Great Sopranos I Have Heard

I don’t know why there isn’t an opera about Maria Calllas. (There is a pretty great movie with Fanny Ardant playing her in her last years in a film directed by Franco Zeffereli, who directed her onstage.). Her weight loss to look better and thereby injuring her voice is tragic. Her fixation on Onassis is tragic. I subscribe to the rap that her voice became shrill early on, but that she was a great actress.

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I’m too young to have heard her live, but have heard some other divas who protected their voice, including Joan Sutherland, Margaret Price, and Christine Brewer.


Sutherland was aptly called “La Stupenda.” She had a stupendous voice. Producing beautiful sound seemed enough for her, but she did do some acting, too.

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(getting CDs signed, 2010)

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I like big, beautiful sound, as produced by the more than ample Jessye Norman and by Christine Brewer (both American-born, in 1945 and 1955, respectively), both of whom I had the luck to hear multiple times (including Brewer’s “Alceste” in Santa Fe). Brewer was a student of the great Wagner soprano Brigit Nillson, whom I never got to hear live, alas.

Margaret Price also produced a lot of beautiful sound. I’ll always remember her saying that Mozart felt good in her throat. I heard each of these three sing Strauss’s “Four Last Songs,” some of the most ravishing vocal writing ever done.



I heard a pretty sensational version of one of Dame Joan’s signature roles by Olga Borodina, whom I thought of as a Verdi soprano, not a bel canto one (she more recently did QEI here in “Roberto Devereux,” an opera without any inspiration in my view).


The very pure-voiced Dawn Upshaw (1960-) is best known for her best-selling rendition of Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony, but has done a wide range of contemporary parts and earlier French one. I have not heard Jessica Rivera often enough (though I had an extended conversation with her at a reception after the première of John Adams’s “Flowering Tree.”)

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Though I approve of her taking on new music, I am not a fan of Renée Fleming. I only heard Elizabeth Soderstrom well after her peak, but admire her. I did not hear Mirella Freni or Renata Tebaldi live, though am pretty sure from recordings that both were among the great ones.  Kiri Te Kawane, good, but not great. Scotto, I’m not sure about.

[The only great tenor I’ve heard live is Placido Domingo, the only bass Samuel Ramey, though Eric Owens is a contender.]

©2019, Stephen O. Murray [photos I’m not in are from WIkipedia]


The Great Orchestral Conductors I Have Heard

I have cohabitated with one of the best symphonic orchestras in the country, San Francisco, for decades. They have made it possible for me to hear many of the best conductors, either visiting ones or music directors (two of my top nine).

Herbert Blomstedt (1927-) was underappreciated here [San Francisco, 1985-95] and criticized for not programming enough new American music, though he premiered work by John Adams and Charles Wuorenin and programed music by Roger Sessions. Brahms and Bruckner are particular Blomstedt strengths. The most transcendent experience I recall of his ten-year tenure was a concert performance of “Fidelio.” (B kept trying to inflict work by Reger on SF audiences.)


Blomstedt in Dresden, 2005, photo by Alexander Böhm)

Pierre Boulez was an amazing conductor of Bartók and Mahler et al. I heard him lead the Cleveland Orchestra in “Rite of Spring”, the first time I heard it live. New York underappreciated him (though I don’t think that Cleveland did). I think Zubin Mehta and Alan Gilbert have been apt punishments of New York Philharmonic philistines.

Charles Dutoit, when allowed to conduct, was especially great with Berlioz, Debussy, Fauré, Franck, Ravel,and Stravinsky—indeed most French and Russian music. (The last concert of his I heard, in LA, included a ravishing Enigma Variations.) That he was a womanizer was known to most (as were James Levine’s diddlings of black boys).

Erich Leinsdorf was underappreciated in Boston (three hundred years of Seiji Ozawa there seems fitting karmic penalty!). I remember a mesmerizing performance of the “Brahms 5th (Schoenberg’s transcription) here and a more than compelling Brahms 3rd symphony in Prague. I love his Prokofiev symphonies and Cosi fan Tutti with Leontyne Price.

