Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

The wrong way to write book reviews

January 10th, 2007

The basic concept behind reviewing books is fairly simple. You read the book, then you write the review. Not that complicated.

The details may vary, of course. How much of the plot should be included? What does the review focus on? How much of it should be subjective opinions, and how much objective descriptions and analysis? There are plenty of things that can change from reviewer to reviewer, and from review to review.

But the main and basic details, these never change:

  1. Read the book.
  2. Write the review.

Now, without the second part, there won’t be a review. So obviously you can’t write a book review without, well, writing the book review.

The first part isn’t quite a tautology as the second, though. But it sure seems to be required, no?

Well, no, apparently not for everyone.

A book reviewer on a Swedish newspaper has got himself into hot water for writing a review of a book that has not been written. To make matters worse, Kristian Lundberg claimed the book’s plot was “predictable” and said the characterisations were one-dimensional.

It was supposed to be a real book, by a real author. It was announced in the catalogue of the publisher. But it wasn’t actually written. Meaning that it wasn’t actually published. Meaning that nobody, including the reviewer, read it.

I do hope that this is an isolated case by an isolated jerk, and not a common phenomenon. Blah.

Mignon Dunn – July 16 – International Opera Program in Israel 2006

September 6th, 2006

[Update: I forgot to link to the usual disclaimer, of why anyone reading this should not take it as a serious review of the singers who participate in the master-classes. I also cleared an ambiguity I had on the name of one of the sung arias, based on the comment by the singer]

The master of this day’s master class was Mignon Dunn, herself a very well known and accomplished singer.

I recall seeing that she has a master class in this opera program for years now, but don’t recall how far back. Every year it seems like she has just one master class, though. And until this year I think I never managed to see one.

The first singer was Angela Pihut (or Pihot, they spelled in different on the two master-class she was on), a Soprano from Moldova. She sang Donde lieta usci from La Bohème by Puccini.

She has a very lovely voice, nice clear high notes, and good crescendos. But she also suffers from a problem with the languages. Not only her English during the class, which was bad, but the impression is that she didn’t really understand what it is that she sang. And her diction could use some improvement as well, though that’s a part of the same problem.

Her acting during the aria was too sad. Since this aria is after Mimi (the character she’s singing) had a big fight with her boyfriend, and they broke up, being sad seems natural. But Mignon reminded her that in these circumstances people often don’t act as sad as they feel. “We all broke up with someone we love. It’s painful, and we want to make it as unpainful as possible”.

In the same vein, Angela’s tendency to look down during the aria was met with the comment “Don’t look at the floor, he is not on the floor”.

And again, something which happens to a lot of singers, she listened to herself while singing, trying to judge herself and decide if she’s good. But if a singer is too busy listening, they don’t put as much into their singing. “Don’t be your own critic. You are good”.

Another point, which Mignon raised with several of the singers, was that it is important that they’ll keep their energy while singing. Even if it’s sad, even if it’s supposed to be quiet, they should keep their energy. “Keep your energy. don’t relax for goodness sake”.

The second singer was Malena Dayen, a Mezzo-Soprano from Argentina, who sang in this master-class the aria Werther! Werther! (I think officially called Je vous écris de ma petite chambre) from Massenet’s Werther.

To clarify, unfortunately by this point I’m a little confused about what was sang originally. According to her she sang Werther! Werther!, and this is what I corrected my report here to say. I have no reason to doubt this, since I do believe she has a better reason to remember this accurately than I do, since the length of the aria does fit what happened on the stage, and since this aria does make more sense for her as a singer. In my original report here, though, I was under the impression that the aria was Vieni t’affretta from Macbeth by Verdi, which I explicitly do recall being mentioned on stage this evening. The reason for my confusion is that I’m not sure why Macbeth would have been mentioned when singing Werther, yet I really can’t figure out any other singer this evening that I may have confused it with. Possibly Mignon made some comment comparing a certain detail in this aria with the Verdi one, and this stuck in my recollection over what was actually sang.

This aria is very long. Mignon stopped Malena somewhere in the middle, and said that she won’t be singing all of it. This is also a problem with master-classes, because each of the student singers deserve their time, but there is a limit on how much they can stretch each session. So singers who choose a long piece often either have to only do half of it, or the form of the lesson is changed and they work while singing the aria the first time, instead of singing it straight first and then repeating while working with the master.

Much of what they worked with on this aria was also the issue of energy, and putting enough strength into the songs. Mignon’s phrases during this part included “Don’t relax, just don’t relax” , “It gets too sad, and sentimental, and I lose patience”, “Don’t not use energy, ever” (Yes, that’s a double negative. But no grammar aficionado from the audience complained, so I won’t either), “I know it’s piano, but don’t hold back with it”, and “For me it’s simply not enough. It’s not a matter of loud, just give a little more”.

As I said, Mignon Dunn seems to put a lot of weight on energy.

The third singer was Carlos Conde, a Baritone from Puerto Rico. He sang Hai gia vinta la causa from Le Nozze di Figaro by Mozart.

Mignon, and most of the audience, liked his singing. To me personally he sounded a bit flat, with little distinction between the low and high notes. A matter of taste, I guess. And the aria is supposed to be partially a recitative, so maybe it was even partially justified.

He also, apparently, lost 80 pounds during the past year. That’s some diet.

In this aria the acting should reflect the mood of Count Almaviva. On the one hand full of himself and vain, but on the other hand concerned about what others think about him, and also getting furious when he overhears Susanna and Figaro.

On the Count’s character Mignon had to say that “I think the count is really neurotic. Strong people don’t care that much what people think about them. But he does, too much”.

Mignon worked with Carlos on these acting bits, showing the different moods and personality traits that the count exhibits during the aria.

She also had a comment about the singing, which again could apply not only to this case, but in general. There is a part of this aria in which some sentences and sentiments are repeated a few times. And Carlos sang them the same. So Mignon said that “We do say things over and over and over again. But you have to get a little madder each time”. There should be some change, progress, growth. The repetitions aren’t done frozen with no changes.

The fourth singer was Laura Mohre, a Mezzo-Soprano from the US. She sang Svegliatevi nel core from Giulio Cesare by Handel.

She had a very good voice, and beautiful high notes. But she was a bit too quiet, didn’t project her voice well enough. It seems during her singing that she couldn’t take in enough air, and kept taking half-breathes instead of breathing fully.

This is a vengeance aria, starting with an appeal to the Furies to get him[1] more riled up for his revenge. So Laura had to act, and sound, madder. “Stop thinking vocal production, and just be as mad as hell”.

After some prompting from Mignon she also improved her stance, which besides making her look better also made a noticeable improvement to her voice.

Usually I don’t mention the pianists in thes master-classes, because the main point is the singers. So as long as there’s nothing out of the ordinary with the music I just don’t pay attention (This is very different on music concerts, were I tend to notice way too much). But on this particular aria the pianist, Sasha Ivanov, missed quite a few notes. I assume he didn’t get enough practice time on the piece in advance.

The fifth singer should have been Juan Carlos Rodriguez, a Tenor from Mexico. But he didn’t arrive. Instead we had Thomas Wazelle, a Tenor from the US. He sang De’ miei bollenti spiriti Libiamo ne’ lieti calici (Actually, he didn’t name the aria, and I didn’t write anything in my notes to remind me for sure. So I suppose it’s possible he sang De’ miei bollenti spiriti instead) from La Traviata by Verdi.

He had a nice voice, but he needs to work on his diction.

He also didn’t hold many of the notes long enough. But it’s not a matter of ability, since when Mignon pointed his attention to it, and told him to hold the notes, he did. And noticeably improved.

It did require him to breath a little more, but as Mignon said “Breathing is better than not breathing”. Hard to argue with that.

Another good evening on the opera program, and Mignon was certainly good enough to try and catch next year as well.

  1. Well, the singer is a her, but Sesto, the character, is a him[back]

Joan Dornemann – July 13 – International Opera Program in Israel 2006

September 5th, 2006

This was the first of Joan Dornemann’s master-classes this year (Well, except for the opening night, but since I didn’t have tickets to it then it doesn’t count), and she was certainly up to par and as interesting and educational as usual..

Before I start I just want to point out again that these are not official or professional reviews, and actually aren’t really even reviews of the singers, so if someone interested in one of the singers (or who is one of the signers) got here, please don’t take anything personally, good or bad, OK?

The first singer of the evening was Amit Friedman, a Baritone from Israel. He sang Come dal ciel precipita from Macbeth by Verdi.

Apparently he came back after studying most of last year in Berlin. And there was an obvious improvement in his singing, though he still has much of the same posture and presentation problems.

He had a strong, clear, and deep voice, and projected it very well. But even though Joan said he looked less tense than last year, he stood rigid throughout the whole time, and kept looking at the floor too much.

He admitted that a part of the problem is that he has problems finding “placement”, and that he thinks about what the audience is thinking. This is a known problem with many singers, since being on stage makes people self-concious, and they concentrate on the audience instead of in their performance.

At one point Joan asked him how he thinks people sound like when talking to someone who is in danger, as the character he sings does in this aria. He started straight off being technical, thinking about it and answering with details such as that they’ll use darker tones, changes in tempo, and other details.

Joan stopped him in the middle of this explanation, telling him that “You’re too complicated”, and joking that he has been in Germany for too long. What she was aiming for, given his strong singing, was that the singing should be “Soft, you talk softer”.

Then, when he started singing and put a bit too much into it, she stopped him again with a comment that “This was a note, not a feeling”.

The aria is intended for a Bass, and Amit is a Baritone. Not a big problem, especially when singing an aria and not a part in the entire opera. But he tried to pull his voice lower, to bass level, a few times. He’s not a bass, though, so it didn’t came out right, and he had a problem keeping it, resulting in what Joan referred to as “vocal baloney”. She told him that there’s really no need to try and impress anyone with it, and added in jest that he’s just pulling an “I’ve got a low note. Do you want to hear it honey?” attitude.

She also mentioned that singing strong and loud isn’t enough, it’s also important in what voice and in what way. “It’s the quality of the voice, not just the amount”.

The second singer was Maya Lahyani, a Mezzo-Soprano from Israel. She sang Les tringles des sistres tintaient From Carmen by Bizet.

Just like last year, she had a good voice, and she acted well. She’s 24, and apparently also spent the year studying abroad, in New York (In the Manhattan School of Music? She mentioned a short nickname for the school, I think, and I’m not all that familiar with them all).

While she sang well, it was too “simple” for this aria, or for the role of Carmen. This is basically what Joan worked with her on during this part of the class.

A part of it was simply because this is a French opera, and everything in French is more complex and rich. Joan mentioned again the simile of cooking to using the languages. An Italian with an egg will make an omlette, or a hard boiled egg, and will add few spices, if any. A Frenchman with an egg will make something sophisticated, like a soufflé, and will use many spices.

And the language is the same. More subtle than Italian, the notes will not be as direct or as strong and loud. “All three arias in Carmen are written to be soft”.

In Carmen’s case it is compounded by the character, and should also go for the acting. The acting of Carmen should not be blunt and obvious. This aria is about seduction, but it’s not blatant, but a delicate and elegant seduction. And “It has to be sincere, it’s the only way lips work”.

The third singer was Lauren Jelencovich (Finally, a spelling. Last year I didn’t see her name printed, and wrote it as Yelinkovitz), a Soprano from the US (Yes, the name does sound Hebrew to me too. But she’s from the US, not Israel). She sang Chacun le sait From Daughter of the Regiment by Donizetti (It sounded like Rossini when she eventually said it, but I assume it was Donizetti).

She started singing without introducing the aria. So Joan stopped her and told her to do the proper presentation. So she said what she intends to sing, but did so quietly, and without looking at the audience.

Joan Stopped her again, and told her to look at the audience and to “Say it louder”. So Lauren looked at the audience, and loudly said “Louder”. Took her a moment to realize just why everyone was laughing, but she joined right in. Then she made a proper, and loud, introduction. Though, as I mentioned above, I still heard her say Rossini for some reason.

She’s young, and not very experienced, so while her voice is nice, it’s still not exactly it, and became a tad too sharp when she tried to reach the higher notes. But her voice did develop during the passing year, and she could reach operatic range. In a few years she may become a very impressive singer.

Joan worked with her mostly on the acting, since in this role she has to act more masculine, as someone who grew up around soldiers, and imitates them. This didn’t came very naturally to Lauren, who looked like a pretty cute girl, and her occasional looks of sheer frustration were amusing. She did enhance them for dramatic effect, though, so I’m not exactly cold and callous by being amused.

The fourth singer was Hagger Leibovich, a Soprano from Israel (Though she lives in New York). She sang Quando m’en vo’ from La Bohème by Puccini.

Her singing was a little bit too airy and held back for my taste. She didn’t project her voice well, and while it was possible to hear her it felt like like her voice was concentrated/directed downwards.

Joan repeated something she does a few times every year, explaining to a singer how to go about getting reviews on what are the things they need to work on. Not to ask people what they think overall, or what was wrong. Rather to ask specific questions, and positive ones. “What part of my voice/range/etc did you like best?” sort of questions.

And to ask several different people the same question. If everyone picks the same few things, then maybe it means something else is missing, whatever it is nobody said they particularly liked. But in any case to ask people what they liked more, not what they liked less, and deduce from that.

