Category Archives: Listeners’ Favorites

Episode 242. Damon Evans Introduces George Shirley (Listeners’ Favorites IX)



This week I present a Countermelody mini-series paying tribute to three great African American artists who were born in Baltimore. First up is the eclectic, versatile, and prodigiously talented Damon Evans, who introduces the latest Listeners’ Favorites episode, a tribute to an idol we both treasure, the phenomenal and pathbreaking George Shirley, who on April 18 will celebrate his 90th birthday. Damon chose to do his introduction as an interview, so as a prelude to the main episode, my listeners get to hear one amazing tenor sing the praises of another one!

George Shirley is one of the most versatile tenors of the second half of the twentieth century, and a pathbreaker as the first African American tenor to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. I first encountered him through his matchless portrayal of Pelléas in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande opposite Elisabeth Söderström. But his Mozart is equally celebrated: the podcast also features live and studio recordings of George Shirley as Tamino (opposite Judith Raskin), Don Ottavio, Ferrando (opposite Leontyne Price), as well as his extraordinary Idomeneo. Extant live performances of George Shirley including assumptions of roles as diverse as Don José (opposite Shirley Verrett), David in Die Meistersinger, Pinkerton (opposite the late Renata Scotto in an incandescent early performance of one of her greatest roles), Mephistopheles in Busoni’s Doktor Faust, and even Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos. All of these are included in the episode, as are rare recordings of art songs and spirituals from throughout his career. Raise a glass to the great George Shirley and join me in thanking him for having shared so generously with us his extraordinary artistic gifts!


Episode 237. Paul Kirby Introduces Charles Ives (Listeners’ Favorites VIII)



My friend Paul Kirby is a musical polymath: a tenor of excellence who performs throughout the world as both a soloist and as a valued member in small vocal ensembles; he is also a killer banjo player and bluegrass singer, and a member of the Norwegian group Stemmespesialisten that combines voice lessons, voice massage and coaching. In addition he has worked as a musical administrator and is a Timani teacher in training: an education that focuses on in-depth anatomical knowledge in order to enhance movement and playing for musicians. He has also been a valued and trusted friend of mine for the past twenty years, and was a major encouragement and support when I was putting Countemelody on its feet. For his favorite episode of the podcast, Paul has chosen the Fourth of July episode I posted in 2021. In this episode I bring you a gorgeous conglomeration of great baritones and bass-baritones performing songs by the emblematic American composer Charles Ives. In this episode we hear thirty of his songs which display a wide range of compositional, musical, and literary styles. Some of the greatest Ives interpreters are represented here, including Thomas Stewart, Samuel Ramey, Donald Gramm, Sanford Sylvan, Kurt Ollmann, Gerald Finley, William Sharp, and William Parker, accompanied by Alan Mandel, Dalton Baldwin, Alan Feinberg, Warren Jones, Steven Blier, Craig Rutenberg, and others. I finish the program with Jerry Hadley performing that most celebratory of Ives’s songs, “The Circus Band.” Since this episode was first posted I have gone on to produce full episodes on Donald Gramm, William Parker, and Jerry Hadley. Thanks, Paul, for your support, encouragement, and wonderful introduction to this episode that also does not shy away from the question of Ives’s alleged homophobia, but remains focused on the composer himself as well as the array of wonderful performers who celebrate Ives’s fascinating combination of old-fashioned Americana and revolutionary compositional techniques.

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.” At Countermelody’s core is the celebration of great singers of all stripes, their instruments, and the connection they make to the words they sing. By clicking on the following link (https://linktr.ee/CountermelodyPodcast) you can find the dedicated Countermelody website which contains additional content including artist photos and episode setlists. The link will also take you to Countermelody’s Patreon page, where you can pledge your monthly support at whatever level you can afford.


Episode 236. Howard Hart Introduces Christa Ludwig (Listeners’ Favorites VII)



My friend and fellow opera podcaster Howard Hart introduces the first of this week’s Listeners’ Favorites episodes, my 2021 tribute to the superb zwischenfach singer Christa Ludwig, who died nearly three years ago. Ludwig was a singer whose repertoire centered around the great German composers but who also sang Verdi and French repertoire with stunning results; a mezzo-soprano who was unparalleled in Wagner, Mahler, and Brahms, but who also sang the great soprano heroines of Richard Strauss; a Lieder singer of great perception and textual acuity whose supple technique nonetheless was centered on legato singing: the greatness of this artist simply cannot be overestimated. I focus on the key composers (Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, and Richard Wagner) and conductors (Karl Böhm, Herbert von Karajan, and Leonard Bernstein) with whom she was most closely associated, while also examining some roles that might surprise you: Cenerentola, Amneris and Marie in Wozzeck. Vocal guest stars include Gloria Davy, Victoria de los Ángeles, Reri Grist, Gundula Janowitz, Gwyneth Jones, and Ludwig’s one-time husband Walter Berry. Thank you, Howard, for lending your enthusiasm and passion to my podcast in your introduction of one of your (and my) favorite singers.

