Soprano Filipa Van Eck

Soprano Filipa Van Eck

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On Friday 17 July 2009 Filipa Van Eck and myself will be performing a concert in tribute to the 50th anniversary of the death of Heitor Villa-Lobos, and also in celebration of the 13th anniversary of the CPLP, or Comunidade dos Paises de Lingua Portuguesa (Community of Portuguese speaking Countries),  a type of Portuguese commonwealth that includes all Portuguese speaking countries such as Angola, Mozambique, East Timor, Brazil etc. The concert will be held at the University in Maputo. The concert will also feature solo piano works by Villa-Lobos.

” O vosso canto vem do fundo do Sertao, como uma brisa amolecendo o coracao” – “Your songs come from the depths of the forest, like a breeze softening  my heart.” These words by Brazilian poet Manuel Bandeira – speaking of a beloved  to a bird in the forest – could apply to Villa-Lobos. His vocal music has not been adequately explored in recital or on recordings,. Sheet Music is not readily available. Therefore putting together a selection of songs is not an easy task. But there is much of value and beauty to explore.

We will, of course, be performing the composer’s signature-work for voice, the Bachianas Brasileiras #5. Filipa will be singing the complete work, the Canitlena as well as the 2nd movement – added in 1945 – Dansa (Martelo) to the text by Manuel Bandeira.

“Melodia Sentimental” was an obvious choice, but we could not find the Sheet Music in time. I include recorded materials of it here simply because I think it is a wonderful piece that I will perform as soon as get a copy of the music. This work has become so popular that some find it difficult to decide if it is a Folk Song that became classical or if it’s a classical song that has become so popular as to have entered the folk tradition. As is typical with the music of this composer, the music can sustain a variety of different performance styles. It has been arranged for classical ensembles, and performed by popular and classical singers alike. I personally adore this clip of Maria Bethania listening to and singing along to her own recording of  “Melodia Sentimental” .

Narrowing the gap between classical and popular

In a recent issue of the Rio de Janeiro Musician’s Union (SindMusi) newsletter, Musical, the pianist, arranger and composer Cláudio Dauelsberg was interviewed about the release of two new CD’s in two very different styles, Ventos do Norte (North Winds – MPB) and Bach, recorded with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra.

He says, “More and more we are seeing the barrier breaking down between popular and classical… Each (of these) areas has a lot to offer to the other and it’s really cool for us to allow that encounter. But it’s a challenge to dive in with intensity and profundity in the two areas.”

Brazilian music is founded upon the syncretism of European, African and Indigenous Amerindian musical traditions which all contribute to its uniqueness. In The Brazilian Sound, Chris McGowan and Ricardo Pessanha provide some additional insights (1998):

“Most Brazilian music shares three outstanding qualities. It has an intense lyricism tied to its Portuguese heritage that often makes for beautiful, highly expressive melodies, enhanced by the fact that Portuguese is one of the most musical tongues on earth and no small gift to the ballad singer. Second, a high level of poetry is present in the lyrics of much Brazilian popular music. And last, vibrant Afro-Brazilian rhythms energize most Brazilian songs, from samba to baião.”

These elements are to be fund in abundance in the songs Filipa Van Eck will be performing in Mozambique:

Cancao do Poeta do Seculo XVIII (Song of a poet of the 18th Century)

Cancao do Poeta do Seculo XVIII (sung here in a clip by Teresa Berganza with Juan Antonio Alvarez Parejo on piano in 1984) is a beautiful song that walks the trapeze between art-song and popular ballad – like so many of this composer’s works. A gentle candombe rhythm introduces a yearning melody that seems to reflect the text by Alfredo Ferreira perfectly. The poet dreams of walking in the moonlight with his beloved. The moon is a symbol of love and hope, but alas, it is also out of reach.

Evocação (Evocation)

“Evocação” – the 7th song in the series “Modinhas e Canções” – is filled with deep feeling and longing. It is a powerful song in which the poet is delirious with love. “I live to cry my love for you”, the poet says, and is enfolded in a starlit dream of ecstasy. Here is a version sung by tenor Daniel Inamorato. This is a very serious and “classical” interpretation, which I enjoy, but I do think some more expressive freedom would add to the passion of the song. The lilting 6/8 opening is almost Neapolitan in it’s simplicity, but the modulation to the minor in the slow section is most affecting, with the climax of the song reaching almost suicidal passion.

