Category Archives: Dramatic arts

“West Side story” redux

Darker than a musical comedy, less imposing than an opera, more balletic than a song-and-dance show, West Side story’s tightly integrated movement, drama, design, and music signaled an important shift in U.S. musical theater.

Although its unity and coherence have drawn popular and scholarly attention, further study of the work reveals myriad interpretations and approaches—the inevitable result of a collaborative process. The choreographer Jerome Robbins wanted to create a classic, tragic dance vehicle combining ballet and popular styles; for Leonard Bernstein, it would mark the second attempt at writing the long-sought major American opera.

Torn between conflicting desires for popular success and status as a “serious” composer, Bernstein used eclecticism as a starting point for the creation of an accessible American art music. At the same time, pressure to create something “serious” within the compositional environment of the 1950s seems to have led him to employ the tritone both as a structural tool and a unifying surface detail, as well as reflecting the unusually dark subject matter of the work.

West Side story brought together some of the most prevalent and pressing issues of musical and cultural life of its day, from the New York Puerto Rican “problem” to the insurgence of juvenile delinquency. In addition, Robbins’s strongly ritualistic, tableau-oriented vision, with its privileging of male over female characterization, suggests a reading linking the work to longstanding mythical and literary archetypes—but also bringing up questions of the depiction of gender and ethnicity.

Such archetypes also inform Arthur Laurents’s book, one of the shortest on record for a Broadway musical. As in his other socially conscious works, Laurents mirrored Robbins’s dramatic agenda: the creation of an American mythology of urban life that could be contemporary but also lasting.

This according to West Side story: Cultural perspectives on an American musical  by Elizabeth A. Wells (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2011; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2011-402).

Today is the 60th anniversary of the Academy Award-winning 1961 film of West Side story! Above and below, the film’s much-celebrated Prologue.

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Filed under Dance, Dramatic arts

Enescu and makam

Georges Enescu’s use of elements of Romanian traditional music is well known; his most popular works today, the Rhapsodies roumaines, attest to his enthusiasm for his homeland’s music. Less known is his interest in the Turkish melodic type makam (pl. makamlar) and its influence on his masterpiece, the opera Œdipe.

In this work, Enescu used three makamlar: Müsteâr, for music associated with the characters Creon and Jocasta; Hisâr, for the motif of fate, and Nişâbûr, for the motif of justification.

This according to “Modale Strukturen in Annäherung zur orientalischen Kirchenmusik im Oedip von George Enescu” by Adriana Şirli, an essay included in Enesciana II-III: Georges Enesco, musicien complexe (Bucureşti: Editura Academiei Republicii Socialiste România, 1981).

Today is Enescu’s 140th birthday! Below, an excerpt from the 1970 production of Œdipe by the Opera Naţională Bucureşti; above, the Enescu statue in front of the opera house. For more Enescu iconography, see Music on money.

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

Sound stage screen

In 2021 the Dipartimento di Beni Culturali e Ambientali at the Università degli Studi di Milano launched Sound stage screen (SSS, ISSN 2784-8949), a biannual, peer-reviewed journal devoted to historical and theoretical research into the relations between sound, performance, and media.

SSS addresses a wide range of phenomena, practices, and objects pertaining to sound and music in light of the interconnections between performing traditions and media archaeologies: from opera to musical multimedia, and from cinema to interactive audiovisual platforms. An open-access journal published in English, SSS wishes to redefine the academic study of music as an open field whose boundaries—historical, geographical, and theoretical—are constantly being negotiated.

Below, the official trailer for Christopher Cerrone’s opera Invisible cities, a work discussed in the inaugural issue.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Dramatic arts, New periodicals

Rinaldo and the Enlightenment

The resounding success of the premiere of Händel’s Rinaldo, his first opera in England, was tempered by satirical and sarcastic criticism in The spectator, a weekly journal dedicated to combining wit with morality.

The spectacular scenery and costumes, textual weaknesses, and lack of logic were all points of criticism. Joseph Addison, measuring the performance by the standards of reason, truth, and naturalness, hardly found occasion to mention the music and excellent cast.

The main forum for these ideas of a new moral, social, and national function for opera was the London coffeehouse. Thus the Enlightenment, through the medium of opera, came to influence the thought of large groups and stimulated new social behavior and artistic standards.

This according to “Mit Rindern, Schafen und Spatzenschwärmen: Die Londoner Uraufführung der Oper Rinaldo von Händel” by Wilhelm Baethge (Das Orchester XLIII/11 [1995] 17-22; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1995-14126).

Today is the 31oth anniversary of Rinaldo’s premiere! Below, the opera’s march remains one of its most popular excerpts.

BONUS: John Gay’s celebrated repurposing of the march for The beggar’s opera.

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Filed under Baroque era, Opera, Reception

Cherubini and revolutionary opera

Luigi Cherubini’s Médée was the first new major operatic work based on classical subject matter to appear on a Paris stage after years of lip service to—but little artistic concern with—the heritage of Gluck.  The work’s 1797 premier met a lukewarm reception because it attempted to reinterpret the classical tradition in revolutionary terms at a time when the conservative backlash of the Directoire had already begun.