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.” At Countermelody’s core is the celebration of great singers of all stripes, their instruments, and the connection they make to the words they sing. By clicking on the following link (https://linktr.ee/CountermelodyPodcast) you can find the dedicated Countermelody website which contains additional content including artist photos and episode setlists. The link will also take you to Countermelody’s Patreon page, where you can pledge your monthly support at whatever level you can afford.


Episode 235. Anna Tonna Introduces Teresa Berganza (Listeners’ Favorites VI)



Today’s Listeners’ Favorites episode of Countermelody is introduced by my good friend (and Countermelody fan) the marvelous mezzo-soprano Anna Tonna. In her introduction Anna tells about her first exposure to the podcast and introduces us to one of her favorite episodes: the one I published in May 2022 a week after the beloved singer died at the age of 89. The episode pays tribute to her artistry through the exploration of her operatic roles, from Neris in Medea opposite Maria Callas, through her matchless Mozart and Rossini portrayals, through her fascinating and highly individualized portrait of the title heroine of Bizet’s Carmen. Special emphasis is given to her performance of Spanish music, from the zarzuelas of Ruperto Chapí and Federico Moreno Torroba, to art songs of Manuel de Falla and Fredric Mompou. Vocal guest stars include Mirella Freni, Pilar Lorengar, Lola Rodríguez Aragón, Franco Bonisolli, and the incendiary Callas herself, an early mentor and supporter of Berganza. I began the preparation for this episode with an incomplete appreciation of Berganza’s voice and artistry, but, knowing that she was one of Anna’s most treasured singers and role models, my goal was to see her through Anna’s eyes, and in the end, I was completely won over. This episode perfectly illustrates the podcast as a journey of mutual discovery for both me and my listeners.

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.” At Countermelody’s core is the celebration of great singers of all stripes, their instruments, and the connection they make to the words they sing. By clicking on the following link (https://linktr.ee/CountermelodyPodcast) you can find the dedicated Countermelody website which contains additional content including artist photos and episode setlists. The link will also take you to Countermelody’s Patreon page, where you can pledge your monthly support at whatever level you can afford.


Episode 234. David Savran Introduces Carol Brice (Listeners’ Favorites V)



This Listeners’ Favorites episode serves a dual purpose: first it is a celebration the publication this week of my partner David Savran’s new book, Tell It to the World: The Broadway Musical Abroad, by Oxford University Press. (I’ll be doing two episodes with David on this book in March in conjunction with the book launch.) Second, David introduces us to one of his favorite Countermelody episodes, a 2021 Black History Month celebration of the life, voice, and career of the great African American contralto Carol Brice (1916-1985), whose career encompassed both Broadway and opera. It’s that very versatility that most attracted David to Brice’s work. He describes to us his first exposure to a variety of her recordings, from Falla to Finian’s Rainbow. I myself first heard Carol Brice in her recording of “Sweet Little Jesus Boy,” which exemplifies all her musical virtues: simplicity and directness of utterance, lack of sentimentality, and deep identification with both text and music. Add to this a voice of such depth and refinement and a technique so secure that she is almost without equal. From her early career outings as the first African American to win the coveted Naumburg Award, through her appearances on the Broadway stage and in Porgy and Bess, Carol Brice brought an emotional honesty to her performances such as is rarely encountered in any field of genre. On this episode I feature her in a wide range of live and commercial recordings from Marc Blitzstein’s Regina to concert pieces by Brahms and Mahler, focusing in particular on a matchless 1947 song recital with her brother Jonathan Brice as her collaborator. Brice’s second husband, the baritone Thomas Carey is also featured in a pair of recordings. Thank you, David, for re-introducing my listeners to this great artist, and congratulations on your monumental new book!

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.” At Countermelody’s core is the celebration of great singers of all stripes, their instruments, and the connection they make to the words they sing. By clicking on the following link (https://linktr.ee/CountermelodyPodcast) you can find the dedicated Countermelody website which contains additional content including artist photos and episode setlists. The link will also take you to Countermelody’s Patreon page, where you can pledge your monthly support at whatever level you can afford.