Nesta Rua (This Street)

This appears to be a Villa-Lobos arrangement of a traditional melody arranged by Villa-Lobos, in fact, more than once. It appears as the 11th piece in the piano cycle Cirandinhas (1925) and again in the Cirandas of 1926. The piano arrangements are powerful virtuoso works, but their dramatic style appears not to fit the lyrics of the poem. The quasi-Indian percussive piano effects open the piano arrangements are totally absent in the vocal arrangement. Kiki Hamman traces the roots of this song to a Brazilian “cantiga” or lullaby. If Villa-Lobos can not stake claim to the haunting melody, he certainly gets the credit for a magnificent arrangement. Subtle polyrhythms and swaying triplets make performing this work an absolute pleasure. Again, it is a work that has popular undertones, and unfortunately gets less than satisfactory performances such as this version with Sandy Leah in which more than just the intonation is suspect.

Lundú Da Marqueza De Santos

The 2nd song form the group “Modinhas e Canções” (to a text by Triato Correa), reveals Villa-Lobos’ popular folk-inflected side. However it is a bit perplexing as a musical response to the text. The song is written in an up-beat Allegretto Tango rhythm, but the text by Triato Correa is a sad an desperate cry for a departed lover. “Everything in me is black and sad, Oh! this tremendous, tremendous punishment.” But the song is not black nor sad! This version with tenor Polane Brandão reveals the technical difficulty of the song, as well as one of a fundamental weakness in much of Villa-Lobos’ vocal writing: the piano doubles the voice melody throughout. This creates a problem with the balance as well as highlighting any intonation difficulties that there might be. In addition it limits the singer’s rhythmic freedom, which I consider vital to creating a folk-inspired quasi-Neapolitan song. Orchestrated versions do exist, but I am not sure if these are by Villa-Lobos. Bidu Sayao recorded two versions, and her lyricim is immediately apparent. Her clear voice and easy high notes still make her an ideal interpreter from a stylistic point of view:

“Lundú Da Marqueza De Santos” sung by Bidu Sayao (1)

“Lundú Da Marqueza De Santos” sung by Bidu Sayao (2)

Some recordings of Villa-Lobos’ vocal music and other useful links:

“Canção do Amor” and “Melodia Sentimental” from Villa-Lobos’ symphonic poem “Floresta do Amazonas” sung by Bidu Sayo in 1959. Villa-Lobos convinced Sayao to come out of retirement to record this work, composed with her voice in mind. The lyrics are given as well.

Cathy Berberian sings Xango The text has no particular meaning and is an anomatopaeic description of Amerindian drumming – “Xangô! Ôlê gondilê ôlálá… Gon gon gon gondilá! Xangô! Ôlé gondilé ôlêlê Gon gon gon gondilê!”

Traditional recreation of Xango: Xango, god of fire and thunder from the Afro Brazilian tradition of Candomble´. From the CD, “Sacred Songs and Chants of Candomble”

“Floresta” sung by Bidu Sayao

The “Birdsong” from “Amazon” sung by Bidu Sayao

Brazilian Popular Music: A Bird of a Thousand Voices

Texts and translations of a selection of Villa-Lobos’ vocal works

A CD of Latin American Songs with Marina Tafur (Soprano) and Nigel Foster (Piano)

“Canción del marinero” sung by Alfredo Kraus

Balduína de Oliveira (Bidu) Sayão’s obituary and career summary

An appreciation of Bidu Sayao’s career

Filipa Van Eck’s Biography

Filipa van Eck (23) has completed her Bmus Western Classical Performance at UCT and has been training her voice with Sarita Stern since 2004. Filipa has won various prizes for singing at school, and completed her UNISA exams with distinctions. At UCT she has managed to be placed on the Dean’s Merit list for every year of study, and was the Class Medalist for 2004.

Filipa has sung in various chamber music concerts, her repertoire includes The Bachianas Brasileiras No.5 by Heitor Villa-Lobos, L’amero by Mozart and Der Hirt auf dem Felsen by Schubert; and was invited to perform as a soloist in Vivaldi’s Gloria with the Sotonga String Quartet in Napier; and Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater for Barry Smith and the Rupert Foundation for Music in March 2008.

Filipa has also performed around Cape Town for The Nine Club, Friends of Cape Town Opera, The Fishoek Music Society; and in Pretoria at the Portuguese Embassy in commemoration of the end of the Portuguese presidency of the European Union. She was chosen to perform a solo recital for Portuguese national day held at the Centre of the Book in 2007, and performed in Johannesburg with the Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Richard Cock in a concert organized by the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust.

