When Wieland Wagner engaged the 24-year-old Grace Bumbry for the role of Venus in the 1961 Bayreuth production of Tannhäuser he received hundreds of letters of protest, and the German press exploded with sensational headlines about the black intruder in the sacred Aryan shrine.
The neo-Nazi Sozialistische Reichspartei Deutschlands called the appointment “a cultural disgrace”, and one correspondent asserted that “If Richard Wagner knew of this he would be turning in his grave.”
But Wieland Wagner stood by the artist who had been dubbed die schwarze Venus (the black Venus), saying that the role “must convey eroticism without resorting to the clichés of a Hollywood sex bomb, yet she cannot personify the classic passive idea…When I heard Grace Bumbry I knew she was the perfect Venus; grandfather would have been delighted!”
Indeed, following the production’s first performance on 24 July a jubilant audience commanded 42 curtain calls during its 30-minute ovation, the most rousing demonstrations occurring during Bumbry’s bows.
This according to “Grace Bumbry: Modern diva” by Rosalyn M. Story, an essay included in And so I sing: African-American divas of opera and concert (New York: Warner, 1990, pp. 141–56).
Today is Bumbry’s 80th birthday! Above and below, the historic production.
Virgil Thomson first met Gertrude Stein in the winter of 1925–26. Early in 1927 he asked her to write an opera libretto, and the plans for Four saints in three acts began to take shape; the text was completed in June of that year and the music was finished in July 1928.
The opera concerns two Spanish saints, Teresa of Ávila and Ignatius of Loyola, who are surrounded by groups of young religious figures. In fact the work has four acts and over 30 saints. A compère and commère introduce the characters and announce the progress of the action. The strangely haunting and at times repetitive poetry of Stein is declaimed by the singers in a musical language derived from many sources, including Gregorian and Anglican chant, children’s songs, and Sunday School hymn singing, with a harmonious accompaniment for small orchestra. Although the setting of the words is deceptively simple and direct, there are considerable subtleties in the music to parallel the implied imagery of the words.
Four saints in three acts was first heard in Hartford, Connecticut, in February 1934, produced by an organization called the Friends and Enemies of Modern Music. When the production moved to New York City it created theatrical history with its all-black cast. The opera received over 60 performances within a year, and Thomson’s reputation was made almost overnight.
This according to “Thomson, Virgil Garnett” by Neil Butterworth (Dictionary of American classical composers, 2nd ed. [Abington: Routledge, 2005] pp. 456–59); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.
Today is Thomson’s 120th birthday! Above, the 1934 New York production; below, the opening of Mark Morris Dance Group’s 2006 production.
BONUS: A brief documentary with archival footage from 1934, including the voice of Gertrude Stein.
In 1821 the German operatic scene was dominated by foreign composers. Carl Maria von Weber was known as a gifted composer of songs and instrumental music, but his earlier operas had not been undisputed successes, and for the last ten years he had done nothing at all in that line; the premiere of his new opera, Der Freischütz, was anticipated with widespread suspense and excitement.
The composer could not but feel that much was at stake, both for himself and for the cause of German art. His friends feared that this new work would not have a chance; but Weber alone, as if with a presentiment of the event, was always in good spirits. The performance was fixed for 18 June, a day hailed by the composer as a good omen, being the anniversary of the battle of Waterloo.
Weber’s presentiment did not fail him; the occasion was as great a triumph as ever fell to the lot of a musician. The applause of a house filled to the very last seat was such as had never been heard before in Germany. That this magnificent homage was no outcome of mere nationalism was shown by the fact that it was the same wherever Der Freischütz was heard. After conducting a performance in Vienna in March 1822 the composer wrote that “Greater enthusiasm there cannot be, and I tremble to think of the future, for it is scarcely possible to rise higher than this. To God alone the praise!”
This according to “Weber, Carl Maria Friedrich Ernest, Freiherr von” in A dictionary of music and musicians, A.D. 1450–1889 (Philadelphia: Theodore Presser, 1895, IV/387–429); this encyclopedia is one of many resources included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.
Today is Weber’s 230th birthday! Above, the composer ca. 1825; below, an excerpt from the 2010 film by Jens Neubert.
Performing premodernity online, an open-access journal launched in January 2015, publishes papers given at Performing Premodernity conferences as well as reports from workshops and other events.
Performing Premodernity is a research project based at the Department of Culture and Aesthetics at Stockholm University. It is one of eight premodernity projects funded by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond (The Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences). Concentrating on both academic and artistic research, the project aims to contribute to the revitalizing of historically informed performance today.
The journal’s first volume includes papers from a conference that was held in København in February 2014 on Francesco Cavalli’s opera Gli amori d’Apollo e di Dafne. Below, Soledad Cardoso performs an aria from the work.
Chinese presenters have made their bid for grand opera’s international ranks with the very piece that marks the end of that tradition—Puccini’s Turandot.
The irony reaches further. In the country where Chinese singers have the greatest advantage, these productions have primarily featured Western performers; a piece that had been conspicuously absent from the country where it purports to take place has wound up essentially becoming China’s national opera; and the original story was never about China in the first place—it came from a French translation of a Persian folk tale that was adapted by an Italian playwright and later reinvented by a German writer whose version inspired Puccini.
