Author Archives: rilm

Ernst Krenek and Charles V

 

Ernst Krenek’s Karl V is a testimony to the anachronistic—in the best sense of the word—exploitation of the memory of the Holy Roman Empire, or the imperial idea of Charles V as the composer understood it, reflecting the unrealized possibility of a transformation of the medieval concept of empire into a contemporary form.

In its interpretation of the Holy Roman Empire, the opera builds a bridge to the world of values of the Austrian corporative state, which sought to attribute a special mission to Austria by linking it with the supranational idea of the Habsburg Empire.  This involves a distinct rejection of the National Socialist idea of empire. On the musical level, this is expressed by the use of the proscribed 12-tone technique. which in various respects corresponds to the conceptual theme of the work.

Krenek’s position can be defined both from the standpoint of music-art and of philosophy-politics, as that of a border-crosser, one which resists classification in any specific direction.

This according to “Die Idee des Reiches in Ernst Kreneks Bühnenwerk mit Musik Karl V, op. 73 (1933)” by Raymond Dittrich, s essay included in Was vom Alten Reiche blieb…: Deutungen, Institutionen und Bilder des frühneuzeitlichen Heiligen Römischen Reiches Deutscher Nation im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (München: Bayerische Landeszentrale für Politische Bildungsarbeit, 2011, pp. 421–33).

Today is Charles V’s 520th birthday! Above, Titian’s La gloria, once owned by the birthday boy, who is depicted in white near the top; Krenek called for the painting to be used as a stage backdrop for his opera. Below, the opening of the Bayerische Staatsoper’s production.

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

James Reese Europe, ragtime hero

 

James Reese Europe was a composer, conductor, and organizer of the black community. A pioneer in jazz, he led the Clef Club Orchestra and other organizations in New York, and during World War I his 369th Infantry Regiment “Hellfighters” band was among the first exporters of jazz to Europe.

Working with Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, Europe was a prominent figure in black musical theater. He also worked with Harry T. Burleigh and Will Marion Cook, as well as the dancers Vernon and Irene Castle. His career was cut short in 1919, when he was murdered by a member of his own orchestra.

This according to A life in ragtime: A biography of James Reese Europe by Reid Badger (New York: Oxford, 1995).

Today would have been Europe’s 140th birthday! Below, one of his signature hits—W.C. Handy’s Memphis blues.

 

BONUS: A brief documentary focusing on Europe’s military career.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers

Lady Gaga and Weird Al

 

Parody is often filled with internal contradictions at both the level of the critique of the original artwork and the level of the quality of the parodied performance. Of course, “Weird Al” Yankovic is not the only artist creating parodies of Lady Gaga, and she is not his only target.

Even Lady Gaga herself creates parody as she borrows from the pop stars of earlier eras and comments on their work. Critics suggest that her success is due, in part, to her quotations from other artists, but her work goes beyond simple imitation. On the level of performance, her self-conscious employment of parody is partly responsible for her success.

As a self-professed performance artist, Lady Gaga becomes a nexus of imitation in which she both showcases and expands the limits and the understanding of both parody and performance. Through his own parodies of Gaga’s parodic work, “Weird Al” highlights this reality.

This according to “Performing pop: Lady Gaga, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic and parodied performance” by Matthew R. Turner, an article included in The performance identities of Lady Gaga: Critical essays (Jefferson: McFarland, 2012, pp. 188–202).

Above and below, Yankovic’s Perform this way, a parody of Lady Gaga’s Born this way.

 

Above, Perform this way: Weird Al Yankovic at Edgefield by Paul Riismandel is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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Filed under Humor, Performers, Popular music

Novelty and influence in classical piano music

 

While innovation is crucial for novel and influential achievements, quantifying these qualities in creative works remains a challenge. An information-theoretic framework for computing the novelty and influence of creative works based on their generation probabilities reflects the degree of uniqueness of their elements in comparison with other works.

