Here and there – A Dream, the Storm and a Swan

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Mid Summer Night’s Dream in Melbourne in about 1971 caused quite a stir.  We were coming to the end of the time when we stood in awe of older foreign productions – and the RSC had rolled gold éclat.  Bright young things in the colonies could bank some cultural respectability by seeing Shakespeare performed by the people who invented him.  A little bit of snootiness in the night.

The snootiness went the other way when the Storm, a rugby league, team hit Melbourne in 1998.  ‘My dear boy.  You don’t understand.  Rugby, as played at School, is de rigeur.  But League is there for the diversion of thugs.’  Mining types in the north west of England, and working class Micks in the western suburbs of Sydney.  The snobbery was a wonder to behold.  ‘Wouldn’t do to mention it at the Club, old boy.’  In truth, there were some in Melbourne who wondered if anything warranting snobbery could come out of Sydney.

Well, I enjoyed it and I took to it – in part provoked by the snootiness of others.  The game had a simplicity and shortness that the AFL was losing.  And people outside Victoria don’t realise how many players were lost to interstate to help new AFL clubs open up.  I was at most home games of the Storm, and was rewarded with a flag in only our second year.  Since then there have been others, although officialdom did not appreciate our version of double entry accounting.

The club has been very well managed.  Its recruiting is such that we now act as a kind of feeder to rugby clubs.  But, among other things, I have had the benefit of watching three of the best footballers this country has produced – Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, and Greg Inglis.  And a Greek restaurant on Swan Street was perfect for before or after – or, as happened on one very long day, both.

You may need to make certain adjustments to meet the terms of the new milieu.  I once committed the faux pas of appearing on the terrace with a glass of wine in my hand.  The abuse was sufficient to get me to reverse course after a few steps.  At a mediation once, I was discussing matters of etiquette with John Brumby when he was Leader of the Opposition.  He said that he was going to the game and in a few hours’ time, he would have a glass of chardonnay in his hand.  I cautioned him.  ‘Don’t drink plonk, drink beer; if you have to drink plonk, get red; if you have to drink white, don’t in the name of Heaven call it chardonnay – you might start a bloody riot’.

It does you good to seek new outlets.  At about the time I started following the Storm, I got interested, vitally interested, in Formula One.  One reason was that I could see that Michael Schumacher was one of those once in a generation sportsmen who just tower over the rest.

But let me go back the Dream.  This RSC production helped me to slough off that resentment to texts that can be left over from having them forced down your neck at school.  The process began in the sixties when I sat up for two consecutive Sunday nights starting at 11 pm listening to Richard Burton as Hamlet have a Broadway crowd eating out of his hand.  For that and other reasons Richard Burton came to mean as much to me as Ronald Barassi – which is no small praise.  And as I had bought Bradley to consider Macbeth, I now did so for Hamlet.  And I have maintained my interest in that kind of scholarship – only Tony Tanner in my view matches Bradley.

It was at about the time I was starting to load up on Shakespeare that I came into contact with ballet.  For some reason, I went to see a small Russian company (from Novosibirsk) put on Swan Lake.  I fell for the theatre of it all, although there is a lot that could make a bloke very mawkish.  Then I saw a Russian group perform at the Palais de Danse in St Kilda.   Moisieva did The Dying Swan.  But people were there to see the man touted as the next Nureyev.  Mikael Baryshnikov came out.  And he ascended – and for a moment Newton’s laws of gravity were suspended.  The gasp of the whole audience was remarkable.  (I heard an echo of it last year for Anne-Sophie Mutter and, later, Jonas Kaufman – each a super nova.)

We used to take the girls to rehearsals of the Australian Ballet.  Then my interest was dampened by trips to Essendon each Saturday for ballet school.  I wrote many decisions in tax cases sitting in a Commodore, with Essendon supporters drifting by, while trying to juggle a dictaphone and a sausage roll.  When that all ended, so did my regular attendance at the theatre to see ballet.  Its place was taken by opera, but if I had to name my ten best nights at the theatre, I would want to include the ballets of Hunchback of Notre Dame that I saw in Paris and the Anna Karenin that I saw in Budapest.

A lot of this came back to me the other night in what has sometimes felt like a desolate isolation.  I watched a full Storm game for the first time in a while.  It was against the Rabbitohs – than whom it would hard to envisage a more NRL side.  Slater and Inglis are long gone, but Smith is still there, and there is a guy called Cameron Munster, who is up there with the best.  He is wiry and incredibly strong and resilient.  He was, according to the press, a rough nut who had a problem with the bottle.  The Storm does not put up with that kind of stuff, and Munster looks now to be the complete package.  If I had to nominate an AFL equivalent, it would be Diesel Williams.  Munster was involved in two tries each of which was worth the price of admission.  He is very, very hard to stop.

The game fell between two sides of the CD set of Benjamin Britten’s Dream.  The CDs had just arrived.  I could recall seeing it in rehearsal at the AO with my older daughter when she was still at school.  We had thought that the music was a bit strong – modern – for us, but we had nearly had a seizure laughing at the mechanicals doing their play.  This was a time when the Australian Opera was taking risks and putting on great shows.  The play was set in the Raj and the orchestra was on stage in a rotunda.  This was one of the best shows I have seen.

Since then I have become very at home with Britten’s music and I have seen and listened to Peter Grimes and Billy Budd on many occasions.  I had rung the OA artistic director, Moffatt Oxenbould, to ask him which opera I should see on a trip to London, and he had recommended Billy Budd.  He said it was a good idea to hear an opera in my own language for a change.  That was very good advice, and Billy Budd is now among my favourite operas.  So is Peter Grimes.  So, on this hearing, I had no trouble adjusting to the style of music.  It is a very engaging opera to listen to.   After all, the guy who wrote the original script did know how to put on a show.

A musical starring fairies may not be every Storm supporter’s go, but there you are.  (And the countertenor may be a bit much for the boys on the terraces.  Especially those who saw Farinelli.   And heard the crowd shout ‘Long live the blade!’)   As it happened, a DVD of Swan Lake starring Natalia Makarova had arrived at my home on the same day.  I just played Act II, and that part of Act III where she does the fouettés.  There must be something in the make-up or training of Russian ballerinas that enables them to radiate that supple sinuousness from the midpoint of their shoulder blades to the tips of their fingers.  It is as if they are taking flight.  It is very eerie theatre.  It is now nearly fifty years since I saw and marvelled at Moisieva, but that magic still hangs in the air.  (Although I did incline to the view that the second cygnet on the left did look to be verging on the plump.)

Well, there may seem to be worlds of difference between Munster, Bottom and Makarova – but I am entertained by all of them, and they have at least one thing in common – after all the bluster, puffing, money and hype – someone has to get out there and lay it all on the line.  It’s then that you get the alchemy of live drama and established ritual.  And community – or, if you prefer, communion.

While putting this note together, two boxes finally arrived after I had ordered them at the start of the lock-down.  One was a box of ten instalments of Ken Burns on Jazz.  The other was the complete Arkangel set of Shakespeare’s thirty-eight plays.  When I was living in South Yarra, and working at 101 Collins Street, the half hour walk each way would let me get through all the plays in about four months.  The process was edifying.

It’s sad that so many people are cowed by their ignorance or by the felt shadow of hierarchy or, God help us, blokiness, into not at least trying to come to terms with so much that is on offer and available at home for next to nothing and with a level of performance and reproduction that our parents could barely have dreamed of.  Without Shakespeare or football, cricket or opera, golf or theatre, the Olympics or the novel, I cannot think what my life may have been like.  And that’s before we get to wine and food.

