Category Archives: Classical Composers

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:

1 Comment

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

‘Der Freischütz’: Bowing out of popular favor?

(Today marks the anniversary of composer Carl Maria von Weber‘s death. In his honor, I am reposting this piece about his most acclaimed opera.)

My husband came home last night and mentioned, while I was putting the finishing touches on our dinner, that the “Movie Mavens,” a show his television station produces, panned the new Robin Hood with Russell Crowe. I love the Robin Hood legend and have watched every version I possibly could. So, it got me thinking about archers and opera. What operas, if any, featured legendary archers?

That’s why I’m talking about Der Freischütz today on “opera-toonity.” Never one to shy away from a German title with a juicy umlaut (a pair of dots or lines [ ¨ ] placed over a letter), I decided to investigate the work in my nutmeg-colored volume kindly bestowed on me by Ginger, The Benevolent.

Der Freischütz is a three-act opera by Carl Marià von Weber with a libretto by Friedrich Kind, first performed in Berlin in 1821. It is considered the first important German Romantic opera, and also significant because von Weber’s work was reputedly an influence the work of Richard Wagner. Like the story of Robin Hood is to the English, Der Freischütz is based on German folk legend, and many of its tunes were inspired by German folk music.

(I guess every nationality has an artistic love affair with their legendary archers.)

Opera Boston's 'Der Freischutz', 2008

It tells the story of a marksman who makes a pact with the dark side to win a contest and the hand of his beloved.

Though Der Freischütz quickly became an international success, with some 50 performances in the first 18 months after its premiere,  it is not often performed in the United States today. A press release about Opera Boston’s 2008 production stated that their production was the first to be given in Boston in 25 years.

Not too long ago, an opera aficionado I respect, Roberto Romani, aka Opera Rat, decried the fact that the same operas are produced over and over again, in this instance, he didn’t think the Midwest needed yet another mounting of La Traviata. 

If some operas suffer from overexposure, and if enthusiasm still teems for archer legends, why isn’t Der Freischütz produced more often? Does it require perfect voices like Il Trovatore?

Despite its overall lack of production, the overture and the “Hunter’s Chorus” from Act III (“with Princely enjoyment and manly employment …”) used to be oft-performed concert pieces. The overture has been hailed as a masterpiece of brilliant instrumentation, providing listeners with keys to the entire work by announcing leading themes.

YouTube‘s queue wasn’t running over with clips. Here’s one of the Südfunk-Sinfonieorchester, from 1970, conducted by Carlos Kleiber. It is, in a word, magnificent.


Filed under Classic Opera, Classical Composers, Classical Music, opera firsts

opera and premonition

Have you ever had a premonition? A presentiment of the future of the foreboding variety?   

I had one once when I was 19. While in the midst of a busy day acting and singing, I was overtaken that something bad had happened to my mother. I was studying performing arts in New York City at the time and about three hours from home. The next day, sure enough, I got a call from my sister that my mother had had a stroke and had been taken to the intensive care unit of the hospital where she was as likely to die as live.   

What is so striking about this premonition is that I’d never had one before. I wish I could describe it– like a pall I couldn’t shake until the reality of the premonition coming true jars you out of it. And my mother had rarely been sick when I was younger, so believe me, a seemingly healthy fifty-two year old suffering a stroke wasn’t anything anyone could have predicted.   

This week in opera history, Bizet will die on June 3,  1875, just outside of Paris at only36 years of age–of heart failure. While Bizet’s death at an early age is common knowledge, what you might not know is that the leading lady who premiered the role of Carmen had a premonition of Bizet’s death. When I read about the incident, I could well relate to how she must have felt.   

Celestine Galli-marie, who originated the role of Carmen

Parisian born mezzo-soprano Célestine Galli-Marié whose crowning operatic achievement was creating the role of Carmen became close to Bizet over the months of rehearsal. Only months after the show opened at the Opéra Comique in Paris, on the thirty-first performance, she arrived at the theater inexplicably anxious. In the third act, after Carmen foresees her own death in the “Card Trio,” she collapsed backstage. Not because something happened to her but because she knew “something dreadful” had happened elsewhere. The next day she learned that Bizet had died the night before.   

Galli-Marié was a difficult performer. Though she hardly originated the prototypical opera diva, she certainly was a standard bearer for the stereotype. Apparently she made Bizet rewrite the “Habanera” thirteen times until it passed muster. Perhaps if she hadn’t made him work so hard, he would have lived longer.   

So what causes these premonitions, do you think? According to one site I consulted, premonitions are attributed to the existence of paranormal capabilities and are thought to be “another fragment of the psychic abilities that everybody has, but not everybody may be in tune to applying.” Apparently, the most common method to receive a premonition is by way of a dreams, the rationale being that dreams provides us with knowledge our conscious mind does not.   

Neither Galli-Marié’s nor my premonition came via a dream. Have you ever had a premonition? Do you know of any other true-to-life opera premonitions?


Filed under Classic Opera, Classical Composers, opera anecdotes, Performers, Premieres

a castle für Wagner und Lohengrin: wunderbar!