This according to “A princess comes home” by Ken Smith (Opera LXIII/12 [December 2012] pp. 1473–1479). Above and below, excerpts from Turandot at the Forbidden City, directed by Zhang Yimou.
The opera-ballet Mlada was commissioned in 1872 by Stepan Gedeonov, director of the imperial theatres in St. Petersburg, Russia. Collaboratively taken on by five composers— Cezar’ Kûi, Modest Musorgskij, Nikolaj Rimskij-Korsakov, Aleksandr Borodin, and Ludwig Minkus—it was left unfinished. Some of the music was never written or has been lost, while most of what remains exists only in short score.
For the first time, the surviving original scenes and numbers of Mlada are now published in their entirety (Middleton: A-R Editions, 2016), including reconstructions of two incompletely transmitted numbers that render acts and I and IV complete. This edition turns Mlada—this “phantom of an opera”—into something palpable that will change our understanding of the music derived from it, such as the bulk of Borodin’s Knâz’ Igor’ and some of the scenes from Musorgskij’s Soročinskaâ ârmarka and Rimskij-Korsakov’s Majskaâ noč’.
Below, the prologue to Borodin’s Knâz’ Igor’, which recycles materials that he originally wrote for Mlada.
Nineteenth-century Italian operas portraying an emphatically virginal heroine—a woman defined by her virginity—were often set in the mountains, most frequently the Alps.
This convention presents an unusual point of view—a theme rather than a composer, a librettist, a singer or a genre—from which to observe Italian opera over a century. The clarity of the sky, the whiteness of the snow and the purity of the air were associated with the innocence of the female protagonist.
This according to Landscape and gender in Italian opera: The Alpine virgin from Bellini to Puccini by Emanuele Senici (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
Above, Uliana Alexyuk in Bellini’s La sonnambula, one of the operas discussed by Senici; below, Renata Scotto in another of the book’s case studies, Verdi’s Luisa Miller.
Although Arrigo Boito devoted 56 years to the composition of his Nerone, at his death the opera was still incomplete; Arturo Toscanini bustled to refine and finish the last act for the work’s premiere at La Scala on 1 May 1924.
Since the figure of the mad psychopath Nero is best remembered in the collective imagination as he plays and sings while observing the Great Fire of Rome, for the first staging of the opera a true kithara was made by the lute maker Piero Parravicini at the Milan workshop of Antonio Monzino e Figli; today the instrument is on display at the Civico Museo degli Strumenti Musicali in Milan.
This according to “‘Or che i Numi son vinti, a me la cetra, a me l’altar!’: Kithara constructed for the premiere of Arrigo Boito’s Nerone” by Donatella Melini (Music in art XL/1–2  pp. 267–72).
Above, the instrument in question (click to enlarge); below, the scene referred to in the article’s title.
The stunning success of Der dumme Gärtner aus dem Gebürge, oder, Die zween Anton at Vienna’s Theater auf der Wieden (12 July 1789) led quickly to a sequel in the same year, Die verdeckten Sachen (26 September). Like its predecessor, the music was a collaborative composition by Franz Xaver Gerl, Benedikt Schack, Johann Baptist Henneberg, and probably Emanuel Schikaneder, the librettist.
Mozart had high praise for what he called The Antons, and he composed his final set of piano variations on one of the most celebrated arias in Die verdeckten Sachen, “Ein Weib ist das herrlichste Ding auf der Welt”. This edition presents this aria for the first time in its original orchestration. With the recent identification of performing materials for Die verdeckten Sachen in Rudolstadt, Thuringia, we can now investigate this opera in detail.
A new critical edition, drawing on this new source, has recently been issued as Two operas from the series Die zween Anton. Part 2: Die verdeckten Sachen (Middleton: A-R Editions, 2016).
Above, a portrait of Schikaneder (click to enlarge); below, Mozart’s K.613, performed by Gerhard Puchelt.
BONUS: The imaginary Schikaneder production from Amadeus.
Among the forgotten but highly popular operas of the late 18th century, Der dumme Gärtner aus dem Gebürge, oder, Die zween Anton (The dumb gardener from the mountains, or, The two Antons ) seems particularly worthy of reexamination.
The Antons (as Mozart called it) was the subject of much commentary and praise; it was performed in almost every German theater over the next two decades, and it was translated into Czech. The success of the opera inspired six sequels and secured the place of its author, Emanuel Schikaneder, in the popular imagination of the Viennese public. This success also made possible the series of fairy-tale operas that included Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (1791).
Die zween Anton was also the first original opera by Schikaneder produced at the Theater auf der Wieden after he had taken over its direction; the music was a collaborative composition by Franz Xaver Gerl, Benedikt Schack, Johann Baptist Henneberg, and probably Schikaneder himself. With the recent recovery of a Viennese manuscript copy of Die zween Anton in the Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg we can now investigate this opera in detail.
A new critical edition, drawing on this new source, has recently been issued as Two operas from the series Die zween Anton. Part 1: Der dumme Gärtner aus dem Gebürge, oder, Die zween Anton (Middleton: A-R Editions, 2015).
Above, a portrait of Schikaneder (click to enlarge); below, the opera’s overture.