'Verdi was really good at not just writing the music, but making the music match what it was about," says Timothy Todd Simmons, chorus master for the San Diego Opera. "You can listen to the melodies, listen to the intent of the singers, and understand pretty clearly what's being said based upon the emotion in the music." On Sunday, July 15, Simmons, a pianist, will appear as part of the Solana Intimate Ensemble in "Arias and Duets from Giuseppe Verdi." The ensemble performs an opera concert each month at the Galerie D'Art International in Solana Beach. "Even at the time he wrote them, [Verdi's] songs were considered popular," says Simmons. "His music was very much the music of the people, and [his songs] are easily recognizable -- they're not easy to sing, but they stick in your head." Unlike his renowned counterpart Richard Wagner, Verdi rarely incorporated the chromatic technique, which is the use of scales based on nonharmonic tones. "Chromatic is much more dissonant. Most horror movie music would be considered dissonant, like the shower scene with the knife [in Psycho] -- that kind of shrieking sound made to fit the drama. It's music written to bring out the severe and often mental pain that is in the text and in the plot. A lot of your pop music today would be considered normal diatonic -- almost everything that Madonna does is regular diatonic music."
"What makes Verdi so popular? Real simply, he had a melodic gift," says Edward Wilensky, director of media relations for the San Diego Opera. "If you've never seen an opera, you can still hum many of his arias because they are so melodic." Simmons points out that operas have been sampled in cartoons, commercials, movies, and cell phones -- he notes that my cell phone ringtone is from the Queen of the Night's vengeance aria in The Magic Flute.
One need not understand Italian to glean the meaning of Verdi's work. "The singer is not just a singer, but a singing actor," says Wilensky. The settings, body language, and tone all play a part in conveying the music's message...but it does help to know a little Spanish. "If you speak Spanish, you can definitely understand what's going on, because it's a Latin language."
Wilensky says that 50 years ago many more people would have understood the words to Verdi's songs. "Opera was a little more prevalent in pop culture then. Now opera has been replaced by American Idol. " Most people recognize the tune to "La Donna e Mobile" from Verdi's Rigoletto, but it is likely that few of them know the song is what Wilensky describes as "not the most P.C. aria out there." The first few lines are "Woman is flighty, like a feather in the wind, she changes her voice and her mind / Always sweet, pretty face, in tears or in laughter, she is always lying."
Popular arias by other composers include "Con Onor Muore" from Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly, "Habanera" from Georges Bizet's Carmen, "Largo al factotum" from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, and "O Mio Babbino Caro" from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi.
"Tosca is really popular," says Wilensky. "'Vissi D'Arte' -- 'I lived for my art, I lived for love.' It's one of the most famous sopranos, and it's beautiful. Like Verdi, Puccini could pretty much do no wrong. Some operas I find a little long in some areas, but Verdi and Puccini just take off like a rocket and don't let up."
Often a vocalist's favorite piece to sing is not the most popular one. "Singers like to perform things they connect with best," says Simmons. "One that singers often like to do is called 'Depuis le Jour' by [Gustave] Charpentier from the opera Louise. It's a beautiful show piece, but the opera is almost never done, so few people know the aria. For a full lyric soprano, it has great range and shows off every part of your voice."
For local opera singer Priti Gandhi, the aria "Enfin, Je Suis Ici" from Jules Massenet's Cendrillon is ideal. "It is full of such emotional range and such vocal range that it makes it a challenge and a pleasure to sing," she explains. Gandhi says she stops thinking about her singing technique when singing this aria. "That's when singing is pure pleasure."
Simmons says that ideally a performer will get lost in a character and forget about the audience. But, he adds, "Singers are a very worrisome lot, because it's them out there -- this is not a piano -- if something goes wrong, they can't blame the instruments." -- Barbarella
Arias and Duets from Giuseppe Verdi
Sunday, July 15
Galerie D'Art International
320 South Cedros Avenue, Suite 500
Cost: $20 for reserved seats,
$23 at the door
Info: 858-793-0316 or www.galerieartint.com