The interesting bit of this part of the class was that Joan went over the content of the aria, in which Musetta tells Marcello how everyone always notices her beauty when she goes out to the street, and told us all the hidden double-entendres. And there are plenty of them in there. The aria sounds half innocent, but apparently if you know the Italian used, and possible other interpretations of the same words (And Puccini did when he wrote it), it becomes quite racy.

The fifth singer was supposed to be Steven Long, a Bass from the US. But he didn’t show up, something about throat problems (an excellent excuse for a singer) and him being 22. I’d see him about a week later, though.

As an interesting observation, most days this year had five singers, and on those where six singers were listed, most had one cancel due to some sickness or another problem.

The intended sixth singer, who was the fifth singer, was Anita Watson, a Soprano from Austalia. She sang Ebben? Ne andrò lontana from La Wally by Alfredo Catalani.

According to Joan the selection of which singer/s to send from Australia is done based on a competition. The winners, supposedly the best singers of the group, get to come to these programs and the master classes.

And Anita was pretty good. She had a smooth, deep, and strong voice. Her high notes were beautiful. And I liked her crescendo near the end of the aria. But she need to work on her soft voice more.

Here Joan mostly talked about the composer, Catalani, and the written notes of the aria. The notes often carry with them signs which the composers used as a semi-private shorthand, using them so signify things beyond the regular meaning of the notes and signs, or for habits of the composer. And that these are usually best known by people who learned from people who learned from people … who learned from people who learned from the composer himself.

In Joan’s case, she also learned from someone who had Catalani up that chain. So she could explain to Anita some of these signs, and how to sing the aria closer to what the composer really intended.

Another issue Joan mentioned is that even during what are supposed to be rally quiet parts, the singing should still be strong enough for the audience to hear. “Can you sing loud, and look whispering?”

And so ended the first, short, half-week of the opera master-classes this year. One week and a bit more to go.

John Norris – July 12th – International Opera Program in Israel 2006

July 31st, 2006

This was the first of John Norris’ master-classes this year.

And, as usual (sadly), the hall was half-empty. He’s wonderful, does great work for the singers, and is also very entertaining and interesting for the audience. But he usually works with the singers on their acting and presentation, not on their singing.

And some of the regular people who come to the opera program seem to have a problem with this. It’s not that they just think it’s less interesting for them. It’s that they don’t think it matters. They hold the view that an opera singer just has to sing, and nothing else matters.

This view is very very wrong. Deciding whether they enjoy it themselves, that’s a matter of taste. But whether it matters or not, that isn’t. It’s a part of the show. Opera isn’t just a vocal art. The singers aren’t just singers, they’re also actors. And how they stand, pose, move, act, all this matters a great deal.

True, a great singer with mediocre acting skills can probably go along much better in the business than a great actor with mediocre singing skills. But that doesn’t make anything beyond singing less important.

And, somewhat ironically, all these things actually also affect the singing. When singers get more into the role, and act it properly, they also sing better and more appropriately. And this is sometimes very apparent in John’s classes, where he very rarely makes a direct comment about the actual singing, and yet the singers often improve in that as well during the repetitions.

Still, time after time, in his master-classes either almost half of the seats are empty, or they become empty during the break.

Their loss.

The singers themselves think so too. In the audience there are also a lot of the program’s singers who arrive to watch their colleagues being tortured tutored on stage, and to learn the general lessons explained. Sometimes I get to sit near some of them, and can often hear their discussions among themselves. And more then once, during John’s classes, I heard a few talk about how wonderful he is as a teacher (This time the exact word used was “brilliant”).

The first singer on-stage this evening was Moran Abouloff, a Soprano from Israel. She sang Monica’s Waltz from The Medium by Menotti.

She improved drastically from last year. Good voice, and lovely high notes. She sang a little too softly at times, and her acting wasn’t entirely fitting, but overall she was very good. I heard her once last year, and really didn’t like her, so I’m happy to see the improvement.

One thing John recommended that she do in this aria is avoid looking, and singing, directly to the audience. Part of the time her focus should be directed to where the Toby character is. To help her focus on a character which isn’t there he started by placing a chair on the floor, but quickly enough she managed to get the point and just pretend Toby is somewhere specific and focus on the same empty direction on stage.

In the other parts of the aria her focus shouldn’t be outward to the audience, but on the “fourth wall”. Monica and Toby are trapped, in a hard life, and her demeanour should reflect that. (The fourth wall is an acting term referring to an imaginary wall on stage between the actors and the audience)

Another recommendation he gave her for this aria was to imagine Toby’s responses when her character of Monica asks him questions. He told her to use the short pauses between the questions to whisper to herself appropriate answers. This did seem to help getting her into the proper mood, assisting her in connecting to what is happening in the aria.

A somewhat more complicated thing he also worked with her on was to try and act two roles to a degree. The aria is Monica’s song, but a part of what she is singing is what Monica supposes Toby would tell her in response. So for this she has to act differently, like she is trying to imitate Toby.

The second singer was Angel Ruz, a Tenor from Mexico. He sang Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola from Falstaff by Verdi.

He was alright, but his voice sounded a bit bland to me, and he sounded like he kept himself to a rather limited vocal range. I wasn’t very impressed with his singing last year, and he seemed pretty much the same now. On the other hand a large percentage of the crowd did seem to really like him (as did Joan Dornemann in a later master-class this year), so I guess it’s a matter of taste.

He also had a weak voice when speaking. A few times John had to lend Angel his mike when they discussed some point, since it wasn’t possible to hear him otherwise.

Mostly John worked with him on two ways to portray the character better during the aria. The first thing was to try and get him to actually look, and sound, like he’s telling a secret. John had Angel sit on a chair, hold his finger in front of his lips, and sing more quietly as if for himself and not to another person. The intent was to give him a sense of privacy, as if he’s speaking and telling the secret, not really singing.

The second attempt was to pretend he has two imaginary friends in front of him, and to tell them what he has to say, alternating between the friends.

All this work not only improved his acting for this aria, but also improved his singing. Part of it was a point many of the teachers in the master-classes raise, that often the singers concentrate too much on what they’re doing and how it sounds, and it interferes with their actual singing. In his case he tried too hard to make sure everyone will hear his song, and as John put it “When we worry about projecting we become more stiff”. When he managed to get into the role he both looked, and sounded, better.

The third singer was Anyz Volvovsky, a Soprano from the USA/Russia (If she gave more details on what that means I didn’t write it down, and don’t remember it. Her spoken English was good, though). She sang Signore, ascolta! from Turandot by Puccini.

She had a nice and clean voice, and sang quite well. But she didn’t really do the acting part. Her stature and movement were not appropriate.

And this is naturally what John worked with her on. Getting her to sing the aria looking less like someone important and more as a slave girl, more humble. She kept looking upward and out, with her chin up, in what John jokingly referred to as “The Soprano Disease”.

A bigger problem than just for this aria, since he also warned in general not to overdo it, and “not to let the energy disperse when looking up”.

The fourth singer was Jessica Bowers, a Mezzo-Soprano from the US. She sang Cruda Sorte from L’Italiana in Algeri by Rossini.

She sang very well, and has a beautiful voice. Her acting, however, was lacking (yes, that’s a recurring theme with most singers in these master-classes. Even when they know they’ll be with someone who is mainly concerned with their acting).

There were two main things he worked with her on this aria. The first was to look more like she was just shipwrecked, which is the condition the character she’s portraying is in. Someone just recovering from a wreck, finding themselves waking up alone on the beach, doesn’t look as well off as she did. John initially had her sitting lopsided on a chair, and told her to pretend she has an headache. When she still didn’t look suffering enough he encouraged her with calls of “Whine, whine”.

Later on the aria, when the character of Isabella seas the pirates approaching, she becomes more confident because they are just men, and she’s a manipulative beautiful and women who think she knows what men wants. So John had her act more appropriately for that, and show the correct expressions.

Here too, the acting helped her really get into the role, and the both looked more convincing and sounded even better. As John said “Don’t we love it when a singer forget themselves?”. As long, of course, as they don’t forget themselves too much and keep on singing right. Not a problem here at all.

The fifth singer was Rodrigo Garciarroyo (Or maybe it should be Garcia Arroyo? The English text on the page was Garciarroyo, but the Hebrew text would indicate this second spelling.), a Tenor from Mexico. I missed the aria he was singing, except that the composer was Verdi.

Overall he sang very well, and had a pretty, strong, and clear voice.

But he could sing better. John brought out a prop (a lot less of them this year, compared to some of the previous years), a large yellow rubber band. He had Rodrigo stand on one edge of it, and stretch it up with his hands, singing while he held the band tense.

With the band his singing was more tight, and stronger. More focused. John said that “When he relaxes, the energy drops”, which was true. The simple physical exercise of holding against a strong tension helped Rodrigo keep more energy in his singing.

The sixth, and last, singer was Deborah Berioli, a Soprano from the US. She sang Tu, tu piccolo Iddio from Madama Butterfly by Puccini.

She had a very beautiful and strong voice, and kept a pretty dramatic presentation (which was actually appropriate). But she didn’t sing clearly, and needs to improve her diction.

One thing John worked with her is on keeping the dramatic strength but being less outward with it. In the aria she sings to her son, but when she talks to her three years old son about her problems she isn’t really talking to him, but to herself.

He also let her stretch the rubber band some, as a way to help her focus herself differently. And, not less important, because she had a tendency to keep her knees slightly folded instead of straight. Something which she couldn’t do subconsciously when using her whole body to stretch a large rubber band.

All in all a good evening, the singers were very good, and John Norris himself was as excellent as usual. While just the second master-class I’ve been to this year I already started to get the feeling that on average the singers this year were better than last year. Though of course last year had a few exceptional singers as well.

Sherrill Milnes – July 11th – International Opera Program in Israel 2006

July 26th, 2006

The first master-class of the program this year was actually on the previous day. But it being both the opening night, and by Joan Dornemann, there were no tickets available by the time I ordered. And I ordered relatively early.

So this second master-class of the series was the first master-class in the opera program I attended this year.

This is, I think, the first time Sherrill Milnes, a very well known American Baritone and coach, comes here as a part of the opera program. Or, if he was here before, I certainly didn’t get to see him.

Not surprisingly, he seems very much at ease on stage, and seems to really know his stuff. He was articulate, clear, and interesting, and I’ll be happy to go to his master-classes if he will come again next year.

This master class also had one aspect which was somewhat different than what I’m used to. In addition to instructing the singer, and explaining about the arias and singing, he gave recommendations to the piano player. Accompanied by explanations to the audience about various differences between notes for an orchestra (as opera scores are written) and for solo piano (which is what they have in the master-classes).

While not expected, this was interesting. The adaptation for piano is always a slight problem, since the music accompanying the aria isn’t exactly what it’s supposed to be. The piano usually does a very adequate job at it, so it’s not a big problem, but it’s still often noticeable. But this evening Sherrill had explanations on various sections where the purpose and feel of the music could be better kept by altering the notes further, to compensate for the differences.

He also started the evening by mentioning that while normally singers prepare for work by not singing for a day, letting their throats and vocal chords rest, the students/singers here actually practised all day. Which isn’t really an excuse for anything, but does demand more understanding for slight slips.

Before I start to go over the singers and what happened, if you arrived here by searching for one of the singers, please read my short disclaimer on why these posts shouldn’t be taken as a serious review of individual singers here.

The first singer was Deridre Fulton, a Soprano from Canada. She sang Sola, perduta, abbandonata from Manon Lescaut by Puccini.

My own main problem with her was that she appeared too frozen, and didn’t really express emotions. Her singing was otherwise good, with a clear a deep voice, and good control.

Sherrill did comment that this is an aria that requires intensity, and worked with her on that a little.

He also had a general observations, after some small timing issues, saying that in aria songs consonants with duration usually occur before the beat, while vowels and consonants without duration, occur on the beat.

The nature of such master classes is that often the teacher stops the singer in mid-sentence to go over a point. And when the singer resumes the aria, sometimes they’re asked to resume mid-sentence as well. This is hard, since singers usually practice singing in a stream, or sections, and never start in such location. So even if they know the part very well, it can be difficult to pick up in the middle. This happened to Deridre a couple of times, and Sherrill mentioned that it’s a common problem, and that when it happens to singers “It makes them feel stupid. But they’re not” and it happens to everyone.

He also made a comment, when she sang too soft or strong than she had too, that singers tend to read strength in an exaggerated manner, too up or down, for example singing pianisimo instead of piano, or forte instead of mezzo-forte.

Another thing he said, and later repeated with a few of the other singers, is that breaths can be used for more than just taking in air. That’s the main purpose of course, and in most cases singers should do it inaudibly, but there are sections where it can add to the dramatic effect of the aria. “The reaction isn’t with the first syllable, it’s with the breath”.

The second singer was Pierre Etienne Bergeron, a Baritone, and also from Canada. He sang an aria whose name nobody (or almost nobody) was able to catch, despite several repetitions, from a German opera whose name nobody seemed to manage to catch as well. Sherrill has to step in and say it’s a version of Hamlet. [Update: Thanks to Hemdi from the program, the name of the aria is O vin dissipe la tristesse, and the opera is Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas]

If anyone who reads this can provide the proper names, I’d appreciate it…

He had a good voice, but sounded a little held back, like he’s not going as far as he can or should on some parts. His acting was more active, and more dramatic. But apparently that acting was not entirely appropriate to this aria, since this is the area Sherrill focused on when working with him.

