Category Archives: Bel canto

Episode 53. Justice (In Memoriam RBG)



I awoke Saturday morning in Berlin to the apocalyptic news that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died. Once again a crisis in the United States has prompted me to quickly put together a different episode than originally planned. The late Justice Ginsburg was a particular lover of opera, and so I have decided to showcase some of her favorite operas and performers. We will hear extended scenes from La Gioconda, Le nozze di Figaro, Der Rosenkavalier, Otello, Don Giovanni, La Fanciulla del West, Fidelio, Götterdämmerung, and others in performances featuring favorite singers of hers, including Jussi Björling. Renata Tebaldi, Leontyne Price, Franco Corelli, and Cesare Siepi. Other featured singers are Gottlob Frick, Fernando Corena, Margaret Price, Leonard Warren, Arlene Saunders, Carol Neblett, Gianpiero Mastromei, Beverly Sills, Gwyneth Jones, Lucia Popp, Brigitte Fassbaender, Christiane Eda-Pierre, Elisabeth Söderström, Eileen Farrell, among many others. The episode also incorporates a memorial tribute to Maria Callas on the 43rd anniversary of her death, and to Jessye Norman on what would have been her 75th birthday.

Countermelody is a podcast devoted to the glory and the power of the human voice raised in song. Singer and vocal aficionado Daniel Gundlach explores great singers of the past and present focusing in particular on those who are less well-remembered today than they should be. Daniel’s lifetime in music as a professional countertenor, pianist, vocal coach, voice teacher, and journalist yields an exciting array of anecdotes, impressions, and “inside stories.” Occasional guests from the “business” (singers, conductors, composers, coaches, and teachers) lend their distinctive insights. At Countermelody’s core is the interaction between singers of all stripes, their instruments, and the connection they make to the words they sing. Please visit the Countermelody website (www.countermelodypodcast.com) for additional content. And please head to our Patreon page at www.patreon.com/countermelody to pledge your monthly support at whatever level you can afford. Bonus episodes available only to Patreon supporters are currently available!


Episode 47. Sylvia Sass (Crossover Classics III)



The Hungarian soprano Sylvia Sass was a comet in the operatic firmament in the mid-1970s through the 1980s, most celebrated for singing the heaviest dramatic coloratura repertoire. In 1984 she also released a crossover album entitled Nézz körül, which I purchased when it was first released, and which amused me to no end, featuring as it did songs from “Flashdance” to “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” all sung in Hungarian. As the years have passed, and I have become more and more of a Sass fan, I have completely revised my opinion of this unusual entry into the Crossover Classics genre and now am of the opinion that Sass’s achievement on this record represents the peak of opera singers singing crossover material. Her unusual and compelling voice is heard at its most mellifluous here; her musicianship is at the complete and non-condescending service of the material, which ranges from Andrew Lloyd Webber to Quincy Jones; and the intensity of her delivery, contrasted with the sometimes tacky arrangements, makes for a unique and delectable experience. I supplement material from that album with several examples of Sass’s magisterial performances of operetta and classical music, from Mozart and Offenbach through Ferenc Erkel and Richard Strauss, pausing (regretfully only momentarily) on her matchless Verdi portrayals. Prepare for the Total Eclipse of the Kékszakállú!

Countermelody is a podcast devoted to the glory and the power of the human voice raised in song. Singer and vocal aficionado Daniel Gundlach explores great singers of the past and present focusing in particular on those who are less well-remembered today than they should be. Daniel’s lifetime in music as a professional countertenor, pianist, vocal coach, voice teacher, and journalist yields an exciting array of anecdotes, impressions, and “inside stories.” Occasional guests from the “business” (singers, conductors, composers, coaches, and teachers) lend their distinctive insights. At Countermelody’s core is the interaction between singers of all stripes, their instruments, and the connection they make to the words they sing. Please visit the Countermelody website (www.countermelodypodcast.com) for additional content. And please head to our Patreon page at www.patreon.com/countermelody to pledge your monthly support at whatever level you can afford. Bonus episodes available only to Patreon supporters are currently available!


