Category Archive 'Opera'
17 Feb 2024

Ted Gioia’s Memoir of the Conflict Between Opera and Ordinary American Culture

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In Mozart’s 1787 opera, Don Giovanni rejects the Commendatore’s Ghost’s demand that he repent, and singing “Vivan le femmine, Viva il buon vino! Sostegno e gloria d’umanità!,” the Don descends defiantly into Hell.

Like a lot of us upwardly-mobile types, Dana Gioia grew up in working-class ethnic America where high culture, Opera, Classical Music, and the Arts in general were a foreign country. He describes very well, in the latest Hudson Review, the frustrations of being possessed by passions one can find no one to share and just how much the intellectual in those circumstances was inevitably the alienated outsider.

It burned my cork as a boy to recognize that if Beethoven were to rise from the tomb to premiere his 10th Symphony in the auditorium of J.W. Cooper High School, I’d be part of an audience of roughly twelve and most of the others would be teachers who were obliged to attend.

I thought back then that members of the better-educated, culturally-aware elite were better, finer beings and I yearned to relocate as soon as possible to their neighborhood. Imagine my surprise and chagrin, when I found that exposure to, and familiarity with, the high points of musical and artistic culture did not make all that much of a difference. The national elite was really composed of the same flawed human beings as the dumb yonkos in my Appalachian hometown and that national elite was actually even more systematically delusional in certain prominent ways as a direct result of its members’ sheltered life experiences.

There was something shameful about loving opera. Especially for a boy. Opera was pretentious, boring, effete, and effeminate. By the time I was ten, I understood the unsavory reputation of the art. Opera represented everything that my childhood in postwar America asked me not to be.

I had never been to the opera. I had never even seen an opera house, except in old movies. I knew from the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera that rich people went there, but they didn’t much enjoy it. Only Groucho had any fun. The patrons were old and overweight—bejeweled matrons and potbellied bankers stuffed into tuxedos. There was also something sinister about opera’s orgy of opulence. In Lon Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera, the opera house was built over the city sewers. A mad composer emerged from this mephitic underworld to kidnap and kill. He wore elegant clothes, including an opera cape, but without his stylish mask, he was a monster. Opera was somehow both tedious and malevolent.

I wasn’t sure why opera provoked such distaste. It went beyond dislike, class prejudice, or xenophobia. It roused a sort of moral suspicion. There was something weak or unhealthy about an operagoer. What sort of person craves oversized emotions sung in foreign languages? What grown man could be so soft and sensitive? Such a creepy passion wasn’t normal. The Puritans, who colonized America, banned theater as sinful. If plays were emblems of depravity, what would they have thought of opera with its amplification of violent affection and sexual desire? Opera was sheer depravity, witchcraft so strong it crossed language barriers—a foul and foreign vice only Catholics could have devised.

I was raised among Italians and Mexicans, all deeply Catholic, even the atheists. Yet they half agreed with the Puritans. Opera crossed some boundary. It might not be depraved, but it was virulent in its pretention and sentimentality. In 1960, America was still a Puritan country. Everything in a boy’s education focused on making him manly. The official culture of my youth sponsored Cub Scouting, team sports, and church service as altar boys. Street culture provided schoolyard fights, bullying, and neighborhood gangs. There was no escaping manhood, responsible or otherwise, without persecution and disgrace.

I realized the dangers of opera too late to be saved. By ten I had already been corrupted by my parents. Neither of them had ever been to the opera. The notion would have struck them as absurd. But they loved singing, and that included the operatic arias they heard on variety shows. Back then opera stars were frequent guests on radio and television. There were about two dozen operatic standards that everyone knew. Even Bugs Bunny sang them.


13 Dec 2020

Handel, “Ombra mai fu”

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Jennifer Larmore and the Bayerisches Staatsorchester: “Ombra mai fu” from Serse (Xerxes), opera, HWV 40 Act I.

16 Feb 2017

BBC Delivers Complete Ring On-Line

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15-hours of Wagner, 2016 performance by Opera North of Leeds here.

31 Oct 2013

9-Year-Old Sings Puccini

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Amira Willighagen, age 9, sings “O mio babbino caro” (“Oh My Beloved Father”) an aria from the opera Gianni Schicchi (1918) on television program Holland’s Got Talent.

10 Aug 2013

Mozartean Mischief

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Adriana Ferrarese del Bene


Hat tip to Ratak Monodosico.

01 Jun 2013

Talented 8-Year-Old Sings Queen of the Night’s Aria

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Hat tip to Kathleen Wagner.

18 Jul 2011

Coolest. Stage. Ever.

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British newspapers don’t simply all bug people’s phones and publish photographs of naked girls. The Telegraph, for instance, commonly offers slide-shows on interesting subjects, including one on the unconventional and highly imaginative operatic stagings done on a floating stage platform on Lake Constance at the Bregenzer Festpiele.

There are 7000 seats and a Seebühne (a floating stage) on Lake Constance at the Bregenzer Festspiele (Bregenz Festival in Bregenz, Austria). Verdi’s “Un ballo in maschera,” in 1999, was performed on a giant book being read by a skeleton.

From the Telegraph via Twisted Sifter via (speaking of nudie photos) Fred Lapides.

15 Nov 2010

European Opera Day

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Location and date: Café Iruña, Pamplona, Spain — May 7, 2010. Ensemble: Asociación Gayarre Amigos de la Ópera de Navarra. Music: Libiamo ne’ lieti calici, from Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata.

