about twenty years (I don’t know the specific amount) during which he worked as a journalist at the San Francisco Chronicle. Mark finally left journalism completely in the 2000s, dedicating himself to composition, writing through the medium of MIDI technology, which allows him to work out complex musical ideas in real time. A musical autodidact, Mark’s knowledge of the repertoire is vast, encompassing nearly every corner. On his visit in June we spent some very enjoyable breaks from his piece talking about favorite works of his, among them the violin concerti of Karol Szymanowski, which I am listening to as I write this entry.

The orchestra convened for the first time on July 5 for six hours of rehearsal at The Bridge studio in Glendale. I was happy to be working again with some of my colleagues from Long Beach Opera, including cellist Tim Loo; bassist Steve Dress; and percussionist M.B. Gordy, although the ninety-two mile daily commute from my mother’s home in Fullerton was something to which I had to re-adjust. I don’t think there has been a single day in Memphis when I’ve had to drive a similar distance.

The rest of the small ensemble was a group of some of the finest musicians in Los Angeles, including pianists Vicki Ray and Aron Kallay, who also perform together as the Ray-Kallay Duo. (Aron is also one of the co-founders of Microfest Records, which specializes in microtonal music and whose 2013 album The Ten Thousand Things on which Vicki Ray also played was nominated for a Grammy.)

I had never met Vicki before this project, although we share many common friends from the contemporary music scene in LA. She is one of the most respected new-music pianists in Southern California, and part of me dreaded some hypothetical moment in recording when a mistake on my part or a failure to hear something clearly would result in an embarrassing situation with her in the studio. Fortunately, Vicki is a warm and generous artist, and we got along very well. Recording began on July 6 and continued for six hours a day through July 9. As you can see in the photos, everyone in the orchestra was on a headset, for several reasons: First, the headset gives everybody an idea of how the performance sounds through the microphones. Second, Vicki and Aron were playing on Mark’s MIDI keyboards, which were connected to the booth with a direct line, and had no playback in the studio. Finally, the singers were actually singing scratch tracks and were not scheduled to record their vocal parts until after we had finished recording the whole piece.

Naturally, using this particular recording method for the piece meant that we had to exercise a high level of precision regarding phrasing and tempo, as there would be no opportunity to adjust once we finished recording the orchestral tracks. Luckily for us, Mark has a great deal of experience in studio recording and had carefully planned enough time for us to record (at the pace of about 6 min/hour) the whole piece by the end of the final session, which was followed by a celebratory evening at Golden Road Brewing near the studio!

Home is a Harbor will be released in 2016 by Delos Music along with Mark’s song cycle The Palm Trees Are Restless, recorded by Hila Plitmann.

My Favorite Opera DVDs: “Lulu”

Many more years will have to pass before there is any consensus as the 20th century’s “greatest” opera. But those who have thoroughly acquainted themselves with the three-act version of Alban Berg’s Lulu (available in that form only since 1979) know that this incredible work must be given strong consideration. Berg’s other opera, Wozzeck, would certainly be in the running as well; but as powerful, primal and innovative as Wozzeck is, Lulu strikes even deeper into the fabric of human behavior and the invention in its score never ceases to amaze.

The gold standard for Lulu videos is one that’s been out there for a while – Graham Vick’s 1996 Glyndebourne production starring Christine Schafer, Wolfgang Schone and Kathryn Harries, with Andrew Davis leading the London Philharmonic. Rarely has such a stellar cast been assembled for a work of art still very much in need of all the talented advocacy that can be mustered to plead its case. Lulu is very complex; I first heard it in 1980 and fully expect to be hearing new things in it for the rest of my life. Yes, it is a 12-tone composition, which makes it a nonstarter for many. But leave aside Berg’s tone rows (and his many diversions from Schoenbergian dogma) and just listen to this music; it is some of the most expressive ever written. And be thankful that there is a small but dedicated core of musicians willing to master the fiendish demands of Lulu. The great Evelyn Lear once recalled her first encounter with the score in 1960: “I almost dropped dead, because it was the most difficult thing I’d ever seen in my life.”