Neuschwanstein / Barbara Bosha

Neuschwanstein Castle, one of the most visited castles in Germany and a popular tourist destination in Europe, was built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria, aka the “Fairytale King.” Located in Bavaria, near the town of Fussen, construction of Neuschwanstein began in 1869, originally projected to last three years.  But Ludwig II wanted the castle to be perfect, therefore  Neuschwanstein was unfinished at the time of Ludwig’s death in 1886. 

King Ludwig was an ardent admirer and supporter of the birthday boy (born 22 May 1813, died 13 February 1883), Richard WagnerNeuschwanstein literally means “New Swan Stone,” in honor of the title character from one of Wagner’s operas Lohengrin, also called “the Swan Knight.”  

Lohengrin, the Swan Knight

Lohengrin, a character from German Arthurian literature, is a knight of the Holy Grail sent in a boat pulled by swans to rescue a maiden who can never ask his identity. In 1848 Richard Wagner adapted the medieval tale into his popular opera Lohengrin

Neuschwanstein Castle was built in his honor and many rooms in the castle’s interior were inspired by Wagner’s characters. The third floor particularly reflects Ludwig’s admiration of Wagner’s operas. The Singers Hall, which occupies the entire fourth floor of Neuschwanstein also contains characters from Wagner’s operas. Ironically, Wagner never visited the castle– he died before it was completed. 

Neuschwanstein Castle  looks like a fairytale castle but is full of paradox. Built in the 19th century in Bavaria  during a time when castles no longer had any strategic or defensive purpose, Neuschwanstein looks like something medieval. However, it was equipped inside with state-of-the-art technology at that time. On every floor were toilets with automatic flushing system as well as an air heating system for the entire castle. 

Meeting between Parsifal and the King of Cumberland Mural in Singer's Hall, Neuschwanstein

In 2012, Neuschwanstein Castle will appear on a €2 commemorative coin. It was the prototype castle for Walt Disney’s Disneyworld (U.S.A.)


Filed under Classic Opera, Classical Composers

it’s Wagner’s birthday: Hojotoho!

Klinger grove Wagner monument in Leipzig

Composer Richard Wagner was born today in 1813 in Leipzig, Germany. While one might expect a monument to Wagner to have been erected in his hometown (there are monuments to Wagner across Germany), one might also expect it to be finished. Such is not the case.  

In 1904, a sculptor and painter from Wagner’s hometown Max Klinger was awarded the commission but died in 1920 after completing the marble pedestal only, shown at right.  

The pedestal, into which have been carved characters from Wagner’s operas, was to form the base for a 17-foot high statue of Wagner. The sculpture will be transferred to its originally planned site at the Promenadenring, where the foundation stone for the Wagner memorial was laid in 1913, the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth.  

As competitive and nationalistic as musical traditions can be, one might not expect  too see a statue to Wagner in Italy unless one knows that during his last few years alive, Wagner lived in Italy, where he worked on his last great opera “Parsifal.”  

Wagner bust in Venice, site of his death


While on a trip in Venice, Wagner died of a heart attack in the Palazzo Vendramin on the Grand Canal. A statue was erected in Venice commemorating his life and work.  

In celebration of the anniversary of Wagner’s birth, here are a few clips of legendary Wagner heroine and Valkyrie Brünnhilde singing “Hojotoho” to choose from. Which is your favorite?  

Here is Norwegian opera singer and a highly regarded Wagnerian (dramatic) soprano Kirsten Flagstad’s early version of”Hojotoho” from Die Walküre, circa 1936:  

Next is a short clip of Swedish dramatic soprano Birgit Nilsson (born 1918) singing Hojotoho–her way–at the Met in 1996. Her voice–at age 78–is simply a marvel. Just listen to the reception she received:  

Here’s Swedish soprano Nina Stemme singing “Hojotoho” at La Scala’s Die Walküre in 2010:  

Lastly, here’s American soprano Deborah Voigt singing “Hojotoho” (with Bryn Terfel) at the Met’s 2011 Die Walküre, part of their new Ring cycle conceived by Robert Lepage:  


Filed under anniversary, Classical Composers, Sunday Best

Donizetti operas–three score and counting, all totaled

'Lucia di Lammermoor' --Operatoonity readers favorite Donizetti

In this century, it’s generally agreed upon that only a dozen of Donizetti’s operas are worth producing. Arguably some people would quibble with even that figure. According to the Donizetti poll I posted yesterday, your favorite is Lucia di Lammermoor.  Some opera fans I know consider Lucia not only their favorite Donizetti, but their all-time favorite opera.  

According to one of Opera Pulse’s polls, in which I voted, Lucia is also the second best opera character to be for Halloween (she was my first choice). I also had a blast writing about Lucia on this blog last June. Whoever schedules Lucia during the most popular marrying month in North America must have a wicked sense of humor. Don’t expect to see Lucia on the cover of Bride Magazine anytime soon.  