It’s as if we all lived in a house that had rear windows with their blinds down behind which you could see Everest, Iguazzu Falls, the Grand Canyon and the Bungle Bungles – and people are too frightened to step outside.  They are even too scared just to lift up the bloody blinds.  If I might use an epithet that is comfortably within the spelling range of the President of the United States, that is SAD.  Downright bloody sad.



[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



His Music, Life and Times

George Martin

London, Macmillan, 1965; rebound in green cloth with the title VERDI blocked on the spine in yellow; yellow slip case.

In the course of this comprehensive but very readable biography, George Martin refers to a remark of Goldoni, the Venetian playwright, about life in Milan in the eighteenth century: ‘La mattina una messetta, l’apodnisar una bassetta, la sera una donnetta.’  ‘A little mass in the morning; a little cards in the afternoon; a little woman in the evening.’  There is something gratifyingly Italian about all that – like spaghetti, Ferrari, or Zegna.  Or Verdi.  His preferred game after lunch was billiards.  In this he took after Mozart, although we may doubt whether this preference was exclusive.  Giuseppe Verdi (‘Joseph Green’) was nothing if not Italian, and Anglo-Saxons may take leave to doubt whether Latins devoted their entire siesta to resting.

Opera was born in Italy, and we like to see it as an Italian art form.  In the first half of the 19th century, Italian opera was sustained by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti.  In the second half of that century, the scene was dominated by Verdi.

Verdi was deeply involved in the endeavours to unite Italy, and he became greatly loved as embodying the voice of Italy.  Through works such as Rigoletto, La Traviata, A Masked Ball, Aida, Falstaff and Otello, he dominated Italian opera from 1845 until his death in 1901.  He wrote nearly thirty operas and he gave to Italian music and opera the kind of identity that Wagner did for the Germans.

Verdi had trouble with the censors, but he followed the advice of Beaumarchais who said that ‘What is too dangerous to say in words can be sung in music’.  His operas spoke directly and movingly to the Italian people who chanted ‘Viva Verdi’.  Operas like Aida, Rigoletto, Don Carlos and The Force of Destiny were obviously inspired by a loathing of inequality and oppression.  For about half a century, Verdi was the voice of all that was universal and generous in what was becoming one Italian nation.  Italy was unified, and when Verdi died, the whole nation mourned.

Verdi was born to parents who owned a tavern in a village close to Busseto in the Parma region of northern Italy.  Shortly after he was born, Russian troops committed an atrocity in the local church of San Michele.  The mother of Verdi hid with Giuseppe in the bell tower and survived unharmed, but the incident left its marks.  The family was poor, but the young boy showed talent with music – which failed to get him to pass the entrance exam for the conservatory at Milan.  He took private lessons and got some work in conducting, and he then got the job of director of the Philharmonic Society at Busetto.  He married and then moved north to submit his first opera which has survived to the management at La Scala.  He became known for being single-minded and for getting straight to the point.  With help from a young soprano called Giuseppina Strepponi, La Scala accepted his unsolicited offering and Oberto, which is not offered now, was a success.  La Scala offered Verdi a contract for a further three operas.

In 1840, the deaths of his son, daughter and wife sent him into a depression.  He wrote a bad comic opera, but in 1842 he produced Nabucco.  It is a biblical tale with a political message that was just right for the people of Italy at that time.  The Slaves’ Chorus spoke directly to the needs of the Italian people, and this opera secured the fame of Verdi throughout Italy.  In the next eight years, he composed thirteen operas, most of them tragic and nearly all historical on commission from Milan, Rome, Naples and Venice.  He had begun living with Strepponi, and they would marry in 1859 in a relationship that lasted for half a century.  She was the ideal companion for a man who could be blunt and without humour.

In 1851 he produced Rigoletto, an opera based on a story by Victor Hugo, and it was followed by Il Trovatore and La Traviata.  He was now internationally famous and he became very wealthy.  He was obsessed with Shakespeare.  Macbeth was an early opera, but Otello and Falstaff are among his most mature masterpieces.

My attitude to Falstaff has changed over the years.  This character is from The Merry Wives of Windsor and is quite unlike the ultimately unlovely hero of King Henry IV Parts I and II.  Some might then see this opera as lightweight.  A stunning performance by the AO a few years back and constant replaying have made this opera now my favourite.  This for me is music drama at its most evolved.  Wagner claimed to have written a comedy in opera – Die Meistersinger.  Some time ago I was offered two of the best seats in the house for this work.  I declined them.  My back can no longer take that kind of punishment, and ‘comedy’ does not trip lightly off the lips with Wagner.  As Mr Martin reminds us, the whole of Falstaff takes less time in performance than the last act of Die Meistersinger.

The most famous and wealthy composer in the world set up a retirement home for musicians in Milan funded by his huge royalties.  He died of a stroke in 1901.  He had prescribed for his funeral ‘One priest, one candle, one cross’ but it became an occasion for national mourning.  A huge orchestra, conducted by Toscanini, played at the burial grounds.  A quarter of a million people attended the procession.  They sang the Slaves’ Chorus from Aida.

For sustained production and popularity, only Mozart, Wagner and Puccini can come close to Verdi.  He managed to blend drama and melody and his mature works gave opera a whole new direction.  About a dozen of those are still in constant circulation.  He had a natural ear for melody, and some of his greatest music can remind you of listening to a village band playing in an Italian village rotunda.  From Rigoletto onwards, Verdi was able to devise melodies that were striking and that expressed the deepest emotions without sacrificing what sounds like simple tunefulness.  Opera covers a broad range of art, but no one else ever sounded like Giuseppe Verdi.

One biographer of Verdi said this:

What, then, remains in his work if the ephemera of time and place are drained away?

First, the potential nobility of man.  In his early and middle years, Verdi saw men and women risking life and personal happiness to further an ideal, and in his operas he celebrated them, holding them up as models to be copied.  In La Traviata, Verdi wept for Violetta, but he presents her decision in her circumstances as right.  His operas, though with artistic restraint, are didactic: they urge men and women to be noble.

As a corollary, however, his work throughout sounds a constant note of melancholy.  Life, he suggests, is hard, happiness fleeting, and to death the only certainty.  He never pretends in his call for generous, noble actions that these do not often end in suffering, but offers them as the best response to death.

Sir Isaiah Berlin wrote a paper called The Naiveté of Verdi.  In it, he said:

Noble, simple, with a degree of unbroken vitality and vast natural power of creation and organisation, Verdi is the voice of a world which is no more.  His enormous popularity among the most sophisticated as well as the most ordinary listeners today is due to the fact that he expressed permanent states of consciousness in the most direct terms, as Homer, Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Tolstoy have done. 

George Martin says:

…..he was above all the composer of the human heart, of love and grief, despair and joy, the simplest human emotions.  With the magic of his music, he had touched depths of feeling often unsuspected in those who listened, and by it had declared to them the universality of their human condition.  For many who had been surprised to tears for Violetta, or lured to sympathy for Rigoletto, he had literally stretched the bounds of their humanity.  To be alive, to be loved, he seemed to say, was to suffer; and in the largeness of his understanding and compassion, as D’Annunzio wrote in a famous memorial ode, ‘He wept and loved for all.’

Well, people have for centuries said much the same thing about the English playwright whom Verdi revered as a god, and who gave to Verdi the scheme of three of his greatest operas.  Anyone who can make any kind of contribution to our feeling sane deserves our reverence.

