Tag Archives: Opera

Janáček and speech melodies


Leoš Janáček based vocal melodies in his operas on the concept of nápěvky mluvy (speech melodies)—patterns of speech intonation as they relate to psychological conditions—rather than on a strictly musical basis. He used such melodic motives, characterizing a specific person in a specific dramatic situation, in both vocal and orchestral parts, enabling him to integrate the two parts into a compact unit for the utmost dramatic effect.

This according to “Význam nápěvků pro Janáčkovu operní tvorbu” (The significance of speech melodies in Janáček’s operas) by Milena Černohorská, an essay included in Leoš Janáček a soudobá hudba (Leoš Janáček and contemporary music; Praha: Panton, 1963, pp. 77–80).

Janáček found the source of speech melodies in spoken phrases of people of various social and cultural backgrounds, recorded in real-life situations. During his ethnomusicological research in Moravia and Slovakia in 1920s, Janáček not only recorded songs and music, but also wrote down the melodies of dialogue fragments and of singers’ comments on specific songs.

Recently discovered autographs of Janáček’s fieldwork notes in the collection of the Etnologický ústav AV ČR, pracovišťě Brno with transcriptions of nápěvky mluvy were published in Janáčkovy záznamy hudebního a tanečního folkloru. I: Komentáře (Janáček´s records of traditional music and dances: I. Commentaries) by Jarmila Procházková (Brno: Etnologický ústav AV ČR, 2006).

Today is Janáček’s 160th birthday! Above, examples of nápěvky mluvy that he transcribed in Čičmany, Slovakia, on 20 August 1911; below, the finale of his Jenůfa, a work often cited for its use of the speech-melody concept.

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Peter Brook and Carmen


The 1981 premiere of Peter Brook’s and Jean-Claude Carrière’s La tragédie de Carmen at the Opéra in Paris sparked considerable controversy over its focus on the bleaker, darker aspects of the story.

In their revision of Bizet’s Carmen, Brook and Carrière attempted to be truer to Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novella, emphasizing the basic components of its tragedy: sorcery, sexuality, obsessive love, and death. They removed the comic elements from Bizet’s work, reasoning that the composer had been constrained by a theatrical medium that demanded the inclusion of comedy.

This according to The tragedy of Carmen: Georges Bizet and Peter Brook by William Manning D. Mouat, a dissertation accpted by the University of Washington, Seattle, in 1996.

Above and below, Zehava Gal in the title role.

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Marilyn Horne and ornamentation

marilyn horne

In a 1993 interview, Marilyn Horne discussed her study of the few examples of Rossini’s written-out vocal ornaments.

“I knew that if I ornamented that much I would be highly criticized for it. And so I did just a little bit—and was highly criticized for that!”

“Oh yes, we couldn’t win. In the beginning, I fought those ‘ornament fights’. I had terrible battles about it, especially with Italian conductors, because they are still very much under the influence of Toscanini, who ‘cleaned up’ everything.”

“I remember one particular conductor, his name was Argeo Quadri, and he talked like this: ‘Ah, signora, non si puo cantarlo così.’ Finally I said to him ‘Maestro, I went to a medium last night’—his eyes got bigger and bigger—and I said ‘I talked to Rossini stesso, and he said “Vai, Marilyna, vai!”’ Quadri laughed. He didn’t know whether to take me seriously or not, but he said okay, you can do your ornaments.”

This according to “La Rossiniana: A conversation with Marilyn Horne” by Jeannie Williams (The opera quarterly IX/4 [summer 1993] pp. 64–91).

Today is Marilyn Horne’s 80th birthday! Below, the diva demonstrates.

BONUS: Further examples, with action!

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Historic opera scenery

Dubosq 1

The newly discovered scenic collection of the Stadsschouwburg in Kortrijk, Belgium, comprises 13 backcloths, 21 borders, and over 298 framed units, plus authentic stage furniture, practicables, and sound effects.

This forgotten treasury houses a near-complete set of generic stock sets next to genuine production materials for Aida, La bohème, Carmen, Faust, and other blockbusters from the operatic repertoire. The décors were designed and executed by Albert Dubosq (1863–1940), an acknowledged master of the Parisian school of scenic painting,

Despite the groundbreaking research done at a few historical theaters, the study of operatic iconography still tends to focus on visual renderings—designs, artists’ impressions, and photographs—rather than on primary, scenic artifacts thereof, such as flats and drops. The discovery of these valuable holdings allows new examples of authentic scenery to be subjected to scholarly scrutiny.

This according to “Jumbo-sized artifacts of operatic practice: The opportunities and challenges of historical stage sets” by Bruno Forment (Music in art XXXVIII/1–2 [2013] pp. 115–125. Above, Dubosq’s Forêt asiatique for Lakmé; below, his Extérieur égyptien for Aida (both from 1921).


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Mice at the opera

singing mouse

In an experiment, researchers performed heart transplants on mice and studied the subsequent effects of music on their alloimmune responses.

The researchers exposed different groups of the recuperating mice to three types of recorded music—a collection of works by Mozart, the album The best of Enya, and Verdi’s La traviata—and a single sound frequency as a control. After seven days their results indicated that the mice who listened to La traviata had developed superior alloimmune responses.

This according to “Auditory stimulation of opera music induced prolongation of murine cardiac allograft survival and maintained generation of regulatory CD4+CD25+ cells” by Masateru Uchiyama, et al. (Journal of cardiothoracic surgery VII/26 [2010]). Many thanks to the Improbable Research Blog for sharing this study with us!

Below, we invite you to improve your own alloimmune responses while contemplating animated party food.

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Callas and Epidaurus

Epidaurus Callas

When Maria Callas returned to Greece to inaugurate the 1957 Athens Festival her demand for an unusually high fee created much antagonism, and she vowed that she would not perform in the country again.