04 Nov 2010

Rameau, Platée, La Folie !

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A delightful excerpt from a superb performace by Marc Minkowski and the Musiciens du Louvre of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s comic opera Platée, written to a libretto by Adrien-Joseph Le Valois d’Orville as part of the entertainments for the wedding of Louis, Dauphin of France, son of King Louis XV of France, to the Infanta Maria Theresa of Spain at Versailles on March 31, 1745.

In order to cure Juno of jealousy, the gods plot a joke marriage of Jove to the homely water nymph Platée. Mireille Delunsch performs with exceptional panache the famous aria in which La Folie (Madness) attempts to warn Platée by recounting the story of Apollo and Daphne.

Dedicated on Facebook by the gallant Constandin to the fair D.L.

19 Jan 2010

Traviata in the Central Market

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Europeans play the best cultural pranks.

A group calling itself L’Ópera para principiantes (“Opera For Beginners”), last November, placed singers among the stall vendors in the Central Market of Valencia, then started the music and astonished and delighted shoppers as professional performers emerged, one after the other, singing first Parigi, o cara, noi lasceremo (“Dearest, we’ll leave Paris”), the moving duet from the final act of Verdi’s La Traviata, then the famous chorus Libiamo ne’ lieti calici (“Brindisi — a drinking song”).

6:31 video

From Bird Dog via Karen L. Myers.

19 Jun 2008

Albert Gore, the Opera

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Albert Gore’s life at college was reputedly the inspiration for Erich Segal’s Love Story. One would think that would constitute enough artistic immortality for anyone, but, no! The horror, the horror….

London Times (6/8):

La Scala in Milan has commissioned a musical version of An Inconvenient Truth, the apocalyptic eco-documentary presented by Al Gore, the former American vice-president.

Gore will be replaced on stage by a cast of tenors and at least one soprano as the story of man-made climate change is told. …

The music is being written by Giorgio Battistelli, whose past operas include works based on the Frankenstein story and on the writings of Jules Verne. The composer believes an operatic treament of Gore’s film will allow people to see the dangers facing the world in a new light.

“Opera makes you reflect. Artists make you see things differently,” he said. “When we see a painting by Francis Bacon or a film by Sydney Pollack, we get a very precise idea of the problems of our century.”

The work is scheduled to be performed in 2011 as part of the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy. “I thought it could be a good idea to deal on this important occasion with a subject that involves not only Italy but the world,” Battistelli, 55, added. “It will be about the tragedy of our present situation. It is a great challenge to write an opera on such an unusual subject. It is certainly not the story of Romeo and Juliet.”

Even the New York Times’ John Tierney is moved to satire.

Dear Mr. Gore,

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on my draft of “Verità Inconveniente.” Rest assured that I and the management of La Scala are committed to a serious presentation of your scientific work. I will try to adopt some of your suggestions, but I hope you appreciate the constraints faced by the composer of an opera that is already five hours long.

I agree it would “round out the résumé” of Prince Algorino in the opening scene if he were to sing about his creation of a communications network. But the “Mio magnifico Internet” aria you propose seems to me a distraction — and frankly out of place in an 18th-century Tuscan village. I believe the peasants’ choral celebration of Prince Algorino’s wisdom suffices to establish his virtues.


Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

12 Apr 2008

Nude Ballo Maschera Set in Ruins of World Trade Center

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Contemporary European culture will be manifested in all its glory later today when a new production of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera opens in Erfurt, Germany.


A German opera house is to unveil a provocative new production staged in the ruins of New York’s World Trade Centre.

It features naked pensioners and Mickey Mouse masks, Hitler salutes and Elvis impersonators.

The self-consciously outrageous September 11th staging of Verdi’s ‘A Masked Ball’ has been dreamed up by Austrian director Johann Kresnik.

He has described the concoction as a populist critique of modern American society, aimed at showing up the disparities between rich and poor, which attracting a large audience.

It will be a different, a provocative masked ball on the ruins of the World Trade Centre,” he told reporters before Saturday’s premiere. “The naked stand for people without means, the victims of capitalism, the underclass, who don’t have anything anymore.”

Rehearsals suggest that Mr Kresnik’s anti-capitalist staging is unlikely to be celebrated for its subtlety.

Some of the cast are dressed in soldiers uniforms, or in the red white and blue of Uncle Sam, or in day-glow pink Elvis costumes, slashed to the waist. Many, however, appear to spend their time on stage not wearing anything at all.

They include dozens local pensioners, recruited by the opera house in Erfurt, eastern Germany, to appear naked wearing nothing but plastic Mickey Mouse masks.

“It’s a very beautiful, poetic scene,” said Guy Montavon, the theatre’s general manager.

He said that 60 eager amateurs were keen to appear naked before an audience for the premiere, but only 35 made the final cut.

The staging deliberately toys with images that are extremely sensitive both in the US and Germany.

Foreign audiences may find naked singers cavorting in front of the iconic ruined mesh of World Trade Centre metalwork most provocative.

In Germany however, a female singer with a painted on toothbrush moustache performing a straight arm Nazi salute appears particularly conceived to outrage.

The original 1859 production of the opera was sadly impacted by Roman censorship, which forced the change of the opera’s setting from 1793 Sweden to colonial Boston, and reduced the rank of the assassinated ruler from king to colonial governor. One has to hand it to Herr Kresnik. He succeeds in making one feel that there is a definite place in Europe these days for some old-time Roman censorship.

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