Here and there -An Italian Composer and an English Playwright


Nearly twenty years ago, I attended the first of what would be many summer schools at Cambridge or Oxford.  It was at Oxford and the subject was Verdi and Shakespeare.  The tutor was a very entertaining musician who played the tuba.  According to my notes – which are far more extensive than those for later courses – George Bernard Shaw said that Othello was the only tragedy written as grand opera.  I well remember our analysis of the last act of Otello.  The tutor detected an application of the Golden Ratio (or Rule), or the Fibonacci Principle, in the last act.  My notes say a: b; b: a + b.  The numerical progression is, I think, 0, 1, 1, 3, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, and 55.  That is how a pine cone is shaped.  It is hard to explain but easy enough to see in the layout of a Jeffrey Smart painting.  The question was: did Verdi consciously apply this ratio, or was this just an illustration of his native genius?  You will be happy to learn that we settled on the latter – possibly because we were struggling to understand the ratio itself.  As for Shaw’s remark, it sounds bright enough, but what does it signify?

Verdi read Shakespeare mostly in translation.  He venerated the playwright as a god.  He based three of his operas on the plays.

The first was Macbeth and that was composed before the full flowering of Verdi’s artHe thought that Macbeth was ‘one of mankind’s greatest creations.’  He wrote to London to find out how Banquo’s ghost was normally brought on stage.  He sketched out the opera and he usually left the orchestration until rehearsals.  Then at the ripe age of thirty-four, Verdi nearly drove his leads mad rehearsing the duet in the first act more than one hundred and fifty times.  It had to be more spoken than sung.  He behaved like a theatrical tyrant and well before Wagner, he had begun a revolution in the staging of opera.

In his biography, George Martin said that ‘Verdi is ‘unique in the roles he gave to baritones, and in a sense he created the voice.’

There was of course much in the opera that was exactly as expected.  There was a conspirators’ chorus, this time of assassins gathering to kill Banquo; a patriotic chorus of Scottish exiles which, as always, aroused great enthusiasm; and some jiggy witches’ music….To modern ears these parts of the opera sound dated and incongruous beside the more dramatic writing.  And if this mixture of styles kept Macbeth from being as great as Rigoletto or La Traviata, both of which came after it and were more of a piece, it probably also made it possible for the opera, as a very early venture into dramatic writing to survive at all.

But when someone accused Verdi of not knowing Shakespeare, he said:

Perhaps I did not render Macbeth well, but….Shakespeare is one of my favourite poets.  I have had him in my hands since my earliest childhood and I read and re-read him continually.

Verdi had predicted that Macbeth would be a triumph and it was.  The locals were astonished at its despair and ferocity.  In Italy it was known ‘l’opera senza amore’ – the loveless opera.

Otello was written toward the end of Verdi’s life – after the death of Wagner.  Verdi admired the German, but he resisted the ‘infection’ of an Italian art form by ‘Germanism.’  He spent almost two years working on it.  It was to be his first new opera in sixteen years and widely thought to have been his last.  By cutting the first act of the play, Boito (the librettist) could set the entire action in Cyprus and make each act follow its predecessor almost exactly in time.

Not unusually, Verdi had trouble with his leads.  One tiff with the title role led Verdi to write a note to the conductor which reminded me of what I felt driven to say occasionally to counsel for the Crown in tax cases – ‘Do you think that you might persuade the tenor to perform something approximating to what has been laid down?’  We are told that the choice for Desdemona was not ideal, but that the conductor had an interest in her that was not exclusively musical.

The disintegration of Otello is ruthlessly presented – this is what makes both the play and the opera so difficult for some of the more squeamish of us to follow.  Verdi’s Desdemona is firmer and more modern.  When in the play Othello calls her false, she replies ‘To whom, my lord, with whom?  How am I false?’  In the opera she replies ‘I am honest’ and the stage direction is ‘looking firmly at him.’  For all I know, they may have had in mind the question that Hamlet posed to Ophelia, but there is a bit of #MeToo there.

Although the composition was very novel in many respects, Verdi made use of Italian operatic idioms, such as the storm scene, the victory chorus and the drinking song.  Nowadays someone would mumble some nonsense about bums on seats, but the consensus is and always has been that this work of art is a masterpiece.

Throughout his career, Verdi had to put up with censors – and idiots.  People said that an opera seria had to have a happy ending.  So, Verdi had to write a version where Desdemona persuades the Moor of her innocence.  Well, some drongo would do the same to King Lear.  We should not be surprised when fresh insults are offered all the time to the art of the greatest playwright the world has seen.  It’s like putting a fig leaf or condom on the David of Michelangelo, or some pink lippy on the Mona Lisa – select your own location.  Or – how would you like it if you rocked up to a concert of a late Beethoven string quartet, and the band turned up in black shirts, jackboots, Storm trackies – and tats?  Where is the moral right of the artist to be immune from this form of desecration?

The premiere was of course an event.  Tout le monde was there.  A nineteen year old from Parma played the second cello.  He was so moved that when he got home, he woke up his mother, told her that Otello was a masterpiece, got her out bed, and insisted that she kneel beside him and repeat ‘Viva Verdi.’  That young man was Arturo Toscanini.  The Italians, like all of us, can get a lot wrong, but there is a continuing thread to their gift of opera to the world.

The final opera was Falstaff.  Rossini had fed blood to a tiger when he said that ‘Verdi was incapable of writing a comic opera.’  Verdi spent years on the project, trying to keep it secret.  Although in his eightieth year, Verdi spent hours each day at rehearsals.  He reduced the opera to two episodes.  He conducted the first night.  It was at La Scala, with which Verdi had had at best an off and on relationship, and it was hailed as another masterpiece.  As someone correctly said, the whole cast is the star of Falstaff.

My attitude to Falstaff has changed over the years.  This character is mainly from The Merry Wives of Windsor and is quite unlike the ultimately unlovely hero of King Henry IV Parts I and II  – although Verdi did bring in parts of the speeches in the history plays.  Some might then see this opera as lightweight.  A stunning performance by the AO a few years back and constant replaying have made this opera now my favourite.  This for me now is music drama at its most evolved.  Eat your heart out, Waggers.

Wagner had claimed to have written a comedy in opera – Die Meistersinger.  Some time ago I was offered two of the best seats in the house to hear this work.  I declined them.  My back can no longer take that kind of punishment, and ‘comedy’ does not trip lightly off the lips with ‘Wagner’.  As Mr Martin reminds us, the whole of Falstaff takes less time in performance than the last act of Die Meistersinger.

As for recordings, if you don’t mind Lady Macbeth stealing the show – and I don’t in either the play (Harriet Walter completely changed the way I see it) or the opera – then the live La Scala 1952 recording with Callas and de Sabata is the go.  For Otello,  the RCA boxed set of Toscanini has his 1947 recording with Ramon Vinay, who was said to be the Otello, but I prefer the 1955 version of Serafin with Vickers and Gobbi – Jon Vickers had a power in his voice that young people would call awesome.  For Falstaff you must get the 1956 Karajan with Gobbo and Schwarzkopf.  Kant would have called it ‘transcendental.’

On many occasions, Verdi longed to try King Lear.   He believed that sixteenth century Elizabethan drama was very close to nineteenth century Italian opera.  There is oratorical blood and thunder, aria-like soliloquies, a storm scene, a mad scene, and the trumpets of royalty.  What more could he ask for?  Mascagni asked him why he had not gone ahead with this opera.  Verdi closed his eyes and replied slowly and softly: ‘The scene in which King Lear finds himself on the heath terrified me.’  That was wise.  Too many directors are not scared enough.  In truth, the maestro knew the limitations of his art.  When his second wife died, Verdi said:

Great grief does not demand great expression; it asks for silence, isolation, I would even say the torture of reflection.  There is something superficial about all exteriorization; it is a profanation.

Plato would have been pleased.

Why opera 9 – and Epilogue


So what?

Some years back, now, when my personal life was in turmoil, I took off for my usual bolt-holes in the sticks.  I was stationary in traffic at Port Fairy with the window down.  A guy lent across, and the following conversation took place.

