America the Superficial: The Person with the Best Publicist Wins

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Wyatt Earp

Only The Pink Flamingo could start a rant and rave about opera and end up with a piece of trivia about Wyatt Earp!

The Pink Flamingo is an opera freak.  I have been since Star Wars was a year old.  Over the years, having been fortunate enough  to see/hear (live)  some of the greatest voices the world has ever, there is one thing that has bothered me, repeatedly.  Americans are the most pathetically superficial bunch of culturally ignorant louts in the civilized world.  Sorry, but The Pink Flamingo calls ’em as I sees ’em.

I’ve watched, for almost all of my adult life, one great voice after another, being absolutely ignored by the “American Public” at large, while abjectly disgusting and pathetic excuses are given superstar status.  When this country does attach themselves to a voice, it is usually someone reprehensible and superficial like Andrea Boccelli or the Sarah Brightman,  This country’s idea of opera is Phantom of the Opera which is no more an opera than I am a Democrat. The public and press was poetic over things like this, but have a tendency to ignore abject greatness.

Once in awhile this country will pay attention to a Luciano Pavarotti or a Placido Domingo, but that’s about it.  The late, and amazingly great Beverly Sills was an “overnight” success who spent her whole life trying to be recognized at the Met.  The day of her debut I had a college professor who declared a national holiday from his classes and gave everyone an “A” in honor of her. How many people reading this even know who she was, or could recognize her voice.  (FYI – I do have a cat named after her).

Do you know who the greatest singer ever to come out of Tupelo, Mississippi is? Elvis is the wrong answer.  The answer is Leontyne Price. During the days before the Civil Rights movement, when the Metropolitan Opera was touring in Atlanta, she was refused admittance to a major party at an all white country club. Not one singer from the Met attended the party, which was for them.

Before we go any farther, The Pink Flamingo wishes to go on record.  In my humble opinion the three greatest female voices this nation has ever produced are, in order:

  1. Beverly Sills
  2. Aretha Franklin
  3. Leontyne Price

Music is a funny thing.  Have you ever heard of Sherrill Milnes?  I doubt if you have.  While Pavarotti was sucking all the oxygen from the room, Sherrill Milnes was simply the greatest baritone of a generation.  The Pink Flamingo likes baritones.  Beverly Sills once referred to the male voices of opera as the men (baritones) and then the tenors. The following is a clip from the joint concert Milnes and Domingo had at the Met. Yes, I was there, live, in person. I still have the ticket stubs to prove it.

You wouldn’t know it, but the US has a tradition of producing the greatest baritones of their generation, until now.  There was Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill, and Sherrill Milnes.  Robert Merrill was my mother’s favorite.  Let’s also be honest here, I am an unrecovered Sherrill Milnes groupie!  Like he told me one time, he wasn’t going to sign another photo for me because I had enough to wall paper a bathroom!

This is one of the great moments of opera. Who needs Mr. Darcy when you have Scarpia!

Over the years, it was frustrating to watch the superficial come and go and realize that one of the greatest voices the Lord ever put on the earth was going unnoticed save for the operatic community.  This story has a very happy ending, Thank Heavens!  Very few great artists, the truly great ones, ever live long enough to see their legacy celebrated, and be recognized for their talent.  MY baritone, Sherrill Milnes is now one of the top vocal teachers of another generation.  His greatest legacy is the fact that he has trained so many incredible young baritones, you can go to any regional opera company and hear someone great – who sing in the same style.   He is also being celebrated as one of the greatest baritones ever!

This brings me to the current opera scene.  I don’t mind admitting that I sulked for nearly a decade after Milnes retired.  No one could possibly take his place.  One day, I finally woke up, out of my stupor, and discovered there are some remarkable baritones out there.

I don’t mind admitting that I am a music snob.  If you love opera, then you can appreciate just about every other form of music.  I can’t tolerate Gospel (unless it is blues), Country, Cowboy, or anything with a twang.  I truly do enjoy reggae, Mississippi Delta Blues, Motown, Sir Paul, island, Soul, and oldies.  I consider John Williams to be the greatest composer of the 20th Century, and listen to baroque to clear my head.  And, yes, I sing along with Wagner.  I truly love great church choral and organ music.  My favorite hymn is And Did These Feet in Ancient Time.

