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When the Fat Lady Sings
Transcript of When the Fat Lady Sings
An Uncomfortable Subject
A Foreword by
Pianist, Comedian & Opera Fan
Let's Get Seria
Who can we Blame?
The blame for starting all this opera stuff can be set firmly on the shoulders
of one Claudio Zuan Giovanni Monteverdi. His work led him to create this new
form of music he called "favola in musica" or "story in music." Despite the work
of other, less well-known composers, Monteverdi claimed the invention of this music for himself and it has stuck.
Around the time Monteverdi was working on his many motets and other songs to
entertain his patron, Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga of Mantua, a group of composers got
together to work on a new style of musical drama. They called themselves the
"Florentine Camerata" and were attempting to restore the musical ideals of the Ancient
Greeks. Not that anyone knew what Ancient Greek music sounded like, but they weren't
going to let silly details get in the way.
Monteverdi was big into Greek culture as well and took, for his first opera plot, the Greek tale of
Orpheus and Eurydice. He called his new opera Orfeo (1607). Monteverdi stayed true to the story, except for the end. In the myth, Orpheus' girlfriend Eurydice steps on a snake which bites her and she is killed. Orpheus makes his way to the Underworld to try and bring her back. Hades and Persephone are charmed by Orpheus' music and agree to let Eurydice leave. Orpheus must look back at her until they are back on the surface. Finally, Orpheus can't take the suspicion and doubt and turns around, watching his love be dragged back down into the pit. Monteverdi hated the ending so he went ahead and changed it using a fog machine* to bring Apollo down from Olympus to raise Eurydice from the dead. Happy ending!**
*Monteverdi loved him some fog machines. He used another one in "L'Incoronazione di Poppea" and an amphibious version for Neptune in "Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria." The other Florentines used a crazy amount of scenery too.
**Monteverdi established a lot of opera conventions including the idea that happy endings were good to have, regardless of how ridiculous it made the story.
Once opera really got going, there was no stopping it. Every self-respecting city had at least one opera house. From the late 17th century to the mid-eighteenth, opera flourished. Along with this was the creation of a unique group of singers known as the "castrati." Discussing them is a neccessary, if uncomfortable, part of understanding early opera.
No one is quite sure how the practice got started, but the first recognized castrati were Pietro Paolo Folignato and Girolamo Rossini who both joined the papal choir in 1599. The Vatican officially outlawed the practice, but many Church leaders were fans of opera and also wanted castrati to sing in their choirs, so the boys who came with parts missing were said to have had "unfortunate accidents" or cases of the mumps. One, in 1800, was said to have been attacked by a pig.
Ok, so castrati were...you know...they were men who had a very specific surgery when they were young and as a result their singing voices remained very high...due to lack of a certain hormone. This is awkward. Let's start differently. So, women weren't allowed on stage to act for quite some time. Shakespeare actually performed nearly all of his plays with boys playing the lead female roles and older men playing the humorous nurses and such. Opera would have followed suit, but boys' voices aren't really strong enough to carry the part of a woman. At some point, boys who had this very certain surgery became men who could easily sing those parts.
Eventually, thank goodness, women were allowed on the opera stage. This didn't stop the popularity of the
castrati, however, and one female singer, Teresa Lanti Palesi, spent years masquerading as the castrato Bellino
so that she could have a career. Years later she returned to the stage as herself. Strangely, we know her story
thanks to the infamous Italian lothario Casanova (who was her lover at one point) and recorded the story in his
By the end of the 18th century, things really got out of hand. By the mind 1700s, almost 4,000 boys had the procedure. By one estimate, nearly 70% of all male opera singers in the 18th century were castrati. That's a lot of farm accidents.
To make things worse, snipping didn't mean an automatically fabulous voice. Only a small percentage of castrati actually had top-rate voices. The church allowed many of the failures to become priests.
The creation of castrati was considered barbaric in England and was entirely dissapproved of in France. It was really the Italians who embraced the practice. The music historian Charles Burney was the first to really research the practice and attempt to dispell rumors and myths about the castrati. He pointed out the hypocrisy in the Italian's official governmental policies and the reality of the situation. He wrote:
"I enquired throughout Italy at what places boys were chiefly qualified for singing by castration, but could get no certain intelligence. I was told at Milan that it was at Venice; at Venice that it was Bologna; but at Bologna the fact was denied, and I was referred to Florence; from Florence to Rome; and from Rome I was sent to Naples. The operation is most certainly against the law in all these places, as well as against nature; and all the Italians are much ashamed of it, that in every province they transfer it to some other."
Many of the castrati took single stage names like "Caffarelli," "Consolino," "Zambinella," "Farinelli," "Siface" and others. The talented ones lived lives of luxury, usually finding a patron, travelling around Europe performing and spending quality time with other men's wives. Oh, yeah. They were very popular among the ladies. Many disguised thier identities to sneak into bed chambers around the continent. One even dressed as a woman and pretended to be a close friend of his secret lover.
