Tenor + Error = Terror
has been an opera fan for his entire adult life. He sang leading roles with SMC and UCLA and in the Baltimore Symphony Chorus. Aside from this blog, he is a guest critic on the website Parterre.com. He is often asked to sing softer.
Tenor + Error = Terror
There I was, innocently casting about for ideas for a Halloween blog, when the most terrifying thing imaginable happened right in front of me. An event so petrifying and unthinkable it may have left a few of our ranks scarred for life.
At the last Verdi Chorus rehearsal the Tenor Section made a mistake!
Impossible, you say? I know. Take a breath and let me try to explain the events that led to the Earth momentarily slipping from its axis. For our upcoming concert, our beloved leader, Anne Marie Ketchum, chose some pieces from Goyescas by the Spanish composer Enrique Granados. From a musical standpont, I have to say that they are very exciting. They have a vivaciousness and a tang that I think you only find in Latin music. The rhythms are sharp and muscular at times. We even get to sing,”Ole!” a lot. Bonus.
The Tenor section so rarely makes a mistake of any kind that I could, with every confidence, substitute the word ‘never’ at the beginning of this sentence and still pass a lie detector test. The answer is simple. We almost always have the melody. Even when we sing harmony, it’s usually above the melody which means it’s still easy to pick out. The poor Second Sopranos and Mezzos are often lost in a thicket of downward stemmed notes trying to pick out their parts on the measure. To say nothing of the poor Baritones and Basses, adrift in the dreaded abyss of the Bass Clef, which I still refuse to believe is actually real. I’ll never understand how that works and am thankful everyday that I don’t have to. On some older music, there’s even an actual Tenor Clef with our very own insignia. We’re that special. It’s true. It’s not that we Tenors are smug or anything. We just like to think we’re perfect 24/7!
Now that I’ve drawn the curtain away from the mystery of our extraordinary batting average, I will recount the tale of how a simple page turn was the Waterloo that led to our apocalypse. Please understand that Goyescas is, in its’ rhythmic complexity to music, something akin to what calculus is to math. Maybe I exaggerate; how about long division? It’s hard. You need to concentrate. On top of that, add the linguistic gauntlet of singing in real Spanish, not the Latin or Central American variety with which we Southern Californians are so familiar. Oh, no. We’re talking the Spanish of Kings. The Spanish they lisp in Madrid. I have to be vigilant in the face of every ‘C’, double ‘L’ and passing ‘Y’. I’ve had to learn a completely new way to pronounce the ‘S’ with a very soft forward hiss that is immediately recognizable to anyone who has spent time with a Spaniard.
So, when we finally came upon this particularly awkward phrase, sprinkled with all these linquistic distractions, it was separated right down the middle by the most heartless page turn a publisher had ever placed in a printed score. It was no surprise that the Tenors had a train wreck. How bad, you ask? The shock wave jolted the rehearsal to a complete stop. It was so bloody and heinous, I thought we were going to have to call the musical equivalent of 911and off-duty members of the LA Phil. would arrive shortly with the choral equivalent of the jaws of life.
Luckily, we have Anne Marie. She is a serious and gifted musician whose skills for teaching difficult music are sovereign. Yet, even her mouth was agape at how badly we had mangled this moment. Then…the dreaded mirth. As the snickers started over in the Soprano section (I know who you are), Anne Marie rested herself against the piano, curled her mouth into the most satisfied Cheshire Cat grin, and suggested to the rest of the chorus that they all ‘savor’ this moment of Tenor fail.
After this brief respite and more general hilarity at the expense of our now humbled section, she set to work. It was a most methodical process and she ended up enlisting the help of the entire chorus. We learned the phrase in sections and then put it all back together until it was pointed out that even I had gotten it right.
I feel nary a twinge of embarrassment recounting this tale now because I’m supremely confident it will never happen again. Smugness restored.
In the spirit of the season, however, I will leave you with the rather macabre coda to the story of Granados and his Goyescas because it’s great success actually led, inadvertently, to his death. Plans for its’ premiere at the Paris Opera had to be scrapped due to the outbreak of World War I. It was, instead, debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 1916 to such acclaim that Granados was invited by our President Woodrow Wilson to perform a piano recital at the White House. He and his wife then had to reschedule their return to Europe. On their voyage home to Spain, their ship, the French steamer Sussex, was torpedoed by a German U-Boat in the English Channel and all were lost…