In my humble opinion, the three greatest male vocalist this country has ever produced are, in order:

  1. Sherrill Milnes
  2. Bing Crosby
  3. Frank Sinatra
  4. (runner up) Elvis Presley

I add this to put everything into perspective and bring reason to my rant and rave for the day.  In this country, the person with the best publicist wins.  It doesn’t matter how good they are, or how abjectly lacking in talent.  Last week, there was a huge concert in St. Petersburg.  If you don’t follow opera, you would think this was a special concert just for some little twit called Jackie Evancho.  I will admit, until last week, I’d never heard of her.  I think children who are forced to sing opera are a disaster.  They ruin their voices. The NEVER go any farther.  This little 12 year old has a horrible voice.  But, to read the press releases, this concert was built around her.  There were articles and in publications all over this country, including financial news wires..  To read them, the whole thing was about this child who is being horribly exploited.

PRN Newswire

It’s all about the best publicist.  Yes, there were 100,000 people there at the concert, but, trust me, they weren’t there for this little twit.

In this superficial land, it is being promoted that a pathetic little child, who should not be allowed to sing for fear of ruining her voice, was the star.  Sorry, but that was NOT what it was all about.

If you want to know who it was about, then you need to dig beyond the superficial, and start thinking global.

If you know anything about opera, you know that Dmitri Hvorostovsky is not only one of the greatest baritones ever (and able successor to Sherrill Milnes), but he is considered the Elvis of Opera.  His annual concerts in Russia, in places like Red Square, are attended by anywhere from 50,000-100,000 people.  In Russia, he is IT. You wouldn’t know it, because this was the only announcement on his web site.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky

All the US was told was about a 12 year old little girl who is being exploited by her family.  You must go to Dmitri’s web page to find the following:

“…A celebrated recitalist in demand in every corner of the globe–from the Far East to the Middle East, from Australia to South America– Hvorostovsky has appeared at such venues as Wigmore Hall, London; Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh; Carnegie Hall, New York; the Teatro alla Scala, Milan; the Tchaikovsky Conservatoire, Moscow; the Liceu, Barcelona; the Suntory Hall, Tokyo; and the Musikverein, Vienna. The singer regularly performs in concert with top orchestras like the New York Philharmonic and the Rotterdam Philharmonic, and conductors, including James Levine, Bernard Haitink, Claudio Abbado, Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta, Yuri Termikanov and Valery Gergiev.

Dmitri retains a strong musical and personal contact with Russia. He became the first opera singer to give a solo concert with orchestra and chorus on Red Square in Moscow; this concert was televised in over 25 countries. Dmitri has gone on to sing a number of prestigious concerts in Moscow as a part of his own special series, ‘Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Friends’. He has invited such celebrated artists as Renee Fleming, Sumi Jo and Sondra Radvonosky. In 2005 he gave an historic tour throughout the cities of Russia at the invitation of President Putin, singing to crowds of hundreds of thousands of people to commemorate the soldiers of the Second World War. Dmitri now tours the cities of Russia and Eastern Europe on an annual basis….”

Then again, about ten years ago Dmitri Hvorostovsky turned down the opportunity to be a major icon.  Madonna wanted to work with him.

The Telegraph

“…Elle magazine breathlessly described him as the “Elvis of opera”, a description I asked him about when I met him in his New York apartment the day after seeing him in action at the Met. “As long as I can continue doing what I love, I don’t care how I’m described. Maybe I should be flattered – after all Elvis was a kind of revolutionary. Actually, if he had trained he might have been a great singer.”

Hvorostovsky has a house in London and speaks very good, idiomatic English with a seductive Siberian lilt. He tells me that back in Siberia he was the singer in a rock band who played heavy metal numbers – “it was a way to become a local hero”. All of which might make you think he would be tempted by cross-over pop projects beloved of record companies. But Hvorostovsky is not interested – in fact, he says one of the reasons why he fell out with his last record company, Philips Classics, was its attempts to push him into “tacky” collaborations.

If he were offered a million dollars for a duet with Madonna, I ask, would he really turn it down? He pauses. “It would be painful, I would be embarrassed but I would turn her down.”

He’s no snob, though, and says he admires the Three Tenors. Nevertheless, he’s distressed that the most famous opera singer in America is Andrea Bocelli. “That’s like saying the best cuisine in the world is chewing gum.”…”

His version of cross-over is a fabulously nostalgic album of Neapolitan favourites called Passione di Napoli in which he sounds like a lost son of Caruso, singing such chestnuts as O sole mio. “It sounds crazy, but perhaps because my wife is Italian I don’t sound so Siberian. I also studied the dialect, which even Italian singers often don’t bother to do. It was a project which made me very happy, and I will probably do some of this material as encores in my upcoming recitals.”