Are you OK mate?

Sure, mate, is there a problem?

You’re bawling your bloody eyes out, mate!

Shit.  It must be the weather.  But thanks.

I was not aware of the tears, but the cause of the emotion just then, in an otherwise emotional time, was that I was right in the heart of Leb wohl toward the end of Die Walkure.  Getting a fading Anglo-Saxon emotional enough to shed a tear is no bad thing.  And that is a large part of what we have been talking about – awakening emotions by art, the art of the composer and the art of the performer.

We have come some way from the tableaux of Orfeo to Jack the Ripper closing out the heroine in Lulu.  As in all exercises in history, we are at risk of distorting our perspective because we have the advantage of hindsight.  It is worth setting out the views on Orfeo of John Eliot Gardiner, the founder of the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra, at some length.

Claudio Monteverdi, amazingly, provided all of these missing elements in the very first through–composed work for the stage… He recognised that the hitherto unexploited potential of what the Florentines called the ‘new music’ was to allow the singer’s voice to fly free above an instrumental base line, giving just the right degree of harmonic support and ballast… The radicalism of L’Orfeo may not be fully recognised by audiences even today.  In an age when the emotional life of human beings was becoming a topic of the utmost fascination – with philosophers and playwrights trying to define the role of passions in human destiny, and with painters as varied as Velazquez, Caravaggio and Rembrandt all intent on betraying the inner life of men and women – Monteverdi stood head and shoulders above the contemporary musicians in the consistent way he explored and developed musical themes of ‘imitation’ and ‘representation’.  We now refer to L’Orfeo as an opera and think of it as the beginning of the genre; but that is because we are looking at it backwards via the perspective of Wagner or Verdi.  To Monteverdi, it was a… fable in music…

Then let us recall what it may have been like when opera was in its prime in its birthplace – Italy.  This is how the celebrated French novelist Stendhal describes a typical Rossini premiere at a minor Italian opera house in the early nineteenth century.

The maestro takes his seat at the piano.  The house is packed with people who have poured in from twenty miles around.  Some folk are so fascinated that they are more or less camping in their coaches in the middle of the streets; all the inns have been full since the day before…

The overture begins, and you could hear a pin drop.  When it is over, the auditorium explodes with excitement, with shouts of praise up to the very heavens, with incessant whistling and roaring…

Each aria of the new opera is listened to in complete silence, and then received with the same astonishing uproar.  Not even the howling of a wrathful sea can give you an idea of the racket.  You can hear the audience appraising both the singers and the composer.  They shout ‘Bravo Davide, bravo Pisaroni’; or else the whole house will resound to the cries of ‘Bravo maestro!’  Rossini rises from his place at the piano, his handsome face looking grave, which is not at all characteristic.  He bows three times as the applause washes over him, deafening him with adulation.  Then the performance continues with the next item.

Rossini himself is at the piano for the first three performances of a new opera, after which he receives his fee of seventy sequins (Fr.800), participates in a splendid farewell faced hosted by his new friends – the whole town, in other words – and then sets off in his carriage ready to go through the same rigmarole forty miles from here in a neighbouring town.

There’s no snootiness there.  It is all so Italian, yet it sounds a little like the English at soccer or the Spaniards at a bullfight – or some Lutheran Germans in a church.  John Eliot Gardiner spoke of Thuringia (a part of Germany) after Luther’s time when even the smallest parish church had its own pipe organ framed by a curved choir gallery where local craftsmen or farmers could sing during the service.  He spoke of doing a cantata concert in the town of Eisenach on Easter Day 2000.  The pastor invited Gardiner and members of his choir and orchestra to lead part of the singing.  In the middle of the Mass, they were suddenly joined in the organ choir by a group of local farmers who sang a short litany in Thuringian dialect and then left.  It’s a great story.  From any other source, I would be inclined to doubt it.

But to go back to Stendhal on Rossini, the point is that if you draw a line from Rossini’s Barber of Seville through Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Verdi’s Masked Ball to Puccini’s Tosca the composers and then the performers were engaged in giving the ordinary people of Italy a good night out.  They would have thought that you were at best absurd and at worst mad if you had accused them of engaging in snootiness.

Now come forward to today.  We are I think about as well served with singers for opera as we were in the past.  We are better served with theatres and production facilities than before.  But – we are not finding composers of the first rank or with immediate appeal; communal participation in making music is far less prevalent than it was before; jazz has become stagnant; and what passes for ‘popular’ music is a sterile form of bromide that is made purely for money – it might remind some of what some Anglican divines pronounced about sex outside of marriage.  They said it could be ‘trivially pleasurable and mildly therapeutic.’

There is then a risk of putrefaction in opera – especially if we cannot throw off the ‘snooty’ tag.

As ever in art, it depends on your point of view.  It is in the ear as well as the eye of the audience.  As with say, sports, you may find that performing musicians may well have a very different view about the merits of a composer or piece of music than a musically illiterate fan like me.  You may well find some who say Beethoven is to be preferred to Mozart, a proposition that would strike many opera-goers as at best risible and at worst blasphemous.  I have tried to explain my misgivings about Wagner.  There is one thing that can be said in his favour.  Angela Merkel, whom I greatly admire, is a fan.  She loves those big long shows.  I gather that Frau Merkel is not inclined to bruit this about – not because Waggers was a ratbag or a fascist, but because such taste might be regarded as snooty.  Sadly, too many Wagner fanatics lend weight to that impression.  Two things may be said of Bayreuth.  They don’t mind the snooty tag; not at all.  And I will never set foot in it.

And we English speakers live in a nether world most of the time in opera.  We get most of it in Italian, which is said to be the language best suited to this art form.  But there is a lot to be said for hearing an opera in your own language.  That’s primarily what a lot of them were written for.  About thirty years ago, I was faced with a choice in London between Billy Budd and La Bohème.  I rang Moffatt Oxenbould at the AO and I asked him for his opinion.  Since I called him cold, it was very good of him to take the call.  He gave me very good advice that I can still recall.  He said that the Bohème was imported and stale, but that there were two things in favour of Billy Budd for me.  It was so soon after its creation that they hadn’t had time yet to mongrelise it (my language) and that it would do me good to see an opera in my own language for a change.

Always spare a thought for the next most important artist after the composer.  They have to protect their voice at all times, so you may see them wearing a scarf in even mild weather.  Their fear is that their voice – their livelihood if not their life – may just fail.  They have to be careful that they don’t aim too high and overtax their voice.  Melba only tried Brunnhilde once.  She said ‘I’ve been a fool’ and it took her months to get over it.  And then there are nerves and stage fright.

Rosa Ponzillo was born in Connecticut in 1897 into a typical first generation Italian immigrant family.  She got interested in singing and she wanted to take Melba as her saint’s name.  She did vaudeville with her sister and they toured with people like George Burns, Jack Benny and the Marx brothers.  They made the phenomenal amount of $3000 a week in vaudeville.  Then Caruso spotted her.  Rosa Ponselle, as she would become, did a crash course in opera.  She was to begin with Caruso in La Forza del Destino at the MetThen she had a frightful attack of nerves.  She was physically dragged to the opera house.  In his book Prima Donna, A history, Rupert Christiansen says:

When she finally reached the wings, she looked pleadingly to Caruso for encouragement, only to find him in as bad a state as she was.  No two singers on record communicate a greater sense of spontaneous technical mastery than Ponselle and Caruso; no two singers suffered more agonies of uncertainty before a performance.  And Forza is not easy for anyone, even a Ponselle.