James Levine is familiar from many Met telecasts. He brought its orchestra here with the great Welsh soprano Margaret Price (whose remark that Mozart feels good in the throat I’ll always remember). In addition to her rendition of the 4 Last Songs, the program included Strauss’s “Don Quixote.”

I don’t recall what I heard Ricardo Muti perform here with the Philadelphia Orchestra, though I was impressed, as I am by many of his recordings, especially of Verdi. I am also impressed at the commitment he made to the Chicago Symphony, the best orchestra in this hemisphere.

(photo by Andreas Praefcke, Muti in Salzburg, 2008)

Eugene Ormandy left warm feelings in Minneapolis before his long tenure in Philadelphia. His recording of Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” was what Logan Zahn, the conductor of my high school orchestra aspired to. Ormandy premiered astringent Shostakovich. His recording of the Berlioz Requiem opened romantic music to me. I heard him conduct the SFS in a program of the Brahms symphony 2, Prelude to the afternoon of a faun, and La mer.

Esa Peka Salonen, the incoming music director here, is all but condemned to conduct Finnish music. I don’t remember which Sibelius works I’ve heard him lead, along with his own.

Georg Solti’s biggest accomplishment was his recording of the Ring. I love his recordings of “The Damnation of Faust” and of fellow-Hungarians Bartók and Kodalay. (Did he record any Szymanowski?) I think he played the Shostakovich 5th and Mendelsohn 4th (Italian) when he guest-conducted the SFS not long before his death. Joshua Kosman called Solti “the last of old-school [Promethean autocrat] maestros.” Calling attention to “the marked by ferocious intensity, slashing attacks and powerful, larger-than-life sonic outbursts

And some very good ones

I thought Leonard Bernstein performances (the only time I heard him live was rehearsing Marilyn Horne’s Carmen at the Met) were too much about him, a penchant shared to a lesser extent by Michael Tilson Thomas. When MTT is on, he’s on. I especially remember a thrilling performance of Janacek’s “Glaglolgtic Mass” from before he was music director. I like his Copland but resent his foisting “Suntreader” on SF audiences multiple time and not programming Lou Harrison since his death (or Virgil Thompson or Karol Szymanowski or Francis Poulenc or Darius Milhaud ever that I remember!)

I think Gustavo Dudamel, another Bernstein admirer without the personal history MTT has, overrated, though I liked an all-Argentine program (highlighted by Angel Romero doing a concerto by Lalo Schiffrin) at the Hollywood Bowl and his support for Christine Brewer’s rendition of the Four Last Songs in Disney Hall (my first visit there, before GD was LA music director). I don’t remember what he performed here before becoming LA music director….

I’ve heard (Sir) Simon Rattle conduct Birmingham, and Berlin, orchestras (he was music director of both ensembles). His performances of his specialties, Britten and Mahler, underwhelm me. I liked the Berg 3 Pieces an Schoneberg 5 in his performance, though.

Daniel Barenboim was a great pianist and is a near-great conductor (way better than Ashkenazy, Domingo, or Rostropovish on the podium). He introduced me to Bruckner with the Chicago Orchestra’s performance of the Bruckner 9th.

Berkeley-born Kent Nagano’s reputation seems in some eclipse. I remember Messiaen coming to Davies to hear him conduct the Berkeley Symphone (Illuminations of the Beyond, I think) and Elliot Carter to hear him and John Browning’s Barber? (I”Interventions for Piano and Orchestra?) And a rare performance of the insane Busoni piano concerto. He is music director in Hamburg and Montréal.

Neither SFS guest conductors James Conlon (music director of the LA Opera) nor Krystof Urbanski (born in 1982, music director of the Indianapolis Symphony, principal guest conductor of the Tokyo Symphony) has ever disappointed me. Nor has James Gaffigan, who was associate conductor here from 2003 to 2006 and is chief conductor in Lucerne).