The aria itself, and I may botch the explanation because Sherrill explained it like to an audience with some familiarity with this opera, was not originally intended as an aria, but more of an orchestra and choir piece. This resulted in a few discussions with the pianist, Rolando Garza, on modifications to the score to make the piano emulate the music better.

As for the presentation, a part of it was the usual point of paying attention to what is going on in the aria, and what the singer actually said. Not all the aria should have been with the same attitude, differentiating, for example, between the beginning where the singer tries to get himself wound up to perform a murder, or the middle where he’s there and events occur.

Sherrill also worked with him on acting better when mentioning God in this aria’s context. “When you say God at least make a little Awe”, as well as comments of finding something specific to focus about. He mentioned that singers sometimes tend not to pick locations and object to focus on, even when warranted.

Another point was on getting the details right when acting. If he pretends to hold a glass and drink, he should hold his hand as if he really has a glass in it, and move it towards him like he really drinks. Not like some do it, moving the hand towards the face fast, and then fast back down, in what would have caused a real glass of wine to actually splash the singer on the face.

On the other hand Sherrill also warned against taking the acting too far on these details. To continue the previous example, after doing the drinking, which is relevant, it is alright to go on ignoring the wine glass. No need to keep on pretending to hold it, and then pretending to put it someplace, when the song as already moved on anyway.

The third singer was Adam Marguelies, a Baritone from the US. He sang Resta immobile from Guglielmo Tell (William Tell) by Rossini.

He was nice, but his voice seemed a little weak and restrained (maybe because of overworking it that day, as Sherrill indicates some of the singers did?). He had a few diction problems, and he just sang the part without trying to act it.

This aria takes place just before the famous part of the William Tell story when he shoots the arrow into the apple standing on his son’s head. This requires, of course, that the singer pass some strong emotions. Which Adam didn’t do, eliciting a comment from Sherrill that “It was a little too little, I didn’t believe you were a father talking to your son”. Even beyond the special emotion of the scene, people sound different when talking to their sons, using a different infliction and tone.

Adam also held his fists clenched during almost the entire aria. It’s true that he should have expressed Tell’s tension and anxiety, but as Sherrill said “clenched fists looks like the singer is frustrated, not the character”, and this should be done in other ways.

By the end of the repeat song, after hearing the comments and recommendations, Adam’s singing and acting in this aria improved noticeably.

The fourth singer was Anya Fidelia, a Soprano from Russia and the US. She sang Vissi d’arte from Tosca by Puccini.

She had a strong voice, and very clear diction. The quality of her singing, her musical control, varied a little, with some parts being excellent, and some a little less good.

In a few places she made quick tempo changes that weren’t required by the notes. She should have picked a tempo in range and stuck with it. Sherrill said that in an actual opera there is a conductor that sets the exact tempo, but when just singing an aria like this she can have her own tempo, pick a pace that seems appropriate to her.

He also worked with her a little on the timing of her movements. She did made various movements and gestures when appropriate, but it was disconnected from the music, looking like she occasionally forgot to move and remembered she wanted to at the last moment.

Some of her gestures and postures were also not exactly appropriate, looking different than what she wanted them to. This is a common problem, since often people feel as if they look a certain way, while outside observers see something different. Shrerrill suggested the obvious way to practice on that, getting a mirror. Mirrors have a big advantage over getting another person such as a coach because “Singers, you don’t have to pay a mirror!”. And then it’s possible to practice the movements and see how it really looks like.

The fifth, and last, singer of the evening was Jose Adan Perez, a Baritone from Mexico. He sang La pietade in suo favore (or was it Cruda, funesta smania? My notes aren’t clear) from Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti.

A very good singer, and quite likely the best one on this evening. About the only noticeable problem was that he sometimes had his stops a little too sharp.

He also apparently practised/studied with some well known figures, as Sherrill told him that “You worked with all the right people”.

One comment Sherrill made to him was regarding a part where he should have had a crescendo, but it was impossible to hear one because he was using a loud voice all the way. Sherrill explained that singing forte is a bad idea when going into a crescendo, since there’s nowhere to climb to. So even if the part is in forte, he should go down to piano so he could crescendo.

Another comment Sherrill made is was on showing the effort of singing. Singing an aria is hard, and takes a lot of effort. But what the audience sees shouldn’t be so transparent “Do all the effort you need, we don’t want to see it”.

It’s a balance, though. On the one hand the audience doesn’t want it to look like it takes no effort at all, and prefers to see that the singer is actually working, and that we get something for our time and money. On the other hand it shouldn’t look too hard, since the audience will get worried if it looks like the singer is about to get a heart attack and second.

Sherrill Milnes was very good this evening, and has a talent for explaining things in a way that the singers will understand him clearly. This isn’t as trivial as it sounds, since a lot of the terms, and especially whatever words can be used to try and explain exactly how to sing or move, are very subjective. It happens that an instructor tries to tell a singer something, and the singer understands and tries something different. Sherrill did not seem to have that problem, and expressed himself to the singers very clearly and with ease.

The singers themselves were also quite good, and it was a promising start for the season.

Why my International Opera Program posts should not be considered to be proper reviews of the singers

July 26th, 2006

One of the problems I’m having with the posts about this opera program is that they get a lot of hits by people searching for the singers by name .

Some searchers are probably just people considering whether to pay a ticket someplace to hear them sing. But some are possibly by people considering casting/hiring these singers, and some may be by the singers themselves or their family members.

Many of these may not be particularly happy with running the name and just getting a paragraph or two of very short and inexact personal opinion on the singer’s performance, followed by some details on what the teacher in the master-class said to them and worked with them.

So I figured I should give a short explanation on what am I trying to cover, and why nothing here should be taken too seriously by the people I’m writing about.

[Update: This paragraph is another very important reason, which just seemed to me to be too obvious to mention. But since it may not be, I'm stating it explicitly] Most of the posts I make in these opera program series are about master-classes. Where the singers practice an aria in front of a teacher/”master”, and receive comments, tips, and lessons. The singer will almost never choose an aria they know very well, and which they practised to perfection, for two main reasons. The first being that if the lecturer won’t have anything to add then it will be boring for the audience. And the second being that it will prevent them from learning something they maybe didn’t know before.

This means that on a master-class the singers will almost always, by definition and intentionally, not be at their best. So me perhaps stating some of their faults in this setting does not imply it will be a real fault when they actually sing on a concert or in an opera. It doesn’t mean they won’t, but it also doesn’t mean they will. It is just what impressions I received during the master-class, where they were more taking a lesson than performing for an audience.

Beyond that To start with, I am not a musician. I like classical music, and I like Opera. But I go to these things to watch and listen. I have no formal training. Nothing more beyond any regular member of the crowd in any similar performance.

I also don’t even try to provide a serious musical review. These posts are a combinations of personal notes, to help me remember what and who I heard, and recaps of the interesting parts of the master-classes.

And I mean interesting in the most basic ways, the things which are non-standard events, the crowd pleaser events, the highlights. I omit a lot of things that may have had a place in a musical review of the singer, or the aria, because they’re not interesting to a non-professional, and possibly not interesting to me.

I also lack the proper terminology. Or, more correctly, often I do know enough to understand the exact terms and descriptions if I hear them, but cannot recall them on my own without some time and effort. So I use the closest regular word I can find. Which is sometimes accurate, and sometimes not.

Things can also get repetitive, a few singers per evening, every evening. It may be important for each individual singer to hear about all the things they have done right, but a large part of it is very repetitive, so I don’t bother.

And, perhaps most importantly, I write these posts at least a few days after the master-class, based on very bad notes. During the show I just scribble a few reminders on a piece of paper. I go to these things because I enjoy them, so I mainly want to listen and pay attention, not write. This results in even worse handwriting than my usual, and in clipped and non-grammatical lines. Often I can’t use a lot of what I wrote, because I can’t recall whatever some obscure line was supposed to remind me of. And I often don’t manage take notes even on things I’d like to mention.

So, to make it short, if you’re a singer, doing ego-surfing, landing on one of my pages, and discovering all I had to say about you was “had a clear voice but a little screechy”, and that then I proceeded to detail the harshest things the teacher told about you in the maser-classes, don’t take it too seriously. I don’t hate you, I probably don’t even think you were really bad unless I explicitly said it. And even if I did, you really shouldn’t care. OK?

AOL’s Active Security Monitor has some big problems

July 25th, 2006

AOL released a new program called Active Security Monitor, which is supposed to help find problems with the security settings of computers. It scans the computer, provides scores in various categories, and suggests ways for improving the security where the score isn’t perfect.

A nice thing to have, if it works. Personally I’m quite good at dealing with my computers’ security by myself, but a tool like that can be useful to point less experienced people to, and for getting a quick baseline.

Except that it doesn’t work well at all. And yes, I know, it’s from AOL, what should I expect, right? It’s a shame that they really don’t do much to improve the reputation they have in these regards, and blew this great opportunity.

So far I ran it on one computer. The computer runs a fully patched and updated Windows 2000 professional, has a fully updated Avast! 4 Home as an anti-virus, no firewall since it’s connected to a small network protected by a properly configured external router, using Firefox 1.5 and Opera 9 for browsers, And with both Spybot S&D and Ad-Aware SE Personal installed.

I downloaded and installed the Active Security Monitor program, and let it scan the computer.

ASM comes with an option to register it for a home network, in order get status on multiple computers at the same time. I didn’t do this, and will run a comparison on a second computer separately later on. No need to create an account for a tool when I don’t know I’ll use it.

After a few seconds of scanning my computer received a total score of… 53. Out of 100. Not a pretty sight.

Let’s start with the good thing first. It detected both Ad-Aware SE Personal and Spybot S&D, and detected that their signature files were not updated. This was all true. I usually keep the computer clean to begin with, and so didn’t run or update any of them for well over a month.

So I run both, updated the data, and repeated the scan. My score in the “Spyware Protection” category jumped all the way to Excellent, and the total score climbed to 57. Still not very impressive.

I also suspect I would have gotten the Excellent score with only one of them installed. Which isn’t enough, since the overlap between what they catch isn’t complete. They’re better together.

On the “Firewall” category my computer is ranked as Poor. Which is totally justified, it doesn’t have a firewall installed. But I took a quick look in the details, and was surprised to see that “A firewall is detected but is not enabled on this PC”.

This is wrong. I don’t have a firewall installed. And since it’s not installed, there is obviously no way to turn it on. Worse, ASM is extremely unhelpful in that it didn’t tell me which firewall it thinks I have and how it thinks I can turn it on.

Instead, the recommendations page had links to pages with general firewall explanations, some marketing hype on how the AOL service comes with full firewall protection (This AOL marketing hype exists on all details pages, whenever there is any sort of a problem, as far as I could see), and a non-detailed “To enable a firewall: Click Start, point to All Programs, and select your firewall”.

Yep, that’s going to be real helpful for anyone who actually needs this tool to know if they have a firewall or not. All those people, the ones who aren’t even sure what a firewall is, would have no problem at all finding it by themselves and running it.

Especially if, like me here, they don’t even have one. That could be a long long search.

It did say that if I would enable my firewall (The one I don’t have installed) it will raise my overall score to 79 (That’s a 22 points improvement).

Next, on the “Virus Protection” category my computer is ranked as Fair. Why just Fair? Because according to it “The anti-virus (AV) program on this computer is not enabled”.

I double-checked just to be on the safe side, and I can assure you that my copy of Avast! was working perfectly. So if ASM did find Avast! (Though I can’t be sure, maybe it found some phantom AV program, like the firewall) it should also know it’s running.

ASM also claimed that the signature files for my AV program are out of date. Which also wasn’t true, they were updated almost just before running ASM.

The details page contained the same list of not so useful suggestions, such as saying what a great AV protection the AOL service gives, and providing an explanation on how to turn on my AV program. A generic explanation, that is, which was identical to the one on how to turn on my firewall. Nowhere did it say even the name of the AV program it found.

It stated that turning on the AV program would raise my score to 70 (That’s a 13 points improvement). Personally I’m more concerned about why it thinks my Anti Virus protection deserves a Fair score if it believes my AV program isn’t even enabled. A not-running AV program should be just as good as a totally non-existent one.

Next is the “Windows & Browser” category. On this one I received a Good score, with two complaints.

The first was that “The Windows System Restore feature is not turned on”. And it was potentially useful about it, giving detailed instructions on where to find it in order to turn it on… Except that, well, this computer is running Windows 2000, and not Windows XP. And System Restore is a feature of Windows XP. It does not exist on this computer, and so cannot possibly be turned on. And all the places it directs me to go to in order to turn it on, well, they just don’t exist here. Totally dumb, and very unprofessional.

The second complaint it had in this category was that “Internet Explorer (IE) is not configured with encryption”. First of all, I hardly use IE, and as I said the computer has both Firefox and Opera installed on it, something which didn’t interest ASM in the slightest. And second, well, I never disabled any encryption option in IE.

So I went to the recommendation to see how ASM thinks I can turn it back on. Seems like I needed to “Enable Secure Socket Layer (SSL) technology on your browser”, and the way to do it is to go to IE‘s Internet Options, the Advanced tab, and there… to click on the Restore Defaults button.

Let me get this straight… In order to change an encryption setting, they want me to restore all the customizations I did there? Even ones entirely not related? Even ones that actually improve security beyond the defaults? Are they kidding me?