Berg had already assumed a high place in the ranks of early 20th century progressives by the time he first embarked on Lulu, in 1928. But the scope of this piece is so far beyond anything attempted at the time as to render its creation one of the great milestones in opera history. Most of Lulu had been completed by the time the Nazis came to power in 1933, but Berg nonetheless expected to have little trouble attracting performances – somehow unaware that the mostly repulsive characters populating his opera could serve as poster children for Hitler’s railing against the bourgeoisie and decadent intellectualism. The obstacles that cropped up led him to set aside completing the Act III orchestration and prepare instead the almost entirely instrumental Lulu-Suite and his transcendentally beautiful Violin Concerto, dedicated to the memory of his friend Manon Gropius, the 18-year-old daughter of Alma Mahler. He ran out of time to finish Lulu, dying of blood poisoning on December 24, 1935.

Berg’s naivete regarding the prospects for a Lulu production in Germany is curious, considering that the Nazis had already denounced Wozzeck. The libretto for Lulu (adapted by Berg from two Frank Wedekind plays that also formed the basis of the G.W. Pabst film Pandora’s Box, starring Louise Brooks) displays a high degree of sophistication about human affairs – eschewing sentimentality altogether and pulling no punches about the depths to which people will sink to get ahead or feed their obsessions. One would think he would have entertained no illusions about artistic freedom under Germany’s new fascist rulers.

The combination of that sophistication and Berg’s toweringly creative music is on display right from the start in Lulu. Act I, in fact, may well be the most substantial first act in all of opera. We are plunged into an intense, multilayered “family drama” unlike any other – complete with a fatal heart attack, four great obsessions, a suicide and a jilting. The music is gripping and beautiful, and the story fascinating — quite contemporary in the without-apology manner in which its characters chase their destinies. Lulu embodies the archetype of the sexually alluring woman upon which man after man projects his most deeply felt fantasies – and frequently pays with his life. Yet Lulu herself is detached, amused by their antics and focused primarily on her own needs; she is “passive in the hands of Fate,” as annotator Dewi-Davies Jones once put it, given to impatient, sometimes sarcastic responses to the grandiose pronouncements and rhapsodizing by the men who regard her as the crown jewel of the universe.

The Lulu of this video, Christine Schafer, is not a striking beauty like Louise Brooks, but she emanates a subtle erotic power that easily carries her character along. Schafer’s singing is magnificent and seemingly effortless in one of opera’s most supremely difficult soprano roles, replete with coloratura demands and long stretches of music where the vocal line and orchestra move quite independently. Schafer is also a very fine actress; her total confidence and ease on stage renders Lulu a living, organic piece of art – not a pre-war curio trotted out for historical purposes. The other principal cast members are fabulous as well. Wolfgang Schone fully captures the exasperation and defeat that overtakes editor-in-chief Dr. Schon, unable to sever his ties to the destructive Lulu. Schone also shines in his second role as Jack the Ripper, depicting the banality of evil as he haggles with Lulu over her prostitute’s fee prior to knifing her to death in a London garret. Kathryn Harries is superb as Countess Geschwitz, a strong-minded lesbian who allows her life to be ruined by the belief that Lulu actually loves her. David Kuebler gives a moving portrayal of Alwa, the hapless composer transfixed by Lulu and unable to learn from the fate of his father, Dr. Schon.

The conducting and playing here is of the highest order, a truly committed performance by all concerned. Andrew Davis proves himself to be a top-drawer Bergian, syncing the dynamics of this richly detailed score perfectly with the often subtle proceedings on stage. Lulu can be an exhausting undertaking for an orchestra, but the London Philharmonic players never lose focus. The huge build just before the murder of the anti-heroine, beginning with Jack the Ripper’s “Wir brauchen kein Licht, der Mond scheint,” is a marvel of power and pathos.

Graham Vick’s production is beautifully compact and expressive, using a single walled set with a retractable staircase and a series of revolving floor surfaces to accommodate the action. One of his finest touches is the first appearance of Schafer onstage, rising like an Eve outcast from Eden while clinging to a massive globular light fixture as Donald Maxwell, the giddy Animal Tamer, recites Lulu’s negative attributes.

But, by any measure, the star of Lulu is of course Alban Berg. By the time he came to this piece, he had long since completed his synthesis of the harmonic vocabulary inherited from Wagner, Strauss and Mahler, absorbed every aspect of Schoenberg’s thinking that he was prepared to take on board, and was moving with the most confidence he could muster in his short life. The complexities he had chosen to deal with as a composer – from serialism to numerology to new uses for the concept of the leitmotif – are deployed with awesome mastery throughout Lulu. A vast amount of terrain is covered – both in the story and the array of emotions depicted in the score — and Berg’s ability to hold the listener’s interest for more than three hours while speaking a highly unusual musical language nearly as modern today as when it was written is miraculous.