I got to chat with long-time and much-recorded Baltimore Symphony (1985-98) and Zurich’s Tonhalle (1995-2014) David Zinman after the première of George Perle’s (still unrecorded?) second piano concerto. His recording of the Górecki 3rd symphony with soprano Dawn Upshaw must be the best-selling recording of 20th-century concert music!

I only heard Witold Lutoslawski conduct Lutoslawski, though I had dinner with him (and many other people). I found him genial, though a greater composer than a conductor.

I don’t recall hearing Kurt Masur (music director of the New York Philharmonic, 1991-2002) conduct live. He was quite probably among the great ones, as Carlo Maria Giulini (music director ot the LA Philharmonic, 1978-84, of La Scala 1953-58), and Claudio Abbado certainly were.

The conductor I most revere on disc (especially his Beethoven), but am too young to have heard live, is Otto Klemperer. I’d liked to have heard Dmitri Mitropoulos, Fritz Reiner, George Szell, Bruno Walter… and Mahler conduct, too! Mahler led the NY Phil from 1909 to 1911, so I missed him by a long stretch!

[Gary Bukovnik, who has a phenomenal memory of concert programs, helped me remember specifics of what we heard, including in Prague.]

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

A slight Mishima novella appearing in English now

Writer Mishima Yukio appeared as a yakusa (gangster) in the 1960 movie “Karakkazeyaro”/“Afraid to Die.” He was not born with movie-star good looks and worked very hard to build up his body.


Rikio, the protagonist of hi very slight s novella “Star” that has just made its way into English is only 24 and very good-looking without having to work on building up his body. He is like Mishima in being preoccupied with suicide and not wanting his body to age—obsessions that dovetailed in Mishima’s public suicide in 1970. Mishima was not a movie star, though the character he imagined was.

Rikio is plenty narcissistic, though it is difficult to imagine anyone exceeded Mishima himself in narcissism.

Rikio disdaines the unattractive women who are his fan base (one of whom tries to crash into the movie he is shooting), though his constant companion is not a beautiful actress, but his blowsy assistant. There is no indication that he has sex with her. Indeed, he may be a virgin.

Part of his attitude to his fans is “I’d much rather have a girl masturbating to my picture than actually trying to sleep with me. Real love always plays out at a distance.” I have my doubts that the second sentence could have come from Rikio,

After one picture is wrapped, Rikio goes to the studio barber and sees a great matinee idol of the past whose looks are now maintained by trickery. Rikio is determined not to outlive his attractiveness.

I don’t know why this novella has been published in English now. Its themes are better developed in Mishima works translated during his lifetime. The other 2019 publication of a previously untranslated (into English) Mishima novella, Frolic of the Animals, is longer and more substantive.


©2019, Stephen O. Murray



Dorothy West’s The Living Is Easy

Dorothy West (1907-98) is often called the youngest writer of the Harlem Renaissance, particularly close to Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. Her novels were few and far between (The Living Is Easy in 1948, The Wedding in 1995), though she published some short fiction, some of it collected in The Richer, the Poorer (also in 1995) and regular columns in the Martha Vineyard Gazette (some collected in a 2001 collection. Her work, in marked contrast to most Harlem Renaissance writings, deals with the very hue-conscious African American bourgeoisie (which included sleeping car porters as well as attorneys, physicians, and entrepreneurs—affluent only relative to the mass of blacks pouring north).


As a child, West lived on Brookline Avenue in Boston. She was educated at the Girls’ Latin school in Boston, where she was born and where she died, though she lived in Martha’s Vineyard from 1943 on. I find her first novel, The Living Is Easy, offputtting. Its protagonist, Cleo, is a sneaky, power-hungry, greedy older sister, who dominated her three younger sisters growing up in the South. She latches onto “the black banana king,” Bart Judson, whose skin is much darker than hers.