Plus, I checked my settings, and SSL was of course enabled. All settings that had something to do with encryption were right as they should be.

ASM stated that fixing the above two problems would increase my score to 63 (a 6 points increase).

On the “Wireless Security” it didn’t give a score, since the computer isn’t set for wireless access. That’s actually correct, so good job here on at least not thinking I have wireless access but need to turn it on, or something.

It also has a “P2P Software” category. On which I received an Excellent score. Why was it Excellent? Because “A peer to peer (P2P) file sharing program is not detected”. This is wrong on two entirely different levels.

The first one is conceptual. Having a P2P program installed is not a security risk by itself. Some of them are problematical, even very problematical, true. But not all, and not by the definition of being a P2P program. The risk is in what files are transferred with them.

But marking a P2P program as dangerous because you can pass bad programs in it is akin to saying having an email program, a web browser, or a CD drive, is bad for security. All true, but I didn’t see ASM complain about any of those.

The second one is that this computer actually had P2P programs installed. It’s not my main computer, so they’re old, and haven’t been used in many many months. But it has both KLT K++ and SoulSeek installed. Both are P2P programs.

I can forgive it for not finding SoulSeek, it’s not very mainstream. But missing a Kazaa Lite variation? Kazaa is one of the most problematical (from the security and privacy point) P2P programs out there.

And then it has the “PC Utilities” category, where I received an Unknown score because it didn’t find any PC Utility it cared about. Already questionable, since if not having them isn’t a cause for a bad security score, then they shouldn’t improve the security score when they’re there.

It had two points to mention here.

One item on the “PC Utilities” category was that “A PC optimization program is not detected on this PC”. What does that have to do with security? Actually, what is a PC optimization program supposed to do? There are tons of various optimization programs, doing totally different things, and many of them entirely not useful anyhow.

So I clicked their “Lean More” link to see what are they referring to. On the page they mentioned the built-in Windows utilities such as Disk Defragmenter, ScanDisk, and Disk Cleanup. All of which I have, of course, since they come with windows. And mentioned that there are better third-party tools for that.

True, but not relevant for security. This is supposed to be a security tool, so commenting on people not buying expensive programs (and programs most people usually don’t need) is out of place.

The second item in the category was that “A file backup program is not detected on this PC”. Here I can accept the security angle, since having backups is also good security. But the claim is nonsense. Especially considering their added explanation that they basically refer to anything used to backup files in a different location.

I have two different FTP programs installed on this computer, FileZilla and an older copy of SmartFTP. Both can be used, were and are used, for backups. I also have SyncBack installed on this computer, mostly for some test purposes, but it’s there and there’s no way for ASM to know what exactly is the usage pattern. So not finding any backup programs (Hey, ASM, listen up! Just copying files to a remote computer over the network is also a backup!) just indicates that it doesn’t pay attention. I do have backup programs installed.

Worse, one of their recommended solutions to the backup problem is to use “Xdrive: the most trusted provider of secure online storage”. Xdrive was acquired last year by AOL, so their incentive is clear. What’s also pretty clear is that Xdrive is far from being a trusted storage provider.

If I’ll add all the points I didn’t get the security score is an impressive 98 (57+6+13+22=98). Which is a good score. But, well, if I compensate for everything wrong, then why 98 and not a full 100?

I have two more general notes. One is that ASM decided I’m from a roaming location. I’m not. It’s a fixed desktop computer, with a fixed network, and a single active user. No roaming. At all. But since it doesn’t say what makes it believe I’m roaming, I can’t get it to change its mind.

If it can’t get this detail right, why should I trust it to get anything else network related right?

The second general note is that ASM uses IE to open all these additional information pages. It has them installed as HTML files on the hard drive, which is fine. But my default browser, and the program set to open these files by default, is Firefox. Which means ASM runs IE explicitly and on purpose.

Why would a security tool choose to intentionally run the least secure of my three installed browsers?

All in all I’m really not impressed.

I’ll run it again later on, using a second computer with Windows XP Pro, a different AV program, different P2P programs installed, and somewhat different settings. But I don’t count on being surprised by a sudden improvement.

On the bright side, the uninstall program seems to work perfectly…

Bierodrome (in Kensington St.), London

May 9th, 2006

Bierodrome, Kensington St. London
My first evening meal in London this trip was on Bierodrome (Horrible website, BTW. Flash, hard to navigate, and impossible to link to the specific place I’ve been to inside the general site) in Kensington St. next to the Holborn Underground station.

The reason for selecting it was quite simple. Location. It was late at night, on the street I had to take from the musical I just saw to the Underground station, and I was after a sleepless night because of the flight. So since it looked alright from the outside I decided getting in would be preferable to starting to wander around the area looking for another place.

I entered, stood by the door, and looked around. There was a large bar in the middle and to the left of the room, a few tables (some occupied) on the two walls nearer the door, and an area with smaller tables across the room. The important thing is that there were tables, and there were a few waiters walking around.

So two options, either I needed to sit down and wait for a waiter to arrive, or I needed to wait for a host to bring me to a table. But there wasn’t any potential host or hostess standing near the door, or was there a sign asking people to wait to be seated. After a few more seconds during which none of the waiters looked to my direction, I decided I should probably sit.

So I did. Not the right decision, though. It took a little while, but I figured out that nobody is coming with a menu.

I stood up, and started walking across the room to the other side, where a waitress just passed. And was surprised to see that in the corner of the area on the other side of the bar, the one across the room from the entrance, and which is hard to see well from the entrance given the muted lights, there’s a hostess stand. And the expected sign of waiting to be seated. The smaller tables were the restaurant’s, and the larger ones were for the bar, and probably intended for patrons to come and get their own drinks.

Fine arrangement for returning customers who know the place, very silly way to organize a room where new clients may stray in from the street.

Menu outside Bierodome in Kensington St. LondonOnce there the waitress/host approached me, and I asked for a table. I sat down, and received a menu. Or maybe there was a menu at a container on the side of the table. I think both, she probably gave me the food menu, but alcohol menu was there. I don’t exactly remember, and it doesn’t really matter.

For the food I took their Sausage Platter. It’s been a while since I ate sausages, and the raw materials seemed interesting. Pork and leek sausages, Wild boar in Chimay Beer (whatever that is) sausages, and Chicken with sun-dried tomato sausages.

A platter of three types of sausages meant one sample from each kind. More would have been better, but I can’t say I was surprised. The sausages themselves were good, though. All three. Though there were differences in quality, with one just being nice, and one being really good. Not sure which was which, since the spicing blurred the flavours of the listed main ingredients, but if I had to guess I’d say the best one was the Wild Boar and Chimay Beer sausage.

The “Belgian Mash” on which it was served was dull and unimpressive. The “Forest Fruits Juice” seemed to be mostly cranberries cooked until they started to become soft and slightly saucy, but it was good, and add flavour to the mash.

For a drink, given that I was in a pub, and they had a wide selection of draft beers I wasn’t familiar with, I decided to try the beers. An experiment that went on throughout my short stretch in England, ordering a different kind of beer with (almost) each meal.

The most interesting one on the menu was a St-Feuillien Blonde draft beer, so I ordered a pint. It was the most expensive beer they had on the menu, but also sounded like the one I have the least chance of trying elsewhere.

And it was really really good. The taste was more sweet and delicate than the beers I usually drink (Though usually may be too strong a word given that I don’t really get to drink beer much), but very tasty and easy to drink. And, I think, better than the other kinds I got to try later on.

Overall the place seems really nice, the interior design is comfortable and gives it a good atmosphere, and the food has potential. They just need to work a bit on the service, both to actually pay attention to people coming through the door, and on the general attitude (While my waitress did everything she should have had, she didn’t even bother faking being interested or caring much).

And they gave me one of those loyalty cards, which provides 50% off the food bill after four visits. Not a bad deal as such offers go, but in my case I don’t expect to be visiting London enough to actually manage to use it much. Though who knows, they didn’t write a year of expiry on it…

Hamburger Union, London

May 9th, 2006

Hamburger Union in London
My first lunch in London was in a Hamburger Union. One of the two branches they have in the West End, but I don’t quite remember which one.

As it was the first day, I was still in a state of being appalled by the extremely high prices of nearly everything in London, food included. The prices are significantly above those I’d pay around here for similar things.

Actually, it’s pretty well known that the prices are above what most people anywhere on the world will pay, but there’s a difference between knowing somewhere is expensive, and actually forcing yourself to pay money for something you’re used to value for less.

It takes quite a while to get used to the fact, and to really feel comfortable with the notions that these are the prices and nobody is trying to rip you off on purpose.

Though, given the fact that the Soho, and most of the West End, are big tourist attractions, I suppose it’s also possible that to some extent everyone actually was trying to rip everyone else off.

The area has an incredible amount of restaurants, pubs, and their ilk. But as I was walking around I had the problem of looking at menu after menu, and saying to myself that there’s no way I’m paying the exorbitant prices they want. There were places with lower prices, but they didn’t look like places I’d really want to go into, or will really agree to be forced into…

And then I saw this Hamburger Union, which while definitely screamed Fast Food at least looked nice and respectable. And their prices, at least the burger prices, were high but not as insane as most everything else around.

So in I went.

The first room is small, and basically just has a copy of the menu, and the counter for ordering. After placing the order I got a numbered card, and was directed to the next, and bigger, room with the tables.

I picked a table, and placed the card in the holder. Which was a bit more complicated than it sounds. I mean, the system is simple enough, there’s a small stand and two edge grippers you can put the card in.

But the shape would be perfectly suited to holding just a single bigger card. And so far most places where I encountered such a system had a card per table, since two strangers usually didn’t share a single table. And so I wasted some time trying to figure out how to use the entire holder for my card, before it dawned on me that I only needed to use one side of it.

My order, a burger with cheese and bacon, arrived after about a minute or two. They do have dishes beyond burgers, but given the name of the place, and the price issue, ordering a burger seemed like the thing to do.

The burger itself was a bit on the small side, but very good compared to my expectations from a fast food burger. The cheese and bacon were also nice, and blended in well.

The bun was obviously not mass-produced. Which had the disadvantage of it having a really weird shape (someone spilled some dough when putting it into the oven), but the advantage of it not being the tasteless mushy thing that was also a part of my expectations. So that’s a clear win.

Since, as I said, I was still in price shock, I didn’t try any side orders.

One thing on the menu surprised me, though. They have “Protein Style” burgers, which are the same burger except that it comes without a bun, and wrapped in lettuce instead. More like no-carb style than protein style, since no extra protein was added. But they’re priced the same as the regular burgers.

Vegetables too were more expansive in England, but I’m sure a lettuce leaf costs a lot less than a bun.I don’t know, for a Brit it may make sense, paying the same for the burger since he only eats the burger, and not wasting a bun. But from the perspective of an Israeli this is extremely rude, as people are asked to pay the same for getting less. Never mind that the target audience for this won’t use the extra, they still pay for it. Many would explicitly opt to take the regular one and leave the bun uneaten.

Overall, not exactly gourmet food, but it was quite nice.

International Opera Program in Tel-Aviv, my last master-class for this year

July 31st, 2005

On Thursday was the last International Opera Program in Tel-Aviv’s master-class that I went to. The last actual one was on Friday, but since I couldn’t get to it (a pity, since Paul Sperry would have been very interesting to see, I think), I don’t count it.

Before I go on, though, there’s one comment I want to make. Something that came up because I did not really expect the amount of ego surfing (“Ego-surfing” is the term for when someone runs an Internet search for their own name, or possibly other close people, to see what people write about them) that I’ve been seeing from singers in the program. I got plenty of such hits.

Now, the general rule when posting is be aware that anyone may read it, and I generally follow it, but if people are going to fall on these on purpose, there is something that I think may not be entirely obvious to someone who goes looking for stuff about herself (or himself, but so far the statistics of hits I got here say otherwise). I’m not a music reviewer. More importantly, while I am actually capable of providing much more accurate review of their singing and performance, I don’t. I can go on for each one about how they sang specific notes, how well they did their staccatos, how bright or dark were the notes, and plenty of other musical and singing parameters. But it isn’t interesting. At least, not for the purpose of me posting here.

I don’t expect anyone considering hiring the singers to take my words for anything. And this is why I only say some very few words about how they actually were, and go on with what was done with them. The result is that I may seem to be rather harsh and very critical. That’s not the point. I just want to write about the interesting bits from the class that I remember, and for a class those would invariably be what got mostly mentioned on the stage. Which would be exactly the things that the singers did wrong.

So if I start by listing a singer’s faults, and go on about how much work they got during the master-class, it doesn’t necessarily imply they were bad. It doesn’t necessarily imply they were good either, but they could have been. Most of them are good, or very good. But if someone read these posts thinking (mistakenly) that the point is to review the singers, they could get the impression that I think most of them are really bad. So if you’re one of the a singers who came here ego-surfing, don’t assume I wrote anything about you beyond what’s explicitly there. OK?

Now that’s that out of the way, back to the business at hand. The maser-class was supposed to be another one of Joan Dornemann’s, but she came on stage and informed us all, in a hoarse voice, that she has a sore throat and can’t really speak. She sounded convincing. Although, of course, if she just wanted to bail out, I’m sure given the circumstances she wouldn’t have had a problem faking a very convincing sore throat, or getting vocal coaching to help her do it if she can’t on herself. Not that I’m saying she did that, but it’s an amusing thought. I hope she got better, and after all this is indeed one of the risks of speaking a lot.