These guys were like rock stars. They even insisted on some classic ego-centric demands for performances. Luigi Marchesi insisted on making his first entrance onto stage in every show on horseback, riding down a hill and singing one of his favorite arias, even if none of these things were particularly relevant in the show.
Side Note: Arie di Baule
Arie de Baule, or "suitcase arias," were favorite arias of
popular singers that they would insist on putting into any
opera in which they performed. It would be like Gerard Butler insisting on doing hid "This is Sparta" bit from 300 in every single movie he was in no matter what.
This kind of thing is really hard to grasp now, but apparently, this practice produced some phenomenal singers. The last professional castrato was Alessandro Moreschi who died in 1922. The Vatican had outlawed the practice in 1903 and officially, no more castrati were to be found.
Side Note: Counter-tenor
Not all men with high ranges are missing bits. a Counter-Tenor is a man whose voice remains in an alto or mezzo-soprano range through training and natural growth. They have become much sought after in the twentieth century to sing parts originally written for castrati.
In the 18th century, opera was where it was at. Everybody who was anybody went to the opera regularly. You didn't have to go to listen to it or even enjoy it. You went to be seen.
Alessandro Scaraltti was a big deal in opera
during the end of the 17th and beginning of the
18th centuries. His main claim to fame is the
popularization of the "da capo" aria. These songs
were written so that the singers, after singing Part A
and Part B of a song would go back to the beginning
and sing Part A all over again. Think of it as a built-in
encore. "Da capo," by the way, is Italian for "to the head"
which has nothing to do with the egos of the singers.
Parts of Opera
Opera is made up of three main musical events:
the Aria, the Recitative and the Chorus. There's
some other things in there, but don't worry about
them right now. Arias are solo songs. Recitative
is the term for "sung dialogue." No real melody
and it moves the story along. Chorus parts are when
(guess who) the Chorus joins in and everybody sings.
Another composer in Italy set the bar for what would be considered the standard of serious opera for the next two-hundred years. He was born Antonio Domenico Bonaventura Trapassi. He was adopted as a boy by a judge named Gian Vincenzo Gravina, who renamed the boy Pietro Metastasio. Made sense to him.
Metastasio composed at least 30 operas, most in 3 acts instead of 5 (they were just as long as the 5 Act ones, so no one really wins there). A huge number of people worked at arranging Metastasio's operas and there are almost 1000 settings of his works. His librettos are all pretty similar. The hero was struggling nobly between love and duty, there was some mistaken identity and then a happy ending after a few hours of singing. This type of serious opera was called, naturally, "opera seria."
With all the "Why So Serious" stuff going on, audiences began to grow bored. Composers used the same techniques that Shakespeare used in his heavier plays and inserted obvious comic relief in between serious scenes. They would normally play in front of the curtain while the scenery was changed. These were eventually known as "intermezzi." These bits started getting longer and eventually were written into operas all their own called "opera buffa" or "comic opera."
Opera Seria is usually about heroes and gods, while Opera Buffa focuses on peasants, servants and ordinary people. Any noblemen in Opera Buffa were mocked pretty hard. The most famous Opera Buffa (really, it was an Intermezzo, but hey, who's counting) was by Italian composer Pergolesi. Debuting in 1733 in Naples, "La serva padrona" or "The Maid as Mistress" tells the story of how a wealthy bachelor is duped into marrying his maid. Pergolesi brought humor to the stage, but could not continue to do so long. He died at age 26 from TB.
Country by Country
One way to make sense of all this opera stuff is to study the
composers divided by the country's from whence they came.
While most followed a distinct Italian style of opera, each's
homeland influenced his works. The most famous composers
came from Austria-Germany, the form was perfected in Italy,
so let's start in France. Why not?
Austria & Germany
The Mighty Five
The French imported Italian opera in the 17th century like
everybody else, but they really didn't care for all that foreign
stuff. They were being pretty French. What French audiences
wanted was some good, home-grown, French opera. What
they got at first was a an Italian and an Austrian. But, hey,
they wrote in French, so, good times.
Jean-Baptiste Lully was born Giovanni Battista Lulli in Florence, Italy. As a boy he was sent off to Paris to work as a valet for a cousin of the King. Soon after he was playing in the King's orchestra and then writing ballets for plays by Moliere. Within a very short while he was the official court composer for Louis XIV. In 1672 he was named director of the Academie Royale de Musique.*
Lully wrote 20 opera from 1673-1687, all based on Greek myths adopted by one guy. They were fairly predictable. There was a French overture** followed by a pastoral*** and then a five-act tragedy punctuated by some dancing to keep the corps du ballet busy.
* Don't ask how he got the job. Let's just say that a lot of money changed hands.
** The French overture goes slow-fast-slow while and Italian overture goes fast-slow-fast. Big difference.
*** This is where peasants sat around singing about what a wonderful guy the King is. Great way to get some brownie points.
Lully came to a strange end when he was conducting a performance of his "Te Deum." Conductors in those days didn't use the small stick batons that we know now. They used huge sticks to beat the ground in time. Lully wasn't paying attention and drove the stick into his foot. He developed gangrene and died later of blood poisoning.