Filipa was nominated as a finalist in the 2007 and 2008 SCHOCK Foundation for Singing Competition, and the 2008 SCHOCK Chamber Music Competition held at the Baxter concert hall.

She will be performing in a concert version of Dido and Aeneas for Barry Smith in May, appearing as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier in June, and in Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen with the UCT Opera School and Cape Town Opera.

She is currently completing her Masters in Music Performance at UCT.

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The tenor who was almost a nurse

Sunnyboy Dladla at 20 Tenors

Sunnyboy Dladla at 20 Tenors

DANGEROUS LIAISONS: Bel Canto Arias and Duets of Love & Intrigue

Beau Soleil Music School
12 Salisbury Rd, Kenilworth
Adults R50, Children R20
SUNDAY 31 MAY 5pm

I love listening to Sunnyboy’s voice. It is a clear and bright sound that goes up and down the scale without sounding tight, tense or pinched. He can reach those stratospheric high notes that are so thrilling in operatic music. Sunnyboy sounds young and fresh, no wobble in sight, without any of the suicidal gasps and chest-beating one expects from the stereotypical straining tenor. Our upcoming programme “Dangerous Liaisons” features music written for tenor and soprano (sung by Magdalene Minnaar), with the bulk of it featuring Italian opera in a style known as Bel Canto. This music is florid, with abundant runs and much ornamentation. In order to sing these, one needs a lighter voice capable of executing dazzling displays of virtuosity, flexibility and easy high notes.

Ask what a tenor is and many people may answer Pavarotti or Domingo. Yes indeed, tenors they are. But that’s only one type of tenor, the kind who sings more dramatic music. Domingo always had a very powerful voice, and started his career not as a tenor at all but the more dark sounding Baritone. Pavarotti was a lyric tenor in his youth, but eventually made the transition to more dramatic roles, superstardom and wealth. Many serious musicians and opera-lovers regret the fact that he did not stay in that lyric repertoire for longer.

Sunnyboy Dladla is such a lyric tenor. He has had notable successes in Mozart operas (Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro) in Cape Town. He was winner of the Schock Singing Competition in 2008 and he has performed in Youth Concerto Festivals with orchestras around the country. In 2009 he has made a name for himself in Oratorio with performances of Handel’s Messiah around the country. I wanted to work with Sunnyboy because I like him as a person, I respect his work-ethic and he simply sings up a storm!

Sunnyboy Dladla, a lyric tenor , very nearly didn’t become an opera singer. He studied to be a nurse, but struggled financially, and couldn’t afford to complete his studies. While working as a volunteer nurse he was brought to Cape Town by his former Mpumalanga classmates Pretty Yende and Given Nkosi. Pretty and Given had been admitted to  UCT partly because of their repeated wins in the opera category of the Tirisano Schools Music Competition. Sunnyboy had been a provincial winner in this very same competition, and so his hopes were high.

Unbelievably, given his subsequent successes, Sonnyboy’s first audition for the UCT College of Music was unsuccessful. The audition panel felt he lacked musical and operatic experience and that he would not cope with the demands of the Opera Diploma. They referred him to the now defunct Choral Training Programme, a Development Programme run by Cape Town Opera: a very worthwhile apprenticeship and bridging programme. Yet that wasn’t why he had made the long trip to Cape Town.  It seemed to Sunnyboy that his best option was to take the train back to Mpumalanga. Thankfully, Pretty Yende’s persistence ensured that Sunnyboy was able to sing another audition for Prof. Angelo Gobbato, then head of UCT Opera School.  Angelo saw potential and arranged financial assistance and went to extraordinary lengths to give Sunnyboy the chance to study. Angelo often moved heaven and earth for singers when he saw the spark of potential.

A few years later, and Sunnyboy has already sung in Verona, Italy, one of the greatest opera centres in the world. His career has taken off and he is in demand as one of the most promising South African lyric tenors in recent years. Most recently he has been chosen as one of the Twenty Tenors. Sunnyboy’s humility is striking, as are his openheartedness and his capacity for hard work. He works as a waiter and a librarian to earn money to pay for extra coaching when he is preparing for a performance – something that immediately makes him stand out from the crowd. I first encountered Sunnyboy in the roles of Basilio and Curzio in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” (The Wedding of Figaro), where his comic gifts were recognised and encouraged by American director Chuck Hudson and critics called him “a real comedic talent… responsible for a whirlpool of comedic goings on.”