So instead of Joan we got Lucy Arner. Something which surprised me a bit, because while on some of the past years she did have a few master-classes, she didn’t officialy get one on this year’s program. So I originally assumed she just didn’t come. But since obviously she did arrive, she was right there after all, I’m not sure why exactly was it that they didn’t schedule her originally.

I did see two previous master-classes with her in the past, once of which was alright, and one which was bad since in it she was very technical with the singer and didn’t pay much attention to the audience. So when Joan announced the switch, I was somewhat apprehensive. As it turned out, though, she was excellent and interesting, so my worries were entirely unfounded. Still, I must not have been the only one, since there were a few people who up and left when Joan got off the stage. Their loss.

The first singer was an Israeli mezzo-soprano called Maya Lahyani. She sang Must the winter come so soon?, from Vanessa, by Samuel Barber. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I was a bit concerned for purely prejudicial reasons, when I saw the name Lahyani in connection with opera. I am however glad to say that those concerns were unfounded, and she was a really good singer. She had a very lovely and clear voice, and while her diction was a little flaky it was still possible to understand everything. Of course, with the way many people around here speak English, it’s not such a surprise that it’s easy to understand English regardless of how it’s pronounced, but that’s not her fault.

And in case anyone cares, according to Lucy this is a very good audition aria, short and beautiful. It’s also one of Lucy’s favourites, apparently, but that means it’s a bad piece if she’s giving the audition, since she’s bound to notice every little thing.

In this case they just worked on diction. Lucy said that English is a hard language in this regard, all full of not only diphthongs, but triphthongs and quadriphthongs as well. Well, I’m not entirely sure about those last, but that’s what she said, even if in half-jest. She also said some of them are ridiculous, which is really no way to speak about a language, is it? Even one having ridiculous sounds.

Lucy also corrected some cases where Maya drew the sounds beyond where the word ended, telling her that there are no vowels there, so she shouldn’t sing them. And in an amusing twist gave an example of a famous singer, but one who does it wrong, instead of one who does it right “You may have heard Pavarotti sing like that. Pavarotti has all these extra vowels”.

We also received two comments related to other languages. One was that “French is a very good language for singing in English”, since it has vowels which correspond well to the sounds required when singing in English. The other was about parts of the song where the singer blows air which isn’t used directly for the note being sung “Air that doesn’t support the tone is a big no-no in Italian. But a yes-yes in English”.

There was another part where Lucy wanted Maya to sing more slurred R consonants. She asked her “How do you make a slurred R?”, and when she couldn’t give her a good answer responded with “People don’t think about that. I think about that… I have too much free time on my hands”. And went on to explain that you can make a slurred R by pulling the tongue out a bit, and the lower sides of the cheeks (She used a better terminology, but since the proper words elude me at the moment, that will have to do) inside. Now you know.

The second singer was Karina Lucas, a mezzo-soprano from England. She sang Il padre adorato, from Idomeneo, by Mozart. She had a nice voice, but a little flat. Mostly Lucy worked with her on staying closer to the score, stating that in this case, especially given the recitative parts, Mozart does not give the singer a lot of leeway, “go with the orchestra”. At one point she did say that in some cases, had it been another composer, then the change Karina made might have been a good idea, but in this case “Mozart, him I trust”, even if he was just 24 at the time.

Lucy also told her that in cases of recitatives she must pay a lot more attention to the consonants. Something which singers don’t do a lot when singing Italian, since “Italian is a vowel’s language”. Which I think is somewhat amusing considering Italian only has five of them, but it’s true that they are still what you mostly hear, and often the consonants get smoothed over.

The original third singer did not arrive, with Lucy saying something I didn’t quite hear, but which resulted in her stating the singer was just too tired. Instead we got a duet, The Cherry Duet, from L’Amico Fritz, by Mascagni. The singers were Talia Or, who as usual had a great voice but was somewhat lacking diction and acting, and a tenor whose name I didn’t manage to catch. When he said it the name sounded a little like Pierre, but he didn’t look like a Pierre, so I really don’t know. He was nice, but gave me the impression he was more speaking, than singing, his aria.

When they announced what they are going to sing, Lucy said “Oh, too bad!”, going on to say that it’s one of her favourite arias (yes, again. She must have had a good day. Or she really likes a lot of arias). As another side note, this was one of the very rare times when the pianist received a mini-lecture as well, about something which he (Rolando Garza) apparently didn’t do right. Lucy is a known pianist herself, so it makes sense she pays attention.

In the aria Suzel and Fritz are meeting when she is picking cherrys, and he offers to help. Or as Lucy put it “They are talking about picking cherrys… Yeah, right!”. And tried to get the two singers to look a little more like there’s something going on beneath the surface. She went on in great length about the movie Continental Divide in which there is a scene where supposedly the two main characters have a discussion about ornithology which just barely mask that “they are actually making love with words”. Nobody in the hall seemed to have seen the movie, though. Including the singers. Still, the idea should have been easy enough to get. But neither of them seemed to be able to hold it for more than a few seconds.

There was another one of those pick a hot actor parts, and Lucy got Tom Cruise’s name back as an example. She wasn’t too happy with it, though, saying that “Everybody says Tom Cruise. Can you please be more original?”. Eventually I think they settled for Harrison Ford.

At another part she said that they needed to be a little less focused on the exact singing, and go with their instincts. That it’s a problem for them because the teachers “nag them all the time about their a vowel, and double consonants”, during which Talia Or started to very dramatically nod up and down with her head to show that they are indeed getting nagged a lot about their a vowels. Goes to prove that she does have the dramatic acting ability, she just needs proper motivation.

We then went on a break. The cue for the audience was the usual one: half the singers were gone, and nobody else rushed immediately on-stage when the duo left. Lucy took a little longer to get it, I think because she didn’t have a master-class in a while, and this was indeed a last minute thing. So kept yelling backstage for them to send the next singer. But soon enough people from the audience shouted at her that there’s an intermission, and she was kind enough to allow us (well, the half that didn’t reach the doors of the hall yet) to take a 10 minute break.

During which I saw the last duo and a couple of other singers leave. Usually the singers stay to watch the other master-classes and students, so I noticed that they leisurely went away. Not sure why, but it doesn’t matter much, I suppose.

The first singer after the intermission was Amit Friedman, an Israeli baritone. He sang Herr Gott Abrahams, from Elijah, by Mendelssohn. He had a good voice. But I feel sorry for the guy, because even if he was a totally amazing singer, which he wasn’t, he’s still going to have a hard time finding someone who will want him on stage. He’s very very tall, and thin. In addition to that he also stands very hunched and tucks in his chin, possibly due to years of talking to people who are shorter than him. The overall effect is that he looks extremely awkward and out of place. There may be a few roles he could fit into, but in most places he will look very inappropriate when on stage.

A large part of the lesson was therefore spent trying to get him to stand straight, and not look all hunched and tucked in. Which didn’t really help. At best he’s extremely used to standing like that, and at worst it’s now physical. This may be alright when talking to people, but is a great problem for his stage presence. Lucy did get him to force himself to straighten up a few times, but it never held.

Elijah is also an oratorio rather than an opera. So this aria is “an oratorio aria, not an opera aria. The singing is the same, but the details are different”. Meaning that they worked on several points done a little differently. It also has sequences which start in the high notes, and culminate in the low notes, with the climax at the lowest. This is the opposite of what usually happens in Italian, and most arias, so takes some practice to do right. Which he did after it was pointed out to him and he tried it a couple of times.

The last singer was Shlomi Wagner (not related AFAIK, but definitely raised the musical expectations), also a baritone from Israel. He sang Bella siccome un angelo, from Don Pasquale, by Donizetti. He’s still young, and lacking both his very high notes and very low notes, but he has a beautiful voice, strong vibrato, and will probably become an excellent singer once he’ll grow up some more and keep practising.

In this aria Dr. Malatesta tries to describe to Don Pasquale a women he wants him to marry. The women is… not impressive, to say the least, so the aria is in essence a sales pitch, full of empty compliments and outright lies. Much of what they did in the lesson was trying to get Shlomi to put it more in this perspective, mostly from the acting angle. As she told him, he’s trying to sell damaged goods, and should present the aria like the stereotypical slick used-cars salesmen.

They went on with him singing, while all the time she was throwing various metaphors at him related to what is going on in the aria. At one point the aria goes on about how the women is as fresh as the lilies, so Lucy pointed to one of the large flower pots at the side of the stage saying “as fresh as the lilies over there…”. Except those are plastic flowers, so she went straight on with “Fresh NOT like the lilies over there. Looking a bit fake”.

At another point the aria goes on about her enchanting smile, and Lucy added “The most beautiful smile… hiding the worst dental works in history”.

As for singing, there was a time when he held a note for a too short duration. After telling him to lengthen it, for a few times, she jokingly exclaimed that “You’re twenty. You’re into instant gratification”.

Also, when he needed to sing a note he couldn’t quite reach, she told him how to sing so it will be less noticeable “want you to do that soft, since your voice don’t have these low notes yet, and we don’t want them to know that”. And later “We’re going to take out the g-flat. For now. Next year, you get the g-flat.”

There was one more incident, going on during the time Shlomi was singing. I heard a cell-phone ringtone from behind me. I looked around, and saw some lady starting to rummage inside her bag. It seemed like she started to press some buttons, since the phone beeped in a manner fitting a cellphone keypad, but it didn’t quite stop the ringtone played. The lady got a lot of attention, and eventually managed quiet the phone down.

A few seconds later, that’s right, her phone rang again, but this time she quieted it rather quickly. About a minute after that… Anyone cares to guess? That’s right, her phone rang, and she once again started to fiddle with it inside her bag. Apparently the concept of shutting a phone down, or disconnecting the battery if they can’t locate the off button, is beyond the intellect level of some people.

Oh, and the best part? When she did that on this last time she quietly (But I was close enough to hear) and angrily uttered to herself “Nimaas li!”, which can be roughly translated as “I had enough of this!” or “I’m tired of this!”. She, you notice. Because she‘s the one being bothered. Not the rest of the audience, and the singer and coach on stage. She had enough… These people still manage to amaze me every time, though I should really get used to it by now.

A very enjoyable evening, overall, and a good master-class. As far as the program goes, I’m scheduled to go to one of their aria concerts, and one of the operas, but I’m not sure there will be anything warranting a post. Until next year, then.

In this series (International Opera Program 2005):

  1. International Opera Program in Tel-Aviv
  2. International Opera Program, part 2
  3. International Opera Program, part 3
  4. International Opera Program, Part 4
  5. International Opera Program in Tel-Aviv, my last master-class for this year

International Opera Program, Part 4

July 28th, 2005

On Tuesday I’ve been to another master-class in the International Opera Program in Tel-Aviv. The second, and last, one by John Norris for this year.

There were only five singers on the program this time. Not only that, but John started off by mentioning that two of them wouldn’t show up and will be replaced by others.

And of course, right after I used the previous post to say how there is an oddly high ratio of female sopranos compared to the other singers, on this class there was only one female singer. Though a soprano.

The first singer was Andrew Sritheran, a tenor from New Zealand. He sang E lucevan le stelle, from Tosca, by Puccini. He had an excellent voice, clear and deep. He might have had a slight problem on the high notes, but overall sang very well. His main problem was being too tense and rigid, which mainly affected his pose, but also, a little, his singing.

John worked with him to have him relax, and to get into the rhythm of the piece. The singer was also acting like he was singing to the back wall, while the aria should have been directed more inside, as if singing to himself. This probably came from basic singing lessons where singers are often told to sing out to the audience. By the time they reached the end of the aria together, there was a very noticeable improvement.

The seconds singer (not listed in the program page, so may be misspelled) was David Baumine. He sang Avant de quitter ces lieux, from Faust, by Gounod. His singing was good, but he was acting too indifferent, without clearly expressing what was going over the character.

John said he needs to “bring the aria to life”. He worked on developing a spatial relation to the piece, choosing specific direction on stage where Marguerite would be, and where the other fellow soldiers would be. They then worked on the proper pose and expressions suitable for when speaking to each of these and when praying to god, and later on the transitions and places where more complex things needed to be expressed. Since this is a class, John had him go a little overboard, including putting his hand to his chest when turning to Marguerite, something he said he’d never let him actually do on stage in a performance.

The third singer was Andrew Heggie (Yep, we had two Andrews on stage), a Baritone from England. At least, on the program he’s listed as coming from England, but he deemed it important enough to inform us that while he does live in England for several years, he’s originally from Australia. He sang Deh vieni alla finestra, from Don Giovanni, by Mozart. He was alright, but not impressive at all. He sang too weakly, didn’t hold some notes for the correct length, and had a slightly brittle voice. He also seemed much too bored for someone singing a serenade to a women in an attempt to seduce her.

As it turned out, he was also not entirely aware what was happening in the aria, thinking Don Giovanni was going after Donna Elvira. John reminded him that he’s not serenading to her, he already has her and she just left for some time, but instead was trying to seduce her maid. He told him he should act more like a scene of seduction “One girl out of the way, another in the way”.

Trying to get Andrew to look like he’s lusting after a women didn’t work, so John introduced the theatre concept of substitution. Finding something else which can act as a substitute to what is needed. And decided to go with food. Probably because the two things do tie together, and the reactions are somewhat similar, and not just because Andrew looked like he really likes food.

