Yay boo, sort of.

1) “When I am laid in Earth” is magnificent when sung by Andreas Scholl. I think Sarah Connolly still has the advantage just for sheer power since she’s a mezzo (and an unbelievably fantastic one), but he does a wonderful job with it.

2) It’s still a bit *shrug* for me, beautiful as it is, just because of the story. I’m a bit allergic to “then the chick kacked herself over some guy” as a general rule. I can still, forty years later, hear my father rolling his eyes when he was talking about Madama Butterfly and saying, “Then what does she do? She kills herself? Over some asshole!” It took a lot to make my father roll his eyes at Puccini, but that crossed the line. He loved the music. So did my mother. But the story just went too far, even for a genre known for its serial female death. (Only women died of tuberculosis, did you know that?)

So the general story of “Dido and Aeneas” tends to get up my nose. Even at the end, when he decides he’ll defy the gods and stay with the woman he loves, her reply amounts to, “No! This is an opera! These people paid to see some chick kill herself, and by god, they’re going to get it!” Come on.

So yes, beautiful music, but I think I’ll give the opera itself a pass. I’m glad opera took two hundred years to resettle on that sort of unfortunate gobbledegook.

I’m also trying hard to be surprised at the fact that Scholl’s decision to do this is something he feels he needs to defend. Legions of women have sung “Ombra mai fu” for years. This is absolutely no different. Of course, I’m really not surprised at all, which is why my love for opera tends to stick most profoundly to Haendel’s work, where the bad guys die, the lovers are reunited, the heroines do not pay for someone else’s crimes with their lives, and the heroes are often quite decent human beings.

Cass Elliot — mezzo-ish

Cass Elliot

Cass Elliot

My father had been an opera fan from the time he was a little boy. He based most of his early life on the Victor Book of the Opera and could pretty much name and place any aria you threw at him.

What this meant was that he had a rather ecumenical love of music that included popular music; as working-class Italian-Americans, we tend to grow up with a sense of ownership about opera that is also very working-class. To us, opera is not an elitist thing but is very much music of the people, in effect “popular” music. As a consequence, if a vocalist was good, that was all my father cared about. When the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, he was the only person in his family to insist that they were quite good, when one looked past the long hair and the screaming girls. He adored Sam Cooke, and was quite disappointed at both his death and the way he died. Another of his favorites was Cass Elliot, and I still remember his wistful disappointment upon hearing of her death. It continued for years afterwards, and up to my father’s own death, he couldn’t hear the name “Cass Elliot” without expressing some sort of disappointment and nostalgia. “Cass Elliot,” he would say, “died with a voice.”

My own tastes run to high male voices and lower female ones, and Elliot’s voice was not low for popular music. When compared to operatic voices, she was not high either, but her voice did not have the rich mocha-like darkness that some of my favorite female voices have (Carly Simon being the best example). The male voices that I prefer tend to have a signature “ring” to them, and Elliot’s voice is the only female voice in my opinion to have an identical bell-like ring to the high male voices that attract my ear.

This made her a standout in any ensemble, including the group most associated with her, the Mamas and the Papas. The work she did with them was stunning, with the addition of three other good voices and John Phillips’s delightful songwriting, but in all of those songs, Elliot’s voice clearly soars miles above the others and can be picked out in a heartbeat. A transition to a solo career was inevitable.

It was also more prolific than many people remember, with nine albums of solo work despite the tragically young age at which she died of heart failure (the “ham sandwich” tale is an urban myth) directly after taking the London Palladium by storm during a British tour.

Cass Elliot — Wikipedia entry

Clips illustrating Elliot’s singing voice (some lip-synced as these were taken from talk shows):

Words of Love” — Excellent illustration of the clarion “ring” in Elliot’s voice as well as a rare sweetness in such a clear voice. Often women’s voices that “ring” in this manner can be pungent to the ear, which Elliot’s never was.

It’s Getting Better” — Reveals the relatively untrained nature of her voice, but another great example of the ring.

Dream a Little Dream of Me” — an exquisite version of this song, which is normally performed quite a bit more up-tempo. A signature song for Elliot. Compare to a live version for a good example of her torch-singer qualities.

California Dreamin’” — The group lip-syncing their best-known song. Elliot’s voice is so clearly heard on its own that it’s difficult for the listener to ignore once they become aware of it, especially on the wide vowels.