 


Episode 233 – Dusty Pörn Introduces Eleanor Steber (Listeners’ Favorites IV)



Today’s subject is Eleanor Steber, certainly one of the greatest and most versatile of American sopranos. She is introduced by one of the most recent (and most colorful) of all of my listeners, the San Francisco-based drag artiste (and vocalist extraordinaire) Dusty Pörn. In this very special episode, which I first posted in the summer of 2022 in honor of Steber’s 108th birthday, musical selections from across the duration of Steber’s long career, are supplemented by the generous and loving commentary of my friend, singer and conductor Michelle Oesterle, who was Eleanor’s stepdaughter. As such Michelle spent time (especially in the summer months) with her father and Eleanor at Melody Hill, Eleanor’s estate on Long Island. She provides us with an unparalleled intimate portrait of Eleanor as woman and as singer and describes the profound influence that Eleanor had in her life, as well as the characteristics that combined to make her the profoundly appealing and moving interpreter that she was. She also addresses the white elephant in the room, that is, Eleanor’s alcoholism, and makes a plea for tolerance and understanding vis-à-vis this serious disease. Many thanks to both Dusty and Michelle for their loving and perceptive tributes to this greatest of singers and artists.

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.” At Countermelody’s core is the celebration of great singers of all stripes, their instruments, and the connection they make to the words they sing. By clicking on the following link (https://linktr.ee/CountermelodyPodcast) you can find the dedicated Countermelody website which contains additional content including artist photos and episode setlists. The link will also take you to Countermelody’s Patreon page, where you can pledge your monthly support at whatever level you can afford.

 


Episode 232. Janet Williams and Paul Padillo Introduce Maria Ewing (Listeners’ Favorites III)



January 9 is already the second anniversary of the death of the iconoclastic (and iconic) Maria Ewing, who died of cancer in her home outside of her native Detroit on January 9, 2022. She was an artist both admired and derided during her lifetime, whose importance since her death has only become more apparent. It so happens that two of my most faithful listeners, Janet Williams and Paul Padillo, chose the episode that I published in her honor as their favorite episode. Paul is a passionate opera advocate who maintains a blog as well as a Facebook page in which he writes with extraordinary eloquence about the musical genre we all adore. Janet is celebrated throughout the world as one of the finest singers of her generation who has gone on to become one of the most important voice teachers in the world today, teaching, with compassion and common sense, a technique grounded in the essentials of bel canto. Their spoken introductions to the episode highlight different aspects of what made Ewing so special. For Paul, he became a lifelong fan after hearing her performance of Blanche de la Force in Poulenc’s operatic masterpiece, The Dialogues of the Carmelites. For Janet, it was a shared provenance (both were natives of Detroit) as well as a common mentor, the late David Di Chiera, who founded and ran Michigan Opera Theatre, the company featured both Maria and Janet in some of their first operatic appearances. Maria’s passing hit me particularly hard because at the time of her death, I was in the midst of creating a special episode in her honor and had been immersing myself in her fascinating performances, finding myself more and more in awe of her one-of-a-kind artistry. This tribute episode is simply not to be missed.

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.” At Countermelody’s core is the celebration of great singers of all stripes, their instruments, and the connection they make to the words they sing. By clicking on the following link (https://linktr.ee/CountermelodyPodcast) you can find the dedicated Countermelody website which contains additional content including artist photos and episode setlists. The link will also take you to Countermelody’s Patreon page, where you can pledge your monthly support at whatever level you can afford.


Episode 230. Brian Castles-Onion Introduces Ira Siff: La Gran Scena and Beyond (Listeners’ Favorites I)



Welcome to Season Five of Countermelody! While I indulge in a much-needed break for the month of January (my first in four years!), I have asked a number of Countermelody fans and listeners to provide spoken introductions to some of their favorite episodes from the first three seasons of the podcast. Today conductor Brian Castles-Onion introduces an episode from June 2020, as we neared the height of the pandemic and the panic surrounding it. It is an interview with Ira Siff, artistic director of La Gran Scena Opera Company di New York, alter ego of the beloved “traumatic soprano” Vera Galupe-Borszkh, lecturer for the Metropolitan Opera Guild and Weekly Commentator on the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. So much has changed for everyone since the interview was recorded in January 2020, most poignantly (as relates to this episode) the death of our beloved Chic Walker (who portrayed Dame Emily Post-Morddum and Alfredo Sorta-Pudgi in La Gran Scena) on 11 April 2022; and the passing of Renata Scotto on 16 August 2023.

