Monday, April 19, 2010

The Shadow Of Your Style

Looking back at some of the vocal superstars of the 20th century, their impact on popular music is undeniable. Whether one considers the vocal imprint of singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Mahalia Jackson, Ethel Merman, and Edith Piaf, the outstanding achievements of artists like Leontyne Price, Luciano Pavarotti, and Paul Robeson, or the sheer popularity of singers like Mario Lanza, Tony Bennett, Charles Aznavour and Aretha Franklin, there is no denying that each of these musicians has earned a unique spot in musical history.

For several decades, the Blackglama line of furs has used a celebrity-driven marketing campaign (What Becomes A Legend Most?) to great effect. How one preserves the memory of a great singer, however, is always open to debate. There are films, biographies, video clips, and recordings galore. There are Elvis impersonators, tribute bands, and stage musicals (Beatlemania, Jersey Boys, and Mamma Mia!) designed to keep an artist's memory alive while developing a new revenue stream from old music.

Two productions currently before Bay area audiences are working hard to keep their respective legends alive. Each is rooted in a specific moment in time during the careers of the featured performers. Just as Ella Fitzgerald's famous commercial ("Is it real or is it Memorex?") once challenged viewers, 21st century audiences must decide if the show they are watching comes close enough to the original artist's genius to compete with the history of the 20th century.

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Few in the opera world would dare to question the contributions made by Maria Callas, who redefined the art of vocal interpretation and operatic acting while reviving the bel canto repertoire of composers like Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini. Callas took risks. Big risks. Here she is, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, appearing opposite Tito Gobbi in Act II of Tosca at The Royal Opera House in 1964:

Callas paid dearly for her devotion to her art. Although many singers asserted that they would prefer to have 10 years like Callas instead of a long career, few wanted to share the personal torments and insecurities that plagued the Greek soprano throughout her life.

New Conservatory Theatre Center is currently presenting Terrence McNally's 1995 drama, Master Class. The play was partially inspired by the 23 two-hour master classes conducted by Callas between 1971 and 1972 at the Juilliard School of Music, just before her final operatic recital tour with Giuseppe Di Stefano (I can still recall one deluded opera queen exiting the War Memorial Opera House after the performance insisting that Maria was ready to make a comeback). The following clip of Callas singing Voi lo sapete from Pietro Mascagni's verismo opera, Cavalleria Rusticana, is from one of her last public performances (a 1974 recital in Tokyo):

The Callas master classes were such a cause célèbre that noted music critic (and Callas historian) John Ardoin transcribed the sessions for his book, Callas at Juilliard: The Master Classes. Although video is unavailable, audio of many of the sessions can be heard on YouTube, where one gets the double thrill of hearing healthy young voices being coached by one of the greatest operatic interpreters of all time.

McNally, who has been a lifelong opera buff, wrote his first opera-themed drama in 1989. The Lisbon Traviata (about a mad opera queen's obsession with getting his hands on a recording of a rare performance by Maria Callas) gave frequent McNally collaborator, Nathan Lane, one of his early stage triumphs. As the playwright recalls:
"I had been a huge fan of Maria Callas since high school. I pretty much had her voice and personality (as I perceived it) in my DNA by the time I wrote the play. I was teaching playwrighting at The Juilliard School in New York City and feeling very frustrated by my inability to be a good teacher.
There was a sign in the elevator announcing a master class with Leontyne Price. I thought it would be a good way to clear my head after a particularly listless session with my students. I immediately sensed how theatrical the situation was. It was three years before I connected all the dots and began writing Master Class with Maria Callas as the teacher, not Mme. Price."
Over the past 15 years, McNally's play has become a solid vehicle for veteran actresses like Zoe Caldwell, Patti LuPone, Dixie Carter, Faye Dunaway, Rita Moreno, and Tyne Daly. Under Arturo Catricala's knowing direction, Michaela Greeley brings La Divina to life in the NCTC production with bite and elegance.

Alyssa Stone and Michaela Greeley (Photo by: Lois Tema)

The crux of McNally's play contrasts the fanatic devotion to her art that Callas demonstrated throughout her career with the confused and often misguided attitudes of three music students who appear before her. Their lack of preparation is a source of astonishment to Callas, who often drifts off into memories of how hard her life was, how she had to struggle to attain each triumph, and how her lover, Aristotle Onassis, crudely and continually mocked Callas and her music.

Michaela Greeley and Holly Nugent (Photo by: Lois Tema)

NCTC's production benefits from Kuo-Hao Lo elegant unit set and the intimacy of the tiny 65-seat Walker Theatre. With Kenneth Helman appearing as Manny, the accompanist, the three "victims" who appear before Callas were portrayed by Gustavo Hernandez as Anthony Candolino, Holly Nugent as Sharon Graham and Alyssa Stone as Sophie De Palma.

Like many opera fans, I found myself in a compromised position while watching Master Class unfold before me. As much as I wanted to listen to Callas speak during her long monologues, my mind was all too easily distracted by the recordings of Callas singing music of Puccini, Bellini, Verdi, and Donizetti. It's a a music lover's occupational hazard.

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The mood was decidedly more upbeat Saturday night at the Marines Memorial Theatre for the opening night of the national tour for Sandy Hackett's Rat Pack Show. Son of the late Buddy Hackett and husband to Lisa Dawn Miller (whose father, Ron Miller, enjoyed a long career as a songwriter and record producer), Sandy Hackett's production is a loving tribute designed to help keep alive the memory of four legends of Las Vegas -- Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, and Sammy Davis, Jr. -- who were close friends of his family.

Known as the Rat Pack in show business circles, these four men reached the height of their fame in the 1950s and 1960s. Here's some rare footage of Sinatra, Martin, Davis, and Johnny Carson performing live at the Kiel Opera House in St. Louis on June 20, 1965:

With Hackett impersonating Joey Bishop, Tony Basile doing a splendid job of bringing Dean Martin back to life, and David Decosta delivering a solid vocal tribute to Sinatra's singing style, the show begins with the voice of God (Buddy Hackett) telling the Rat Pack that he's sending them back to earth to do one more show. Sandy Hackett's Rat Pack Show tries to recreate the kind of horseplay that famously took place onstage between Sinatra, Martin, Bishop, and Sammy Davis, Jr. (Doug Starks) while delivering old standards to an audience that can't seem to get enough of songs like Mack the Knife, My Way, Volare, That's Amore, What Kind of Fool Am I? and New York, New York.

This is a fairly slick production which has enjoyed a healthy run in Las Vegas. Although the invitations for the audience to sing along with the performers produce mixed results (and much of the shtick is arthritic), the opening night audience had itself quite a lovely time. What made the evening special for me was the chance to hear -- performed live -- a style of band arrangements for popular songs which appears to have become extinct.

In recent years, as more and more clips of cherished entertainers have become available on YouTube, productions like Sandy Hackett's Rat Pack may find their audiences changing. Although I enjoyed Tony Basile's goofy impersonation of Dean Martin much more than the others, I sometimes find tribute shows like this a bit ghoulish. Whether they involve drag entertainers posing as Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, and Carol Channing -- or men impersonating singers like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley -- there's no escaping the fact that the original talent was so much more electrifying.

Sandy Hackett's Rat Pack Show continues at Marines Memorial through May 23 (you can order tickets here). The following promotional clip gives a fairly good idea of what to expect from the show:

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