Category Archives: Dramatic arts

The Marx Brothers at the opera

 

The Marx Brothers’ film A night at the opera is best known for its travesty of the high-society manners of the opera house and its sendup of Verdi’s Il trovatore. Underneath this farce, however, the film suggests deep affection for opera—a stance prompted, ironically, by the demands of the studio system.

The Hollywood movie is the heir and rival of opera as an entertainment medium, and both its follies and splendors are rooted in the immigrant experience of early–20th-century America.

This according to “The singing salami: Unsystematic reflections on the Marx Brothers” by Lawrence Kramer, an essay included in A night in at the opera (London: Libbey, 1994 pp. 253–65).

Above and below, classic Marxian mayhem.

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Filed under Humor, Opera, Performers

Chu Chin Chow and Orientalism

Oscar Asche’s Chu Chin Chow was the most popular musical in Britain during World War I, playing 2,235 performances over almost five years. Much of its success was due to the era’s fascination with the Orient, and it contained accessible music by Frederic Norton that generally only hinted at exoticism.

Chu Chin Chow continued a tradition of Orientalist musical entertainments, perhaps most notably Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. The legacy continues in the 21st century, for example in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production of Bombay dreams.

This according to “Chu Chin Chow and Orientalist musical theatre in Britain during the First World War by William A. Everett, an essay included in Music and Orientalism in the British Empire, 1780s to 1940s: Portrayal of the East (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007, pp. 277–96).

Above, an autographed postcard depicting Asche in the original production; below, the show’s signature song.

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Lily Pons arrives

Writing in 1955, a colleague recalled Lily Pons’s 1931 Metropolitan Opera debut:

“If all goes well on the first night of a new career in America, ‘a new Pope has been chosen’, as an old saying goes. Lily was a success and remained one.”

“In Lucia, though her age was something on the order of 30, she looked like a teenager. It was rumored that she was only 18; she was so dainty, petite, and graceful that everyone was willing to believe it.”

“For the first time in history a French coloratura had conquered America, and the novelty of it seemed to please everyone. Lily became their favorite toy, their baby doll, replete with Jaguars, Siamese cats, or Tibetan dogs with jeweled leashes accompanying her everywhere, like the descendant of some Grand Lama.”

This according to “Coloraturas at the Metropolitan” by Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, reprinted in Lily Pons: A centennial portrait (Portland: Amadeus, 1999, pp. 38–45).

Today is Pons’s 120th birthday! Above, costumed for Lakmé, with a friend; below, performing that opera’s Où va la jeune Hindoue? (popularly known as Bell song), one of Pons’s signature arias.

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Filed under Opera, Performers, Romantic era

Händel’s bestiary

Händel filled his operas with arias that make reference to animals; rich in symbolism, the perceived virtues and vices of the lion, bee, nightingale, snake, elephant, and tiger, among others, resonate in his works.

The aria Qual leon, from Arianna in Creta, was written for Händel’s longest-serving singer, Margherita Durastanti, and it gave her a chance to sing full force about revenge and punishment: “Like an enraged lion whose young have been stolen, so will I, armed with anger, strike in battle.” The accompanying horns evoke the lion’s fierce and regal power.

This according to Handel’s bestiary: In search of animals in Handel’s operas by Donna Leon (New York: Atlantic Monthly, 2010).

Below, hear Ann Hallenberg roar.

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Filed under Animals, Baroque era, Opera

Arie a voce sola de diversi auttori (Venice, 1656)

Issued by A-R Editions in 2018, Arie a voce sola de diversi auttori (Venice, 1656), a collection of secular monodies for voice and basso continuo, complements the edition of the contemporaneous sacred collection Sacra Corona (Venice, 1656), which A-R published in 2015. It contains short arias by various composers, some of whom had also contributed to Sacra Corona.

As in Sacra Corona, distinct Venetian and non-Venetian groups of composers can be identified within Arie a voce sola, and the printers, compilers, and dedicatees of both anthologies occupied similar social and economic milieus.

Arie a voce sola can be seen both as a continuation of the early seventeenth-century vogue for strophic arias, which were published in quantity in booklets during the first two decades of the century, and as the forerunner of the trend toward shorter operatic arias, observable in Venetian operas a few decades later.

Below, Maurizio Cazzati’s Mi serpe nel petto, one of the arias in the collection.

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Filed under Baroque era, New editions, Opera

Boito’s disastrous premiere

 

The world premiere of Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele on 5 March 1868 at Teatro alla Scala was a disaster.

On the aesthetic level, the opera’s unconventional melodies, harmonies, allocation of voices, and voice leading were jarring for the puzzled audience.

Even worse, in this work Boito repudiated the era’s emphasis on Italian nationalism and sought to stimulate philosophical thought and analysis. This cultural treason was viewed as a serious offense during the Italian Risorgimento, and Boito was forced to revise the opera; his reputation as a librettist suffered as well.

This according to La prima de Mefistofele e il Risorgimento: Pubblico e riforma del teatro musicale nella Milano postunitaria by Stefano Lucchi, a dissertation accepted by Universität Wien in 2009.

Today is the 150th anniversary of Boito’s disastrous premiere! Of course, now the opera is his best-loved work. Below, Renata Tebaldi sings the celebrated aria L’altra notte in fondo al mare.