The New York Times said she was ‘vocal gold’ as well as beautiful.  But this was a very cruel way to blood such a young woman, and in some ways she never recovered.  Ponselle had limpid Latin eyes and she was achingly beautiful.  Just look at the photos of her as she started, not absurdly kitted out for Norma, but as the drop-dead gorgeous Latin migrant girl.  On the first night of Norma in 1927, her ‘Casta Diva’ halted the show for several minutes.  She gave up the stage in 1937 after an indifferent Carmen.  She had recently married, and she was still afflicted by nerves.  Even divas are human.

‘She had a string of romances and was known to enjoy herself uninhibitedly.’  That proposition of Rupert Christiansen may be a very discreet way of describing one way to beat nerves and to relax.

The critic J B Steane said ‘I daresay that if some (absurd) nomination were proposed for ‘Soprano of the Century’, Ponselle would vie with the title with Callas.’  After Ponselle died, Steane visited her home in Maryland in 1982.  It was being kept as a kind of shrine.

….the front door opened to the living sound of a dead voice familiar to me since childhood.  Rosa, as though in person, sang Auld Lang Syne.  For a moment, it was hard to believe she was not there.  I never heard such good reproduction in the house again, but this was as to life.  It forbade a normal exchange of greetings and introductions.  As we were about to speak, there came a phrase in the legendary pianissimo, and a moment later another in that incomparable low register, so that words again failed, and the heart fairly turned over.

That is the kind of devotion that some singers inspire, but for a time in New York nearly one hundred years ago (it was 1918), descendants of two Italian migrant families, Enrico Caruso and Maria Ponselle, were on stage together performing Verdi.  Each is considered by many to be the greatest ever of their kind, but each was a nervous wreck before the show opened.  The new world was taking on from the old world.  And if you wonder why Steane was so moved by the sound of the voice, listen to the divine Rosa Ponselle sing Ave Maria, the Verdi (Othello) version in 1924, and the Bach/Gounod version in 1926.  It is distilled beauty – to both the eye and the ear – and a joy forever.

But there is a price.  Ponselle never got over her attacks of nerves.  She retired from the stage at a very early age – but in 1947, ‘the supreme alchemist’ or ‘the dramatic soprano of the century’ ended up in an asylum for four months and spent one of them receiving electric shock therapy.  She recovered and lived happily until 1981. The scars were there – but so were the triumphs.  This is how the distinguished critic Ernest Newman of The Sunday Times described her debut season at Covent Garden in 1929.

Not only is her voice one of great beauty but she has the art of making it convey every nuance of the mind without it ever for a moment losing its pure singing quality.  It is a curious voice in some ways, with contralto timbre in its lowest register, yet a real high soprano up above.  She is not only a mistress of coloratura technique in the abstract but has the rare gift of making coloratura dramatic and psychological.  Sung as she sings it, we begin to have an inkling of what it was in the old coloratura that made it, for our ancestors, not a mere vain vocal display but the carrier of all sorts of shades of dramatic meaning.

What these performers do is to give us the drama of the performance in itself, and that is an integral part of a night out at the opera – or at the concert hall or at the theatre.  And without conceding one inch to snootiness, a night at the opera partakes of ritual in a way that our church-denying way of life cries out for.  It’s all very well for intellectuals and others to talk about the death of God, but they haven’t as yet found any replacement.  Major sporting events here carry a form of ritual, but a lot of us need a lot more – and I find it hard to think of a better place to look for it than in the opera house when the show is running.  It’s just that opera is much more a general part of peoples’ lives in, say, Italy and Germany than it is here.  My sense is that government subsidies there make it possible for great opera houses to make cheap places available for those who are not so well paid.  That might mean that they are in some ways just a bit more mature than us.  Well, the   truth is that they have been at it for longer.

The trick for you is to take opera at your own time and space.  Whether you want to go the opera house or just listen at home is a matter for you.  For most of the operas we have looked at, you can watch more than one version at home for nothing.  Most of my opera time is spent on just listening.  I could happily watch The Flying Dutchman again on the stage, but I do not think I could endure again any of the big ones of Wagner, and I absolutely reject Tristan and Parsifal, the first on medical grounds, the second on moral grounds.

The editor of The Oxford Dictionary of Opera says that when he is going to a doubtful venue, he gets a ticket on the aisle so that he can take off without offence.  That’s good advice.  At my first Ring, I went to the Flinders Ranges between Rheingold and Siegfried.  As a result, I missed the first act of the latter.  That was a good result, although some snooty people were put out.  The next time, I went back to the Flinders Ranges and I skipped the whole of Siegfried.  That was an even better result.  One of the big problems with the Ring is that Siegfried is a bloody idiot who takes too bloody long to die.  (The secretary of the Adelaide Club was thrilled to get my ticket.)  Now, I often leave at the end of the first or second act of other operas.  It is a habit that I got into living in Richmond and following the Storm.  With Bohème now, I would probably leave after Act I.

There is no call to express shock or horror.  It’s what suits you – provided that you don’t offend others.  And I have what lawyers call authority.  Here is the English conductor Sir Adrian Boult on sitting through Wagner.

I ran into Dame Ethel in the street during a Munich Festival: ‘You are the man I’m looking for; you’ve got to come and dine with me at the theatre restaurant tonight during the second act of Walkure; all the Walters are coming.’[This was a reference to the distinguished conductor, Bruno Walter.]

It happened that I had come a very long way to hear and see the second act of Walkure, among other things, but my hesitation was promptly sat on, and I joined a most hilarious and happy party.  Karl Muck was conducting, and Bruno Walter was having a night off, enjoying himself.  We felt particularly superior when the audience all rushed frantically out for beer and sandwiches in the second interval, while we had dined comfortably and could go leisurely back for the third act.

Then I learned a lesson; I thought I knew that act well, but I heard much in it that I had never heard before, and I decided then and there that to concentrate on two acts of Wagner was enough for any one evening, and I have always tried to escape one act, whatever the cost, ever since.

That is good advice from someone who is competent to provide that advice, and I have been both happy and better off for having followed it.  Remember this – Mark Twain thought that one act was enough, but I bet that they wouldn’t have had the nerve to try wagging school on at Bayreuth.

One way to start would be by getting collections on disk of some of the big hitters, past and present.  That way you get to hear songs you will never hear in the opera house, like the gorgeous ‘Amor te vieta’.  The record companies throw these at you, as they do boxed sets of operas by one composer or performed by one singer or under one conductor.  ABC FM offers an Opera Hour where you can hear from the past and what is going on now.

There are libraries of books, but one stands out way above the rest – J B Steane’s Singers of the Century, volumes 1, 2, and 3.  Steane writes beautifully and he composes his vignettes so as to reveal to us the heart of his subject.  He is to opera what The New Yorker’s Witney Bailliett was to jazz.  Each of them almost does the impossible and describes music in words.  Here is Steane on Di Stefano:

…Di Stefano was a summertime singer.  He came to us with his great talent, his youth and promise, just as civilisation was starting to breathe again after the Second World War.  In the 1950’s when Maria Callas became the sun goddess of opera, Di Stefano stood very close …if Tito Gobbi stands to one side of her in the photograph album of that summertime, on the other side is Giuseppe di Stefano…. ‘It was as though every part of him was voice….and you felt that if you heard it a little bit longer, you’d have enough energy built up inside you to last a lifetime.’  That was the effect the young Giuseppe di Stefano had upon his listeners: it is the special gift of the Italian tenor, and essentially it is the voice of youth.

That is beautiful writing.  This is how he concludes on Thomas Allen:

Yet here is the ‘true singer’, and method of some sort, there surely must be.  Whatever it is, it has worked like a charm and has made the art of singing seem an act of nature: which is probably as high a compliment as could be paid to any method yet devised.

