Sunday, November 05, 2006

Another Memorable First

A few months after moving to California, I looked out my window one sunny morning to find a hummingbird hovering magically in midair, its bill thrust deep into a flower. At that moment I learned something I hadn't known, which is that I had never in my life seen a hummingbird before. I knew perfectly well what they were, so it had never occurred to me to wonder whether I'd ever actually encountered one in the flesh; but as soon as I did I knew I could never have forgotten the experience. The same thing happened a few years later when I first read Oedipus Rex — not feeling sure whether I had ever done so before, then quickly learning that I hadn't.

Now it's happened again, with a twist. Before Friday's performance of Jake Heggie's new chamber opera To Hell and Back, I could not have told you with any certainty whether I'd ever heard Patti LuPone perform. I don't pay much attention to the whole Broadway scene — not even the "no-man-trust-me-it's-actually-an-opera" arena inhabited by Sweeney Todd and its ilk — so the odds were against it. Still, LuPone comes around here pretty regularly, and it wasn't out of the question that I could have encountered her in something or other that had then slipped my mind.

Not a chance. LuPone's performance on Friday was such a ghastly, slovenly, unspeakable mess that any prior acquaintance would have been branded into my consciousness forever. Once bitten, twice running very very fast in the opposite direction.

Because here's what they don't tell you about Patti LuPone: She can't sing. I don't mean she can't sing well, or attractively, or with nuance or interpretive alertness. I mean she can no more reproduce a given musical pitch than she can leap to the roof of the War Memorial Opera House, or pass a foot-long hot dog in one ear and out the other.

Heggie, God bless him, gave her a couple of tinny little Broadway numbers to tackle solo, and she delivered them credibly, if tunelessly, through her cranked-up microphone. But much of the rest of the piece involved her singing in tandem with an actual opera singer, the magnificent Isabel Bayrakdarian, and the results were unspeakable. You haven't winced until you've heard two vocalists — one who knows how to sing and one who doesn't — try to sing straightforward tonal harmonies together. Simple probability suggests that a handful of LuPone's notes must have been more or less in tune, but for the life of me I couldn't tell you which.

Sometimes a singer with less than impeccable technique will probe around a little before finding a note, but LuPone has a method that I've never heard before. She begins her search for a particular pitch in the right general vicinity; then she roams around aimlessly for a while, hoping to get closer; and finally, after a few unsuccessful stabs, she throws up her hands and settles on a wrong pitch — generally flat — and says, aah, the hell with it. And even then the horror isn't over, because if there's any time left on that note, she can't hold it — many a flat note got even flatter as LuPone lost interest in it.

Is this really the state of the art on the Great White Way? Can't be. The mind reels.


At 11/06/2006 9:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I passed on the 1st 1/2 of the program last night (my Sunday Subscription) and saw only the Heggie.

I ran into Frederica Von Stade outside and mused - what wonder would we have seen/heard had she sung Anne - THE MIND TRULY REELS!

At 11/06/2006 7:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't pay much attention to Broadway any more either, but I did catch Ms. Lupone in the S.F. Symphony's Sweeney Todd a few years ago. It was a brilliant production despite her.

It's true: she can't sing and she gets away with murder most of the time. My beef, with Sweeney in particular, was that she kept holding the final note of a phrase without any regard for what the word was or what the vowel was. So, you'd have her luxuriating in the sound of her own voice singing words like "bit".

Is she such a living legend that a conductor is too intimidated to say, "Uh, Patti, that's a quarter note. Thanks."?

At 11/10/2006 10:28 AM, Blogger M. C- said...

michael, i trust you've heard the forbidden broadway "i get a kick out of me"?

my favorite part of that sweeney was how her accent effortlessly alternated between cockney and brooklyn.

At 1/27/2007 6:05 AM, Blogger Bob said...

Your very much ill-informed comment about Sweeney Todd (ask Sondheim how he classifies Sweeney) pretty much color your whole review about Patti LuPone.

To flat out say LuPone, Tony and Oliver award winner, just can't sing is pretty strange. Almost as if you have a beef with Broadway artists crossing over into opera/classical territory, and LuPone was your target of the year.

And why exactly have you avoided the Broadway musical scene? It’s not all Wicked and Lion King, you know. Christene Ebersole (who?) is giving the performance of the decade in “Grey Gardens” on the Great White Way currently, and your issues with classifying art into “Broadway” or “Opera” may prohibit you from seeing it.


At 1/27/2007 9:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My email is
My name is Kyle King.

Well, sir, you use a lot of big, fancy words. You're well spoken, or written, but good God, either you're an imbecile blessed with wonderful skills of expression or you're just trying to get a rise out of people, because you simply can't be serious in your criticisms of Patti Lupone's singing.

Since I suspect you're just trying to rile us up, trying to capture a candid camera type moment on the internet, I'll be brief.

I saw the Friday performance to which you refer. I also saw the Saturday performance in Berkeley. Saturday was better. Much, much better. And to be sure, this medium for Patti was an adventure. And I won't critique her performances on to Hell and Back beyond that.

You say "here's what they don't tell you about Patti is she can't sing." Well, that's silly, sbsurd, ridiculous, asinine, etc. Jesus Christ, man, if you think that's true, you have no judgment or depth of thought.

Heggie's piece is a bit like beer and Camembert. You like it better the more you consume.

If you think Patti can't sing, is tuneless, that she roams around aimlessly, you're just ignorant. And I mean "ignorant" in the classic definition of the word, not in the vernacular which uses it to mean stupid. You're not stupid, your observations about the hummingbird and Oedipus Rex are nothing short of brilliant.

But when it comes to Patti, you're IGNORANT. And your comments are about as credible as my ornithologist mother trying to critique Peyton Manning's audibles at the line of scrimmage.

Stick to hummingbirds. You're a genius there.

At 5/28/2008 6:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just saw her sing a song from Gypsy on Good Morning America and thought it was so horrible I immediately googled "Patti LuPone can't sing" and found this blog. I'd never heard of her before but couldn't believe she was top billing for a Broadway musical.


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