So John said to Andrew “Tell me some things you really like to eat, which are really bad for you”, and then proceeded to indicate three separate area on the stage which Andrew was supposed to pretend contained one a pile of pizzas, the second a pile of spring rolls, and the third a pile of lemon-meringue pies. Some older lady sitting a couple of rows behind me said to someone in a low voice that they have very similar tastes.

And then John had Andrew sing the aria again, while constantly drawing his attention to the imaginary piles of food. Which did wonders, since the guy really did manage to put on an expression full of desire, as he was directing his gaze from one food to the next on John’s cues, “Feel the oil, the oil!”. As John commented “Sometimes substitution is better than the real thing”.

The fourth singer will have to remain a mystery. The guy didn’t bother presenting himself when he came on stage. Actually, he didn’t even presented the piece, which is a big huge no-no. With most other teachers, for example I explicitly remembering it happening with Joan a couple of times, he would have been stopped and instructed to do it properly. Now, normally I’d assume he is who the printed program said he is, Nimrod Grinboim, a tenor from Israel, except that we were told there would be two changes, and the following singer was exactly the one on the list. The guy was an Israeli, though, so it’s possible it was indeed him. In any case, what he sang was Una furtiva lagrima, from L’Elisir d’Amore (Love Potion), by Donizetti. He sang reasonably, but looked too happy and smug for the aria.

John tried working with him, as usual, on getting into the mood of the aria, and connecting to it emotionally. And failed miserably. Whatever John tried to do, the guy just wouldn’t get it. I seriously got the impression he came on stage wanting to sing to the audience, but wasn’t interested at all in learning anything.

The first thing John did was the tried-and-true method of getting him to say the words in his own language. The intention is not to provide a translation, but to “say it in your own words”, to get something with the same semantic meaning, but which it will be easier to relate to. Anyone who saw practically any of these master-class would have gotten the concept, anyone studying a little singing should have, and even the friend who came with me to this evening (and who was seeing something opera related for the first time ever) got the concept. Yet this singer didn’t. He used a translation which resulted in sentences so archaic that nobody would have been able to relate to them emotionally. Later on, when he had to do the same for some other words, he had very hard time of coming up with anything that he would say to a women who he loves and knows loves him back in turn.

It went like that for the entire lesson. Horribly bad translations, and total failure to connect emotionally on any level. Nothing, Nada, zilch. He just didn’t bother trying, and only kept going through the motions until he’ll be released. Either that, or he just finds the entire concept of love so foreign that there is nothing for him to relate to. Laziness and lack of care seem more likely, I think and hope.

The last singer was Rinat Moriah, a soprano from Israel. She sang Glitter and be gay, from Candide, by Bernstein. She has a good voice, and good vocal control, but she sang a little too quietly and weakly. At one spot during the aria she stopped for a second as she forgot the words, and John came to her rescue and provided it for her. Apart from that it was a good performance, and she did make an effort to show some emotions and match her mood to the aria. Very good potentional here, I think, once she’ll learn how to get more breath.

One thing she didn’t do quite right, but rather easily corrected once it was mentioned, is that she sang to the audience (as Joan Dornemann said on a past master-class, they should sing for the audience, but not to the audience), while in the aria Cunegonde was talking to herself. Other than that they worked on making the acting even more connected, and more appropriate to the nuances and changes in the aria. When the aria went about her looks and clothes, John told her to imagine a large mirror between herself and the audience, and observe herself in the mirror. Later on a similar part he had her examine her supposed jewellery, since even though the master-class was done without costumes, the character has them, and will have them during a performance.

Some of the ways to elicit the proper behaviour and emotional mood were somewhat amusing. Like the part she had to go from the self-reassuring happy thought about her clothing and looks, to a more sad and introspective mood, and he said “And then we see the first wrinkle…”.

A very good evening overall. Though we did come out confused over that mysterious singer who came for some unclear goal…

International Opera Program, part 3

July 27th, 2005

Monday evening I went to yet another master-class in the International Opera Program in Tel-Aviv.

The well established fact – that it’s impossible for my father to go anywhere without meeting someone who knows him, was demonstrated once more, as we came across no less than three different people who said hello to him. At least this solved the problem of how to pass the time until the show started.

Another change was that they started selling those T-Shirts of the opera program. White shirts with blue prints. The money supposedly goes to support the musical studies, so a price of 50 ILS per shirt is understandable in that regard. Yet they did raise the actual ticket prices a lot over the years, so we weren’t too inclined to donate more.

The master-class was again by Joan Dornemann. On the latest years, when it becomes harder to bring extra talent to teach, Joan shoulders more of the burden herself. She does bring John Norris, but if I recall correctly he does exactly two master-classes on each years.

On this particular evening all the student singers were Israelis.

The printed program only listed five singers for the evening. The first one on stage was not on the list (ergo I may have misspelled the name), a girl called Lauren Yelinkovitz. She started by singing Oh Mio Bambino Caro, from Gianni Schicchi, by Puccini. She had an overall nice voice, good pronunciation, but sang too weakly and without any expressions of emotions. The hand-clapping of the audience were a bit mild, and Joan told her that she needed to show more personality, and act a little more. Joan then asked her if she had also prepared a different piece.

It does happen sometimes when for some reason the teacher doesn’t want to go over the aria which was just sung, but in this case it appeared to be out of the blue. Lauren said that she had, and shortly started to sing Popular from the musical (yes, that’s right, musical) Wicked. Not only that, but she sang it like a musical piece rather than an aria piece. And she acted it as well, instead of just singing. She certainly did show a whole lot more personality. It was quite obvious something a little fishy was going on. And indeed after she finished, and got plenty of cheers (she sang well, and it was fun, though her voice did tend to be a bit squeaky when she went to the higher notes), Joan said that it’s a preview for the Broadway evening. After that the singer went off the stage. She wasn’t really there for a master-class.

As one of the aria concerts in the series, there will be one where their singers will sing songs from musicals, instead of arias. Since they haven’t yet sold all the tickets, they decided to give us this song as a sort of a self publicity effort. It’s sadly understandable why it wasn’t sold out. The opera crowd they usually attract isn’t exactly interested in musicals, many of them are very old, and old fashioned in what they want to hear. And people interested in musicals may be reluctant to hear those songs performed by opera singers. Which is also why I’m not going to be there myself, since my one friend who realy likes musicals does not like opera, and so preferred to stay clear of this. It’s even sadder, considering that as hard as it is to see operas in Israel, it’s much much harder to catch a musical in English around here.

The first actual master-class singer was Shira Raz, a mezzo-soprano. She sang Svegliatevi nel core, from Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar), by Handel. I’ve heard her in the past, and she’s a very good singer. I really liked her voice, and her singing. Her only problem was with the pronunciation and diction. Joan thought so too. She started off by saying that this is a very difficult aria, and that it’s usually sung by a contra-tenor. That the piece is bouncy, and very personal, and listeners usually either really like it, or really don’t like it. She went on to say that as far as this aria is concerned, singers are divided clearly into two groups, “Those who can sing it, and of those who can’t sing it. Those who can, there is nothing to say to them about it, and those who can’t, well, there is nothing much to say to them either”. And that Shira certainly can sing it.

And then of course came the heavily emphasized “However”, followed by a lot of criticism on her pronunciation and diction. She said that what Shira sang wasn’t Italian, it was an amalgamation of all sorts of languages, including bits of ancient Hebrew, Latin, Greek, and so on. She turned to the crowd, and asked how many people speak Italian. There were something like 3-5 people who raised their hands, including my father. She then asked if they understood the words Shira sang, to which the replies ranged from occasionally to sometimes. Certainly no yeses.

Joan went on to say that there are basically two reasons for lousy diction, that the singer is “either lazy, or dumb”. She then went on about how industrious and hard working she knows Shira to be. But before the crowd got too full of mirth, Joan also said she doesn’t think Shira is dumb either, “which leaves one thing, you didn’t think about it”. Joan went on to explain to her that paying attention to diction is important, and that she should take it seriously and work on it.

Joan then went over the aria with her, in the typical master-class fashion, correcting various diction errors as she went along. The thing is, Italian only has five vowels. A lot less than many other languages. So very often you hear singers who aren’t native Italians singing Italian arias with all sorts of sounds which just don’t exist in the language. On a master-class some years ago Joan called it “singing Italian in French”. And she said, with some hyperbole, now “Italian has 5 vowels. French has 27 vowels. And German has 528 vowels”. By the end of the lesson, my father said Shira’s words became a lot more understandable.

Then came Assif Am-David, a male (The only one this evening. Actually, most classes feel skewed towards females, and sopranos. I’m not entirely sure why) baritone. He sang Tutto è disposto, Figaro’s third aria, from Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), by Mozart. He had good voice, and good clear diction. Basically a very impressive performance, except that he seemed to get too harp at times. More so than I noticed at other times I heard this Aria performed. Joan described it better, by saying he sang it as if Figaro was angry. She started off by asking him a little about how much he worked on the aria and if he practice it a lot (yes). She said that it looks very structured and formed, like it was already very fine-tuned by him and his teacher, to reach a very specific and well crafted performance. She said she doesn’t really want to work with him on any specific part, since doing so may shake something of the structure of the aria he has established for himself, and make it all tumbling down forcing him to learn it from the start.

Yet she did tell him that he should try to do it less angry. That “Mozart did not write angry people”. The style at the time in Italy, and the way Mozart wrote, was more witty. Figaro does rant against women in the aria, but it’s all slightly veiled and hinted. Figaro doesn’t go around screaming in anger, but more circumspectly tries to warn his friends about the dangers of women. They went over parts of the aria where he tried to sing and act a little less angry, and it was an improvement.

The next singer was Gal James, singing Mi chiamano Mimì, the first Mimi’s aria, from La Bohème, by Puccini. She has a good deep voice, dark high tones, and barely passable diction. Mostly Joan worked with her on fitting her acting and tone to what is going on in the opera. Joan had Gal sitting on a chair, and brought a guy to sit in front of her on a second chair to pose and Rodolfo. This was slightly more complex than the similar things from the previous master-classes I listed here, since he also had to move a little according to the aria’s progression.

They elaborated on the situation on the aria. Such as that Mimì isn’t originally as shy as Gal portrayed her, since she did come to Rodolfo of her own accord on a made-up pretext. Or that in two points during the aria Puccini inserted the same note he used by the end of the opera when Mimì died, and this can be used to show a little hint that not all is entirely well.

There was also a little joke from Joan, coming up as part of the discussion, going something like “Of course it’s possible to fall in love in half an hour! You don’t believe me, go to Italy, you’ll see… Of course, you may also not stay in love for more than half an hour.”

Dana Marbach, another Soprano, sang Saper vorreste, from Un Ballo in Maschera (Dance in Mask? I don’t think I encountered an official translation in English), by Verdi. A very short aria, with plenty of “Tra la la la la” bits. She was very nice, but the “la” words sounded half swallowed sometimes. The character played, Oscar, is a guy. Joan told Dana that she crossed her hands like a women does, and to go get some sessions with John Norris to work with her on walking like a boy.

Joan also tries to make her stop pulling her shoulders up whenever she was drawing a breath, stating that her lunges are more down, and that it doesn’t help the singing a single bit. She did say that dancers sometimes breath higher than singers, but then asked Dana if she thinks she’s a singer, the answer to which was of course a No. Joan put hands on her shoulders to remind her to keep them down. Later on she had her singing while standing on one foot, to help her concentrate on her body’s position and balance.

Joan also mentioned the “La” words, saying that in Italian she needs to make a sharper “L” sound with the top of her tongue, not a think one with the back of it.

The last singer was Anastasia Klevan, also a soprano. She sang Donde lieta uscì, the second Mimi’s aria, from La Bohème, by Puccini. She sounded alright, with decent diction, but nothing too exciting or inspiring. She also occasionally went on notes that weren’t according to the text. Another big problem with her was that she was being very much out of character, since (as we found out once Joan asked her about the story) she was wrong about what is going on in the aria.

This aria occurs after Mimì discovers that her love Rodolfo broke up with her. Joan asked Anastasia why is that, and she said that she thinks Rodolfo is jealous. At which point Joan went on about how some singers just read their own text, and the pages of the opera they need to sing, without reading the rest. Mimì is very sick at this stage of the story, and Rodolfo earlier in the story said to a friend he cannot stand being with her, watching her dying, knowing that he cannot help, and does not have the money to get help for her. But since Anastasia didn’t read this part, she was only aware of the official excuse, that Rodolfo was jealous. And so the whole aria was sung differently. The aria should have been more tragic, with internal desperation, not with annoyance.

Anastasia also sang a few notes longer than specified. And some notes differently from what was written. Joan said something like “You don’t get to do that. There are rules. You park here. You sing this note that long. You don’t do that, they take away your car, they take away you job”. Later on, on a more general note to all the singers there “You guys don’t read the music”, or “You poor composers. You make up these things, thinking I won’t notice”.

When going over the aria, someplace near the end Anastasia smiled, eliciting from Joan a comment of “That’s a very big smile for a very sick girl”. There was also a point where she tried the method of getting Anastasia to say some of the words in her own language, in this case Russian. She told her to say in Russian “Listen to me!”, to which Anastasia replied that there aren’t words for that in Russian. Joan dismissed that with “I was in Russia. And they said Listen to me! They had no problem with that.”