Applying this formalism to a high-quality, large-scale data set of classical piano compositions–works of significant scientific and intellectual value–spanning several centuries of musical history, represented as symbolic progressions of chords, a study found that the enterprise’s developmental history can be characterized as a dynamic process composed of the emergence of dominant, paradigmatic creative styles that define distinct historical periods. These findings can offer a new understanding of the evolution of creative enterprises based on principled measures of novelty and influence.

This according to “Novelty and influence of creative works, and quantifying patterns of advances based on probabilistic references networks” by Doheum Park, Juhan Nam, and Juyong Park (EPJ data science IX/2 [2020]).

Many thanks to Marc Abrahams of Improbable Research for bringing this to our attention!

Above, two illustrations from the article (click to enlarge); below, Chopin’s prelude in A Major, op. 28, no.7, which provides the basis for the second illustration.

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Filed under Curiosities, Science

Peter Gabriel and locatedness

 

Peter Gabriel is one of contemporary music’s great experimenters. From his work in the progressive group Genesis, through his pioneering solo albums, to his enthusiastic embrace of world music and new technologies, Gabriel has remained steadfastly consistent in his redefinition of music’s boundaries and influence: geographical, virtual, and thematic.

Central to his aesthetic is the idea of locatedness: what it means to be in a specific place at a given time, and to reflect on that time and the changes that inevitably occur. Gabriel’s work can be understood as a series of reflections on the “where” of being—including politics, psychology, philosophy, psychogeography, and inward reflection. His constant traveling—through identities, influences, and media—defines him as one of modern culture’s truly global citizens.

This according to Peter Gabriel: Global citizen by Paul Hegarty (London: Reaktion, 2018).

Today is Gabriel’s 70th birthday! Above, performing in 2011; below, In your eyes from Secret world live.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music, World music

A playlist for Japanese food

 

Since the late 1970s, when he was a founding member of the electronic-pop trio Yellow Magic Orchestra, Ryuichi Sakamoto has composed and produced music for dance floors, concert halls, films, video games, ringtones, and acts of ecological awareness and political resistance. Many consider him exemplary not only for his music but also for his listening, and for his understanding of how music can be used and shared.

In 2017 Sakamoto assembled a gustatory soundtrack for Kajitsu, a Japanese restaurant in Murray Hill, Manhattan. In an interview, he compared Kajitsu’s cuisine to the beauty of Katsura Rikyu, a palatial villa in Kyoto, but said that the restaurant’s former musical backdrop was more akin to that of Trump Tower.

Sakamoto created at least five rough drafts before settling on the current version of the Kajitsu playlist, now available for public consumption on Spotify.

This according to “Annoyed by restaurant playlists, a master musician made his own” by Ben Ratliff (The New York times 23 July 2018, p. D1).

Above, a meal at Kajitsu; below, the Kajitsu playlist.

 

Course 3: All dishes by Laissez Fare is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

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Filed under Curiosities, Food

Middle Eastern dance and the West

 

Belly dance is the English-language name for a complex of solo improvised dance styles of Middle Eastern and North African origin whose movements are based on articulations of the torso.

The expression danse du ventre—literally, dance of the belly—was initially popularized in France as an alternate title for the Orientalist artist Jean-Léon Gérôme’s 1863 painting La danse de l’almée (detail above) and ultimately became the standard designation for solo, and especially women’s, dances from the Middle East and North Africa.

The translation belly dance was introduced into English in 1889 in international media coverage of the Rue du Caire exhibit at the Parisian Exposition Universelle. A close examination of the historical sources demonstrates that the evolution of this terminology was influenced by contemporary art, commercial considerations, and popular stereotypes about Eastern societies.

This according to “Middle Eastern dance and what we call it” by Ainsley Hawthorn (Dance research XXXVII/1 [summer 2019] pp. 1–17).

Below, the legendary Fifi Abdou (فيفي عبده) in 1986.

Related article: Subversive belly dancing

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Filed under Dance, Iconography

Smithsonian Collections Object: Debbie Harry Photography, National Portrait Gallery

Debbie Harry Portrait, 1986 (printed 2004), National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of The Motion Picture Group, Inc., Philadelphia, PA USA.