Episode 45. Muriel Smith (Crossover Classics I)



For the first of my Black History Month episodes back in February, I did a program featuring the extraordinary artist Muriel Smith, who in 1943, while still a student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, created the title role in Oscar Hammerstein II’s Carmen Jones, which used George Bizet’s opera as the springboard for a hybrid musical featuring an all-Black cast. After several other Broadway appearances (including in a revival of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock, Muriel Smith moved to London, where she was featured in the “exotic” roles in the London premieres Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific and The King and I. For several years she was the toast of London, appearing on records, on radio, on television, and in concert, as well as singing Bizet’s gypsy in performances of Carmen at Covent Garden in 1957. Most of the currently extant examples of Smith’s singing are of popular music, which she performed with her unique blend of bel canto precision and pinpoint interpretive accuracy. I have recently gotten my hands on numerous rare 78s of Smith’s mid-1950’s pop records, as well as her 1953 EP, I’m in the Mood for Love, all of which are featured on this episode. I also share examples of her famous turns in musicals, capped with a rare recording of her singing Hugo Wolf’s “Nimmersatte Liebe.” Two excerpts from her 1955 Songs of Christmas 45 render this episode a veritable Christmas in July celebration! Musical guest stars include, among others, Marc Blitzstein, Georges Auric, Harvey Fuqua, Auyar Hosseini, Franz Waxman, Luther Saxon, Martin and Blane, Julian Bream, and the extraordinary Angela Morley.

Countermelody is a podcast devoted to the glory and the power of the human voice raised in song. Singer and vocal aficionado Daniel Gundlach explores great classical and opera singers of the past and present with the help of guests from the classical music field: singers, conductors, composers, coaches, agents, and voice teachers. Daniel’s lifetime in music as a professional countertenor, pianist, vocal coach, voice teacher, and journalist yields an exciting array of anecdotes, impressions, and “inside stories.” At Countermelody’s core is the interaction between singers of all stripes, their instruments, and the connection they make to the words they sing. Please visit the Countermelody website (www.countermelodypodcast.com) for additional content. And please head to our Patreon page at www.patreon.com/countermelody to pledge your monthly support at whatever level you can afford.


Episode 42. Battle Hymn of the Scotto



On the weekend that my benighted nation celebrates its birthday, I turn for real leadership to Renata Scotto, specifically her portrayal of the Druid priestess Norma in Vincenzo Bellini’s eponymous cornerstone of the bel canto repertoire. Scotto began her career as a charming lyric-coloratura, lending her distinctive voice and artistic personality to roles from such country damsels as Amina in La Sonnambula and Adina in L’elisir d’amore to the more substantial title roles in Lucia di Lammermoor and La Traviata. With Butterfly, she moved into heavier repertoire and eventually, in 1974, first took on Norma. Singing this role for the opening of the Metropolitan Opera season in 1981 was a risk that took a toll on her reputation. But, I contend, even with its flaws, her Norma is one of the greatest post-Callas assumptions of the role. Scotto’s occasional vocal vulnerabilities in the role contrast with her continuing fearlessness in coloratura. And her insights into the varying aspects of Norma’s persona: her wisdom, her compassion, her conflict between love and duty, and finally, her ability to admit wrongdoing and accept the consequences, show all the characteristics of a true leader. In 1978, at the peak of her achievement, Renata Scotto sang the role of Norma in at least three different productions: in Philadelphia (with the gleaming John Alexander); in Houston (with the glorious Tatiana Troyanos); and in Firenze (conducted by the stern but compelling Riccardo Muti). I offer extended excerpts from each of these performances as well as a beguiling performance of “Casta diva” from her first assumption of the role in Torino in 1974. I also offer John Alexander and another podcast favorite, Shirley Verrett, in the Adalgisa-Pollione duet. Finally, I top off the episode with Scotto’s oh-so-wrong yet oh-so-right performance of “Send in the Clowns,” which serves as the perfect commentary for the current political situation in the USA.

Countermelody is a podcast devoted to the glory and the power of the human voice raised in song. Singer and vocal aficionado Daniel Gundlach explores great classical and opera singers of the past and present with the help of guests from the classical music field: singers, conductors, composers, coaches, agents, and voice teachers. Daniel’s lifetime in music as a professional countertenor, pianist, vocal coach, voice teacher, and journalist yields an exciting array of anecdotes, impressions, and “inside stories.” At Countermelody’s core is the interaction between singers of all stripes, their instruments, and the connection they make to the words they sing. Please visit the Countermelody website (www.countermelodypodcast.com) for additional content. And please head to our Patreon page at www.patreon.com/countermelody to pledge your monthly support at whatever level you can afford.