In the opening duet of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, Figaro makes Freudian errors in counting and in singing. Susanna, needing emotional support and sensitive to Figaro’s psychology, directs his therapy in a manner both manipulative and helpful.
The brief scene is paradigmatic for the opera as a whole, and the duet’s dramatic action is projected by the music at every level, from small details to aspects of global structure.
This according to “Figaro’s mistakes” by David Lewin (Current musicology 57 [spring 1995] pp. 45–60).
Le nozze di Figaro is 230 years old this year! Above, Lydia Teuscher and Vito Priante as Susanna and Figaro; below, the scene in question.
The German physician Hans Leicher undertook an operation on Richard Strauss’s nose in 1928, when the composer was working on his opera Arabella.
Leicher subsequently recalled that Strauss drafted two numbers for the work in the hospital immediately following the operation, after two cotton balls impregnated with a 2% cocaine solution had put him into such a state of stimulation that instead of resting he was inspired, and worked intensively.
The numbers were the duets Aber der Richtige, wenn’s einen gibt für mich and Und du wirst mein Gebieter sein, often described as the finest moments in the score.
This according to “Richard Strauss und die Hals-Nasen-Ohren-Heilkunde: Zur Entstehungsgeschichte der zwei schönsten Duette der Oper Arabella” by Herbert Pichler (Richard Strauss-Blätter I [June 1979] pp. 46–53).
Above, the 1918 portrait by Max Liebermann; below, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Anny Felbermayer sing Aber der Richtige.
Launched in 2015 by the Università di Catania, Bollettino di studi belliniani is the digital journal of the Centro di documentazione per gli Studi Belliniani and the Fondazione Bellini.
The inaugural issue includes studies of the reception of Bellini’s operas in 19th-century London, contextual discussions of aspects of Norma and La sonnambula, and a prospectus for a critical edition of the composer’s correspondence.
Below, Maria Callas sings Casta diva from Norma.
In a 2011 interview, Bryn Terfel noted that a strong constitution is essential for the role of Wotan in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, which he was currently performing at the Metropolitan Opera.
“If you’re not one hundred percent, there’s absolutely no way you can get through a piece like Die Walküre…if Rheingold starts there will probably be three or four performances, and you have to be very careful how you conserve energy during the period you’re there.”
“Mozart, for instance, is sociable—you do go to restaurants and theaters and anything the city has to offer. But with Wagner you seem to lock the door and take the low road. You’re more cautious: ‘No, I can’t come out to dinner—not this time.’”
Quoted in “The wanderer” by Brian Kellow (Opera news LXXV/11 [May 2011] pp. 22–27).
Today is Terfel’s 50th birthday! Above and below, as Wotan at the Met.
The group New Order’s World in motion, commissioned by the British Football Association to mark the 1990 World Cup soccer finals, “is probably the least likely official football theme song ever recorded: Denying its own status as a football song, introducing elements of subcultural love lyrics, and becoming a gay club hit, but also assuming the burden of combating football’s major peripheral problem, hooliganism, the song is ultimately unheimlich, even despite its closing chorus that speaks of ‘playing for England; playing this song.’”
This according to “Playing for England” by Paul Smith (South Atlantic quarterly 90/4 [fall 1991] pp. 737–752). Smith goes on to note that “both the BBC and the independent television companies forewent the pleasure of having ‘Love’s got the world in motion’ going across the airwaves every night, and the BBC used as their World Cup theme another piece of music that quickly became a number one hit: Luciano Pavarotti singing his version of the Nessun dorma aria from Turandot.”
Today would have been Pavarotti’s 80th birthday! Below, singing Nessun dorma in 1994.
BONUS: By way of contrast, New Order’s song:
Inspired and provoked by the title character in Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo, two artists and a curator decided to revisit the mad plan to bring opera to the tropics.
With an eye to undercutting Fitzcarraldo’s colonialist Romanticism, they decided to confront a particular set of historical and socialpolitical realities by staging Stanisław Moniuszko’s opera Halka, which is considered Poland’s national opera, in the unlikely locale of Cazale, Haiti, a village inhabited by descendants of Polish soldiers who fought for the Haitian Revolution in the early 1800s.
On 7 February 2015 a one-time-only performance of Halka was presented to a rapt local audience on a winding dirt road in Cazale. A collaboration between Polish and Haitian performers, the event was filmed in one take to be presented as a large-scale projected panorama in the Polish Pavillion at the 2015 Venice Biennale.
