Editor’s Note: Our Jay Nordlinger spent much of August at the Salzburg Festival, doing various jobs. Music criticism has been published in National Review and on The New Criterion’s blog. More will be published in TNC. This journal is for odds and ends. For the first two installments, go here and here. The journal concludes today.
I have a friend in Salzburg whose accent is hard to place — in English, I mean. She was born and raised in Brazil. Her parents were Latvian immigrants. She married an Austrian. She lived in the United States for many years. Now she is back in Austria.
A few more details: In Latvia, there was a Baptist community. In the early ’20s, a member had a prophecy that bad, bad things would occur in their country. They set out for Brazil, a promised land.
That’s how my friend’s parents wound up in Brazil, and why she was born there.
‐The third guest in our Salzburg Festival Society series is to be Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, the famous Italian bass. But he has canceled — and we have, not one, but three replacements. They are terrific, too. Three for the price of one. A trittico. (“Il trittico” is the title of a three-opera show by Puccini.)
Adrien Perruchon is a conductor from France. I think of a play I read long ago, by Labiche and Martin: Le Voyage de M. Perrichon. It’s a comedy set in the Alps. Our maestro is Perruchon, not Perrichon. But he was born in the Alps. He now lives in Paris.
He studied, first the piano, then the bassoon, then percussion. That is a remarkable collection of instruments, and progression of instruments. He became a professional timpanist — playing in the Scala orchestra, among others. Then he turned to conducting.
You know what other conductor is an ex-percussionist? Sir Simon Rattle. Monsieur Perruchon points out that there are others, too.
Ryan Speedo Green is a bass-baritone, and he owns one of the coolest names in opera. He goes by “Speedo.” He is an American, a Virginian.
And he grew up rough, very rough. Broken home, juvenile detention, the whole nine yards. His path to the opera was unlikely, and it makes for a wonderful story. That story is told in a new book: Sing for Your Life.
Speedo has not only a wonderful singing voice, but a wonderful speaking voice. And, man, is it loud. Beautifully loud. “I dial it back sometimes,” he tells me, “just so people won’t be intimidated or overwhelmed.”
As I point out in our discussion, some singers — great ones — have normal speaking voices. You would never suspect them of having extraordinary singing voices. But with other singers, you can tell: Ferruccio Furlanetto, for example. His speaking voice is almost as remarkable as his singing voice.
And so it is with Speedo Green.
I ask whether he has kids. No, not yet. I say, “When you do, and you speak sharply to them, they will really stand at attention.” They probably won’t, answers Speedo: because children quickly discover that he’s a big teddy bear.
Jennifer Johnston, too, has a remarkable, beautiful speaking voice. And singing voice, to be sure. She’s a British mezzo-soprano — from Liverpool, specifically. I believe she tells us that she is a fifth-generation Liverpudlian.
Have other singers come from that city? Well, there was a pop band in the 1960s. Mop tops.
The local language is not so much English as Scouse — and Jennifer says that a composer friend has written a song for her, in Scouse. Or will do so. In any case, I look forward to hearing it.
Jennifer Johnston has an unusual background, for an opera singer: She has a law degree, and she has worked as a lawyer. Also, she wrote an article that proved a sensation.
This was in 2014. An old issue had come up: fatness in opera. I mean, non-skinniness on the part of the singers. She batted out an article on this topic, in a bar or café (I can’t quite remember). She sent it to the Guardian. Then she had to go off and do something. Perhaps a rehearsal.
When she looked again at her phone, she had over 2,000 Twitter notifications (if I’m remembering correctly). Her article had gone pretty much viral.
To see it, go here.
In my observation of this singer, both in an interviewee’s chair and on the stage, she has a very good quality for a singer — or for people in various lines of work: self-possession. Self-assurance. Surefootedness.
‐By a little river — not the big one, the Salzach — kids cool off. Two girls jump in together. They say, “Eins, zwei, drei,” and then, pinching their noses, they jump.
I suppose kids and others have always done this, right? They count to three, and then jump or dive or whatever. The counting lends a sense of solidarity, comfort, and certainty.
Not far from the girls, there are boys — about twelve or thirteen years old. They have water bottles, which they spray from their crotches, laughing. Boys have always done this, right? From the beginning of time. From caveman days.
Good clean fun (mainly).
‐In Salzburg, there are always royals and aristos about. Years ago, a lady who was sort of in charge of my schedule said to me, “On Tuesday, you’re going to see The Count of Luxembourg.” I thought she meant a person. She meant the operetta by Lehár.
I have met at least two pretenders to the Austrian throne. One was described to me as “the real pretender.” I got a kick out of that phrase: real pretender.
Well, I’m now looking at a real-live princess: Manni Wittgenstein — Marianne Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn — who was born in 1919. A photographer, she was part of Andy Warhol’s Factory. And, again, she is a princess: bona fide. And in excellent shape, as she nears her century mark.
‐On the street, there is a hot band — a trio, composed of clarinet, accordion, and double bass. They are from Poland, and call themselves the Street Whispers. They play some jazz and then some jazzy klezmer. This is hot, hot klezmer. You can hardly keep from jumping around in happiness.
‐In the Mirabell Gardens, there are lots of Japanese tourists, daily. I wonder if the gardens remind them of home, with their orderly beauty. Or maybe they like the association with The Sound of Music?
‐On back streets, it’s nice to see elderly Salzburgers greet one another. I imagine that they have done so over the decades, since they were children.
‐The final guest in our Salzburg Festival Society series is Maria Agresta, an Italian soprano — a delightful, lively woman. When she was a little girl, she spent a lot of time by herself, in her room. She read. And she listened to music. Her dad had some Maria Callas recordings. The girl heard Callas sing “Casta diva” — and that was it. That’s what she was determined to do too.
And she has.
Callas is a favorite singer of hers, of course, and so is Ghena Dimitrova, the Bulgarian — who is a particular favorite of mine as well. In fact, my conversation with Maria Agresta sends me later to YouTube, to try to experience Dimitrova all over again.
There’s nothing like live. And by the time she was widely recorded, she was past her prime. But still: a model. A musician as much as a singer. None of that typical, sloppy, untutored singer BS. (Sorry!)
‐I meet a man — a Salzburger — whose daughter lives in New Zealand. That’s a long way away. It’s about as far as you can go.
She learned to make cakes and pastries at the Hotel Goldener Hirsch and the Schatz Konditorei — can’t do better, as far as I’m concerned. Then she lived in Greece and Florida, applying her skill. Finally, she took that skill to New Zealand — and stayed there. She loves the peace and quiet of that country.
If you’ve learned to make sweets at Schatz — well, I’d like to get to know you …
‐At the airport — W. A. Mozart Airport — I buy a chocolate muffin. It turns out to be unlike any I have ever had. There are nuts on the top and, in the middle, chocolate. Real chocolate. Gooey chocolate. Not cakey chocolate, but some other kind of chocolate — akin to frosting. I’m at a loss to describe it.
And I’m afraid that the chocolate muffins I’m used to just won’t do anymore.
‐You know what we have over them? What’s better in America than in Austria? Well, orange juice, for one thing. Orange juice in Austria — in my experience — tastes like medicine. I’d rather drink my own …
‐When you fly Austrian Air, you enter the plane and are immediately treated to classical music — light classical music, Viennesey music, coming through the sound system. “Freedom from pop and rock,” I think. “Bliss. But don’t get used to it. Home shores loom.”
At least there’s the orange juice. And loads more. God bless America, and God bless you, too, dear readers. Thanks for coming along.