I find one of the most fascinating parts of all of this is the fact that, here in the US, unless it is some coked out, drunk rock star, no one pays attention to what is going on in the rest of the world. No one notice Simon Keenlyside, who, along with Dmitri, is one of the greatest baritones in the world today. Keenlyside is elegant, exquisite.  In The Pink Flamingo’s humble opinion, he’s the leading Don Giovanni today.

In this country, you also don’t see much about Erwin Schrott, who may, in my humble opinion, be, arguably, the greatest base-baritone ever.  His twitter feed is hilarious!  @erwinschrott  He does it himself.

When you get into other parts of the world, these artists are considered rock stars.  It makes you wonder why, here in this country, we can’t listen to something beyond country twang and hip hop.  There is so much beauty out there, but we don’t pay much attention to it.  If it’s not home grown, or if it doesn’t come from the UK, it’s not all that important, musically.  Maybe I’m just sulking because PBS New Mexico finds that showing great Performances from the Met is not all that important.

I guess there is a bottom line here.  Someone needs to get these people a better publicist!  It is pathetic.  Then again, maybe not.  Because so few people in this country know about Barihunks like Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Simon Keenlyside, and Erwin Schrott, it is much easier to score tickets for their events.

It’s funny the way we look at things. If you want just a little piece of trivia, Wyatt Earp loved opera!  His favorite was Verdi’s La Traviata. A few years ago I was able to go through a scrapbook containing programs to operas he attended, with his hand-written notes, comparing performances of Traviata that he had seen!

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4 thoughts on “America the Superficial: The Person with the Best Publicist Wins

  1. I saw that Jackie Evancho kid last at Christmastime on PBS. She is a creation of David Foster. I like David Foster and he has picked a bunch of winners (Chris Botti!), but also some losers. PBS was using the Evancho concert as a fundraiser. I watched for about half an hour. It was mesmerizing but CREE-PEE. The kid definitely has a voice and she seems to have good coaching to avoid straining her voice. But her stilted body movements, her cupie doll appearance, her princess outfits… it all adds up to a big YUCK. If she lasts into her twenties I’ll take another look when she’s fully formed. But until then it’s like watching Jon Benet Ramsey in a kiddie beauty pageant.

  2. The exploitation is just unreal. A child with vocal talent should not be allowed to sing once they are that age. It is almost tragic and it is CREE-PEE! I wonder if there is even a law for kids like that that there is in Hollywood. Her family is obviously enjoying themselves, on her fame.

    SJR

  3. If it can be of any consolation, just think about voices that made history: there’s no child sensation nor miked-up tenor among them. So, only the *real* singers will be remembered.
    I’m not saying others shouldn’t try and have a share of fame, there’s room for everyone, only not in opera: I once saw a performance of Bocelli here in Rome (I went on work duty as I had to write a review of it), it was all hyped because he was promoting his Carmen cd, so they let him sing the role of José on stage at Teatro dell’Opera. It was appalling: not only his voice isn’t trained well enough to tackle a full orchestra and be heard in a theatre without the help of a microphone, but he lacks in interpretation skills, too, there’s no feelings in his singing. He can do crossover, he’s good at that and I wish the guy only nice things, but if he’s an opera singer then I’m Maria Callas myself.

  4. LOL! Written like a true opera fan. We’re horrible, aren’t we! I’ve seen many “hyped” tenors, and they were all hype, trust me. Same thing with more than a few sopranos. Then again, I have a list of baritones I could not tolerate. They were all hype. I’d cringe when I heard them. Years ago, watching that horrible old production the Met had of Aida, I sat there and made a list of how bad it was. I detested the baritone, primarily because Milnes was not doing it. Then there was a truly vile performance of MacBeth (again, no Milnes) when all I could think about was, please, someone trot out the Marx Brothers and put us out of our misery!

    I can honestly admit, now, to having been an opera fanatic since Star Wars was young. I’ve seen most of the leading superstars, some good, others bad, and a few were truly ugly.

    I still mourn the passing of Bubbles. I named a cat after her, in memorial, so I feel your pain!

    SJR

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