Category Archives: 20th Century Opera

Glass’s ‘Satyagraha’ on tap in Met’s 2011-12 season

Satyagraha / Catherine Ashmore

Satyagraha by composer Philip Glass is an opera in three acts for orchestra, chorus, and soloists and will be presented this fall as part of the New York Metropolitan Opera‘s 2011-12 repertory.

Commissioned by the City of Rotterdam, Satyagraha is the second in Glass’s trilogy about men who changed the world. The opera is semi-narrative in form and is a moving account of Mahatma Gandhi‘s early years in South Africa and his development of non-violent protest into a political tool, a method that Dr. King would later embrace.

“Satyagraha” is a Sanskrit word meaning “truth force,” and the subtext of this opera is, as you may have deduced, politics.

Each act is dominated by a single historic figure  in a non-singing role who is overlooking the action from above: the Indian poet Ravindranath Tagore in Act I the Russian author Leo Tolstoy in Act II, the American Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. in Act III.

. . . you should embrace action for the upholding, the welfare of your own kind. Whatever the noblest does, that too will others do: the standard that he sets all the world will follow.
–from the libretto of Satyagraha

The opera premiered on September 5, 1980, in Rotterdam by the Netherlands Opera and is set to text from the ancient Sanskrit scripture the Bhagavad Gita.

It premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 2008, under the direction of Philip McDermott and designer Julian Crouch (artistic directors of London’s Improbable theater company). The Met version was considered adventurous, employing improvisational puppetry and aerialists to illuminate this work.

The revival. a collaboration with English National Opera, will again feature Richard Croft as Mahatma Gandhi. Satyagraha opens November 4 and runs through December 1, 2011.

 The following YouTube clip provides a flavor of it.

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Filed under 20th Century Opera, 21st Century Opera, Modern opera, Video

the anniversary of an opera that launched legendary tenor’s career

Plácido Domingo as Don Rodrigo in his US premiere at NYC Opera, 1966

Today (July 24) in 1964 marks the premiere of composer Alberto Ginastera’s Don Rodrigo, in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Don Rodrigo, a three-act opera based on the last Visigothic king of Spain, was Ginastera’s first. It was a 12-tone opera, a method of composing devised by Schoenberg that gives all 12 tones in the chromatic scale (more or less) equal importance thereby avoiding a key.

The NY Times called Don Rodrigo brilliant in the 1964 review of its premiere though it was considered unsuccessful in Argentina, despite being commissioned by Municipality of the City of Buenos Aires.

Less than two years later, on February 22, 1966, Plácido Domingo had his international breakthrough by singing the (difficult) title role of this opera at the US premiere of the work by New York City Opera, which coincidentally marked NYC Opera’s inaugural performance at New York State Theater at Lincoln Center (now the David H. Koch Theater).

Because of this Lincoln Center premiere of Don Rodrigo, a 25-year-old Spanish tenor became a household name.

The YouTube clip below has interviews with Domingo and Julius Rudel, General Director and Principal Conductor at NYC Opera from 1957 to 1979.

The excitement Rudel shares about his company moving to Lincoln Center and the sheer joy that Domingo conveys about premiering at Lincoln Center are palpable.

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Filed under 20th Century Opera, Modern opera, opera firsts, Premieres, tenors

Stravinsky: birthday boy disliked opera but wrote (one) anyway

Today, June 17, marks the 129th anniversary of the birth of Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky, who is widely regarded in the operasphere for his revolutionary compositions despite harboring a lack of fondness for opera.

At the tender age of 31, Stravinsky said on record,  “I dislike opera.” He went on to explain that music can be “married to gesture or to words” but not both without committing “bigamy.”

The Tavern Scene, Hogarth's Rake's Progress

In spite of his dislike of opera, he wrote several operatic hybrids that fall somewhere between opera and ballet (The Nightengale, Mavra, Oedipus Rex, Renard, Perspephone, The Flood). But he composed only one pure opera in three acts, The Rake’s Progress, inspired by a series of prints by artist William Hogarth. Hogarth’s eight paintings, created in 1735,  show the decline and fall of Tom Rakewell, a spendthrift heir of a rich merchant. Rakewell comes to London and squanders all his money on decadent living including prostitution and gambling, is imprisoned, and ultimately loses his senses and is committed to Bedlam.

The Rake’s Progress that has been labeled a difficult opera because of its complex, multi-tiered score. Its quirky music borrows from classic tonal harmonies of  Mozart and Monteverdi. Of course, it wouldn’t be Stravinsky if it didn’t interject dissonance that catches you by surprise and those trademark off-rhythms.

Glyndebourne's Rake in 2010 / photo by Mike Hoban

A quick search on Bachtrack shows numerous stagings of Stravinksy’s The Nightengale (Le Rossignol)  in the coming months. No major house is currently mounting Rake’s though Glyndebourne Opera Festival did a critically acclaimed version last summer.

The Rake’s Progress, with a libretto by W. H. Auden, premiered in Venice in 1951. It is considered the defining work of Stravinsky’s neo-classic period.  The  Metropolitan Opera first presented it in 1953.  In its first season in 1957, Sante Fe Opera did the work with Stravinsky in attendance, marking the beginning of his long association with the company, including a 1962 Stravinsky Festival the Opera House staged in honor of the composer’s 80th birthday.

Here’s a clip from director Robert Lepage‘s spirited restaging of The Rake’s Progress set in decadent Las Vegas rather than 18th century London:

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Filed under 20th Century Opera, anniversary, Classical Composers, opera history, opera quotes, Premieres

a ‘Butterfly’ wing . . .

