Friday, October 02, 2009

The Three Iranian Sopranos

In the movie Moonstruck Nicolas Cage tells Cher, “I love two things, I love you and I love the opera. If I can have the two things I love together for just one night I will be satisfied to give up, oh God, the rest of my life.” Iranians reach spiritual climax with poetry: Hafez, Khayyaam,Rumi; for Italians the national source of rapture is opera: Verdi, Puccini, Rossini. A few nights ago at the music festival I heard three Iranian opera singers, each lovelier than Cher, who left me… starstruck.

Since they were children in Iran, the sisters Shirin and Nasrin Asgari dreamt of becoming opera singers. They spent their playtime pretending be Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. Later they made friends with Kamelia Dara, who had also been training to sing since early childhood. They practiced together. Yet hard work and ambition could only take the aspiring artists so far. They quickly realized they needed better training than they could find in Iran. Opera is rooted in Europe; you can’t perfect it in Tehran any more than you can perfect the Persian radif of music in Vienna. So the three came to Austria on tourist visas, hoping they could pass the auditions to be admitted as students. The judges were skeptical. Why put these young women through the punishment of opera training when their reward back home would be cultural disapproval? Could anyone love opera so much that she would stick it out through the torment of the discipline even if the outcome were shame and not fame? Being nice people, the judges gave the would-be students six months to find out for themselves that the pain isn’t worth the trouble.

An opera singer trains her voice so that it can hold its own, un-amplified, against a full orchestra. To find out how difficult this is, try screaming as loudly as you can--on a hilltop perhaps--and see if you can keep up the same volume while controlling your voice to the tune of “The hills are alive with the sound of music.” Likely, the wildlife will run away, leaving the trees wishing they could do the same. Yet a good opera singer can voice profound emotions in clear melodic phrases easily breaking beyond the last row in the opera house. You really have to hear it to believe it, so here is the Swedish soprano Nina Stemme in front of an 80+ piece orchestra. Start at the 4:20 mark where the orchestra begins a spectacular crescendo--drums and all—and hear Stemme’s voice absolutely dominate Wagner’s orchestral behemoth by the 4:40 mark.

I talked a little with Nasrin Asgari about technique. Her dramatic beauty and delicate features makes it easy to think of her as a fine musical instrument, which is what she is as an opera singer. Sometimes a good singer is said to have a “golden throat,” but in opera the throat must, as much as possible, stay out of the way of the flow of breath. The performer’s throat is almost in a yawning position. It was fascinating to watch Nasrin slide her hands down her ears across the jaw line towards her lips to show how different parts of the face participate in the shaping of the sound. This is why opera singers appear to be making faces. They are actually manipulating the sound texture, for example filtering the “breathiness” out of it to leave purer tones.

When we talked about breath control, Nasrin’s hands began their ascent just above the hipbones. To gather enough air for a long phrase, an opera singer does not blimp as though she’s about to dunk her head under water, rather she gathers a large volume of air calmly with a motion that originates in the diaphragm. Rationing the air outwards along the same path, she can create powerful vibrations throughout her entire torso that she can nuance according to the emotional content of the music. That’s how Snow White gets the creatures of the forest to flock to her rather than flee the kingdom in a zoological diaspora.

Nasrin’s sister, Shirin is a force of nature in herself. She is a rare coloratura soprano. If voices were animals, a coloratura’s voice would be the agile deer or the swift sparrow. Shirin is in high demand with opera productions partly because she can flawlessly nail the impossible F6 note in the midst of a famously rapid passage in Mozart’s Magic Flute. Her role as the wrathful Queen Of The Night in this opera is arguably the most difficult singing in the standard opera repertoire. In this video of Shirin performing part of the song it’s easy to hear why it’s not every soprano who can sing this aria (listen for the first F6 note around the 0:55 second mark).

While Shirin Asgari dazzles with her vocal agility, the third member of the Iranian soprano trio, Kamelia Dara, carries heavier emotional artillery. As with any other musical instrument, the timbre or texture of the voice matters. Some timbres are better suited for the more complex roles. These singers are traditionally called “dramatic sopranos.” Dara is a good example. As a dramatic soprano her voice is like expensive chocolate: there’s something bitter and dangerous beneath all the sweetness and perfume. Yet you can’t resist it.

Someday I hope to hear Dara wrap her voice and persona around a complicated character like Kundry in Wagner’s Parcifal. Cursed more than a thousand years ago, Kundry cannot help but stay beautiful to seduce brave men to their deaths. When she meets Parcifal, she turns into a frighteningly alluring Freud as she magically sings to arouse the hero to sex, all the time desperately hoping he will reject her so that she could finally die. Parcifal must have been tone-deaf! No other explanation for how he survived such beautiful singing.

The Italians Verdi, Puccini, Rossini, have less time for Wagner’s Germanic heavy-mindedness. The most popular Italian opera plots are contrived with unlikely coincidences, tragic errors, and mistaken identities. As we saw with Cher in Moonstruck, these operas shamelessly assault the defenseless tear duct. Silly misunderstandings, senseless suicides, and dumb sacrifices are thrown onto the dramatic pizza like anchovies upon pineapple chunks. This isn’t a matter of bad taste, however. Italian opera uses exaggerated plot as a ladder to emotional acrophobia, the same way our classical poets use hyperbole. The more recklessly the plot dares, the higher our view of the musical vistas laid out before us. This brings us to Iranian opera singers attempting Shekar e Ahoo or Gol e Gandom or whatnot. In the absence of any emotional context but nostalgia, the songs feel affected. Not grand as in good opera, just grandiose.

Often, my operatic sensibilities couldn’t care less if Leili joon ever finds that hunting rifle, or what dire fate awaits poor Bambi/aahoo. Or so I thought until I heard Hooman Khalatbari, the sopranos’ composer and musical director, accompanying the trio on the piano. For example, Khalatbari’s transcriptions of Dokhtar Shirazi and Rashid Khaan for piano and opera voices actually work. This may have to do with Khalatbari seeing himself as a conductor first and a composer second. He brings to his own arrangements a conductor’s critical sense of the right balance between art and showmanship. His piano is not a carpet of chords laid out for the singers to trample over; the singing and the playing hold proper dialog. When the singer is wistful about being naughty or coy with her missing lover, Rashid Khaan, the piano seems to respond with the right melodic giggle. Listening to Khalatbari’s well-assembled quartet (piano + 3 sopranos) for once I didn’t ache for the singers to break out into a hearty Dashtestani where I thought our folk melodies belonged.

In the light of Khalatbari raising the bar on Iranian folk song “arias,” I asked Shirin Asgari if she had considered also raising the Iranian singer’s stakes on technical brilliance. She seemed receptive to the idea of demanding Iranian folk arrangements that take full advantage of her astonishing reach and nimbleness. Hopefully Khalatbari will oblige her—and us.

Based on a misconception of Iranian culture, the Austrian music judges had hoped to gently dissuade Nasrin, Shirin, and Kamelia from wasting time on opera training. But six months later, even before the sopranos’ university classes officially began, the young women had already taught an ethnographic lesson to these judges: the typical émigré to Europe from many Muslim countries settle in the West to lift themselves off the economic floors of their homelands; the Iranian diaspora, on the other hand, has uprooted from home to break through Iran’s artistic and academic ceilings.

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