After Lully, Jean-Phillipe Rameau came onto the scene. He travelled in Italy as a young men but was unimpressed by the opera there. He wrote his first opera, "Hippolyte et Aricie" in 1733. His most famous work was "Castor et Pollux" in 1737. This told the storu of two demi-god twin brothers named, you guessed it, Castor & Pollux. Rameau's career really wouldn't have been anything to talk about were it not for a fight that broke out between he and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It was call "the War of the Buffons" for a good reason.
"La guerre des bouffons" began when an Italian troup brought that famous intermezzo "La serva pardrona" to Paris. Rousseau saw it and declared that Rousseau's operas were boring and not as good as the Italian Opera Buffa. Both had well-known supporters and really were ready to go at it in high-society intellectual battle when Rameau's camp scored a sneaky win. A production secretly written by another French composer was put on as an Italian Opera Buffa. When the real composer was revealed, everyone had to admit that the French really were pretty funny. Thusly, Opera-Comique was born.
Christoph Gluck was born in Bohemia in 1714.
His later jobs in Vienna and Italy brought him
into contact with Italian opera and he spent
some time writing to Metastasio's libretti,
pretty much like everybody else.
Gluck's first 35 operas are pretty ordinary. in 1762 Gluck finally came up with an idea that impressed everybody. He though that Italian opera had become ridiculous and overburdened by a "useless superfluity of ornaments." He though opera needed a good cleaning up. His "Orfeo et Euridice" simplified many typical Italian trends and removed many of the vocal acrobatics that singers had become accustomed to. His next opera, "Alceste," has an overture that is actually a preview of the show rather than just music to play while everyone sat down. It also used a tenor for the lead rather than a castrato. This irritated some true Viennese snobs.
Paris was pretty good to Gluck after Vienna. It helped that Queen Marie Antionette (yeah, her) was a singing student of Gluck's. She loved his operas. A composer named Niccolo Piccinni hated them and started a public spat with Gluck. The director of the Academie Royale de Musique challenged them each to write an opera based on the same story. Gluck won the contest, mainly because Piccinni's lead soprano was roaring drunk opening night.
Bizet never meant to be a one-opera wonder. That's just how things worked out. He composed other operas, but he is known for only one: "Carmen."
Alexandre-Cesar Leopold Bizet (Georges to his friends)
was born in Paris in 1838. He came from a musical
family, took lessons at the Conservatoire du Musique,
won composition prizes and wrote an impressive Mass
in C. All of these things made it look like he would make
it as a big-time composer. Instead he spent time writing
piano arrangements of other composers' operas and
even moonlighting as a music critic under an assumed
name. He did find time to write several operas, none
of which really made a splash at all. Some even
Bizet's major (and really only)
contribution to opera was his major hit,
"Carmen." Set in Seville, Spain, "Carmen"
tells the story of a wayward gypsy, a young
soldier and the seduction and betrayal
between them. Meet me over there and
we'll talk more about it.
"Carmen" is still one of the most well-known and often performed operas in the repertoire. Bizet took a tragic story
and enhanced it through his iconic music. Here's the story:
Act I opens in a town square in Seville. Soldier Don Jose
sees the girls coming out from the cigarette factory and notices one in particular: Carmen. She is a gypsy and seduces him with her aria "Habenera." He pretends to ignore her, but we all know better. Carmen starts a fight with one of the other factory workers and Don Jose's boss tells him to arrest her. After some flirting, Don Jose lets her escape and is jailed as an accomplice.
Don Jose soon gets out of prison and goes to meet
Carmen. She, unfortunately, has moved on to the
bullfighter, Escamillo, who sings the powerful and
famous "Torreador" to show off for everybody in the
bar. Eventually Don Jose makes some really bad
choices and ends up in thick with Carmen and some
gypsy smugglers.* Carmen really grows tired of Don
Jose and wants him to just move on. She calls him a
mama's boy and wants him to go find his boyhood
sweetheart. Michaela, the sweetheart, has followed
Don Jose into the mountains to tell him how sick his
mother is. Carmen laughs at him and kicks him out of
the gypsy camp.
Act IV has a bullfight! Off-stage. Don Jose confronts
Carmen and stabs her in a fit of jealousy. With her
dead, there's no reason for an Act V, which is nice.
"Carmen" has been brought into pop culture in successive generations. First, Otto Preminger rewrote the show to make a musical called "Carmen Jones" starring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte. He kept all the same music, but set the show at a military base in the South and Oscar Hammerstein wrote new lyrics to all the songs. In 2001, Beyonce and Mikhai Phifer starred in a hip-hop version called "Carmen: A Hip Hopera." It replaced much of the music with rap and hip hop.