“Color me your color, darling, I know who you are” –Debbie Harry

In this picture taken by Francesco Scavullo—a fashion photographer well known for his 1972 Cosmo centerfold photo of a hirsute Burt Reynolds splayed across a bearskin rug—Debbie Harry appears in a leather jacket, metal-studded bracelet, heavy raccoon-style eye makeup, and artfully mussed/moussed blonde hair with black roots peeking through.

A promotional shot for Harry’s second solo album, Rockbird (1986), the image is much more stereotypically “punk rock” than most images seen of her before. The juxtaposition is all the most striking given that Rockbird is the most purely pop album of Debbie Harry’s or Blondie’s career (and probably the most dated, for better or worse, given the transparently time-stamped mid-1980s production).

As a photographic subject Debbie Harry has provoked seemingly endless fascination—at least judging by the massive volume of images in circulation—not just for her striking appearance but also, it could be argued, for the intimate, yet equally enigmatic, nature of so many of the photos. Taken together, the images invite comparison to pioneering female photographers ranging from Cindy Sherman to Francesca Woodman—except for the fact that most of the photos are not technically self-portraits.

Debbie Harry has to be one of the most photographed women in rock history (notably, almost every biography of Blondie and Debbie Harry is presented as a “pictorial biography” as well). Her image has long been considered so crucial to the band Blondie, featured on posters and in books and magazines—some of which would notoriously crop the rest of the band out of the original image—that their label Chrysalis Records saw fit to launch a “Blondie Is A Group” marketing blitz in 1978. But the band were hardly dupes in this image-making enterprise.

For one thing, this imagistic breadth reflects the band itself that Harry has fronted for all these years. Nominally a “punk” band who were in the mix of the early CBGB scene, Blondie was ultimately better known for being on the vanguard of multiple musical crossovers and cutting-edge stylistic trends than for their “punk rock” cred—weaving together old and new, mixing elements of punk primitivism with melodic ‘60s pop, Phil Spector studio productions, classic girl groups, Jamaican rocksteady, disco, early rap, and many other genres besides.

In Lester Bangs’ long out-of-print band biography (and extended think-piece-cum-rant) titled Blondie (1980), he quotes drummer Clem Burke who asserts “that music goes hand-in-hand with image.” A somewhat novel sentiment for a rock band in the early MTV era—especially one that emerged from one of the most sacrosanct undergrounds of all time—Debbie Harry and Blondie were just as savvy and creative with their imagery as with their music. Chris Stein, Blondie’s guitarist and most frequently-featured songwriter who also happened to be Debbie Harry’s life partner at the time, was also an avid photographer on the side. His primary subject was, unsurprisingly, Debbie Harry (alongside bandmates and his life as a working musician).

In his book Lester Bangs goes on to criticize the band for its ever-expanding stylistic palette and its alleged inauthenticity as a result. A study in contrasts in his own right, Bangs was known for being in-equal-measures rhapsodic and curmudgeonly. His Blondie book began life as an authorized biography but was ultimately published without the band’s imprimatur. Referring to Debbie Harry’s “Lolita” image in particular, Bangs writes that he would “lay any odds…it sure as hell ain’t the same person as the one called Deborah Harry.” This all seems a strange line of reasoning, however, for a critic who lionized artists such as David Bowie and Lou Reed (who, to be fair, Bangs was also quite critical of at times) known to be similarly “blank” or “kaleidoscopic” in their music and image.

In Blondie Lester Bangs champions this very quality of self-invention when it comes to punk rock in the broader sense. He praises early punk and proto-punk bands, the New York Dolls in particular, for bringing rock ‘n’ roll back to its roots as “the ultimate populist art form, democracy in action,” for which the main quality required is nerve (“If you’ve got the attitude you can do it, no matter what anybody says. Believing that is one of the things punk rock is about.”) By this criteria, given their penchant for constant self-reinvention, it would seem that Blondie were the ultimate punk band of the CBGB scene, even if stylistically they didn’t fit the sound and the look many thought of as punk.