However, in 1959 Κostis Bastias (1901–72) took charge of the administration of the Ethnikī Lyrikī Skīnī (Greek National Theater) and invited Callas to star in an opera in the ancient theater of Epidaurus. Since its opening in 1954, the Epidaurus Festival had only included performances of ancient Greek dramas by Ethnikī Lyrikī Skīnī; performances by other troupes were not allowed.

Finally, Callas consented to present Bellini’s Norma at the festival in 1960, and decided to donate her fee to a scholarship foundation. The performance was a resounding success, and she returned to Epidaurus a year later to present Cherubini’s Médée, further eroding Ethnikī Lyrikī Skīnī’s monopoly.

This according to “Callas: The conflict for Epidaurus” by Georgia Kondyli (Hellenic journal of music, education and culture III/1 [2010; open access]).

Today is Callas’s 90th birthday! Above, a Greek stamp commemorates her Norma at Epidaurus; below, an excerpt from her subsequent performance of the work in Paris.

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Marie-Louise Desmâtins in life and death


The novel La musique du diable, ou Le Mercure galant devalisé (Paris: Robert le Turc, 1711) describes  the arrival and subsequent activities of Marie-Louise Desmâtins and Lully in Hell; it also recounts events leading up to the soprano’s demise.

In the absence of any historical record of her last days, one might ask whether there could be a modicum of truth in the novel’s reports that Desmâtins had grown so obese that she engaged the finest butcher of the day to remove her fat; that she then mounted a lavish party for which all of the food had been prepared using this fat; at that she died soon thereafter from unknown causes. The reader is assured that she was welcomed to Hell with the highest honors, and that she is happier there than she ever was in her earthly life.

This according to “La musique du diable (1711): An obscure specimen of fantastic literature throws light on the elusive opera diva Marie-Louise Desmatins (fl. 1682–1708)” by Ilias Chrissochoidis (Society for Eighteenth-Century Music newsletter 11 [October 2007] pp. 7–9).

Above, a rather alarmingly corseted Desmâtins in a contemporaneous portrait; below, the final scene of Lully’s Armide, which Desmâtins starred in in 1703 (note that this is not an attempt to replicate the original staging).

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Filed under Baroque era, Curiosities, Food, Humor, Literature, Opera

Borodin’s operatic satire


Italian opera has played an important role in Russian musical life since the early 17th century, but by the 19th century it was being promoted there more than Russian opera. In retaliation, Russian composers used their operas to make fun of Italian opera’s stock situations and styles, and brought Russian opera back into prominence.

For example, in his early comic farce Богатыри (Bogatyri, Heroic warriors), Borodin used familiar music and arias from Italian and French operas (by Rossini, Verdi, Offenbach, Meyerbeer, and others) to set up situations where the original intention of the music and its new setting were at humorous extremes.

This according to “Italians in a Russian manner: One step from serious to funny” by Svetlana Sergeevna Martynova (Fontes artis musicae LVI/1 [January–March 2009] pp. 1–6).

Today is Borodin’s 180th birthday! Below, the opening of his B-minor symphony, which Massine used for his ballet Bogatyri, illustrated with images of the heroic warriors of Russian folklore.

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Šalâpin and Diaghilev


In 1906, at the age of 34, Serge Diaghilev made his first impact on Western Europe with a widely acclaimed exhibition of Russian art in Paris; he followed this success with well-received concerts of Russian music in 1907 and 1908, which included the Western European debut of the celebrated Russian bass Fëdor Ivanovič Šalâpin.

Even these achievements were overshadowed by the rapturous reception of the newly formed Ballets Russes in 1909, which performed the entire second act of Borodin’s Knâz’  Igor’ (Prince Igor), featuring the singing of Šalâpin and the dancing of the now-famous Poloveckie plâski (Polovtsian dances).

In 1913 Diaghilev produced performances featuring Šalâpin in both Paris and London. An archival document from that year records Šalâpin’s payment for an extra performance of Musorgskij’s Boris Godunov in London; at the bottom one can see the singer’s handwritten note: Finito!

This according to “Diaghilev, Chaliapine, and their contracts” by Cecil Hopkinson (The music review XXV/2 [May 1964] pp. 149–53). The article also includes full English translations of Šalâpin’s contracts with Diaghilev for the 1909 and 1913 seasons; it is covered in our recently launched RILM Retrospective Abstracts of Music Literature.

Above, Šalâpin with a different associate in 1929; below, a performance of a scene from Godunov at Covent Garden in 1928.

Related article: Rahmaninov and Tolstoj

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The beggar’s opera


Several aspects account for the success of  John Gay’s ballad opera The beggar’s opera when it premiered in London in 1728.

Gay’s skillful transformations of well-known songs contained many witty references to the originals, adding a rich subtext that his audience would have understood fully.

His audience would also have appreciated his caricatures of grand opera, which included references to recent London productions—particularly Händel’s Floridante (1721) and Alessandro (1726)—and to the highly public rivalry of the local operatic sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni (1696–1778) and Faustina Bordoni (1697–1781).

Gay’s facility as a writer was also a factor; he created clever, well-wrought lyrics and dialogue, vivid characters, and an irresistible ironic tone. An accomplished musician, Gay was certainly the musical arranger—not Pepusch, as some have argued.

This according to “The beggar’s opera” by Bertrand Harris Bronson, an essay included in Studies in the comic (Berkely: University of California Press, 1941, pp. 197–231); the book is covered in the recently launched RILM Retrospective Abstracts of Music Literature.

Above, William Hogarth’s 1729 painting of a scene from the work (click to enlarge); below, a gallant and dashing excerpt from Peter Brook’s 1953 film, courtesy of our friend Allan Janus.

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