"L'Orfeo" by Montiverdi
Alessandro Moreschi - the Last Castrati
"The Barber of Seville - Figaro" by Rossini
"La serva padrona" by Pergolesi
"Castor et Pollux - Tristes apprets" by Rameau
"Orfeo et Euridice" by Gluck
"Carmen: A Hip-Hopera"
"Carmen" - Bizet
"L'Orfeo" by Montiverdi
Maria Callas - Casta Diva - Norma by Bellini
Lucia di Lammermoor (Mad Scene) - Donizetti
Aida - Verdi
Ok, so Handel was born in Germany. Well, not really Germany. Part of the Germanic Empire called Saxony. Whatever, Germany. He was born in a house known as "Zum gelben Hirsch" or "The Yellow Stag." He was born in the same year as JS Bach and the two are considered the greatest composers of their age.
Handel's first two operas were produced in Hamburg, a city not known for its rich operatic tradition. "Almira" and "Florindo" opened in 1705. Knowing that Italy was the happening place for opera, Handel moved to Rome just in time to have Pope Clement XI ban all opera.* Handel had a good time in Rome, but had his opera "Agrippina" produced in Venice. Prince Ernest of Hanover went to all 27 performances of the opera and offered Handel the job of court musician to his dad, the Elector of Hanover.
Shortly after taking the Hanover gig, Handel ran off
to England where he premiered his opera "Rinaldo." It
only took him two weeks to write it since he borroed a lot
of the music he had written for "Agrippina." He figured
no one in England would know the show. He was right.
"Rinaldo" was a hit, especially the arias "Care sposa" and "Lascia ch'io pianga." The plot takes place during the First Crusade and tells of a love affair between the queen Armida and our hero, Rinaldo, the leader of the crusaders. He dumps her to go off to war and she burns down the palace. Ah, opera.
Handel rolled off a string of operas in England including, "Il pastor fido," "Tesco," "Silla," "Amadigi di Gaula" bringing his total to 42 operas. Most of his male lead parts went to a famous castrato, Francesco Bernardi, also known as Senesino. He was the most famous singer of his day and was also crabby, arrogant and not quite as winderful as he believed. In a 1732 production of Handel's "Giulio Cesare," Senesino proudly declared "Cesare non seppe mai, che sia timore!" or "Cesar does not know what fear is." Just then, a set piece collapsed and fell down beside him. He promptly began to cry.
Handel's only real competition came in 1728 with "The
Beggar's Opera." This "ballad opera" was satirical, funny
and in English. It ran 63 performances, more than Handel
ever managed. Audiences really enjoyed it and it opened
up a glut of English opera composers. To add inslut to injury,
two of the pieces in "TBO" are stolen from Handel himself.
Meanwhile, Over in England...
Haydn is not normally a name that springs to mind when speaking of opera. He is much better known for his 100 symphonies, 52 piano sonatas, 84 string quartets and hundreds of other pieces. Haydn did, however, write more than 20 operas. Dude was busy.
Franz Josef Haydn was born in a tiny Austrian
village called Rohrau. Young Haydn had a
lovely voice and his choirmaster suggested to
his parents that he get snipped so his voice would
not change. Haydn's father was having none of
Haydn wrote his first opera at age 19. After serenading
a famous Austrian comedian, Johann Kurz, he was hired to write the music to Kurz's "Der krumme Teufel." The Viennese thought the opera was hilarious, but one bitter nobleman though the whole thing was making fun of him so he had the work banned. None of Haydn's music for it exists today.
The rest of Haydn's career was spent in the employ of Prince
Nicholaus Esterhazy who enjoyed music and opera so much
that he had a 400-seat opera house built. Most of the operas have silly, happy endings, because that is what the audience really wanted. Haydn's works are generally ignored now because of that upstart Mozart. Well, 5 of Haydn's works are ignored for another reason: They're for marionettes. No one stages opera for puppets except for a really rich patron who owns his own puppet theater. Prince Nicholaus loved his marionettes.
Mozart wrote operas easily. He wrote both Opera Seria and Opera Buffa. His first opera, "La finta semplice" was written in 1768, when he was 12. His first big hit was "Die Entfurung aus dem Serail" or "The Abduction from the Seragilo." This opera was a "rescue opera" and is one of the most important operas written in German.
Side Note: Rescue Opera
Rescue opera was a popular genre in the late 18th early 19th centuries. The plots all generally have to do with rescuing a main character from some type of danger and concluding with a happy ending and a moral about higher ideals outlasting baser instincts.
The lead female role in "Seraglio" is named Constanze and is rescued from the harem of Pasha Selim. The hero, Belmonte and his servant, Pedrillo, rush to rescue Constanze and her maid Blondchen. They get the guard horribly drunk, escape, are recaptured and are forgiven by the Pasha. Everyone lives happ[ily ever after except for the guard who has a massive hangover.
Shortly after "Seraglio" premiered, Mozart found his own Constanze. He married the girl against the wishes of her father. Constanze was a lot like Mozart: flighty, irresponsible and not too attractive. They loved each other deeply, though.