Sunnyboy is the antithesis of the temperamental tenor, and very quick to acknowledge the guidance he has received from teachers and mentors in his profession, no matter their social standing, and he attributes his success to the fact that he  has been able to put his trust in their guidance.  He still humbly acknowledges what he gained from messrs Mbamba and S’thole from Ndlela High School who encouraged him (he admits a little against his will) to take part in choir competitions.  Likewise, he  recognises the other teachers who have shaped his career. Currently his teacher is Associate Prof. Sidwell Hartman of the South African College of Music, and he has also learnt from one of the greatest Turandots in the world – Hungarian Dramatic Soprano Eva Marton.

Sunnyboy speaks candidly but fondly about the difficulties he had early in his studies. He received a lot of negative feedback, his teacher was a hard and persistent taskmaster and Sunnyboy battled with the adjustment to being a full-time opera student far from home. It didn’t help that his family was anything but supportive. How a young black man from Mpumalanga without the resources to finish a Nursing Diploma thought he could become an opera singer, was something many of his peers could not understand. Yet Sidwell encouraged him to learn from others and most of all, to be careful about his choice of repertoire. Having started his studies as a lower voiced baritone, by his third year his technique started settling and he had made the transition to tenor, where his voice felt more natural, well-placed and he produced his best quality sound.

Vocal chords are tiny little muscles, that can be trained and developed much like any other muscle in the body. But they are easy to damage. Therefore a teacher has enormous responsibility. The teacher has to identify exactly what a student’s voice will be able to do – before they can actually do it – and then has to take that voice on the road to that potential. And they often get it wrong. Singers themselves misunderstand their voices. Often there is great impatience with a young voice. The danger is that some want to push voices to sing louder, bigger, faster. Voices can be “used up” that way. Even great conductors like Karajan have marred legacies, having chosen lighter voices for heavier roles, which then left those voices permanently scarred. (Katia Ricciarelli’s Aida and Turandot come to mind, or Gundula Janowitz’s Empress in “Die Frau ohne Schatten” ).

Wobbles develop, high notes become hard and shrill under pressure, or certain notes just stop ringing properly as the vibrations of the chords are forced out of their natural synch. So far Sunnyboy has avoided these pitfalls. Prof Hartman steered him away from any heavy repertoire and big roles. He was not allowed to sing with any force or pressure, designed to camouflage the real size of the voice. While he always had an agile voice, his teacher taught him how to sing runs without force, and by lightening up the voice he can sing some impressive florid passages. His voice revealed itself to be a true lyric tenor.

From smaller roles in Massenet’s “Manon” and Puccini’s “La Rondine”, he developed steadily until his biggest role to date, as the leading tenor in Mozart’s “Don  Giovanni” , directed by Marcus Desando,  himself a tenor of note in performances of operatic roles and musicals.

Singing in the Teatro Filarmonico in Verona, Italy, is one of the highlights of his career so far.  He was invited to take part in an international competition for young artists, with finance provided by MIAGI. Nothing less than a “Turandot Idols”, singers from around the globe compete in a gruelling set of elimination rounds to win three performances in a staging of Puccini’s “Turandot” in Verona – the Lion’s Den of Italian opera, where tickets cost up to 200 EUROS, (just to keep things in perspective).  Along with fellow UCT students Musa Ngqungwana and Mlamli Lalapantsi, Sunnyboy outsang formidable international competition to win. And no, none of them sang Pavarotti’s “Nessun Dorma” – the World Cup 2007 theme song. They took the roles of Ping, Pong and Pang, three Imperial functionaries whose “cynical, comical and nostalgical” stage business suited the three South Africans to a tee.

Sunnyboy Dladla in Turandot in Teatro Filarmonica, Verona

When I ask Sunnyboy what advice he has for young singers, he is quite clear about his answer “Know your voice, know your “Fach” (the type of music you should be singing to show your voice to its best advantage). Don’t try to sing everything. Say no to things that do not suit your voice. Go for every opportunity you can. And learn Italian! You will be performing in countries where everyone speaks it, and your language has to be perfect if you are going to be singing in Italian”.

And sing in Italian he will. Our programme “Dangerous Liaisons” will feature arias by Bel Canto composers. Sunnyboy will sing arias from Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” (Barber of Seville), and “La Scala di Seta” (The Silken Ladder). Sunnyboy will also be seen at Artscape on 12 and 13 June in a revival of La Scala Di Seta, a comic farce, in a production conducted by popular South African Alex Fokkens and directed by Lara Bye, with funding from the South African Wagner Society.

Future productions for Sunnyboy include the delightful Donizetti opera “L’elisir d’amore” where he will sing the romantic young lover Nemorino’s arias in “Dangerous Liaisons”.