For me, a crucial measure of the potency and creativity that goes into opera writing is the music that accompanies recitative-like passages. Many composers mark time during such episodes, knowing they will not be listened to closely by most who hear them – all the better for pumping up excitement for the spotlight arias, which are much more likely to be remembered. Thus, second-rate music frequently dominates these often-lengthy stretches – and the offenders have included some of the most revered composers around. Berg refused to do that in Wozzeck and took the same stance with Lulu, which happens to be twice as long. Lulu is so complex that it takes some time to gauge Berg’s success in writing such “background” music. A much faster way to get a handle on it is to listen to the half-hour-long Lulu-Suite. In it we hear some of the opera’s most significant music shorn of nearly all its vocal lines – and, boy, is it powerful. There are many good recordings of the suite, but let me recommend Pierre Boulez’s with the New York Philharmonic, dating from 1979 (Sony Classics).

Then go buy this video. It’s great!

Alban Berg: “Lulu” — with Christine Schafer, Wolfgang Schone, Kathryn Harries, David Kuebler, Stephan Drakulic, Norman Bailey, Donald Maxwell, Jonathan Veira, Patricia Bardon, Neil Jenkins; Andrew Davis conducting the London Philharmonic. 1996. 183 minutes. Kultur  D2253

My Favorite Opera DVDs: “Salome”

Götz Friedrich’s monumental television production of Richard Strauss’ greatest opera is now 38 years old. In recent years, some may have passed on it because it is not a live performance (as we are now thoroughly accustomed to) but rather a lip-sync job. But, in my opinion, Friedrich’s Salome is still at the top of the video heap for its extraordinary depth of expression, both musically and visually.

The cast is as good as it gets: a top-of-her-game Teresa Stratas in the title role, Bernd Weikl as Jokanaan, Hans Beirer as Herod, Astrid Varnay as Herodias, and two singers who later rose to greater prominence – Wieslaw Ochman as Narraboth and Hanna Schwarz as his page. The music is handled magnificently by Karl Böhm, one of the greatest of Strauss conductors, and the redoubtable Vienna Philharmonic.

Friedrich decided to record the orchestra and soloists first, then film the singer/actors afterward miming their parts because of the degree of visual control it afforded and the need for a musical performance recorded with as much sonic clarity as could be mustered in 1974. Strauss’ score is a towering landmark not only for its power, beauty, harmonic innovation and ability to disturb, but its wealth of inner detail, which often cannot be heard adequately in the opera house.

The lip-sync procedure is less than perfect (Weikl in particular struggles with it) and there are a handful of clunky visual decisions made by Friedrich in the course of the piece. But he makes so many good ones – with the singers giving their absolute all as actors – that the shortcomings are of no consequence.

There are two primary reasons why Salome ranks among the most important operas ever written. The music is simply stunning in its creativity – and not only in the context of 1905; it packs a tremendous wallop in 2012. Into this piece and the Elektra that followed, Strauss poured everything he had learned and synthesized, then upped the ante, pushing himself far beyond the outer limits of the “progressivism” he was known for at the time into polytonality and right to the doorstep of atonality. We chuckle today at how “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” “Don Quixote” and “Ein Heldenleben” were regarded as progressive, when they can now be seen largely as excesses of post-romanticism. But Salome is something quite different and truly radical. With this work, and the daring decisions he made while writing it, Strauss yanked opera decisively into the 20th century and laid crucial groundwork for Schoenberg’s Erwartung, Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, Berg’s Wozzeck and Lulu, Alexander Zemlinsky’s A Florentine Tragedy, several of Franz Schreker’s operas and Shostakovich’s much-later Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Apart from Salome’s harmonic and melodic pushing of the envelope, we experience one of the greatest masters of orchestral writing brilliantly applying the resources of a very large ensemble to a spectrum of emotions that range from idealized love through obsessive lust and all the way to the darkest depravities.