Dramatically, the character of Médée symbolizes the fury of the Jacobin, while musically the colorful mass effects and harmonic boldness of revolutionary opera are matched with stylistic conventions of prerevolutionary composers. The result is an intermixture of musical realism and expressionism that anticipated not only the last works of Verdi and his veristic successors but also the psychological dramas of Strauss and Berg.

This according to “Cherubini’s Médée and the spirit of French Revolutionary opera” by Alexander L. Ringer, an essay included in Essays in musicology in honor of Dragan Plamenac on his 70th birthday (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1969 281–99; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1969-1154).

Today is Cherubini’s 260th birthday! Above, the composer as a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, ca. 1820; below, Maria Callas sings an aria from Médée in a widely used Italian translation.

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Filed under Classic era, Opera

Serenatas for Dublin

Johann Sigismund Kusser (or, as he was known in England and Ireland, John Sigismond Cousser) was a Hungarian-born musician who, after a varied and successful career in the German-speaking lands of the Holy Roman Empire, settled in Ireland in July 1707.

In Dublin Kusser composed and directed the performances of at least 21 festive serenatas that marked important state occasions in Dublin between 1709 and his death in late 1727. Presented before the elite of local society in semistaged productions featuring costumes, stage machinery, and dancing, these works functioned as something of an operatic substitute in the city’s cultural life.

In 2020 A-R Editions issued Kusser: Serenatas for Dublin (RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2020-1963), a critical edition comprising the three serenatas for which music remains extant. Two of these can be proven definitively to be of Kusser’s own composition, and the third, due to its musical style, overall structure, and subject matter, is almost certainly his creation as well. These works provide remarkably rare musical evidence of a key component of the artistic offerings of Dublin’s viceregal court during the early decades of the eighteenth century.

Below, “Come, lovely peace, the conqu’ror calls” from An idylle on the peace, one of the works included in the volume.

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Filed under Baroque era, Dramatic arts, New editions

Audra McDonald and Lady Day

In an interview, Audra McDonald discussed Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grille, for which she won the Best Actress in a Play Tony Award in 2014.

“It’s about a woman trying to get through a concert performance, which I know something about, and she’s doing it at a time when her liver was pickled and she was still doing heroin regularly.”

“I might have been a little judgmental about Billie Holiday early on in my life, but what I’ve come to admire most about her—and what is fascinating in this show—is that there is never any self-pity. She’s almost laughing at how horrible her life has been. I don’t think she sees herself as a victim. And she feels an incredible connection to her music—she can’t sing a song if she doesn’t have some emotional connection to it, which I really understand.”

“One wonderful thing for me is there are tons of recordings of Billie that I’ve been listening to and watching, even audio of her talking about certain songs, so I have a lot to draw on.”

Quoted in “Audra McDonald to return to Broadway as Billie Holiday” by Patrick Healey (The New York times 26 February 2014; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2014-89300).

Today is McDonald’s 50th birthday! Below, excerpts from her Tony Awards performance.

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Filed under Dramatic arts, Jazz and blues, Performers, Popular music

Mahmud II and Italian opera

The Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II enjoyed Italian opera so much that his new Dolmabahçe Palace incorporated a small but sumptuous opera house; decorated by Charles Séchan of the Paris Opéra, it was said to rival that of Versailles.

Occasionally he invited the Italian opera company to perform in his seraglio, before the ladies of his court. The libretti were apparently altered to suit Turkish tastes: for example, a performance of Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri ended with the marriage of Isabella and the Bey. The punishment of Taddeo, who received the bastinado on the soles of his feet, drew shouts and applause from the audience.

This according to “‘Each villa on the Bosphorus looks a screen new painted, or a pretty opera scene’: Mahmud II (r.1808–1839) setting the Ottoman stage for Italian opera and Viennese music” by Emre Aracı, an essay included in Ottoman empire and European theatre. II: The time of Joseph Haydn–From Sultan Mahmud I to Mahmud II (r.1730–1839) (Wien: Hollitzer Wissenschaftsverlag, 2014, 621–30; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2014-88925).

Above, a portrait of Mahmud II by Henri-Guillaume Schlesinger; below, a rousing excerpt from the Schwetzinger Festspiele.

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Filed under Curiosities, Opera

Sondheim and “Company”

 

Stephen Sondheim’s Company is considered to be one of the first concept musicals, moving in a different direction from the book musicals of creative teams such as Rodgers and Hammerstein.

The construction of Company combines aspects of a concept musical with a psychological narrative. An investigation of the musical’s dramatic layers furthers a metadramatic understanding of Sondheim’s unique and innovative version of the concept musical—a version that refuses to subjugate character development and emotional accessibility for conceptual didacticism.

This according to “Concept meets narrative in Sondheim’s Company: Metadrama as a method of analysis” by Natalie Draper (Studies in musical theatre IV/2 [2010] pp. 171–83).

Today is Sondheim’s 90th birthday! Above, a photo from around the time Company was produced; below, the show’s climactic song, Being alive, from a 2011 concert production.

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Filed under Dramatic arts, Popular music

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