My association with Ira Siff and La Gran Scena Opera Company di New York goes back more than thirty years, when Ira provided me with my first employment as a professional singer when my alter ego Daniela della Scarpone sang for two years with the renowned travesty opera company. I sat down with Ira in his East Village apartment in January 2020 for a wide-ranging interview in which we discuss his early days as a standee at the old Met (where some of his opera-going experiences included Maria Callas’s final Tosca performances, Renata Scotto’s 1965 debut as Madama Butterfly, and Leonie Rysanek’s wild traversals of Verdi and Wagner). He discusses his first performing experiences in the early 1970s in association with Al Carmines and others, the genesis of La Gran Scena and their development into a worldwide phenomenon, and his subsequent “legitimate” career as lecturer, stage director, vocal coach and voice teacher and commentator all stemmed from in his words, “getting in a dress and singing soprano,” which he dubs “the strangest part.” This is a free-wheeling and extremely Opera Queeny interview, peppered with Ira’s unique anecdotes and snippets from Gran Scena (and other!) performances.

Today’s guest host Brian Castles-Onion is one of Australia’s most exciting and well-known opera conductors. Completing his tertiary studies at the Newcastle Conservatorium of Music, his outstanding achievements speak for themselves. He has worked at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the Julliard School of Music and the Rossini Festival in Italy, and has held the position of Artistic Director of Canterbury Opera in New Zealand. He currently continues his long run association with Opera Australia. His conducting experience includes well over five hundred opera performances throughout Australia, Asia and New Zealand alone. He was on the podium for Opera Australia’s 40th Anniversary Gala and 60th Anniversary Gala, The Robert Allman Farewell Gala and conducted the Dame Joan Sutherland State Memorial Service – which was broadcast internationally on television and radio. His book Losing the Plot in Opera has been a Best Seller in Australia and the UK. Brian became a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the 2017 Australia Day Honours List.

Today’s interviewee and subject, Ira Siff, is a native New Yorker, who grew up on the standing room line of the old Metropolitan Opera, worshiping the famous singers of the 60’s. A graduate of the Cooper Union, with a degree in Fine Arts, Mr. Siff began to study voice, and made his debut as a tenor in 1970. For the next decade, he performed roles in opera, operetta and musicals in New York, at The New York Shakespeare Festival, Circle in the Square, Playwrights Horizons, and many other venues. Turning to cabaret, Ira created an act using vocal parody of opera, jazz, and other styles of music, gaining critical acclaim, and a loyal following. In 1981, he founded La Gran Scena Opera Company di New York, the internationally acclaimed travesty troupe, whose gifted falsetto “divas” have spoofed opera with great affection for over two decades, in New York annually, and on tours to some of the great festivals, theatres and opera houses of the world.

In 2000, he turned to stage directing, gaining critical acclaim for his productions of operas at venues such as Carnegie Hall, Sarasota Opera, The Caramoor Festival, and the Tanglewood Music Festival. All in all, he has directed operas for companies in New Jersey to New Zealand, with stops along the way in Puerto Rico, Lima, Peru and Utah. Singers whom he has directed include Sumi Jo, Dolora Zajick, Aprile Millo, Eglise Gutierrez, Krassimira Stoyanova, and the late Marcello Giordani. Conductors with whom he has collaborated as a stage director have included Richard Bonynge, Christoph von Dohnányi, and James Levine.

For the past thirty years, Mr. Siff has been a voice teacher and interpretive coach, teaching in New York, Italy, Israel, Holland and China, giving Master Classes for the Metropolitan Opera Guild, and was on the faculty of the Renata Scotto Vocal Academy. Ira was a guest teacher of bel canto technique at The Royal Conservatory in Den Haag in 2008, and then at the Dutch National Opera Academy for five seasons, and at the Amsterdam Conservatory in The Netherlands where he returned annually, and was appointed Permanent Guest Teacher. He has also given master classes in bel canto and verismo for the Metropolitan Opera Guild every season since 2008 and has presented sold-out lectures for the Met Guild as well on a variety of operatic topics. These lectures can be heard on the podcast of the Metropolitan Opera Guild. Ira also lectures on opera twenty times a season for two private classes, has been a contributor of reviews and features to Opera News since 1997 and has been Weekly Commentator on the Met Broadcasts since 2007.

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.” At Countermelody’s core is the celebration of great singers of all stripes, their instruments, and the connection they make to the words they sing. By clicking on the following link (https://linktr.ee/CountermelodyPodcast) you can find the dedicated Countermelody website which contains additional content including artist photos and episode setlists. The link will also take you to Countermelody’s Patreon page, where you can pledge your monthly support at whatever level you can afford.