Tag Archives: Opera

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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Filed under Baroque era, Opera

Verdi’s pigs


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 [1992] 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

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Filed under Animals, Food, Humor, Opera

The compleat mezzo

janet baker

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.

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Mise en scène

Mise en scène

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

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Filed under New series, Opera

Caballé, Mercury, and Barcelona


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.

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Filed under Curiosities, Opera, Popular music

The signifyin(g) rabbit

Bugs Bunny has been recuperated as a queer cultural icon, a parodic diva whose campy excesses and canny games are profoundly though tacitly indebted to the African American rhetorical tradition of signifyin(g).

Interrogation of Bugs Bunny’s characteristic strategies of trickstering demonstrates the connections, both theoretical and material, between the queer camp of gender bending and the slippery strategies of resistance, the semiotic play of signifying as back-talk.

The rabbit of Seville (1950, directed by Chuck Jones and scored by Carl Stalling) presents specific situations of parody and allusion, illustrating the ways in which transvestic performance, inflected through camp, participates in a highly queer mode of phallic divestiture.

This according to “The signifying rabbit” by Eric Savoy (Narrative 2 [May 1995] pp. 188–209). Below, an excerpt from the cartoon classic in question.


Filed under Humor, Opera

Szymanowski and Eros

The desire to voice the artistic revelation of the truth of a precarious, multifaceted, yet integrated self lies behind much of Karol Szymanowski’s work.

This self is projected through the voices of deities who speak languages of love. The unifying figure is Eros, who may be embodied as Dionysus, Christ, Narcissus, or Orpheus, and the gospel he proclaims tells of the resurrection and freedom of the desiring subject.

In Król Roger Szymanowski uses the unifying Christ/Eros figure as a means of indicating that the King might be transformed from an anguished despot to a loving expressive subject; this is demonstrated in the encounters of King Roger with the voices of Narcissus, the Siren, and Dionysus. The composer fused Slavonic and Middle-Eastern mythological inspirations to fulfill a utopian vision of a pan-European culture bound together by the spirit of Eros.

This according to Szymanowski, eroticism, and the voices of mythology by Stephen C. Downes (London: Royal Musical Association, 2003).

Szymanowski would be 140 years old this month! Above, a portrait of Szymanowski by Witkacy. Below, the ending of Roksana’s aria from Król Roger.

Related article: Wagner and Eros

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Curiosities, Opera

Operatic degeneracy II

La verità mascherata (Milan, 1681), an anonymous and apparently fictional account of a libertine’s reform, includes a description of an elaborate opera performance on the occasion of a royal wedding.

The account suggests that 17th-century Italian audiences were neither silent nor attentive during overtures and instrumental interludes; that the danced intermezzi were barely considered part of the opera at all (Italians apparently regarded stage dancing as comical and grotesque at that time); and that drunkenness and lasciviousness were freely depicted on the stage. The story ends with the hero renouncing opera and retiring to a monastery.

This according to “A Jesuit at the opera in 1680” by Edward Joseph Dent, an essay included in Riemann-Festschrift: Gesammelte Studien–Hugo Riemann zum sechzigsten Geburtstage überreicht von Freunden und Schülern (Leipzig: Hesse, 1909, pp. 381–393); the book is covered in RILM’s Liber amicorum: Festschriften for music scholars and nonmusicians, 1840–1966 (2009, 100 years after the article was published).

Above, Sharin Apostolou in a production of La Calisto, a 1651 opera by Francesco Cavalli that could have helped to form the impression of Italian comic opera depicted in La verità mascherata. Below, an excerpt from a 1996 performance in Brussels.

Related article: Operatic degeneracy I

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Filed under Baroque era, Humor, Opera, Reception

Tin pan opera

During the ragtime era hundreds of humorous Tin Pan Alley songs centered on operatic subjects—either directly quoting operas or alluding to operatic characters and vocal stars of the time. These songs brilliantly captured the moment when popular music in America transitioned away from its European operatic heritage, and when the distinction between low- and high-brow popular musical forms was free to develop, with all its attendant cultural snobbery and rebellion.

In the early 20th century, when new social forces were undermining the view that our European heritage was intrinsically superior to our native vernacular culture, opera—that great inheritance from our European forebears—functioned in popular discourse as a signifier for elite culture.

These operatic novelty songs availed this connection to a humorous and critical end. Combining European operatic melodies with the new and American rhythmic verve of ragtime, these songs painted vivid images of immigrant Americans, liberated women, and upwardly striving African Americans, striking emblems of the profound transformations that shook the U.S. at the beginning of the American century.

This according to Tin pan opera: Operatic novelty songs in the ragtime era by Larry Hamberlin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). Below, “When Priscilla tries to hit high C” by Jack Mahoney and Harry Von Tilzer.

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Filed under Opera, Popular music

Coloratura tuba

Much vocal music has been transcribed for tuba, but little is available for advanced-level players. Coloratura opera arias offer material that would be challenging for more experienced tubists, and these types of arias are much less text-dependent than other kinds of vocal music.

This according to Guidelines for transcribing coloratura opera arias for tuba, with transcriptions of three arias by Vivaldi, Gluck, and Delibes by Robert Lynn, a 2005 dissertation for Ball State University.

Above, a performance by TubaDiva (Jennifer Paradis-Hagar); below, Alessandro Fossi performs Musetta’s aria “Quando me’n vo” from Puccini’s La Bohème.


Filed under Curiosities, Instruments, Opera