(cover of reprint edition with drawing of author by Richmond Barthé)

After producing dark-skinned daughter, Judy, she finagles a large house where she can sleep separately from him and gather her sisters, each of whom is married and has one child (including one boy, Tim, who is blond and whom Cleo wants not to see). What Cleo told Bart would be short visits turn into permanent residencies, so that none of the house can generate rental income, and so Cleo can boss around a large family without the unpleasantness of having sex with her dark-skinned husband.

Skin hue is very, very important to the characters in the novel, and to the “black bourgeoisie” throughout the US, not only in Boston). Cleo despises most of the immigrants from the South, loving and hating her own sisters and their shared rural, poor background. Bart provides for Cleo’s family, provides affection to Judy that Cleo does not, but eventually looses his business in the face of competition from supermarkets. Cleo robs him, lying about most everything, starting with the amount of rent she pays the white owner of the house, who is proud of the Boston abolitionist tradition, but appalled by the mass migration of Irish people to the neighborhood.

Bart is based on West’s father, Isaac Christopher West, though I have difficulty believing anyone could be so successful in business and so easily ripped off by a wife who provides him neither affection (often calling him “Mr. Nigger,” alternating with “Mr. Judson”; I don’t recall her ever first-naming him). The other male characters are also hard for me to believe. Adelaide Cromwell’s useful afterword to the 1982 Feminist Press edition establishes the basis of other male characters on real people, the best-known (if not very widely) being journalist Monroe Trotter, the model for Simenon, a self-righteous “race man” whom Cleo manipulates into marrying a former bordello-keeper with a Catholic vocation. There is a shooting by one of Cleo’s brothers-in-law, and the physician is caught doing abortions in addition to his cancer research.

I think I am making the novel sound livelier than I felt it was while reading it. A lot of the action is in the last fifth of the volume. Cleo’s contempt for males runs through the book, both in dialog and in indirect discourse, frequently labeling others “niggers” and “darkies.” Cleo is a racist, classist, lookist, man-hating liar and cheat, destroying her sisters’ marriages and arranging a loveless one between Simenon and “the Duchess” (who finances his paper that has neither a black nor a white audience.


BTW, the tittle is either ironic or misleading. The living was not easy for any of the characters, except Bart before Cleo got her hooks into him. West was an understudy in “Porgy and Bess,” and must have taken the title from “Summertime (and the living is easy…”)


©2019, Stephen O. Murray


Bleak portrayal of alienated Japanese high-school students, ca. 1994

The Japanese “River’s Edge” (Ribazu ejji, 2018; not the 1986 Keaunu Reeves) movie with the same English name) strikes me as brutalistic rather than naturalistic. It is set in the economic nadir of 1994. There are frequent scenes of rough sex and even one scene of full-frontal male nudity (usually even any pubic hair is forbidden to Japanese film-makers).


The main character, whose point of view is frequently presented, is Wakakusa Haruna (Nikaido Fumi {Himizo]), who is something of a faghag, rescuing a stripped, badly beaten, and tied-up gay victim of bullies, Yamada Ichiro (tv star Yoshizawa Ryô), twice. Yamada years for a younger athlete and their school, and has an eger, naïve girlfriend, Tajima Kanna (Morikawa Aoi), who provides him no social cover.

Yamada has another gal pal, bulimic model and tv regular Yoshikawa Kozue (Sumire), who seems to have romantic/sexual feelings for Wakakusa. Yohikawa knows of Yamada’s “treasure,” a corpse along the river, and Yamada shares this secret with Wakakusa.


Wakakusa has to be aware that the leader of the bullies is her supposed boyfriend, the not just oversexed but quite kinky (with another girl, Wakakus’s friend), Koyama Rumi (Doi Shiori). By the end of the movie, there is a second corpse (seeming killed twice or thrice in one night!), and no one is even close to being happy. That is, there is no catharsis for the alienated characters or the audience. The latter has to tie up unexplicated loose ends, while the camera prefers to linger on a polluting, brightly-lit-at-night factory across the river.