Debbie Harry encapsulates many of these “contradictory” qualities in her image, voice, and stage presence. She’s a Jersey girl who became the ultimate New York City hipster. A disco queen and a punk diva. A woman in her 30s by the time Blondie started scoring hits, Debbie Harry and Blondie created “teenage fun for adults and vice-versa” (Bangs). Debbie is a convincing and powerful singer of oft-sublime songs who at the same time can sound (and look) a little bit detached from it all—which only heightens the dramatic tension in the best of cases, check out “Atomic” for example—contributing lyrics that mix-and-match searing emotion, ironic twists, and occasional surrealism. In the visual realm, Debbie is widely considered to be beyond glamourous. But often with an observable wink, not to mention charmingly awkward at times.

Official video for Blondie’s “Atomic”

For those paying attention the pose may be transparently apparent, just as it’s most likely meant to be. For this reason, perhaps, Debbie Harry has become an icon of queer culture. On an early Blondie demo titled “Platinum Blondie,” Debbie sings in character—“I even tried wearing a wig for a while…but I got some peroxide at the beauty supply”—lyrics that would do most any drag performer proud. To this day she’s a fixture on the New York City LGBTQ scene, attending events like Squeezebox (in the 1990s) and Jackie 60 productions such as Night of a Thousand Stevies up to the present. If, in fact, there are “a thousand Debbies” it is very much by design. The tensions and potentials brought about by this pastiche-driven creative process—a playful overlapping of elements that at first appear to be disparate and incompatible—is hinted at in the image captured by Francesco Scavullo, a photograph that overlaps visual markers of authenticity and obvious stylization which resonate with Debbie Harry’s musical history.

This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Jason Lee Oakes, Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).

Bibliography

Bangs, Lester. Blondie (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1999-32447]

Bayley, Roberta. Blondie: Unseen, 1976–1980 (London: Plexus, 2007). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2007-34941]

Blondie were the most commercially successful band to emerge from the New York punk scene of the mid 1970s, producing a series of number one albums between 1977 and 1982 and selling over 50 million records worldwide. This book features 235 photographs of Debbie Harry and Blondie taken by the famous first-wave punk rock photographer. (publisher)

DeRogatis, Jim. Let it blurt: The life and times of Lester Bangs, America’s greatest rock critic (New York: Broadway Books, 2000). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2000-5597]

A biography of the gonzo journalist widely considered a romantic visionary of rock criticism. In publications such as Creem, The Village voice, and New York rocker, Bangs agitated during the 1970s for sounds that were harsher, louder, more electric, and more alive, in the course of which he charted and defined the aesthetics of heavy metal and punk. He was treated as a peer by musicians such as Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Richard Hell, Captain Beefheart, the Clash, and Debbie Harry. Bangs’s life and writings provide a window on rock criticism and rock culture in their most turbulent and creative years. (publisher)

Harry, Deborah, Chris Stein, and Victor Bockris. Making tracks: The rise of Blondie (Repr. ed.; New York: Da Capo, 1998). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1998-8232]

Harry, Deborah. Face it (New York: Dey Street Books, 2019). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2019-8835]

Musician, actor, activist, and the iconic face of New York City cool, Debbie Harry is the frontwoman of Blondie, a band that forged a new sound that brought together the worlds of rock, punk, disco, reggae, and hip hop to create some of the most beloved pop songs of all time. As a muse, she collaborated with some of the boldest artists of the past four decades. The scope of Debbie Harry’s impact on our culture has been matched only by her reticence to reveal her rich inner life, until now. In a mix of visceral, soulful storytelling and stunning visuals—including photographs, bespoke illustrations, and fan art installations—this book upends the standard music memoir while delivering a truly prismatic portrait. With all the grit, grime, and glory recounted in intimate detail, it re-creates the downtown scene of 1970s New York City, where Blondie played alongside the Ramones, Television, Talking Heads, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie. Following her path from commercial success to heroin addiction, the near-death of partner Chris Stein, a heart-wrenching bankruptcy, and Blondie’s breakup as a band to her multifaceted acting career in more than 30 films, a solo career, and the triumphant return of her band, and her tireless advocacy for the environment and LGBTQ rights, this is a cinematic story of a woman who made her own path, and set the standard for a generation of artists who followed in her footsteps. (publisher)