Mozart's best operas came when he teamed with
librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. Da Ponte was born
into a Jewish family in Ceneda, Italy and was
named Emmanuel Conegliano. He later
converted to Catholocism and took a more Italian
name. He even joined the priesthood, but did
not give up his two favorite pursuits: women and
Pursued by creditors and angry husbands, da Ponte
fled to Vienna where he met Mozart. The two
collaborated on three of Mozart's most famous operas:
"Le nozze di Figaro," "Don Giovanni," and "Cosi fan
"Le nozze di Figaro" is based on the character of Figaro made
more famous in "Il barbiere da Siviglia." These were both well known stories throught Europe. While "Le nozze" became popular for Mozart, his version of "Siviglia" did not. It was Rossini's version years later that we know so well.
One of the most famous arias from "Le nozze" is "Voi che sapete" and is sung by a supporting actress, not the prima donna. This actress was playing a "pants role" as the servant Cherubino. To make things more confusing, Cherubino is disguised as a woman at the time. So, a girl acting as a boy pretending to be a girl. Ah, Opera.
"Don Giovanni" is considered one of Mozart's finest works. The story is dark and tragic but sees a terrible man get what is due. It is entertaining and certainly his most popular opera.
Before the plot begins, know that Don Giovanni himself can be confused with the many other "Don"s in opera. In the first place, Giovanni was based on the infamous Don Juan, which is Don Giovanni in Italian. Don Alfonso is from Donzinetti's "Lucretia Borgia," Don Alvaro and Don Carlo are in Verdi's "La forza del destino." Don Jose comes from Bizet's "Carmen" and "La donne mobile" is an aria from Verdi's "Rigoletto." Got it?
"Don Giovanni" begins with a fight between Don Giovanni and Donna Anna, a virtious woman who has refused him. Anna's father, Don Pedro, fights with Don Giovanni and is killed. Giovanni runs off soon after. Donna Anna's fiancee Don Ottavio (seriously, how many Dons are there?) vows to avenge Anna's father.
All the good comic relief comes from Don G's servant, Leporello, who sings the "Catalogue" aria, listing his master's many lovers. He lists 640 in Italy, 231 in Germany, 100 in France, 91 in Turkey and 1003 in Spain for a grand total of 2065. We really need to take the aria with a grain of salt, however, considering that Don G strikes out constantly during the opera.
The opera continues with more attempted seductions, chases and escapes. Finally, Donny G arrives in a graveyard and mockingly invites a statue of Don Pedro to dinner. The statue shows up and drags the unrepentant sinner into Hell. The final number consists of the survivors singing of true love and fidelity.
After "Don Giovanni," Mozart found time for two more operas, "Cosi fan tutte" and "La clemenza di Tito" before writing his final opera, "Die Zauberflote." This odd little opera tells a mystical story with a totally unbelievable plot and a few marvelous songs. The Queen of the Night's aria and the love duet between Papageno and Papagena are particularly fine.
"The Magic Flute" works into one of the myths about Mozart's own death. Scholars have found what they believe to be references to Mason rituals within the opera and the conspiracy theory has the enraged Masons bumping off Mozart. That didn't really happen. Salieri didn't poison him either. Promise.
Pit Stop: Beethoven
We normally would not talk about someone who only
wrote one opera, but, it is Beethoven, after all. He
began his involvement in opera in Vienna, seeing shows
at the Theatre an der Wien, which was literally across the
hall from his apartment.
His only opera was called "Fidelio." Well, Beethoven called
it "Leonore," but everyone else insisted.
"Fidelio" is about a political prisoner named
Florestan who is rescued by his wife, Leonore,
while she is disguised as a man named, naturally,
Fidelio. The opening performance was a disaster,
especially since Napoleon had picked that time to invade Austria. Beethoven revised the opera and then shelved it for years until writing yet another
overture (ending up with 4 total).
Wagner is one of the most polarizing figures in music history. No one else evokes such passion in his music as well as his personality. Most music lovers are either Wagner lovers or Wagner haters. He was a detestable person; arrogant, mean-spirited, overtly racist and self-centered. He knew what he wanted and would do anything to get it.
Depending on who you ask (and who is in the room at the time) Wagner is either a musical genius or an obnoxious boor. His music is either the pinnacle of music achievement or overrated drivel. Cesar Cui - of the Mighty Five - called him "a man devoid of all talent." Rossini himself said that "Wagner has good moments but bad quarter hours."
Wagner's earlier works grew in popularity
with each successive one. His "The Flying
Dutchman" and "Tannhauser" became quite
well known and are still performed today. They
are, in typical Wagnerian fashion, loud.
Despite his many personal and musical flaws, we study Wagner for his contributions to the art of opera. His leitmotifs are the basis for what we now know as the theme song. His concept of Gesamtkuntswerk set the bar for stage productions for the next hundred years or more. Finally, his "unendlich Melodie" concept allowed 20th century composers to break the bonds of the traditional aria/recitative for a freer mode of expression.
Der Ring des Nibelungen
1. Das Rheingold
2. Die Walkure
Three young women, Flosshilde, Wellgunde & Wogelinde live at the bottom of the Rhine river wher they guard over a bunch of gold. Alberich, a misshapen dwarf, renounces all love, steals the gold and makes a magic ring to give himself ultimate power.