Most operagoers’ takeaway from Salome over the years has tended to focus less on Strauss’ music than the primal shock of Oscar Wilde’s overripe adaptation of the biblical story. But the opera is a truth teller about human nature. And, yes, it IS shocking – even when viewed through the lens of our modern culture, through which the creatures escaped from Pandora’s box fly thickly, wing over wing. Friedrich’s video excels in this regard, without resorting to such titillating literalism as presenting a nude Salome at the conclusion of the Dance of the Seven Veils. He sheds unprecedented dramatic light on the score wherever possible. For me, the most striking example is the four-minute orchestral interlude after Jokanaan is returned to the cistern following his rejection of Salome’s advances. His cameras follow Teresa Stratas in a series of close-ups in which she silently and supinely moves through a series of motions and expressions that convey her black despair at the rejection, uncertainty about what to do next, the dawning realization that she has the power to take the prophet’s life (chillingly suggested by contrabassoon and sul ponticello strings) and, finally, her confusion after the spell of her musings is broken by the approach of Herod and his courtiers. There’s a whole raft of gripping images in this sequence — most strikingly, Friedrich’s brief focus on Stratas’ mirrored headdress, which suggests a strange insect (a praying mantis, perhaps) slowly moving toward its prey.

The entire production is a feast of such episodes, too numerous to recount here but calibrated by a master to deliver the full punch of this amazing one-act opera, whose intensity rises in a steady arc to its shattering climax. The final scene of Salome — which (unlike in concert hall performances) really begins at the point where Herodias pries off Herod’s ring, sealing Jokanaan’s doom – has never been matched in musical terms for its melding of tension, horror and pathos. Friedrich meets this challenge through Stratas’ hysteria-laden wait for the prophet’s severed head to appear, her unhinged monologue to the mute object of her vengeful affections, and the spine-tingling climax, which through use of shadows depicts Salome as the monster she is and ends with the camera slowly panning up her rising body, rising unknowingly to meet her impending death singing “Ich habe deinen mund geküsst, Jochanaan” as Strauss’s vast orchestra swells to near the bursting point. Has there ever been such a powerful ending to an opera? Not to my knowledge.

The singing, the acting and the playing in this production are all on a very high level. I haven’t even gotten around to mentioning Weikl’s powerful portrayal of the noble but self-possessed Jokanaan, the priceless characterizations of the blood-drenched royal couple by Beirer and Varnay, or the idiosyncratic but very effective mixing of the orchestral track – which, like director Friedrich, is intent on revealing details often missed. Salome is a seminal work of art, and it repays repeated listening and watching many times over; it has a great deal to offer, and this video is a great place to start.

Finally, regarding the emotional impact it makes: Can you imagine being in the audience at the premiere in Dresden in 1905? A “shocker” it was then, and a shocker it remains today. But it’s much more than that. It’s one of the greatest operas ever written.

Richard Strauss: “Salome” — with Teresa Stratas, Bernd Weikl, Astrid Varnay, Hans Beirer; Karl Bohm conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. 1974. 101 minutes. Deutsche Grammophon DVD 00440 073 4339

My Favorite Opera DVDs: “Kat’a Kabanova”

Leos Janacek’s stature as one of the last century’s most significant composers finally seems secure and unshakable. Even the severe Pierre Boulez has come around in recent years, marshaling his resources to produce an admirable DVD of Janacek’s last work, the bleak 1928 masterpiece From the House of the Dead. The man from Brno, Moravia — derided as a “scrap-by-scrap composer” by the powerful English critic Ernest Newman back in 1951 — is recognized today as one of the most original figures of his time, having devised a new language that melds elements as disparate as folksong, late Romanticism and early 20th century modernism, is in some ways a precursor of minimalism, and incorporates in musical terms the composer’s lifelong fascination with “natural” speech rhythms.

Despite the acceptance, our knowledge of Janacek still tends to rest on little more than a dozen works – the five of his operas that are established in the international repertoire, the two string quartets, the Glagolitic Mass, the symphonic poem Taras Bulba, the Sinfonietta, and the powerful piano essays In the Mists and the Sonata 1.X.1905 “From the Street.” Janacek produced many more pieces that are rarely heard, if at all, and our judgment on what he had to offer remains incomplete until that music is better known.

For me, his most affecting works are the operas Kat’a Kabanova and Jenufa, and the last-mentioned piano sonata – all marked by tragedy, the remorseless march of fate and (the bittersweet ending of Jenufa notwithstanding) an elemental despair that the poetry and pathos of the music underscores in often breathtaking fashion.