Marcus, Greil. “Ripped to shreds”, Ranters & crowd pleasers: Punk in pop music, 1977–92, ed. by Greil Marcus. (New York: Doubleday, 1993) 105–108. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1993-16366]

A discussion of Lester Bangs’s book Blondie, (RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1999-32447), published in Rolling stone, 24 July 1980. In the book, Bangs, a quickie-band-bio gun for hire, uses the opportunity to deconstruct the band—as well as the marketing of Deborah Harry as a sexed-up ice-queen bombshell—while lending depth to any analysis or appreciation of Blondie to follow. One of his key points is that the erstwhile punk and new wave band blazed new trails in emotional ambivalence—or, as he eventually argues—total lack of emotional content. Bangs writes that “what emotions do surface occasionally, what obsessions and lusts, are invariably almost immediately gutted by fusillades of irony, sarcasm, camp, what have you, ending up buried”. Bangs’s book is as much a treatise on postmodernist art as a simple band biography. (Jason Lee Oakes)

Metz, Allan, ed. Blondie, from punk to the present: A pictorial history. Musical legacy 1 (Springfield: Musical Legacy, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2002-12082]

Needs, Kris and Dick Porter. Blondie: Parallel lives (London: Omnibus, 2012). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2012-26761]

Drawing upon extensive new firsthand interview material from Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, and many other significant players in the band’s long history, plus a sizable archive of personal materials and unpublished interviews, this book is the definitive eye-witness account of the group’s long and often tumultuous existence. Beginning with the band members’ childhoods, backgrounds, and influences, the book is also an evocative homage to the unique New York scenes of the 1970s—CBGB, punk rock, disco, hip hop—that found their way into Blondie’s music. It charts the development of Blondie to their massive popular success and eventual break up. It also details how Debbie Harry set her career aside to nurse Stein through a debilitating and life-threatening genetic disease. It recounts the group’s 1997 reformation, subsequent renaissance with their No exit album, the controversies surrounding the 2006 induction to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, ending in the present with the release of Panic of girls. (publisher)

Peraino, Judith A. “‘Rip her to shreds’: Women’s music according to a butch-femme aesthetic”, repercussions 1/1 (spring 1992) 19–47. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text no. 1992-4598]

The butch-femme aesthetic allows women to explore traditional gender roles and provides an alternative to the patriarchal basis of previous formulations of women’s music. Phranc, the folk singer, and Deborah Harry, the lead singer of the defunct rock group Blondie, consciously use irony and gender conflation in their performances, but present opposite extremes in musical style and in the portrayal of femininity. (Brian Robison)

Stein, Chris. Negative: Me, Blondie, and the advent of punk (New York: Rizzoli, 2014). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2014-21260]

On the occasion of Blondie’s 40th anniversary, Chris Stein shares his iconic and mostly unpublished photographs of Debbie Harry and the cool creatures of the 1970s and ’80s New York rock scene. While a student at the School of Visual Arts, the author photographed the downtown New York scene of the early ’70s, where he met Deborah Harry and co-founded Blondie. Their blend of punk, dance, and hip hop spawned a totally new sound, and Stein’s photographs helped establish Harry as an international fashion and music icon. In photos and stories, this book provides a snapshot of the period before and during Blondie’s rise, through photos and annotations, by someone who was part of and who helped shape the early punk music scene—at CBGB, Andy Warhol’s Factory, and the early Bowery. Stars such as David Bowie, the Ramones, Joan Jett, and Iggy Pop were part of Stein’s world, as were downtown characters like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Richard Hell, Stephen Sprouse, Anya Phillips, Divine, and others. As captured by one of its central artists and instigators, and designed by Shepard Fairey, this book is a celebration of the new wave and punk scenes, whose influence on music and fashion is just as relevant today as it was four decades ago.