This according to Halka/Haiti: 18°48’05”N 72°23’01”W: C.T. Jasper & Joanna Malinowska (Warsaw: Zachęta: Narodowa Galeria Sztuki, 2015).
Above, a still from the film featuring a local extra (more stills are here); below, the Biennale installation (the music starts around 5:08).
Stung by the mixed reviews of New York critics who apparently preferred their divas to be foreign-born, the operatic soprano Emma Abbott created a highly successful—and somewhat revolutionary—niche for herself.
In 1898 Abbott founded the Emma Abbott English Grand Opera Company with her husband, Eugene Wetherell, as business manager. There were precedents for translating operas into English, and even for Abbott’s role as both prima donna and production manager; the distinctive and brilliant move was to take her company to the U.S. heartland with the perfect persona for 19th-century American tastes.
Having grown up poor in Peoria, Illinois, she had the quintessential American dream narrative. She was openly both devout and patriotic, often interpolating beloved religious and U.S. songs into her opera performances. And the marital bliss projected by her close relationship with Wetherell further burnished the persona that her audiences relished.
As Abbott’s close friend and biographer Sadie E. Martin recalled, “The pleasing voice and manners of the operatic star, and her sympathetic nature, seemed at once to attract towards her the hearts of the public. She was from the first very popular, and after the first year there were many who watched, waited, and longed for her annual appearance, as for that of an old friend.”
By the time she retired, Abbott had officiated at the openings of more opera houses than any singer before her, and—owing also to her canny buisness sense—had amassed a fortune far beyond that of her European counterparts.
This according to Women in the spotlight: Divas in nineteenth-century New York by Andrea Saposnik (Saarbrücken: Lambert Academic Publishing).
Oscar Hammerstein’s Americanization of Georges Bizet’s Carmen—68 years after its premiere—altered its form from the operatic genre to that of musical theater and transformed the place and time to a setting more familiar to a Broadway audience.
Instead of playing in Seville, Carmen Jones takes place in a city of the American South, African Americans become the sociological equivalent of Spanish gypsies, and the cigarette factory becomes the more topical World War II army parachute factory.
The change from bullfighting to boxing, a spectator sport that had become increasingly popular in America since the 1890s, demonstrates how Hammerstein distances the Carmen story from the world of Prosper Mérimée’s novella without diminishing its universal constants of human tragedy.
This according to “Carmen am Broadway: Oscar Hammersteins Carmen Jones” by Manfred Siebald, an essay included in Caecilia, Tosca, Carmen: Brüche und Kontinuitäten im Verhältnis von Musik und Welterleben (Tübingen: Francke Verlag, 2006, pp. 225–234).
Today is Hammerstein’s 120th birthday! Above, a portrait by Abbey Altson from 1943, the year of Carmen Jones’s premiere; below, the trailer for Otto Preminger’s 1954 film version.
In an interview, the famously agreeable mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade explained why she enjoys working with temperamental people.
“First of all, it’s fun, and secondly, because people protect themselves in all different kinds of ways.”
“I protect myself by being quiet, and going in my dressing room and being upset there by myself. Some people get it out. I admire that more, because it’s gone.”
“As much as we use our voices and our minds, we use our confidence. You take confidence away from a singer and you’ve taken their feet away from them. And to protect your confidence takes all kinds of tricks—some people have it on the outside, some have it on the inside, and whatever works, works.”
Quoted in “My audience with The Grand Duchess” by David F. Wylie (Journal of singing LXV/1 [September–October 2008] pp. 95–104).
Today is von Stade’s 70th birthday! Above, with Hannah in 2014 (we like to imagine that Hannah is only moderately temperamental); below, in one of her signature roles as Cherubino in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro.
Like many operas, Stravinsky’s The rake’s progress is deeply flawed, confused, and contradictory. It presents an overextended musical pastiche, an overly clever libretto by W.H. Auden, and a grim view of human nature.
Yet the scenes of act 3 encompass comedy, dramatic tension, and lyrical pathos, and the opera redeems itself because it moves into its own Bedlam, the land of opera. Although the character of Baba the Turk remains enigmatic in the theater, she embodies the spirit of the opera. Baba was Auden’s way of asserting the power of art over nature.
This according to “Redeeming the rake” by David Schiff (The Atlantic monthly CCLXXX/5 [November 1997] pp. 136–139).
Above, Baba portrayed by Leah-Marian Jones; below, by Dagmar Pecková.