Meanwhile, the head god Wotan hired Fasolt & Fafner, a piar of giant brothers, to build him Valhalla. Wotan can't afford to pay the two, so he steals the ring and the gold from Albrecht. Wotan doesn't want to give up the ring, but his wife Fricka and the earth-goddess Erdu convince him to part with it and pay the giants. The giants get paid and then Fafner kills Fasolt to take it all for himself.
Through Erda (not his wife, but you know gods), Wotan fathers nine daughters, called the Valkyries, to defend Valhalla. He then heads to Earth and fathers two more kids, Gieglinde (girl) and Siegmund (boy). Remember those names. Sieglinde marries a new character named Hunding and Siegmund goes backpacking across Europe. Das Ende.
The second part of the Ring Cycle begins with Siegmund wandering into Hunding's rustic hut. He meets Sieglinde, makes some moves on her (not realizing she is his sister) and they run off together. They take a magical sword called Nothung, carelessly left behind by Wotan, with them.
Hunding is pretty pissed, but it's not clear whether he's madder about losing the sword or his wife. With Wotan's backing, Hunding kills Siegmund, destroying the sword in the process. Brunnhilde, one of the Valkyries (and Siegmund & Sieglinde's half-sister) takes Siegmund's side. She gives the broken sword to Sieglinde, irritating daddy Wotan. Wotan puts her on a burning rock to stay until she has learned her lesson. There is a big fiery scene and an ear-piercing aria. The other 8 Valkyries come by, but no one ever pays attention to their names.
Gerhilde, Grimgerde, Helmwige, Ortlinde, Rossweise, Schwertleite, Siegrune & Waltraute. Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.
The third installment of the Ring Cycle is named for its hero, Siegfried, who is the son of Sieglinde & Siegmund. Who are his parents and his aunt and uncle. He was born sometime between this opera and the last one.
Siegfried is being raised by another dwarf, Mime, who is the brother of Albrecht. Remember Albrecht? He helps Siegfried restore the magic sword, Nothung, that his mother got from Brunhilde. Mime acts like a nice guy, but really wants the ring of power for himself. Man, you really can't trust anybody in these operas.
Siegfried goes after the ring, which is still held by Fafner who is now a dragon. Cause. Don't argue. Siefried learns of Mime's treachery because, literally, a little bird told him. No, really. Anyway, Siegfried kills him too. With the magic ring and a magic sword, he runs through the giant fire and rescues Brunhilde, his aunt, so they can live happily ever after.
Ok, this final chapter of the Ring Cycle is even more confusing
than the previous 3. Really. It's where Wagner shows his
pessimism and ruins things for everyone involved, including
In this final act, everybody wants the ring, but doesn't get it except for those who don't want the ring and end up with it. Everybody dies, Valhalla burns down and the Rhine river floods, sweeping the wreckage away and we end up back at the bottom of the river. Right where we started 18 hours ago.
Verdi & Puccini
Bellini & Donizetti
Vivaldi & Rossini
Russian opera got off to a slow start due to the lack of "formal" music in the country. While folk music was incredibly popular, book-learning music was still on the horizon. It took Tsar Peter the Great's daughter Elizabeth to bring opera to Russia. She loved opera, but really, no one else did. She had to build her own theater and personally invite nobles to go.
It really wasn't until Catherine the Great that opera became popular in Russia. Catherine* loved French comic opera and invited famous composers to visit St. Petersburg and perform operas. The problem for most Russians was that the music wasn't very Russian and the songs certainly weren't sung in Russian. Mikhail Glinka changed all of that.
* Her name wasn't really Catherine. It was Princess Sophia Augusta Frederica of Anhalt-Zerbst. Plus, she was German.
Glinka was born into a wealthy family and began his
enjoyment of music at an early age. His father would hire
small orchestras to play at dinner and Glinka loved hearing
to Russian folk songs they would play.
Glinka's two well-known operas are "A Life for the Tsar" and
"Russlan & Ludmilla." Neither were a huge success and are
rarely performed now. Glinka's major contribution to opera,
however, was his use of folk melodies to write his opera. Not
only did it save time, it made it much easier for audiences to
understand the show.
The composers who followed Glinka knew a good thing
when they saw it. They began to use more Russian folk
songs in thier writings to appeal to the broad audience.
There are 5 composers who worked together closely on
this new Russian sound and they were called "Moguchaya
Kuchka" or "A Mighty Little Heap." Mily Balakirev, Cesar
Cui, Alexander Borodin, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsokov & Modest
Mussorgsky made up the group and led Russian nationalism
from the musical side.
None of the five were full-time composers.
Nearly all of them had cushy government jobs.
Cui was a journalist who became a general,
Mussorgsky lost his inheritance and worked as
a clerk in the ministry of forests, and Borodin
While a few of the Five wrote opera, none really made it very far
until Mussorgsky premiered his "Boris Gudonov." While his other
four operas failed to get finished, Boris was a hit. The story revolves
around Boris Gudonov, friend of Tsar Ivan the Terrible who becomes
Tsar himself after murdering Ivan's infant son, Dimitri. Boris later has
his throne taken away by a monk named Grigori who claims to be Dimitri
brought back to life. In the final scene, Boris, racked with guilt, begs
God for mercy and sings a big death scene.