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Filed under Opera, Reception, Romantic era

RILM broadens indexing of Chinese dramatic genres

When RILM started out in the mid-1960s, our indexing naturally mirrored the publications that we were working with.

For example, relatively little was available in the West about non-Western dramatic genres, while far more publications discussed Western dramatic genres like opera. Accordingly, we developed several indexing headings for those Western genres—opera seria, oratorio, zarzuela, and so on—while only one headword, dramatic arts, served for all non-Western genres (as well as for publications about more than one or two Western genres).

In early 2000 RILM started to expand its collection to include a large amount of East Asian-language publications, especially those from China. Since then the need for more refined indexing terms for non-Western dramatic genres has grown.

In spring 2017 RILM editors approved 13 new headwords for theatrical genres. Three of these new headwords, xiqu—general, xiqu—by genre, and xiqu—by place, are for those genres commonly known in the West as Chinese opera. Another three new headwords, quyi—general, quyi—by genre, and quyi—by place, are for traditional Chinese dramatic genres that are less known in the West.

For both xiqu—by genre and quyi—by genre, lists of second-level terms specifying individual xiqu or quyi genres have also been developed, and are continuously growing. Many of the genres covered by these two new headwords are unknown to most Western scholars, but have been extensively discussed in the Chinese publications that we now index. Updated in early February 2018, our list of xiqu genres is here, and our list of quyi genres is here. By the time you read this, more terms will have been added!

Above, an example of ganju (Jiangxi opera); below, another example of ganju from Jiangxi province, followed by an example of sixianxi from Hebei province. These genres are indexed under the headword quyi—by genre.

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Filed under Asia, Dramatic arts, RILM, RILM news

Metastasio and the Olympic Games

Pietro Metastasio’s popular libretto L’Olimpiade publicized and transmitted a particular ideological and historicized conception of the ancient Olympic Games that would ultimately contribute to the rationalization and legitimization of Pierre de Coubertin’s idiosyncratic Olympic ideology, a philosophical religious doctrine that embraced a noble and honorable conception of sport at the same time as it served discrete class, race, and gendered ends.

The hegemony of the contemporary Olympic Games movement is grounded in part on the appropriation of the classicism and Romanticism transmitted in Metastasio’s work. In narrative, music, and production, L’Olimpiad sustained a particular image of the games, an image that nourished Coubertin’s formulation as it paved the way for further musical representations of the Games that to this day lend authority to a musically transmitted, mythologized, and Hellenized past.

This according to “Music as sport history: The special case of Pietro Metastasio’s L’Olimpiade and the story of the Olympic Games” by Jeffrey O. Seagrave, an essay included in Sporting sounds: Relationships between sport and music (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009, pp. 113–27).

The 2018 Winter Olympics opens today! Above, a production of Josef Mysliveček’s setting of Metastasio’s L’Olimpiade; below, excerpts from Pergolesi’s setting.

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Filed under Literature, Opera, Sports and games

Felice Romani’s libretto reforms

Felice Romani revolutionized the Italian opera libretto, creating a clearly contoured melodramma romantico that was suitable for a through-composed setting.

Romani’s libretto for Donizetti’s Anna Bolena produced a virtually through-composed opera, making the meter conform to the dramatic situation and mood. In Act I, all the characters enter immediately after the prima donna, so that in place of the usual introductory aria there is now an ensemble. The entry of the seconda donna now leads as a rule to a concerted piece, the stretta of the pezzo concertato unleashing all the passions of the protagonists.

Act II proceeds similarly, except that its final scene is treated as a composition in its own right: Out of a stretta the concertato emerges, structured as a concert piece.

This according to Felice Romani–Gaetano Donizetti–Anna Bolena. Zur Asthetik politischer Oper in Italien zwischen 1826 und 1831 by Richard Hauser, a dissertation accepted by Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg in 1980.

Today is Romani’s 230th birthday! Below, Sondra Radvanovsky sings Anna Bolena’s finale.

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Di goldene kale

Like most newcomers to America, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the 1920s faced homesickness, deprivation, and language difficulty. Yiddish musicals helped them to come to terms with their environment by reminding them of home while highlighting the benefits of the New World.

Confronting the past with the present and fusing the folkloric songs, liturgical chants, dances, and theater styles of Jewish tradition with American rhythms and social topics, the genre helped to resolve onstage the conflicts in the lives of the new inhabitants. These comic and dramatic musical works chart the evolution of a community in its acculturation and eventual assimilation.

Di goldene kale (The golden bride) premiered at the 2000-seat Second Avenue Theater in New York on 9 February 1923, one of 14 Yiddish programs in the city that night. It ran for 18 weeks and was then performed throughout the U.S. and in venues in Europe and South America. The music is by Joseph Rumshinsky, the undisputed dean of Yiddish operetta composers in the U.S., who wrote the music for well over 100 such works.

Written and produced at a critical time of transition, between a law passed in May 1921 that greatly limited immigration from eastern Europe and another, in 1924, that reduced such immigration to a trickle, the work illuminates the period in which the arrival of some two million Russians and other east-Europeans in the U.S. had peaked.

A new edition and study of Di goldene kale (A-R Editions, 2017) provides multifaceted insights into the absorption, not only of Jews, but of every immigrant group, into the American mainstream

Below, excerpts from a 2016 production.

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Filed under Dramatic arts, Humor, New editions, Popular music