Reading this post of mine again, there is just one thing I think I need to explicitly clarify, about Joan Dornemann. I quoted (From memory and hastily half-scribbled notes, so all quotes are approximate) plenty of stinging and sarcastic comments. She isn’t really like that. She does use barbed words sometime to drive a point home, but she’s extremely nice, warm, and friendly. A lot of it is a matter of tone, but I can’t say anything that would be clearer than read those quotes with a Joan Dornemann voice. Since most of the people reading it doesn’t know it, assume it sounded totally without malice, and with underlying humour. Plus, of course it’s mostly those type of sentences which stick to my mind well enough to quote, so the sample you get is already biased. All the totally nice and happy things may matter more for a singer, but lack any… journalistic appeal from me side. You’d be bored senseless from this post if I quoted those.

Overall it was still a nice and enjoyable evening, but not the best master-class I’ve been to.

Oh, and as we were leaving we saw the fire hydrant outside leaking a lot water. Despite telling someone from the staff about it last week…

International Opera Program, part 2

July 25th, 2005

On Thursday I have been to another master-class in the International Opera program.

As before, due to reasons of traffic, I had to arrive some time before the actual show started. It being a warm day (outside. The AC inside worked fine, but I did have to cross from the car to the hall), and me being a little thirsty, I decided to take a risk and sample the food stand they opened up in there.

So I went for the iced-vanilla drink. On the good side, it didn’t taste just like chicken. On the bad side, it wasn’t all that iced, and worse – it wasn’t all that vanilla. It did have an odd sweet and sticky taste reminiscent of cheap artificial-vanilla-flavour powders that I didn’t get to try for years and years. Next time, I’ll drink before going out.

There was a fire hydrant outside which was spilling a lot of water all over the place, making a huge pond in the park’s grass (The conservatorium is located inside a small public park). We went to look for someone in charge of the facilities, and failing to find anyone we went to the musical admin instead, and informed a guy who said he’ll pass it on. [update:Been there again today for another master-class. As we went out, we saw the same fire hydrant happily leaking water]

[update: Forgot to mention the bit in this paragraph on the original post] When we entered the hall we found two women sitting in our seats. And the seats are numbered, and issued on the ticket. We double checked the row and seat numbers, which matched what we recalled. One of the women pulled her own tickets, and showed us they listed the same row and seats. What she didn’t notice was that her tickets had the wrong date. Once we pointed out this minor detailed they found their actual tickets and moved. They didn’t show any inclination to go do something about the already torn tickets, but I hope they did or they won’t be able to use them on the actual date.

The master-class was taught by John Norris. He does not work with the singers about their singing, but rather on acting, and pose. While some of the older members of the audience seem to be stuck in the opinion that nothing besides singing matters, thing beside singing do matter. The singers have to appear as if they’re convincingly singing what they’re actually singing. Seeing a passionate love song sung in a completely indifferent face is bad, and quite jarring.

Not only that, but by making the singers concentrate on what the aria is about, they also sing it better, in a way which is more fitting of the mood and atmosphere. So while he doesn’t directly work with them on the singing, it is still affected.

This time all the singers, except one, were not Israelis. The all came from the area of the Americas. There was also one less singer, since one did not arrive due to reasons which were not specified to us.

On a further technical issue, the lighting were arranged wrong, and it was hard to see the singers, so after the first one we took an early recess while it was being taken care of.

Lea Friedman, from Hawaii, was the first singer, singing Juliet’s Waltz from Romeo and Juliet by Gounod. She had a very clear voice, but sang a little bit too quietly. She was also too wound up and tight, and this is what John worked with her on, trying to get her to loosen up, so she could express more of the joy that the aria should have.

The first trick included letting her fall backward a bit, let him catch her, and push her back up. The sensation of falling is liberating, and it’s enough of a shake to make it hard keeping too tight. He told her to just drop back whenever she felt the need, and that he’ll catch her. This worked very nicely, except this one time when he a little farther than usual, and gave her a start when he only caught her up a bit after she expected…

Also, to get from her the proper posture and behaviour she should have when thinking of a handsome guy she may meet at the ball she’s invited to, he told her to imagine that someone she believes attractive is standing there, and they settled for Brad Pitt. It was amusing, and she did perk up properly.

Another thing the did near the end was to get her spinning several times, and at a point he had her throw off her shoes before spinning. Not something she should do on an actual performance, of course, but a good way on practice to get into the feeling of the proper mood.

Pascale Beudin from Canada came next, singing Pamina’s aria from The Magic Flute. She had a bit of an overly squeaky voice. Mostly John worked with her on getting a more emotional response, fitting the different stages in the aria.

He used a common technique, getting someone else to sit on the stage, to serve the role of Tamino. Since the point in the aria is for Pamina to get Tamino’s attention, Tamino sat with his back to her, and she had to act like she’s trying to get him to notice her and turn around.

They went over the aria, going through the several different emotional states, pausing occasionally for her to say and act in her own words what Pamina says in the aria. This is also a very common technique, and helps the singer see how their body language relates to the words. It’s easier to connect to emotional phrases in your native tongue. Since she’s a Canadian he gave her the option of going with English or French, and she decided to go with English.

He went with her over several different kinds of moods/attitudes that could fit. One was an attempt to show Tamino what will be denied him. Which rolled the crowd in laughter with her modern version, “No nookie for you!”.

Another amusing part was near the end, at the death threat. After saying “I’ll kill myself!” in the spirit of the aria, there was a comment (I don’t remember if from Pascale or someone else) “I’d actually rather kill him”. After the laughter subsided John replied that it may be so in “modern times, but in the olden days” it was different.

Rachel Mondenaro, from the US, sang Violetta’s first aria from La Traviata. She had a strong and deep voice, but somewhat too breathy, and she mostly looked like she was singing to the floor. John worked with her on trying to appear more dazed, more shocked, as she contemplates Alfredo and the discovery that he so deeply loves her. During the aria he had her act like she’s almost fainting and falling on a chair (which she did far too carefully and daintily, but it’s a start). Later on they went through sobering up, and at the end of the aria, when Alfredo arrives, he said that she should show some strong reaction. It can be either a good one, or a bad one, to be suddenly confronted by Alfredo and the reality, but there should be a reaction.

Angel Ruz, from Mexico, sang Quanto è bella, quanto è cara from L’Elisir d’Amore (Love Potion). He was the only male singer this evening, and a sole Tenor against all the other Sopranos. Even the singer who didn’t arrive was a soprano. His singing originally wasn’t entirely smooth, like there was some noise in the background of the sound (A poor description, I know, but the proper terms seem to elude me for the moment). He also seemed totally unconvincing as he sang the self deprecating love song from Nemorino to Adina.

Here John also used another person to sit on the stage as Adina, and give him focus. For most of the, very short, aria they worked on getting Angel to say the words in his own language, so he could put himself on the proper posture and expression.

One amusing part was when john, trying to help him understand what he wants him to say, told him to say in his own words something like “I’m pathetic, I suck”. To which Angel, the Mexican, replied with “What does it mean suck?”.

Most of the times his Spanish versions of “you are so beautiful” etc, were very much inane instead of passionate, but on some cases he did loosen up with his Spanish ending up with much more… er… powerful descriptions, which amused the crowd to no end.

Most importantly, the guy did improve noticeably afterwards. Not only did he looked to be far more into it, but his voice became more appropriate and more clean.

As a side note, someone looking very much like him (Well, it was him, but since I’m not 100% sure I don’t want to say it) was wandering around before the performance started, holding tightly and kissing some good looking girl. So supposedly he should be capable of expressing his love.

Next on the printed plan for the evening is Gal James. [update: fixed an uncertainty about her name I had in the original post]She sang Adriana’s Aria – Io son l’umile ancella, from Adriana Lecouvreur by Cilèa. She had a good deep voice, but sounded like she tried to avoid going to the high notes.

She did well, and John mostly worked with her on properly portraying the Diva part. There were improvements, but nothing too exciting happened during that part of the performance.

Overall, again, a good and enjoyable show.

International Opera Program in Tel-Aviv

July 20th, 2005

On Monday started the annual International Opera Summer Program, aka International Opera Program in Tel-Aviv, aka (as they call it in Hebrew) International Opera Workshop in Tel-Aviv. Yes, they’re having a hard time deciding on a name, and keeping the same name in all the publications, in both English and Hebrew.

This program has been going on for 19 years now. The moving force behind the program is the amazing Joan Dornemann from the Metropolitan Opera in New York. For all these years she manages to arrange and bring a great team of singers, musicians and choreographers, who give a series of public master-classes, and raise several arias concerts and operas. The student singers who perform, and take the master-classes, come both from Israel, and from many other countries, and are usually very good, and right before (or during) embarking on actual performance careers.

The city of Tel-Aviv is partially funding the program, and ticket prices are lower than the excessive amounts one need to pay to see an actual opera production. Despite that over the years the prices have climbed pretty high. Originally (Not when the program started, but when I started going, about 12 or so years ago, give or take a few years) they took prices which were about a third of the current ones. Still, 45 ILS for a master-class, and 90 ILS for an opera production (even if the music is usually adapted for a single piano), are relatively not expensive these days.

Over the last several years, as in this year, the first two weeks are master-classes, and the last two are arias concerts and operas.

Sadly as time goes by less and less people seem willing to come here to give master-classes, and Joan herself carries more of the burden. This isn’t that bad, because Joan is quite amazing. She’s interesting, entertaining, and very nice. While she does wonders with the student singers, and seem to be able to give ideas for improvement for each one, she is well aware that she is appearing in front of an audience, and fills the master-class with explanations, stories, background information, and even opera gossip.

And yet, less artists who give master-classes directly translates to less master-classes. Overall I enjoy these, and certainly learn from these, a lot more than the actual operatic productions they make. Plus, this becomes less and less of a way to get exposed to artists I would normally not get to ever see and hear, even if they’re not singing themselves on the master-class. Like for example this one year she managed to bring here the incredible Federico Devia, on the year before he died.

I’m booked for several master-classes this year, as well as one opera and one concert. I’d have gone to more, but finding people to go with to the opera is difficult. As it is, there are very rarely any people in the crowd in my own age group, not including other student singers on the program who come to see the others perform. The crowd is mostly comprised of people around their 80s, and some people around their late 50s. So I can go to a few master-classes with my father, but his work hours overlap most shows (19:30 on the evening of workdays. That’s way too early). Occasionally I manage to drag a friend for one of the evenings, but most years that’s a problem, and even when I do it’s not many.

One of the master-classes I did book was the first one, on the opening night.

That 19:30 hours is also a problem, since it’s high traffic time in the Tel-Aviv area. I had to leave work early to make sure I have enough time. Happily the roads were not very crowded on this specific day, though I still have some more to go, which statistically would be. But as things were, I didn’t need all the spare time I allocated for the drive, and I arrived about half an hour early, as did my father

Before entering into the hall we saw in the crowd a local well-known actor, Moni Moshonov. The guy looked… horrible. Baggy pants, T-Shirt with a large print, in desperate need of a haircut, and bloodshot eyes. I myself don’t ever go as far out as to wear a proper suit and tie, but I’d still never would have gone to a cultural event like that looking even half as bedraggled as he did. It took me a while, and several repeated looks, to make sure it’s really him. But I suppose actors and artists make their own rules, eh?

His presence may have been explained by the fact that one of the student singers on the master-class was named Alma Moshonov. True, there are more Moshonovs in the country than him, but the name isn’t very common. So I assume a relative. But I may be mistaken, maybe he just likes opera. Or maybe he was there for a different reason, the hall was one belonging to a conservatorium, after all. [update: She's his daughter. Plus, her mother's brother is an opera singer himself, Gabby Sade]

The hall itself was jam-packed. It looked like there were only two unfilled seats on the entire place (and that hall can contain about 500 people, by my own rough estimate), just on our two sides. Yes, really. Hardly an empty chairs, except nobody sat near us. One has to love these little ironies. In any case the extra elbow space was welcome, since the chairs are slightly too small, and this provided us with some more room.

As the master-class started, and Joan started to speak, the sounds of shutting-down cellphones started. For some obscure reason many of the cellphones refuse to shut down quietly, and must chime to let everyone know. Mine does so as well, but if I want to shut it down quietly I just pull out the battery. Some people didn’t think of that, though. Heck, those same people didn’t think to maybe turn the phone off before the show started, instead of waiting until it’s too late. So Joan stopped, and repeatedly asked everyone to turn their cellphones off. In her way she did it very nicely, making a joke of the thing, but it was obvious the phones should be turned off. This, though, did not stop a phone from starting to ring later on while one of the singers were singing their aria. Sadly, we do not have anything like the death penalty in this country, not even to idiots who keep their phones open during a performance.

The format of these master-classes is fairly standard. A singer comes on the stage, introduce themselves and the aria they will sing, sings the aria, and then the teacher running the master-class goes with them over it. This can include, depending on the person and the aria, and on how the actual singing went, tips, pointers, explanations, and corrections. Normally the singer will practically sing the aria a second time, but in small pieces, some with repetitions, going over specific aspects and points with the teacher.

