To the editors:
After reading Dennis Polkow’s recent review of Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring as performed by Chicago Opera Theater [April 14], I find myself with severe doubts regarding his qualifications to critique opera. I found a number of things with which to disagree–and only one of them was a purely subjective judgement.
Item. Subjective first: to Mr. Polkow, Albert Herring exemplifies Britten’s “fascination with homosexuality.” While I’m sure that the gang had a good giggle over crowning a tenor clad in virgin white, the fact remains that said tenor spends a great deal of the opera mooning over a female. I think Mr. Polkow is reaching a bit.
Item. Mr. Polkow has misquoted a phrase, and rather bizarrely at that: he says that someone went for a ride in a “go-cart.” A go-cart? In 1900? Not in East Suffolk. The conveyance referred to was actually a “dog-cart.”
Item. Mr. Polkow holds that the snare drum got ahead of the rest of the orchestra in the beginning of the third act. Some acquaintanceship with the score would have shown him that the snare drum is supposed to be ahead of the rest of the orchestra at that point.
Item. Most damningly, Mr. Polkow demonstrates that he is not only unacquainted with the score at hand–he is even unacquainted with voice parts! Of the six singers he mentions by fach, he has mislabelled four: two mezzos, a baritone, and a bass. It is, frankly, unbelievable that anyone claiming any interest in vocal music could make such an astonishing mistake. Different kinds of voices, and the differing colors they supply, are, if you will, a fundamental building block of opera, and of every other kind of vocal music. No musically educated person could call a bass a baritone, or vice versa; for someone who is published as a professional critic to do it is simply grotesque.
If Mr. Polkow wants to have any credibility at all as a music critic, he had better spend some time studying some of the basics. And I am certain that the management of Chicago Opera Theater would be happy to let him look over a score if need be. A review such as “Good Britten” is worse than laughable.
An anonymous music lover
Dennis Polkow replies:
Both of these letters are correct in stating that I inadvertently reversed the voice types of baritone Richard Rebilas and bass Carl Glaum, and also that I misquoted the libretto, which does say “dogcart” rather than “go-cart.” I wish I could claim the excuses that Mr. Goldberg so generously allows–namely ignorance and sloth–but it was a simple case of misreading my own notes and not double-checking them under deadline pressure. I apologize for these errors and wish to express gratitude to both of these readers for taking the time and effort to point them out.
There are some points of disagreement, however. Mr. Goldberg states that “in men’s voices, the tenor is the highest,” which is incorrect. Above tenor is countertenor or male alto (technically these are not the same, although in early-music circles the terms have become synonyms), and male soprano, which was a designation for castrato but is now sung by either a female or boy soprano (also designated treble).
Regarding the subject of voice types and labels, I very much subscribe to the idea that one’s voice type and its appropriate label should be based on God-given ability–where one’s voice is most comfortable and where it sounds the best–not the voice type that a composer indicates, which may or may not best describe the voice of a given person singing that role. How often has a baritone quite successfully carried off a role listed by a composer as bass? How often has a soprano successfully carried off a role intended for a mezzo- soprano? In fact, in Albert Herring Julia Parks sounded to my ears like a soprano, although she effectively carried off a role labeled by Britten as mezzo-soprano. It should also be remembered that a composer is sometimes inexact in his designation. Bartok, for example, labeled the role of Judith in Bluebeard’s Castle as soprano, although the role would be more aptly labeled mezzo-soprano, given its range and color.
Both letter writers were astonished at the “strange” and “bizarre” notion that a go-cart could exist in England in 1900. According to Webster’s Ninth, the term was used as early as 1689; among the definitions given is “a light open carriage.”
As to Britten’s fascination with homosexuality in his operas, it is well documented and does not mean his lead characters have to be homosexual.
Although the anonymous letter writer is correct that the snare drum is to be syncopated slightly ahead of the orchestra, during the performance I attended, one temporarily escaped the other.