Of Callas, he said that ‘she is instantly recognisable, and the recognition itself brings that frisson which is the tribute our instincts pay to genius’. He might have added that in this she may remind us of Louis Armstrong, but J B Steane was the ‘true writer.’  You might also enjoy his Voices, Singers and Critics.

Before we close, I may list the operas that we have looked at.  They are Orfeo, St Matthew Passion, Rinaldo, Xerxes, Orpheus and Eurydice, The Marriage of Figaro, Cossi fan Tutte, Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, The Italian Lady in Algiers, The Barber of Seville, Lucia di Lammermoor, Maria Stuarda, L’elisir d’amore, Norma, La Somnambula, I Pagliacci, Cavalleria Rusticana, La Traviata, Rigoletto, A Masked Ball, Don Carlos, Falstaff, The Pearl Fishers, Carmen, The Flying Dutchman, Tristan and Isolde, Parsifal, Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried, Gotterdammerung, La Bohème, Tosca, Madam Butterfly, Turandot, Salome, Der Rosenkavalier, Wozzek, Lulu, Jenufa, The Makropolous Case, Peter Grimes, Billy Budd and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I think the number is forty-five.  That could keep you going for a while.

We have listened to or noted the following performing artists in song: Thomas Allen, Luigi Alva, Victoria de los Angeles, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, Janet Baker, Cecilia Bartoli, Kathleen Battle, Carlos Bergonzi, Jussi Bjorling, Montserrat Caballé, Maria Callas, Enrico Caruso, Franco Corelli, Diana Damrau, Natalie Dessay, Joyce Didonato, Giuseppe di Stefano, Placido Domingo, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Renée Fleming, Juan Diego Florez, Mirella Freni, Elina Garanca, Nicolai Gedda, Alana Gheorghiu, Beniamino Gigli, Tito Gobbi, Miriam Gormley, Susan Graham, Thomas Hampson, David Hobson, Marilyn Horne, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Gundula Janowitz, Kiri Te Kanawa, Jonas Kaufman, Yvonne Kenny, Christa Ludwig, Catherine Malfitano, Emma Matthews, Susan Mentzer, Robert Merrill, Ann Murray, Anna Netrebko, Jessye Norman, Anne Sophie von Otter, Luciano Pavarotti, Peter Peers, Maria Ponselle, Lucia Popp, Leontyne Price, Graham Pushee, Christine Schafer, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Anja Silja, Elizabeth Soderstrum, Frederica von Stade, Joan Sutherland, Renata Tebaldi, Bryn Terfel, Jon Vickers,  and Rolando Villazon.

People have their favourites, in operas and performers, as they do in footy, but I hope you have got something from these works and these performers because, these works and performers are, with others, what I live by.

There is something dodgy or futile about top tens – wines, footballers, novels, or operas – J B Steane would have called them ‘absurd’.  But if I had to name a top ten now, it could be – The Marriage of Figaro, Cosi fan tutte, Don Giovanni, Rigoletto, Don Carlos, Falstaff, Die Walkure, Tosca, The Makropolous Case and Peter Grimes.  If you asked me next week, at least four of those may not be there.

To go back to the first chapter, and how we might take these works, I am equally happy with the Mozart and Verdi operas on the stage or on CD (except in winter).  I may watch one on film about once a year.  For reasons I have given, I don’t think I could endure all Die Walkure again on the stage.  I’m happy with any of my three CD versions of that opera or the Chéreau/Bayreuth DVD – but instead of skipping the second act, which is entertaining, I could skip the first half of the third act, which is banal – and which has been a little on the nose for some since Robert Duvall said ‘I just love the smell of napalm in the morning.’  Tosca really has to be seen on stage, although we are fortunate to have Callas and Gobbi on film.  With the two twentieth century operas, I can enjoy them equally in all three media.

I hope all that is catholic enough for you.  To continue pub talk about the all-time greats, you will know that I idolise Bjorling and Callas.  My other favourites include Giuseppe di Stefano, Carlo Bergonzi, Tito Gobbi, Katia Ricciarelli, Renata Tebaldi, and Christine Schafer.  If you asked me for the most electrifying moment for me on the stage, it was Katia Ricciarelli singing ‘Ave Maria’ from Otello.  The most hair-raising moment on disk?  Rosa Ponselle doing the same part about seventy years beforehand.  My favourite staging?  Midsummer Night’s Dream, Julius Caesar, The Makropolous Case and Falstaff, all by the AO.  And just to confirm my standing as a dodgy SNAG, if the categories of best staging and hair-raising moments were broadened to include ballet, my two favourites by some margin would be The Hunchback of Notre Dame in Paris and Anna Karenin in Budapest – each round about 1990.  Both were breathtaking.

What about an opera to go with a dinner – possibly pasta – and a bottle of red – possibly on the red and white table cloth.  Try one we haven’t mentioned yet – Bellini’s I Puritani.  It’s a good and simple plot about the eternal triangle and the conflict between love and duty.  It’s an ensemble piece for three leads and the chorus.  You know from beginning to end that this is Italian opera as it was meant to be seen and heard.  The tunes just keep coming.  You may not recognise one of them, but the reception at its premiere was such and so many numbers were encored that Bellini had to shorten it for the rest of the season.  So, there you have an ideal opera to go with the ideal meal – and that takes us back to where we started.

The Scottish philosopher, David Hume, said that reason is and always ought to be the slave of the passions.  Emotions mean more to us than ideas.  In our discussion here, we have been more interested in emotions than the intellect.  In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus reflected on the lovers’ account of the magic of the night, and how we might try to give shape to our emotions and our imaginings.  (‘A brow of Egypt’ probably means the face of a gypsy.)

More strange than true.  I never may believe

These ancient fables, nor their fairy toys.

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,

Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend

More than cool reason ever comprehends.

The lunatic, the lover and the poet

Are of imagination all compact.

One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,

That is the madman.  The lover, all as frantic,

Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.

The poet’s eye in a fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

And this alchemy is going on with no music yet – what might music add to the magic that enhances all our lives?

So, dear reader, brush off the checked table cloth, and perhaps send it to the cleaner for the red stains, but hold on to the red, and surrender again to the magic of musical drama.  And remember what the man said about Formula One – pump up the volume; even if the dog does raise his eyes.


A short note on Shakespeare and Mozart

One was English, the other was Austrian.  One was born in the 16th century (1564 –1616), and the other was born and died in the 18th century (1756 – 1791).  Both came from families that we would now describe as middle class, although the class system in Salzburg and Vienna may have been less mobile than that in London at the relevant times.

Unlike Shakespeare – at least as far as we know – Mozart was a child prodigy, both as a musician and as a composer, a kind of travelling freak show.  He was giving concerts at the age of five; he wrote his first symphony at the age of eight, and his first opera at the age of 12.  Many say that the mature Mozart appears in symphony 29 that he wrote when he was about 18.  If we go to Richard III or Henry IV Parts I and II as the flowering of the genius of Shakespeare in his early 30’s, then we may see that the life-span of each in his full creative power is not so different – say 20 years, or thereabouts.

It looks like Shakespeare was clearly spent as a dramatist before he died – not many now hold that view about Mozart.

Each was married and each was survived by a wife and two children.  The family line for each soon disappeared.  Infant mortality made a lottery out of all life.  Mozart and his wife lost four children, as had his parents.  That we ever got either Shakespeare or Mozart is down to the luck of the draw.

We know very little about Shakespeare and God, but we know that Mozart was a practising Catholic, who died in the faith, and a devout Freemason.  In truth we know a great deal about the life and thinking of Mozart, but next to nothing about either the life or thoughts of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare was comfortably off financially and socially.  Mozart was never financially secure, and to modern eyes he was shown a lack of respect by the ancien regime of the Hapsburgs that we find deeply shocking – not least because music was a lot more respectable in Vienna than theatre was in London at the relevant times.