Since this brief series concerns itself with my “favorite” opera DVDs (and not any technical benchmarks), I highly recommend the 1988 Glyndebourne Festival television production of Kat’a Kabanova conducted by Andrew Davis – even though the location recording of the London Philharmonic is thin and lacks resonance. One’s ears adjust fairly quickly to the sound; the singing is superb, the music beautiful, the story gripping, the spare, expressionist-tinged set design unique and effective.

It has been noted by many over the years that Janacek, like Modest Mussorgsky, sought truth over beauty – never more so than in the searing Kat’a, completed in 1921. Though rarely described this way, it is a story about danger – specifically, the danger in which one can be placed when the desperate need to be loved intensely trumps all other considerations. Secondly, the opera examines the transitory nature of love, how its flames can burn brightly then leave hopes smoldering in the ashes. Along its 100-minute course, Kat’a (based on The Thunderstorm, by the mid-19th century Russian playwright Aleksandr Ostrovsky) also offers eloquent commentary on the emptiness of bourgeois life in an isolated village, weakness of character, the impetuousity and naivete of youth, and the psychological domination of others through anger, bluster and sexuality.

This particular production is elevated above the merely respectable by the extraordinary performance of Nancy Gustafson in the title role. In her early 30s at the time, Gustafson’s Midwest farm girl-like good looks are perfect from a visual standpoint. Her character’s basic bubbly innocence is soon to be undone by a breakdown triggered by her loneliness and the impossibility of escape, compounded by wrenching humiliation when her extramarital affair with the hapless Boris (sung by the late Barry McCauley) comes to light. We are already clear that Kat’a is headed for trouble by the time her husband leaves for the city on business, a theme also taken up by Dmitri Shostakovich a dozen or so years later in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. But while Shostakovich’s Katerina is driven by boredom and lust, Kat’a yearns to experience a full love for what turns out to be the only time in her brief life.

The Glyndebourne staging has a raft of haunting and often wordless moments masterfully devised by director Nikolaus Lehnhoff and focusing mainly on Gustafson’s face. One of the most unforgettable is her second-act hesitation by the door Kat’a has stepped through to meet Boris face to face for the first time. As Janacek’s uneasy music hovers above, her conflicted expression says it all. It’s a perilous move she is making, risking everything for the dubious attentions of a man she knows next to nothing about. But her married life is so suffocating that she succumbs quickly enough — “Your will has conquered my will” — to Boris’ passionate declarations of love. The die is cast.

The final minutes of Act 2 contain some of Janacek’s most beautiful music, as the lovers disappear for the banks of the Volga, their ecstatic voices heard offstage soaring against the nighttime stars and sky. The scene winds down near dawn with the unfailingly moving duet by Vanya (John Graham-Hall) and Varvara (Louise Winter), gentle enablers of the infidelity: “It is night and far from home; maidens should no longer roam. … I am young and I shall stay out until the break of day.”

The brief idyll collapses in Act 3 – not only with the catastrophic revelation of the affair but Boris’ uncomplaining acceptance of a familial exile in Siberia (“Well, I am a free agent. For me there is no problem.”) He shuffles off and leaves Kat’a to face the contempt and ostracism alone. Gustafson’s disheveled appearance in the final scene leaves no doubt that Kat’a has lost the will to live. After a contented couple stroll by oblivious to her agony, she muses, “Once, women like me would be put to death. … And yet death will not come.” The departure of Boris brings no relief, only further heartache. Her final monologue, accompanied by hushed, trilling major/minor figures in the orchestra, seals the decision that suicide is the only option for a woman unable to find a fulfilling role in a straightjacketed society only belatedly emerging from the structures of feudalism.

Gustafson’s singing throughout Kat’a is marvelous in its delicacy and range of emotions. She was a brilliant choice for this production, as was the singer awarded the only other powerful role – the great Felicity Palmer as the sadistic mother-in-law Kabanicha. The men are fine as well, but Kat’a – like Jenufa – is an opera about women. One’s perception cannot help but be colored by what we now know about the composer’s late-in-life and long-lived infatuation with Kamila Stosslova, a married woman nearly 40 years his junior. As this situation was as hopeless and impossible as that of Kat’a, Janacek used the music to convey his deepest feelings in the only manner Stosslova could find acceptable.

Leos Janacek: “Kat’a Kabanova” — with Nancy Gustafson, Felicity Palmer, Ryland Davies, Barry McCauley, John Graham-Hall, Louise Winter; Andrew Davis conducting the London Philharmonic. 1988. 100 minutes. Kultur  D0036