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.
In an interview, the U.S. baritone Sherrill Milnes recalled growing up on a dairy farm in Illinois.
“It was down and dirty. Small family. Manure. Everything. Milking cows. Dairy is tougher than grain or beef. Twice a day the cows have to be milked. You’re sick? Too bad. You have to do it. You sprained your ankle and it’s swollen? Too bad. You have to do it….I suppose it created a certain work ethic that was undeniable”
When he started to focus on singing as his career he sang to the cows, and even practiced dramatic bits while driving the family tractor.
“I was in the early stages of my career and practicing the different laughs of the various operatic characters…and, at one point, I looked over and there was a car stopped with about four heads sticking out the window looking at this insane person, driving a tractor, laughing [makes the different laughs]. Well, I didn’t do that for days—I kept looking around to see if any cars were coming.”
Excerpted from “A conversation with Sherrill Milnes” by Leslie Holmes (Journal of singing LXVI [September–October 2009] pp. 97–101).
Today is Milnes’s 80th birthday! Above, in October 2012; below, singing “Oh, de’ verd’anni miei” in a 1983 production of Verdi’s Ernani.
In 2014 Cafagna Editore launched the series Le vie dei suoni with Vincenzo Pucitta: Il tumulto del gran mondo, edited by Annamaria Bonsante. The book includes an introduction by Philip Gossett.
Below, Marilyn Hill Smith and Della Jones sing Un palpito mi sento, a duet from Pucitta’s La Caccia di Enrico IV (1809).
Performances of excerpts from the kunqu classic The peony pavilion (牡丹亭, Mudan ting) marked the respective beginning and end of the film career of Mei Lanfang (梅兰芳). While fortuity and the canonical status of the play might be enough to explain this coincidence, Mei’s interests in both the venerable kunqu and the new medium of cinema suggest a productive line of inquiry into their expressive potentiality.
In his 1959 film of Dream in the garden (游园惊梦, Youyuan jingmeng), the precisely choreographed “meeting of the eyes” (dui yanguang) during the dream scene is translated into refreshingly rare exchanges of cinematic point-of-view. The original play’s motif of transcendence as represented by the romantic dream encounter at once opens up a self-referential space for Mei’s performance and frees the film medium here from the sole function of photographical preservation.
In this sense, Mei’s own interpretation of the transformative fairy quality (xian qi) of the play and the film medium could be seen as a footnote to his own art of impersonation. The film thus also complemented his stage performance in the masculine and patriotic General Mu Guiying (Mu Guiying guashuai) of the same year, which added a paradoxical last touch to his career as a female impersonator.
This according to “Meeting of the eyes: Invented gesture, cinematic choreography, and Mei Lanfang’s Kun opera film” by Dong Xinyu (The opera quarterly XXVI/2–3 [spring–summer 2010] pp. 200–219).
Today is Mei Lanfang’s 120th birthday! Above and below, he portrays the star-crossed Du Liniang in Dream in the garden.
In 2013 a new scholarly journal, Құрманғазы Атындағы Қазақ Ұлттық Консерваториясының Хабаршысы/Вестник Казахской Национальной Консерватории им. Курмангазы/The Bulletin of the Kazakh National Conservatory of the Name of Kurmangazy (ISSN 2310-3337), was launched by the Kazakh National Kurmangazy Conservatory in Almaty.
This quarterly is published in Kazakh, Russian, and English. Its goal is to present a broad spectrum of research in arts, musicology, and contemporary music education, as well as in social studies, humanities, culture, criticism, and journalism. The full text of the first issue is available here.
Below, Kyz Žibek by Evgenij Grigor’evič Brusilovskij, a Kazakh opera discussed in the inaugural issue.
Hansel and Gretel: Design your own opera! is an open-access website that allows children to create a personalized version of Humperdinck’s opera and to go backstage to learn about the making of an opera production.
Clicking through the screens, the child is engaged in each scene in creating some aspect of the setting or action, such as costumes, choreography, backdrops, lighting, or props. After a selection is made—such as a costume—it remains that way throughout the whole opera.
The interactivity is combined with guided listening suggestions; before the child clicks to go to the next scene, an audio prompt suggests what to listen for.
This according to “Design your own opera!…online!” by Rachel Nardo (General music today XXIV/1 [October 2010] pp. 41–42).
Today is Engelbert Humperdinck’s 160th birthday! Below, the iconic duet followed by some decidedly odd goings-on.