Mozart was brought up to travel around Europe, including London, from a very young age.  ‘Without travel, one is a miserable creature.’  We don’t know if Shakespeare ever left England, but we do know that he liked setting plays in Europe, including Vienna, and that he was about the least provincial person ever born.

Shakespeare wrote 38 plays.  Mozart wrote 22 operas, but his composition outside of opera was far, far greater than Shakespeare’s poetry outside his dramas.

You could get an argument about whether Mozart’s innovations were more revolutionary for his art than Shakespeare’s, but such an argument is sterile and irresolvable.  You may as well ask who has had the greater impact on our western sensibility.

What, then, did these two men have in common?

Each of them was a genius.

Each of them was a professional writer – both wrote to make a living, to put a roof over the heads of the family and food on their table.  Or, as an American at Oxford said, he did it for the mortgage.

Each of them derived income, and I think the bulk of their income, as a performing artist.  Each of them first came to the notice of the public that way.  The primitive state of intellectual property law meant that neither of them was fairly rewarded for their compositions – their gift to posterity.  Shakespeare was fortunate that he found a more secure way to derive income from his business in the theatre.  He also looks to have suffered less from the whims and insults of patrons than Mozart.  (Remember ‘Too many notes’?)  It looks like Shakespeare was a much better manager of money than Mozart, but for the three operas he wrote with da Ponte – three of the greatest and most popular operas ever written – Mozart received a fixed sum that even then was little more than derisory.

Each of them was at least in part an impresario – each was in the business of entertaining people, and that meant anyone who could afford to pay to attend the performance of their work.  Neither was composing just for the better people.  Neither could afford to be exclusive, or to put their work beyond most people.  Each of them spent their working lives perfecting their craft.

We give our homage to these men of genius, but they did not hesitate to get their hands dirty in putting on their shows to entertain the public.  They had an immediate financial interest in honing their craft so that their work could attract the interest and money of as many as possible.  They needed the money to provide for their families.  Neither of these men could afford to be snooty.

Each of these is called a genius because of the astonishing quality, volume, and range of their work.

Accordingly, they can seem to us to be prodigal, and to be able to invest a passing moment with a level of transcendent beauty that lesser artists would die for.  One example is the trio near the end of the first act of Don Giovanni (Protegga il giusto cielo – preferably by Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Joan Sutherland and Luigi Alva). Another is the ‘Gentleman’ in the fourth act of King Lear who reported on the reaction of Cordelia to the return of her father:

……patience and sorrow strove

Who should express her goodliest.  You have seen

Sunshine and rain at once; her smiles and tears

Were like a better way: those happy smilets

That played on her right lip seemed not to know

What guests were in her eyes, which parted thence

As pearls from diamonds dropped.

Throwaway lines like that can send us mortals clean out of our minds.

Each of these artists was prepared to stand up for women and against the establishment, at least through their work, when going too far could have been career threatening, or worse.  While the subversive tendencies of The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni are well known, opera goers who only know Falstaff through Verdi only know the Neighbours version.  The real thing is at least as anti-establishment as Figaro.

The work of each has the two hallmarks of classics – the respect for the work is timeless and universal.

Neither appears to have suffered from the egoism of Wagner or the prickliness of Bach, Beethoven, or Ibsen.

Above all, the work of both continues to engross and enthral and shock us and to humble us in a way that somehow leaves us more at home with ourselves.  If art is a lyrical reflection on our humanity, it is hard to imagine any other artist having a greater claim on our trust and gratitude.  As someone said of one of them, it is like touching the face of God.

In short, these two guys were married men who plied their trade to support their families.  It’s just that they did it so marvellously that they will for ever be beyond our comprehension.  And for that relief, much thanks.


[That concludes Why opera?  Next week we will start a short history of the world.  Fittingly, it will be about one third of the length of the history of opera.  In uncertain times, we must maintain a sense of proportion.]

Why opera? 8


Twentieth century

John Eliot Gardiner, the conductor and musicologist and man for all seasons, is nothing if not an enthusiast.  In his wonderful book on Bach, he speaks of the Lutheran teaching that music is something for people to make and share.  Music is communal.  Bach’s cantatas were written for people to come together to sing. It serves to remind us that for the most part, the operas that we have been looking at may not have been by the people but they are of the people and for the people.  Wagner again looks to be the exception.  One criticism of Puccini was that he was too much for the people.  Well, a lot of that communion with the people was about to change in the period that we now come to.

We don’t think fondly or kindly of the last century.  The world saw two world wars, the depression, the Holocaust, and the atom bomb.  Then it saw half a century of sustained peace followed by the humiliation of the United States and the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Some optimists thought that history had reached the peak of its progress.  Any such optimism vanished early this century with a near miss on a repeat of the great depression from which we have not yet recovered, and which left capitalism only marginally more respected than socialism.  We have seen an erosion of faith in all pillars of our community, including what we call the arts.

In the first part of the twentieth century, we come to what is called modernism.  Picasso broke the mould in painting.  Diaghilev did the same in ballet.  Joyce wrote Ulysses and he would effectively dissolve in Finnegan’s Wake.  Eliot wrote The Waste Land.  It is not just that these people created what Robert Hughes called ‘the shock of the new’ – although it was a shock.  People remembered that when the impressionists arrived, some people could not see any pattern at all.  Rather, the point was that for the most part these revolutionary forms of art were only appreciated by a small minority in the community.  Had these works appealed to the community at large, there would have been no shock and no revolution.  Can you imagine a less ‘populist’ person than T S Eliot?  These works were not of or for the people – at least as the people then stood.  That’s a big change, and we can see it in opera.

Then came something less gripping.  Its label is Post-modernism.  I have always had trouble with that term and what it might embrace.  I sense that it may be as helpful as ‘deconstructing’.  Someone compared it to playing tennis with the net down, so my sense is that there is a wish to tear down all forms.  This is often a sure sign that the person doing the tearing down has no ability at all and wants to be free of the normal criteria for assessing that kind of art.  Whatever – the gap between the ‘artist’ and audience was even wider, and the audience was even smaller.  It follows that the works will not be seen to be ‘popular’ – although that is a weasel word.  It then follows that those who are seen to admire this new stuff are geeks or nerds.  That means that the cost of tickets will go up and the result then is that the people who go to these events are either geeks or toffs.  In any event, the ordinary person has little time or respect – or faith – in either the artist or the audience.

Generalisations like these are dangerous.  They represent what I call empiricism without the benefit of evidence.  Let me try to come at from the other side.  Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini were loved and admired for their art by the whole people.  Their nations were proud of them and they were happy to see their art woven into the social fabric.  By and large, that is not the case with the composers we are about to look at.  The reasons for the difference are, in my view, partly the factors I have just tried to identify, and the fact that few of the composers that we now come to got even close to any of their three great predecessors.  People have I think given up hope of ever seeing anyone constantly electrifying opera audiences in anything like those composed by Mozart, Verdi, or Puccini.  (One exception may be the comparison of Strauss and Puccini.)  That in turn leads to an underlying sense of decay and inbreeding, if not death.  Opera-goers might then feel about as safe and welcome and relevant as members of a gentlemen’s club.  And not many of them are prepared to chance their evening on an opera by Philip Glass; and even fewer companies are prepared to chance their arm on such a venture.

We might bear those admittedly large observations in mind as we consider, briefly, four composers – Richard Strauss, Alban Berg, Leos Janacek, and Benjamin Britten.

Richard Strauss lived from 1864 to 1949.  As a German, Strauss did therefore live through what the Chinese call interesting times – and he came out carrying some baggage.  Should we not try to be adult about this?  Furtwangler, the great conductor was pilloried for shaking hands with Hitler.  What was he supposed to do with his Chancellor – turn his back?