Until near the end of the movie parents are almost entirely invisible and offer no guidance (let alone supervision) to their anomic offspring.

Unilluminating interview segments with the characters interrupt the narrative(s), but the framing and editing of the narrative are far too “arty” for anyone to mistake the movie for a documentary. The movie directed by Yukisada Isao (Sunflower, Parade, Crying Out Love in the Center of the World) movie is based on Kyoko Okazaki’s 1993-94 manga series (i.e., was contemporary with the storyline’s time). It was shot in the old-fashioned television 4×3 ratio by Maki Kenji.


The Japanese trailer at The film is currently streaming in the US on Netflix.


©2019, Stephen O. Murray

WWII US fire-bombing (of Germany)

Born in the Bavarian Alps in 1944 (too late to remember anything of World War II) and long a professor at second-rate English universities, W. G. Sebald wrote a series of essayistic fictions illustrated by grainy photographs he took of mostly peopleless vistas or of odd documents. His books have been rapturously reviewed in the Anglophone world, less rapturously in reviews in his native language. His “novel Austerlitz, which I found unreadable, won a National Book Critics’ Circle Award after Sebald’s death in 2001 in an automobile accident.


In 1998 Sebald lectured in Zurich on what he heard as a loud silence about life in the Third Reich as the US Air Force attempted to level German’s cities (choosing saturation firebombing civilians to aiming at military targets in Japan, Germany, and Austria). When I visited Berlin six months ago (and other German cities earlier), I was puzzled by the completeness of reconstruction. In photos from just after Germany’s surrender in 1945 and in the backdrop of several movies I’ve seen or reseen in the last year (Germany, Year Zero; The Search; Foreign Affair) it looks that in vast expanses of German cities there were no roofs left. Now it looks like there are many pre-WWII buildings, and I don’t know whether this is more the preservation of the facades of the buildings or reconstruction.


Although the postwar German looking forward to reconstruction rather than backward to destruction is his topic, in On The Natural History of Destruction Sebald does not touch on my preservation/replication puzzle. His puzzle is the failure of natives and alien visitors to cognize the extent of destruction: “About six hundred thousand German civilians fell victim t the air raids and three and a half million homes were destroyed; at the end of the war seven and a half million people were left homeless, and there were 311.1 cubic metres of rubble for every inhabitant of Cologne and 42.8 cubic metres for eerie inhabitant of Dresden—but we do not grasp what it all actually meant. The destruction, on a scale without historical precedent, entered the annals of the nation only in the form of vague generalizations as Germany set about rebuilding itself…. It has largely been obliterated from the retrospective understanding of those affected.

Sebald’s title is what Lord Zuckerman intended to write when he went to survey the destruction immediately after the war, but he found himself unable to write of his impressions. Similarly, on their returned from American exile, Thomas Mann and Bertholt Brecht barely noted the destruction in their post-exile writings. Fellow Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll was an exception in writing a novel about the experiences of civilians in the last year of the war, but it was not published for another forty years

After Sebald’s lecture (which was published in German in 1999), the then-living German winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Günter Grass published a novel focusing on civilian casualties from 1945 (Soviet bombing of a ship of refugees) that has just appeared in English as Crabwalk and Jörg Friedrich’s Der Brand) (“The Fire”) has been a best-seller in Germany. Grass contends, against Sebald, that the memory of feeling impotent and frightened has been passed down to younger generations and explains the massive German opposition to Bush’s Iraq adventure.