Circumstances–namely a full day’s work and a luncheon engagement,  followed by church choir practice–have prevented me from writing a review of the splendid Butterfly I saw at the Kennedy Center yesterday presented by the Washington National Opera (WNO) today. Instead, I’ll offer a piece of information on a tidbit from the opera program that intrigued me mainly because of its incongruity.

According to the program notes in the playbill, Madama Butterfly was not well received when it premiered in Milan, Italy, in February of 1904. Not well received? Really? In fact, it is said to have flopped.

What a surprise to learn this about the premiere of this opera, especially since Butterfly followed two great successes for Puccini in La bohème and Tosca. I consulted several of my favorites sources as to why this would have been so.

No one is quite sure why it was a resounding failure. Paul England suggests the following reasons:

  • the Italians didn’t like Japan as a stage setting–too unfamiliar;
  • the original cast of singers was inadequate;
  • originally the opera was only in two acts;
  • Pinkerton’s role was too thin–eventually Puccini added an aria for him in Act II.

Only a few months later, a revised work, slightly shorter with Act II  now in two parts, was presented in Brescia, and was a resounding success, and would continue to be regarded as such ever after.

According to Opera AmericaMadama Butterfly is the most performed opera in North America today. With performances like the WNO’s yesterday at the Kennedy Center, it’s no wonder.

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a Callas remark: an Operatoonity microtale

March 6, 1853 Giuseppe Verdi: Premiere of La Traviata, in Venice, Italy.

Maria Callas as Violetta in ‘La Traviata

On the anniversary of the premiere of La Traviata, a microtale about the Verdi opera most frequently produced in North America seemed in order.

Callas recorded La Traviata early on in her singing career, well before her performance at La Scala in collaboration with Italian conductor Carlo Maria Giulini resulted in her designation as the Violetta of the age. She wanted the chance to redo the part as a stereo recording with a stellar cast during a time in which Plácido Domingo was just establishing himself a prominent tenor.

After Callas and Domingo were introduced, allegedly Callas said that she was losing interest in performing on stage because there were no satisfactory conductors, directors, or singers.

“Thank you, Maria,” Domingo said–laughing.

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Filed under 20th Century Opera, Classic Opera, Microtales, Opera and humor, Premieres

a Bendel bonnet, a Shakespeare sonnet? No, (a) Richard Strauss (poll)!

Young Richard Strauss

I just saw the AVA’s production of Arabella by Richard Strauss in the City of Brotherly Love–Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I find myself to be a versatile fiction writer because I can and do write in more than one genre–comedy, mystery, tragedy, young adult.  

Surely Strauss must be considered extremely versatile as an operatic composer because of his body of work–the varying themes and treatments employed throughout his operas.  

So, which is your favorite Strauss opera? So many to choose from. So much variation. But go ahead and take your time. You have all day to choose. Aren’t I generous?  

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Filed under 20th Century Opera, Audience participation, Classical Composers, Poll

king of the baritones

Titta Ruffo

Titta Ruffo was one of the greatest baritones of the 20th century.  He had a resonant voice, magnificent power in the middle and upper registers, and a palette that nearly defied description, encompassing darkness, brilliance, and strength.    

In this clip, he displays some of his extraordinary vocal agility as Rossini’s Figaro, a role in which he made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1922.   

One of the YouTube commenters had this to say about Ruffo singing this recording:    

“The size of his voice moving with such ease is like an elephant doing perfect pirouettes in Swan Lake.”    

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Filed under 20th Century Opera, Performers

COC unveils 2011-2012 line-up, and the byword is wow!

Love from Afar. Phillip Addis (right, on swing) as Jaufré Rudel and Rachel Harnisch (below) as Clémence in the Vlaamse Opera production, 2010

The Canadian Opera Company’s 2011-12 season is its most innovative yet, featuring seven productions spanning centuries of opera:  one double bill, no fewer than four COC premieres – two being performed for the first time in Canada – and three new productions.  

Besides showcasing freshly conceived productions such as the the 21st-century opera Love from Afar by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, which incorporates Cirque du Soleil style elements, they continue to attract the foremost Canadian and international opera singers, conductors, and designers to Toronto. 

Other Canadian premieres include the 20th-century opera A Florentine Tragedy, by Alexander Zemlinsky. Gluck’s Iphigenia in Tauris will see its COC premiere as will Semele, the first Handel opera to be performed at the Four Seasons Centre, in a staging that features an actual Ming Dynasty ancestral temple. If that’s not ambitious enough, they will introduce a new production of RigolettoGianni Schicchi, The Tales of Hoffmann, and the operatic potboiler Tosca round out the rest of the season. 

From the COC's 2008 production of Tosca. Photo: Michael Cooper

“The Canadian Opera Company’s job – the job of any opera company – is to find the best way to express the essential truths that lie at the heart of every opera,” says COC General Director Alexander Neef.  “It’s going to be very exciting to watch the work of the artists we’re bringing to the COC unfold on our stage, especially when they are matched with equally thrilling productions. The COC has always been defined by its big achievements, and the coming season will see us explore repertoire we haven’t touched before.” 

And if all that newness wasn’t enough, they introduced a brand-spanking new logo, too. 

A scene from the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie production of Semele, 2009, featuring a Ming Dynasty temple.

Based in Toronto, the Canadian Opera Company is the largest producer of opera in Canada and one of the five largest in North America.  Sold-out houses have been the norm since the Four Seasons Centre opened in 2006. For more complete casting and creative team information, please see the Show Pages at coc.ca.

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