_____. Point of view: Me, New York City, and the punk scene (New York: Rizzoli, 2018). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2018-50487]

A new collection of unseen photographs of New York City’s 1970s punk heyday, by one of the icons of the city’s golden age of music, Blondie’s Chris Stein. For the duration of the 1970s—from his days as a student at the School of Visual Arts through the foundation of the era-defining band Blondie and his subsequent reign as epicenter of punk’s golden age—Chris Stein kept an unrivaled photographic record of the downtown New York City scene. Following in the footsteps of his previous book Negative, this new book presents a more personal and more visceral collection of Stein’s photographs of the era. The images presented here take readers from self-portraits in his run-down East-Village apartment to candid photographs of pop-cultural icons of the time and evocative shots of New York City streetscapes in all their most longed-for romance and dereliction. An eclectic cast of cultural characters—from William Burroughs to Debbie Harry, Andy Warhol to Iggy Pop—appear as they were in the day, juxtaposed with children playing hopscotch on torn-down blocks, riding the graffiti-ridden subway, or cruising the burgeoning clubs of the Bowery. (publisher)

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Filed under Iconography, Performers, Popular music

Busnois, Tinctoris, and “L’homme armé”

 

Antoine Busnois’s Missa “L’homme armé” commits one notational error after another—at least according to Johannes Tinctoris.

As several scathing passages in his Proportionale musices attest, Tinctoris abhorred Busnois’s mensural innovations. And yet Busnois’s notational choices, while certainly idiosyncratic, were also arguably justifiable: the composer was merely finding ways of recording novel musical ideas that had no agreed-upon notational solutions.

Tinctoris’s response to Busnois was not limited to the criticisms in his theoretical treatises. Tinctoris the composer responded far more comprehensively, and at times with far greater sympathy for Busnois’s practice, in his own Missa “L’homme armé”. He echoed Busnois’s Mass notationally, in that he treated it as an example of what not to do; his response was also deeply musical, in that he tackled similar technical problems as a means of achieving analogous contrapuntal effects.

Tinctoris’s and Busnois’s settings need to be understood in the context of 15th-century Masses, one in which composers were not necessarily content to work within the system but invented new ways of writing to create new sounds. In doing so, mere composers could sometimes achieve significance as theorists. Taken together, the L’homme armé Masses of Busnois and Tinctoris raise a range of historiographical issues that invite us to reassess the figure of the theorist-composer.

This according to “Composing in theory: Busnoys, Tinctoris, and the L’homme armé tradition” by Emily Zazulia (Journal of the American Musicological Society LXXI/1 [spring 2018] pp. 1–73).

This year we celebrate the 590th anniversary of Busnois’s birth! (His exact birthdate is unknown.)

Above, the version of L’homme armé that Busnois used as his cantus firmus, from I-NapBN MS VI.E.40 (with editorial markings); below, the Kyrie from his Missa “L’homme armé” followed by the corresponding movement from Tinctoris’s work.

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Filed under Curiosities, Renaissance

The truth about “Così”

 

The immorality of the characters in Mozart’s Così fan tutte, o sia La scuola degli amanti, K.588, has always been shocking to operagoers, and some have denounced Da Ponte’s plot as tasteless and vulgar; but the librettist did not invent the story—he simply borrowed the myth of Cephalus and Procris, enriching the tale by doubling the pair.

Others have maintained that the characters are mere puppets, not real people, so one may relax and enjoy the blameless music. However, Mozart drew fully developed musical characters for all of the roles, musically asserting their reality.

Ultimately, the work is a ruthlessly rational exposure of the instinctive irrationality of human behavior—and therein lies its ability to shock.

This according to “The truth about Così” by Donald Mitchell, an essay included in Tribute to Benjamin Britten on his fiftieth birthday (London: Faber & Faber, 1963, pp. 95–99).

Today is the 230th anniversary of Così fan tutte’s premiere! Above, a handbill for the first performance; below, an excerpt from Act II.

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Filed under Classic era, Opera