Although I understand the importance of testimony, that is, records of what it was like to live through traumas and admire such works as Before Night Falls, Land of the Green Ghosts, Loss Within Loss, and Diary of a Political Idiot), I understand that most people would rather block memories and get on with trying to (re)build lives than examine just how horrible their trauma was, and that other observers feel inadequate to the task (as, for instance, Lord Zuckerman did in making his way through the rubble). My impression of holocaust literature is that more of it has been produced thirty-plus years after the liberation of concentration camps than during the immediately following decades.

In addition to the general reasons for not picking at psychic scabs, there are two reasons more specific to the obliterated Third Reich for Germans not to have written (extensively) about destruction of German cities. The first is guilty conscience: ”We actually provoked the annihilation of the cities in which we once lived” by initiating air attacks on civilian populations (first in Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, most memorably in the London blitz) and by the attempted “final solution.” The second is that any discussion of German suffering is seized upon by neo-Nazis (or unreconstructed ones still alive) as an apologia for Nazi modes of operation. Sebald writes at considerable length (and with withering scorn) about some of the letters he received from Germans expressing the view that Germans were the primary victims of World War II.

Sebald’s expanded Zurich lecture was published in German with an essay on the postwar German writer Alfred Andersch. The American edition also includes essays on Jean Améry, an Austrian Jew who joined the Resistance, was tortured and sent to Auschwitz and who wrote the kind of specific, dry cataloging of what he saw that prefigured Sebald (as in the quotation above), and playwright Peter Weiss (Marat/Sade) whose “The Investigation” incorporated testimony from war crime trials concerning Auschwitz.

Sebald tended to ramble (literally in The Rings of Saturn), as I complained in reviewing Vertigo, Natural History is somewhat miscellaneous, but like Emigrants consists of variations on a discernible theme (exile in that, experiencing the losing end of WWII here).

Sebald was a discerning literary critic and has interesting things to say about all the writers he discusses. His surprise at their number being small seems exaggerated to me in that the factors I’ve mentioned were known to him, and I’m puzzled that a writer so obsessed with photographs does not discuss the documentary and fictional films showing the rubble and the rat-like behavior of Germans living in holes.

©2003, Stephen O. Murray


Imaginative, poignant stories of the last part of WWII in Japan

Nosaka Akiyuki (1930-2015) is known in the West almost entirely for the 1988 anime adaptation of his story of children after the 1945 firembombing of Kobe, “The Grave of the Fireflies” (Hotaru no Haka) by Takahata Isaho), Nosaka was also a member of the Japanese Diet (legislature) and a pop singer. And another of his works was the basis for Imamura’s dark comedy “The Pornographers” (1966).


The stories in The Cake Tree in the Ruins include seven that the same press (Pushikin) published as The Whale That Fell in Love With a Submarine, the leadoff story, a very poignant story anthropomorphizing a jumbo male sardine whale. After being ignored by female whales, he fixates on a Japanese submarine, tries to mate with it, and starts following it up and down and al around.


Many of the stories involve an animal and a human, as in “The Parrot and the Boy” “The Elephant and Its Keeper,” and “The Old She-Wolf and the Little Girl.” The one nonfiction story, “A Balloon in August” is not without poignancy, either, though Akiyuki does not invest the balloon with emotions.

Most of the stories end with death, sometime gratuitously (IMHO). The only one with a happy ending is the title tale in which a tree grows from cake crumbs and nourishes some children who survived the intense fire-bombing of civilian populations by the US. A 1945 fire-bombing (that the author surived) killed Akiyuki’s adopted father. A sister and a step-sister died of starvation.

Many of the children’s fathers died in distant (colonial) wars, including the one who dug a bunker that his son cherished and his mother heedlessly had filled in after WWII (“My home bunker”). There is also one story set away from Japan, “A Soldier’s Family,” which resonates with “Fires on the Plains” in showing the desperate hunger of troops cut off from resupply.

The stories lack bitterness, though often sardonic about Japan’s military endeavors. Nor is there any explicit condemnation of the US targeting of civilians.

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

Discussion of Japanese literature and movies (in translation and subtitled, respectively).