This one went like that as well, except that Joan opened up with something slightly different. She had all the six singers appearing that evening in a line, letting them sing a scale, the same scale, one by one. She then turned them around, and had one sing the same scale (She also asked the audience to close their eyes, but you can guess how well that went). She did that a couple of times, asking the audience after each time which of the singers sang the scale, based on how they did it the first time. With some it was fairly easy, since some aspects of their voice and singing were very unique, and with some it was a bit harder. Harder not necessarily because the singer was like another one, none of them exactly were, but because it’s hard to remember six different voices after one hearing, and the similarities are more than the differences. Still, overall the audience did well.

This was of course also a way to show the students that their voices are indeed different enough to separate, to help illustrate the point that they should sing in a way that fits their own voice. You’d be surprised how many singers don’t do that, but tend to assume there is just one way to sing an aria and they have to totally standardise themselves.

For musical accompaniment in the program they usually use a single piano, and all the scores are adapted for piano. The adaptations are usually very good, though. The piano player this time was John Lidal, and I’m afraid I can’t say much more beyond that he sounded quite well, since I was listening to the singers and not the music.

Noa Danon sang an Aria from the opera L’Amico Fritz by Mascagni. She has an amazing voice, and I think could be a great singer once she’ll smooth out her technical problems. Smooth being the key word here, since while her voice is incredibly smooth and flowing, she goes on to smooth everything too much. When the aria needs to flow, this is excellent. But when she needed to make stops and sudden changes, she went smooth instead. And when she needed to exactly pronounce words, she smoothed syllables over. It was very pleasant to hear her sing, but it wasn’t always the way the aria was supposed to sound, and was hard to understand many of the words. She also kept herself a little bit too quiet, on the few times she needed to go louder.

Another problem she had, actually a problem that all the singers that day had to some extent, was on the acting bit. Many people think, entirely wrongly, that singing opera is only about the sound. That it doesn’t matter how you look like, how you act, what you do, and how you move. But acting is a big part of it. A person cannot sing about the love of their life, and look slightly bored. A person shouldn’t lament on their great suffering, and look bland. And those few standard hand gestures that singers like to endlessly repeat while singing about anything, they don’t look even mildly convincing. When you understand the words, seeing improper acting hurts the performance, since things don’t feel natural. When you don’t understand the words, seeing improper acting makes it much harder to understand what is going on. The difference acting can make is huge. But I’ll talk more about this on a future report, on one of the master-classes of John Norris, who is a choreographer for the Met and works with the singers on their acting. Joan herself overall works on about everything, including sometimes acting, but this time focused almost exclusively on the singing (except for one of the singers, on one of those repetitive movements. She went over with her on what is going on in the aria, moving her hand with her saying something like “and you give him the bowl of cherries, and you give him the bowl of cherries, and give him the bowl of cherries. How many times can you give him the same bowl of cherries?”. It was much funnier when she did it, honest).

Moran Abouloff sang the worst version I ever heard of Una voce poco fa, one of the loveliest, and well know, arias from Rossini’s opera Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville). I know, it sounds harsh, but I heard this aria quite a few time, I really like this aria, and yet this performance didn’t to anything to me. Bland voice, screechy high notes, badly mispronounced words, and inappropriate acting. I know it’s not nice to say that, but I really think she needs a lot more work before she’s ready to go on stage. Either that, or she was having a really bad day.

Limor Ilan sang an aria from the opera Roberto Devereux by Donizetti. Nice singing overall. She seemed to had some problem holding her breath. Her main problem, and what Joan mostly worked with her on, was the she sang too slow and static (probably not the right term here, but the best description I have). She held her voice on the same notes and tone instead of letting it flow and revibrate. Joan made her sing the aria again, only while she sings she also had to fastly rotate her hands in circles over each other quickly. It’s a simple movement, but doing it makes you keep going. And again and again Joan stopped her and had her repeat the part, since whenever the went to higher notes, or had to hold a note, she very noticeably slowed down the hand movement. This is actually a very neat trick. When she slowed down her singing, the hands naturally slowed. When she really tried to keep the hands going, her singing went on as well.

Rinnat Moriah sang the first Queen of the Night’s aria from Mozart’s opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). It was very nice singing, enjoyable, but somewhat week. Joan started off by asking her “How old are you, 44?”. All the singers were on the 20-24 range (mostly around 23), so this was a rhetorical question. Rinnat answered that she’s 20. So Joan said something like “come back when you’re 30″. She complimented her on having a low and sweet voice, but said that this aria requires a much more strong, high, and metallic voice to do right. “This is not the dress for you”. For a practical advice she told her that this is a nice aria to do at a party, or a fund raiser, but if she’ll do it now on an audition she doesn’t have a chance. Some of the singers work on several arias, and arrive when they have some sort of either fallback, or some other aria they’re less practised on but can try. When Joan asked her is she has the score of anything else with her, she said she didn’t. So they went over this aria again. Basically Joan tried to make her sing it much louder, even if, as she told her, it would feel to her too loud and coarse. It did sound better like that, and when she was done she looked like she really worked hard.

Alma Moshonov sang Monica’s Waltz from Menotti’s opera The Medium. This one was in English, so the words were much easier to understand. At least for me, that is. I do manage somewhat with Italian operas, since many of the words are similar to English and Latin counterparts, but it’s not nearly as clear as hearing English. And I usually don’t get many words from the German ones, though there are exceptions as well. Still, English is easier to understand, though the amount of good operas in English is much smaller. Family relations notwithstanding, Alma has a good and strong voice. She has some serious potential. On the first run the aria sounded a lot like something from a musical, though, instead of from an Opera. I liked it, since I like musicals, but some of the parts were not like they were supposed to sound. As Joan put it to her, she has a very big voice, and felt like it won’t fit into the aria, so she tried to make it sound more nice and elegant by limiting her voice, causing her to extend her breath too much and making it sound like a Broadway musical. Joan encouraged her to sing it as it’s supposed to be, and stay within her own voice. It did sound much better, which I suppose is the whole point.

Talia Or sang another aria from The Magic Flute. She was simply excellent, good voice and excellent control. The words were well pronounced, and she reacted very well to all the dissonances and jumps in the piece. Her only problematical side was the acting, when during the entire aria she had an expression and pose like my mum would have had if as a small boy I’d have left dirty laundry on the floor. Not appropriate for what she was singing. Still, if I remember correctly, I saw her on master-classes in the opera program two years ago, when she had problems with her acting as well. Her singing is, like I said, excellent. In fact, as she, with Joan’s encouragement, let us know, she was performing for real during the last year. Actual paid jobs, as well as participating in a couple of large contests and getting into very good places there.

This time all the singers were Israelis. I expect there will be variation over time, since they do have other singers.

Overall a good show, and I certainly enjoyed the evening. – What CNet did with TV-Tome

June 20th, 2005

TV-Tome was pretty much the site for information on American/British TV series. Actor information, episode information, broadcast times, and so on.

Unfortunately it seems that they didn’t do such a good job on the financial front, and the site kept showing more and more ads, to no avail. Around last week it went away, and now redirects to (What is it with site operating companies feeling the need to have the “.com” as a part of their names? I thought everyone already realized this was a bad idea, no?), which seems to have all the TV-Tome content. is a part of the ever growing CNet conglomerate. I never visited before, so I don’t know what they did with it before TV Tome died. Right now it seems to be aligned along very similar lines. The most obvious difference is the high amount of screen area taken for community activities, like comments, forums, and ratings.

Saving the content and functionality that TV Tome provided is good, and CNet is in no danger of going broke in the near future. That said, they felt the need for a redesign, which is perfectly understandable, and some of the things they did were not so good.

The new design itself is probably supposed to feel slick and modern. Which it does, but that’s very different from the more warm and friendly design that TV-Tome had, and the drastic change is a bit alienating. Just my own initial impression here, and YMMV.

The fact that they seem to have totally missed the concept of putting content in the page, and design in the CSS, doesn’t help much either, if you know a little about web design. They have plenty of elements whose class/ID do not represent function but style, such as class=”f-bold f-medium f-white”. And take a look at a just a few bits, from long lists in the same vein, inside their CSS files:

.ml-5 {margin-left:5px;}
.ml-10 {margin-left:10px;}
.p-0 {padding:0px;}
.p-5 {padding:5px;}
.ls-1 {letter-spacing:1px}
.ls-2 {letter-spacing:2px;}
.f-off-white {color:#ffc;}
.f-lt-gray {color:#ccc;}
.lh-12 {line-height:12px;}
.lh-14 {line-height:14px;}
.f-xbig {font-size:16px;}
.f-xxbig {font-size:18px;}
.f-normal {font-weight:normal;}
.f-bold {font-weight:bold;}
.f-verdana {font-family:Verdana;}
.f-arial {font-family:Arial;}

Makes you want to cry when this is in a big site, from a big company that specializes in computer related stuff, isn’t it?

Anyway, I’m not really concerned about the colour scheme, that’s just eye candy, and as long as they don’t do something horrible like put tons of huge pictures, or turn the site into Flash, I’m good with it. Having the information easily accessible is more important.

And they missed a few on that front as well. Two problems are with the episode list feature. Formerly this was a single page containing the order and titles of all the episodes in all the seasons of a series. An excellent thing if you were looking for an episode by name, or wanted to quickly locate several episodes in the series’ timeline. Now the list is broken by seasons. Each season is in a seperate page. And that drastically reduces the functionality of episode list. Unless this was a way to ensure people will go to instead, I have no idea why they did that.

In addition, the episode list which was previously directly accessible through a link on the main show page, now requires two steps to get to. I’d say this makes it less comfortable to use, but since it’s no longer useful, maybe that doesn’t matter

Another bad design idea was on the episode guide page. This is a page that lists information (guest actors and their characters, plus a plot summery) on all episodes in a season. Seperating these into individual seasons does make sense, it’s plenty of information, and is also the way it was before. But now there is a maximum amount of episodes which are shown in a single page. So now a full American season may be split over two pages. This is again highly annoying, and makes it much less simpler to do things like search for a guest actor across a season (yes, following to a second page is not just a minor annoyance, because it effectively doubles the time it takes, and requires searching inside a page twice). Plus, the page links on the top, for a series with 1-2 seasons, look similar enough to how you’d expect a season link to look, and I personally saw someone going to the second page of the first season, thinking it was the second season. Not fun, and very easy to mistakenly do in the current design.

Another problem is with the main show page. The new one is built to show all sorts of information at a glance, but it comes at the expense of not showing a complete anything. The previous design had at least included the full show summary. Now seeing a summary for an unfamiliar show requires one extra click. I know that this is a trade-off, people who already know the show do want the page as an index, and do not need the summary. Yet practically every single viewer who is not yet familiar with the show will want to see the summary, to know what the show is about. And this way requires more work, or gets people to decide based on less information.

The uniformity of the design of the main show page is also a problem . The first few sections are textual ones, and look exactly the same, but the kind of sections change from series to series. The uniformity is alright if you can get used to it, knowing that summary will always be followed, for example, by previous episode (their name for recently aired episode, I think). But it’s like that on some shows, while other shows have first episode followed by last episode, and yet other shows something else. This forces you to read the headers in order to know what’s there. Not terrible, but poor design. The visual cues should be clearer than that.

That said, I do like that the main page directly link to actor pages, and to recent news article relating to the show. I’m not sure how the headlines are selected, though, since I did see plenty of relevant news articles out there which were not on the list. I also don’t like that they open the articles in a frame inside the site, and not providing actual links.

The search results page is clearer, and the new version provides a short exerpts from show summaries, which can help when confronted with a list of several similarly named shows. On the other hand, an upper limit of 10 results per page is very limiting. And now the results for shows and persons are intermingled, which makes no sense, since usually a searcher only wants one of those. Luckily it’s easy to filter for only one kind, but for most seaches it does mean a little extra work, which a simple grouping of the results would have spared. The results also seem tweaked to show the more popular/likely hits on top, which is good, and very useful for common searches. Yet for cases with many results, the ability to choose alphabetical sorting would help tremendously.

TV-Tome, and now, also allow users to add and edit content. This makes a lot of sense, since there are plenty of people who care about series that they watch. But the new design puts “edit” button everywhere, which are only relevant for registered, and logged in, users. Pressing the button takes you to a registration page, which do not contain a special area for logging in as an existing user. This is alright, since a login form is placed near the top of every page, but if I were a registered user this would have annoyed me. As someone who isn’t a registered user, I think it would be a lot better to simply not show the edit buttons to anyone who isn’t logged in. That’s not critical, though, since currently the buttons blend well with the background colour, and are not very conspicous. Hiding them would also prevent the pages from being simple static pages, so will probably incur a lot of work for the web team.

Another advantage of the old design was that the TV-Tome URIs often had a simple structure, consisting of the show name, and page name. It was sometime easier to navigate by entering the address directly, or changing the one of the existing page, instead of searching and clicking links. The new design contain things like numerical IDs in the URIs, which removes this possibility.

As an interesting note, the redirects from old TV Tome pages sometimes work well enough to deliver the matching page on, and sometimes just go to the home page. This applies to pages of the exact same kind and same structure, so I don’t know what’s the rule.

As a second interesting note, and a bit of sheer speculation, a new Mycroft search plugin for FireFox became available recently, just at the switch was taking place. Since getting something to show up on Mycroft can take a long long time, this was either a very lucky coincidence, someone planning ahead, or someone maybe using money or connections. For the speculation part, the search plugin is made by a web design company, Matt Austin, which does not strike me as a regular FireFox enthusiast user. Are they related to CNet, and maybe did the design for them?