After one of my readers mentioned that some of Donizetti’s lesser known operas featured some of the silliest plots ever, I decided to give them a look-see. According to The Penguin Opera Guide, Donizetti wrote 65 operas in total. Other sites say 60. Sixty operas? Verdi wrote half that many. True, most of Verdi’s works endure today where as only one-fifth of Donizetti’s works are regularly produced. But 60? That’s a lotta opera! 

Did any other composer write as much as Donizetti? Apparently, depending on how you define opera, several composers are credited with more than 100 each, one surpassing 250, but how many composers whose work is produced today? Good question. Donizetti would have to be right up there.  

According to Bachtrack’s 2010 League Tables, Donizetti ranked 7th of composers with most opera performances worldwide with 240 after Verdi with 824, Mozart  with 771, Puccini  with 681, Wagner  with 273, Rossini  with 259, and Richard Strauss 246. More Strauss than Donizetti?  A surprising statistic, per moi.  

I can’t say which of the following Donizetti works are so silly they aren’t worth producing, but I can tell you which one would drive the marketing department crazy:  

Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali   

Just how do you fit that title onto a poster?  

Anyhoo, here’s one list of his complete works:  


    * L’ajo nell’imbarazzo
    * Alahor in Granata
    * Alfredo il grande
    * Alina, regina di Golconda
    * L’ange de Nisida
    * Anna Bolena
    * L’assedio di Calais


    * Belisario
    * Betly


    * Il campanello
    * Il castello di Kenilworth
    * Caterina Cornaro (opera)
    * Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali


    * Il diluvio universale
    * Dom Sébastien
    * Don Gregorio (opera)
    * Don Pasquale
    * Le duc d’Albe


Operatoonity readers' second favorite Donizetti


    * L’elisir d’amore
 * Elvida
    * Emilia di Liverpool
    * Enrico di Borgogna
    * L’esule di Roma


    * Fausta (opera)
    * La favorite
    * La fille du régiment
    * Francesca di Foix
    * Il furioso all’isola di San Domingo


    * Gabriella di Vergy
    * Gemma di Vergy
    * Gianni di Calais
    * Gianni di Parigi


    * Il giovedì grasso
    * Imelda de’ Lambertazzi


    * Linda di Chamounix
    * Lucia di Lammermoor
    * Lucrezia Borgia (opera)


    * Maria de Rudenz
    * Maria di Rohan
* Maria Padilla
    * Maria Stuarda
    * Marino Faliero (opera)


    * Olivo e Pasquale
    * Otto mesi in due ore


    * Parisina (opera)
    * Pia de’ Tolomei
    * Pietro il grande
    * Il Pigmalione
    * Poliuto


    * Rita (opera)
    * Roberto Devereux
    * La romanzesca e l’uomo nero
    * Rosmonda d’Inghilterra


    * Sancia di Castiglia  


    * Torquato Tasso (opera)  


    * Ugo, conte di Parigi
    * Una follia


    * La zingara
    * Zoraida di Granata

Comments Off on Donizetti operas–three score and counting, all totaled

Filed under 21st Century Opera, Audience participation, Bel canto opera, Classical Composers, North American Opera, Poll

gaga for Google

This post is not a veiled attempt to ramp up my SEO by putting “Gaga” in the title. I just happen to love alliteration a little too much for my own good.

So, why the shout-out for Google? As many of you know, I’m endeavoring to post every day remaining in 2011. I started on January 11, and so far, I’ve managed a post a day on “Operatoonity” since then.

If you’ve ever tried to write a round-up or a post featuring the names of multiple opera singers, composers, or works, then you know the particular challenge opera and classical bloggers share. Correctly spelling foreign names requires using the proper accents–a whole new world for many English speakers.

I’m not fluent but I’ve had enough German in school to know that a word that requires an umlaut (a little pair of dots appearing over the ä, ö and ü) must have the dots or it is considered misspelled.

Opera is an international art form. If you are spelling the names of performers from other countries or titles of operas and songs, you will encounter many unfamiliar diacritical marks that must be used to render that name correctly. Here’s a small sampling of  some of the proper nouns I’ve encountered while writing this blog that require special accents:

  • Plácido Domingo
  • La bohème
  • Elīna Garanča
  • Leoš Janáček

And many, many more. You get the idea.

If I had to toggle back and forth to a word processing insert feature to find the proper mark required for each use and then insert each mark, I would never be able to work as quickly as I do. Because of Google’s search engine capacity, I simply type in a reasonable facsimile of the name in quesion, and voilà! Dozens of hits pop up with the correct marks already inserted. When I find two or three that use the same set of marks, I assume they are correct. Then  I merely cut and paste from the Google link and have a properly spelled name.

Now, I’m not claiming you’ll never see a misspelled word on this blog. Precisely because opera is an international community, I face more spelling challenges writing for this blog than I have writing any previous blogs.  But thanks to Google, you’ll see more precision than I ever would be able to muster myself.


Filed under 21st Century Opera, Classic Opera, Classical Composers, Performers

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?  


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