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.
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).
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.
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
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.
Archivists at the American Institute for Verdi Studies discovered a document that sheds new light on Verdi’s activity just prior to the composition of his final opera, Falstaff.
A letter from the publisher Giulio Ricordi dated 22 August 1890 congratulates Verdi on the successful launching of a new business devoted to the sale of pork prepared at the composer’s Sant’Agata farm.
Ricordi, having purchased a “G.V. brand” pork shoulder, reports that he found the bill “a bit salty”, but for such exquisite meat he would pay “neither a lira more nor a lira less”.
This according to “New Verdi document discovered” by Martin Chusid (Verdi newsletter XX  p. 23).
Today is Verdi’s 200th birthday! Below, in Falstaff’s finale, the opera’s characters prepare to dine together—no doubt anticipating the composer’s own homegrown prosciutto.
Related article: Verdi’s gastromusicology
In a 2005 interview, Dame Janet Baker explained some of her career choices.
“With the greatest respect to mainstream opera, a great many of the mezzo roles are not that interesting. You are either a nurse or a nanny or a companion or something…and I thought ‘My goodness me, I’m going to be bored witless!’”
“I wanted to do things that interested me from the theatrical point of view and from the musical point of view, which meant that I went down very lesser-known, interesting paths, because I was free from the repertory system. And I was glad about that.”
This from “The compleat mezzo´by David J. Baker (Opera news LXX/4 [October 2005] pp. 32–35).
Today is Dame Janet’s 80th birthday! Below, in recital with Schubert’s An die Musik.
In 2012 Brepols launched the series Mise en scène with Giacomo Puccini et Albert Carré: Madame Butterfly à Paris.
Musicologists and stage directors are familiar with the staging manuals (disposizioni sceniche) for Verdi’s later operas, which resulted directly from the composer’s contact with French practice. Yet the French livrets de mise en scène, intended to provide theater directors wishing to produce a work with its complete mise en scène, are still little known.
The publication with annotations and illustrations of a series of stage manuals for important works in the French operatic repertoire, from Auber’s La Muette de Portici (Paris Opéra, 1828) to more modern works—Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and Ravel’s L’Heure espagnole—will provide researchers and directors with very useful tools, giving access to the original visual, dramatic, and decorative elements of Parisian productions (often thought out by the librettist and the composer). Knowing how works were originally staged can be both enlightening and inspiring. These manuals, providing faithful accounts of theatrical works, have much to offer theater historians and those working in opera.
Below, Anna Moffo sings Butterfly’s Death Scene.
Related article: Italian opera manuals
After Queen’s 1985 tour of Spain, the group’s frontman Freddie Mercury amazed his fans by declaring on Spanish television that the Spaniard he most longed to meet was Montserrat Caballé.
Mercury hoped to collaborate with the legendary diva, and in March 1987 he finally arranged a meeting in the Garden Room of the Ritz Hotel in Barcelona with a grand piano, state-of-the art recording and playback equipment, and a sumptuous buffet. She later described the scene:
“We spent the whole time listening to music, eating, and improvising…Barcelona as such did not exist at that time—it was only a musical sketch of just a few bars that Freddie sang. But I liked it and he promised to develop it for me to celebrate the Olympic success.” (Barcelona had just been selected for the 1992 Summer Olympics.)
Mercury worked quickly on the song, and Caballé’s recital in London later that month dovetailed with a recording session at his home. Working until 6:00 in the morning, they produced what effectively became Barcelona’s unofficial Olympic anthem.
This according to Montserrat Caballé: “Casta diva” by Stephen Taylor and Robert Pullen (London: Gollancz, 1995, pp. 302–05).
Caballé is 80 years old today! Below, the official video of Barcelona.