One of the unique things about "Boris" was the lead role. Rather
than a tenor or soprano taking the lead, the part of Boris is played
by a bass. In fact, the role called "The Idiot" is the tenor roll. The
most famous of the basses to play Boris was the massive basso, Chaliapin.
Chaliapin stood 6' 6", wore a huge raccoon coat and checked hat off stage
and demanded massive performance fees to "help support his 12 children."
In 1921, Chaliapin sang Boris at the Metropolitan Opera of New York. He
sang the part in Russian while everyone else sang in Italian. No one really
seemed to mind.
Tchaikovsky's music was in a completely different world from the Mighty Five. They didn't think he was Russian enough and he thought they were all only gifted amateurs.
His musical work was strong in many areas, but he was not well known for writing operas. He wrote at least eight operas including, "Voevada" and "Undine" which no one really remembers much of. Tchaikovsky wanted to write an opera based on "Romeo and Juliet," but never seemed to get around to it. He did write a pretty good R&J ballet score, however. His one operatic success was "Eugene Onegin," which is kind of like a waterd-down "Don Giovanni."
Vivaldi is one of the most prolific composers ever. He wrote nearly 500 concertos, lots of church music and nearly 50 operas.
His first opera, "Ottone in Villa" was written in 1713. He wrote several others in quick succession that you've never heard of. Don't worry about them. Believe it or not, Vivaldi was the most performed composer in Venice during 1713-1719. Today, his operas are almost completely forgotten and he is best known for his "Four Seasons" concerto.
Rossini was kind of an 18th century party animal. He spent time flirting, socializing and eating rich food. For him, the best thing about being a famous composer was meeting all the right people. During his life he wrote 40 operas, most of them between 1810-1829.
Part of what made him so prolific was his tendency to steal from all kinds of people, including himself. His most famous opera, "The Barber of Seville," was written in under two weeks. It had bits of almost 5 of his other works in it.
Rossini was a slacker, though. He would always procrastinate in his writing. Producer
Domenico Barbaja got back at him on the day that his "La gaza ladra" (The Thieving Magpie) was to premiere. Rossini hadn't written the overture so Barbaja locked him in a room, refusing to let him out until it was done. When each page was done, 4 bodyguards would throw it out of the window to the copyist. They were told to toss Rossini out if he didn't finish.
It is from Rossini that we get a word for failure. After a terrible performance of his opera,
"Torvaldo e Dorliska," Rossini sent his mother a poorly drawn picture of a bottle of wine rather
than his customary letter. In Italian, bottle is "fiasco."
Rossini's most famous work is his "Barber of Seville." While popular,
the opening night was another great fiasco. The lead tenor broke a
guitar string, the bass fell through a trap door and had to sing with a bloody
nose and, finally, a cat walked across the stage during the finale.
Rossini's last opera was "William Tell." You might know it from The Lone Ranger theme. At age 37, he had written 40 operas and was done. He retired to live a life of luxury partying with friends. He didn't write any more operas, but did compose little pieces to amuse his party guests called "Sins of my old age." One setting, titled, "Hors d'oeuvres," included the movements "Radishes," "Anchovies," "Gherkins" and "Butter."
Vincenzo Bellini is known as the greatest composer of "Bel canto" opera. Bellini didn't write as many operas as others, but he died before he turned 34, so I guess that's a good excuse.
Bellini's first opera, "Bianca e Gernando" was commissioned by Domenico Barbaja, the producer who threatened to throw Rossini out a window. Barbaja is an interesting case in himself. He made his fortune by coming up with the idea of putting whipped cream on iced coffee and hot chocolate. Next time you drop some Redi Whip on your hot cocoa, thank Barbaja.
Bellini's big hit was his opera "Norma." It was about
love, treachery & betrayal amongst Druids in pre-Christian Britain. Bellini wins for writing probably the only opera about Druids.
Domenico Donizetti was born in Bergamo in 1797 and is the typical "poor boy makes good" story. He came from meager beginnings and became on of the most famous Italian composers of opera.
His first opera was "Il Pigmalione," based on the
myth of Pygmalion. George Bernard Shaw wrote
a play based on Pygmalion which Lerner & Loewe
later turned into the musical, "My Fair Lady." This
opera version wasn't a big hit.
Among his 70 operas were several about
English historical figures, notably, Anne Bolyn,
Queen Elizabeth I, Robert Deveraux, Mary, Queen of Scots and, his most famous, "Lucia di Lammermoor."
"Lucia" is best known for it's great "mad" scene by Lucia herself. In an ironic twist, Donizetti died in 1848 after a long bout with his own madness, brought on by an advanced stage of syphillis.
Lucianno Pavarotti - La Donne Mobile -
Dance of the Hours - Puccini
Leontyne Price - Madame Butterfly
Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial
Guiseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi was born on October 10, 1813 in the village of La Roncole in Parma, Italy. His actual birth certificate reads "Joseph Forunin Francois," but, seeing as how Napoleon was occupying Parma and it wasn't very popular at the time to be French in Italy, it was quickly changed. Of course, in English, his name would be "Joe Green."
Like many other composers, Verdi got his musical start young and it led to a job as an organist by age 12. This seems to be a pretty surefire way to earn fame and glory as a 19th century opera composer. Later, his parents sent him off to a nearby town to work for a man named Barezzi who ran the local music society. Verdi spent time writing for the town band, but mostly composed piano duets for himself and Barezzi's pretty daughter, Margherita. This is a ploy that works surprisingly well. By the time he was 19, Barezzi encouraged Verdi to apply to the Milan conservatory of music. Soon after, Verdi married Margherita.
The Milan conservatory was impressed with Verdi, but they had rules. Verdi was deemed too old to begin studying at the conservatory. Years later, when he was a world-famous composer, Milan asked Verdi if they could name their conservatory after him. He replied "They wouldn't have me young. They cannot have me old."
After returning to Busseto, Verdi began writing opera. His first, "Oberto, conte di Bonifacio," impressed sufficiently that an impressario* named Bartolomeo Merelli hired him to write a comic opera. Unfortunately, shortly after he began writing, Verdi's family fell ill. His wife and both children died. Verdi certainly wasn't in the mood for comic opera and "Il finto" was a flop. The composer focused on more serious subjects like Joan of Arc and Atilla the Hun for many years.
Verdi wrote his only other comic opera at age 80. Based on Shakespeare's lovable character Falstaff, the opera ends with the text "Tutto nel mondo e burla; l'hom e nato burlone: All the world's a joke; all men are born fools." In total, Verdi wrote 26 operas, most of which you've never heard of. His libretti generall consisted of "violent, blood-and-thunder melodramas, full of improbable characters and ridiculous coincidences." Verdi was like Michael Bay with less explosions.
His first big break was the opera "Nabucco" about a mad Babylonian king who converts to Judaism. His collaboration with librettist Themistocles Solera led to a huge success and follow ups of "I Lombardi*," "Attila," and "Giovanna d'Arco." It was during rehearsals for "Nabucco" that Verdi met the soprano Guiseppina Strepponi. Eventually, the two married once she had retired from the stage.
One of Verdi's more popular operas in his early career was "Rigoletto." It's about a hunchback jester, a lecherous Duke and a professional assassin named Sparafucile. A tune you've probably heard before, "La donna e mobile," shows up in Act IV. "Rigoletto" was one of Verdi's many run-ins with the official government censors. It was based on a Victor Hugo play that had scandalized Paris a few years before. Verdi simply changed the names of the characters and the censors allowed the opera to go forward. In another opera, "Un Ballo in maschera," the character of the Italian king was demoted to a duke, changed to the King of Sweden and then moved across the Atlantic to be an English count in Massachusetts. Somehow, this made the murder, adultery and witchcraft in the opera completely acceptable.
1853 was one of Verdi's biggest years with the premieres of "La Traviata" and "Il Trovotore." "Trovotore" has a complex plot, but it includes the "Anvil Chorus" and a bunch of gypsy curses. "Traviata" is easier to follow, but the plot is pretty ridiculous. The story is of a courtesan* named Violetta who falls in love with a nobleman named Alfredo who promises to make an honest woman out of her. His father hates the idea and forces them apart and they reconcile just as she dies from tuberculosis, but not without singing a farewell aria first. While the opening night performance was a disaster - the tenor had a cold and kept croaking and the soprano playing Violetta was a big girl named Fanny who set the audience laughing every time she sang about wasting away to nothing - the opera has become part of the classic repertoire.
Verdi's greatest opera was written in 1869, well after the composer had retired. The Khedive of Egypt hired Verdi to write an opera to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal. The Canal opened on time, but the opera didn't. The Franco-Prussian war held up delivery of the costumes. Aida tells the story of a slave girl, formerly a princess, in Egypt who falls in love with a prince. Their love is discovered after he gives her information allowing her people to escape Egyptian bondage. The prince is sealed up in a pyramid alive, but not before Aida jumps in to join him in death. Verdi wrote two more operas before his death in 1901: "Otello" and the aforementioned "Falstaff."
While many, many other composers before him killed off major characters during operas, Puccini took the idea of the dying diva to a new high. With very few exceptions, Puccini kills off his heroines in all of his major works. In "La Villa," his first opera, Anna dies of grief and her lover Robert dies of embarrassment. His most famous work, "La Boheme," has Mimi coughing herself to death. "Tosca" ends with its heroine leaping to her death off of a convenient tower. "Madama Butterfly" commits sepeku and the heroine of "Manon Lescaut" dies of exhaustion. In his 12 operas, 8 end with the heroine or another major female character dying. That's a 66% death rate. The men fare better with a 25% death rate. None of them die of old age, of course. Murder, suicide or tragic illness all the way.