Strauss was brought up and taught in a family where the father was a distinguished horn player and a fervent conservative who hated the music of Wagner.  Accordingly, the son, an only son, grew up in what we might call the classical tradition – he revered Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, and it shows in his operas.  He was not like young Mozart, but he did start piano lessons at the age of four, and he began composing two years later.  He began his composing career with orchestral works, and after earlier efforts, landed with a bang with his third opera Salome that premiered in Dresden in 1905.  This set him up artistically and financially.  After Elektra, his best known work, Der Rosenkavalier, was first performed in 1911.  Works came steadily, some with the distinguished writer Stefan Zweig.  Strauss had a lull and came back to form with Capriccio in 1942.  He did act to please the regime, but he refused to give Zweig up to the Nazis, and he was later acquitted of collaboration.

In spite of his orthodox classical upbringing, Strauss has been called the last great German Romantic.  We shall look at two works, Salome and Der Rosenkavalier.  Some might find it hard to believe that they were written by the same composer.  Romain Rolland was a fan, but he said that Strauss was ‘a Shakespearian barbarian: his art is torrential, producing at one and the same time gold, san, stone and rubbish: he has almost no taste at all, but a violence that borders on madness.’

Salome is a mix of the bible and sex, and that really upset the Kaiser.  Try the 1997 Covent Garden version with Catherine Malfitano and Terfel.  Der Rosenkavalier is very different, a kind of dreamy rhapsody to the haute bourgeoisie.   It has similarities with Figaro, but, interestingly for our purposes, Strauss thought that some sections of the libretto were ‘too delicate for the mob.’  Well, the people loved it, and Strauss was rich.  You get humour, the waltz, and glorious tunes for sopranos.  ‘The Presentation of the Rose’ is legendary.  Gough Whitlam loved the work and Debussy said that there is ‘sunshine in the music of Strauss…it is not possible to withstand his irresistible domination.’  Others think that it is like Arabella – kitsch or schmalz.  The EMI recording with Schwarzkopf and Karajan is famous, and you can see the whole opera with that pairing at the Salzburg Festival.  If you want to sample the Presentation of the Rose, there is a wide selection – including Lucia Popp, Diana Damrau and Anne Sophie von Otter.  If you are a blokey sort of bloke, this may not be your bag.

Alban Berg (1885 to 1935) came from a wealthy Viennese family.  He was a student of Arnold Schoenberg, and his general output was not huge.  He wrote two operas.  They have both been well served by the AO, but neither is for the beginner.  Wozzek is about brutality in the army and it involves a brutal murder.  Both the music and the plot could very soon frighten off the beginner.  You can listen to the whole opera with Karl Bohm and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.  It is not a work for excerpts.  Lulu may be less depressing, but it’s marginal.  Lulu is sexually active and burns men off until she gets topped by Jack the Ripper.  Christine Schafer is provocatively sexy in the lead – she starts by taking a bite out of the apple and she looks like Eve giving Adam the come-on – in a wonderful Glyndebourne production that I have and which you can see and hear.  The music may be jagged to the ear of the novice, but this is very high theatre about desire and pleasure – sex.  Some of the characters may have stepped out of Dickens, but the power of Schafer’s femme fatale is hot.  (And just think – she also plays Gilda in Rigoletto.)  A lot Lulu evokes the cabarets of Berlin between the wars.  The AO version in 2003 with Simone Young and Emma Matthews was a winner.

Leos Janacek (1854 to 1928) is a very different proposition.  Although he was born in the year after La Traviata was finished, his substantive opera work is all twentieth century.  He was born into a poor teacher’s family in what was called Moravia, and he lived there most of his life.  He dropped out of studies in Leipzig and Vienna.  Most of his work premiered in Brno.  The Czechs in Prague were cool about it although Janacek was very supportive of the Czech Republic after its foundation in 1918.  He said that he wanted ‘to compose a melodic curve which will, as if by magic, reveal immediately a human being in one definite phase of his existence.’  That is a very interesting statement from the composer of operas.  So were two traits he had.  He was fascinated by what we call folk music, and by what he might learn about our humanity by carefully observing patterns of speech.  He went as far as to note down speech in musical notation.  He talked about ‘speech melodies.’  Here then was ripe ground for opera. His work came with a rush toward the end of his life.  His operas are less difficult to access than those of Berg, and for many people, they may be easier than a lot of Britten.  We will look at two, both performed by the AO.

Jenufa is one of those sad eastern European tales that may be a bit too unsubtle to resemble Chekhov.  It involves a thwarted love affair and the murder of a child – which might send us off in the direction of Ibsen.  But the music is easily gettable, and you can trace folk melody in it.  I have a recollection of Moffatt Oxenbould saying that this is one of the operas that the AO then really enjoyed putting on.  You can watch the whole of the 1989 Glyndebourne production with Roberta Alexander and Anja Silja, who is very good with this composer.  You may want to watch the conductor David Robertson discuss this opera at the Met.  He touches on some of the points made above.  There is also a 2014 Deutsche Oper version from Berlin.  The conductor Charles Mackerras was much involved in bringing this composer to the fore, and his recordings with Elizabeth Soderstrum are to be preferred.

The Makropolous Case is a Monty for lawyers.  It’s about litigation arising from the fact that the heroine has lived for hundreds of years in different guises and has now had enough.  The music is intensely dramatic, but it’s well worth persevering.  It’s like an orchestral recitative- you have staggered dialogue over staggered music, and restated motifs.  This really is music as drama in itself, and Act III, especially the soaring finale, is amongst my favourite pieces of music.  It’s curious that this acceptance of the end of life can seem to leave us at what Churchill called those ‘broad sunlit uplands.’  There is a film version with a Czech cast I’m not familiar with but it was recorded in the theatre in Brno – so you might get the real thing.  You can also hear a remarkably urbane Charles Mackerras interviewed about this opera, Jenufa, and other issues relating to Janacek.  On some days this opera features in my top ten.

Benjamin Britten (1913 to 1976) was a different kind of a cove again.  His mother was a keen amateur singer and musician, and Britten was composing at five.  He was introduced to the work of contemporary composers like Berg.  He worked at the Post Office and in conjunction with Auden who was important in his life.  Auden and Britten and his partner Peter Peers left for America.  Britten returned in 1942.  He was a conscientious objector.  After two lesser works, he wrote Peter Grimes which was first performed in June 1945.  Britten retained a great affection for the sea and his native East Anglia.  Peter Grimes made Britten’s name for him, and it began a change in attitude to home grown opera, and not just in England.  Billy Budd was first performed in 1951, and Midsummer Night’s Dream premiered in 1960.

There are other operas, but some with too much edge to be chanced by many opera houses.  Britten could be prickly dealing with people.  He loathed Puccini and he was sickened by Tosca, although he was determined to be melodic.  Peter Grimes remains his most celebrated opera, and its sea interludes are very popular on the concert platform.  Leonard Bernstein conducted them with Beethoven’s 7th on his last night with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Peter Grimes is set on the coast.  A fisherman has lost a young boy.  The town people reject him as an outsider when another boy seem looks to have been mistreated.  The opera is surprisingly easy on the ear for such a macabre theme.  When I went to a talk about this opera at the AO by Moffatt Oxenbould more than twenty years ago, there was an older lady in a ruby red hat who had it in her mind that the show was about ‘pederasty,’ and nothing was going to change her mind on that score.  Both Britten and Peers identified with the outsider, and anyone who has lived in a small country town will know how nasty things can get if you are adjudged to be off side.  You can listen to a version recorded in 1945 or watch a BBC studio version in 1969.

Billy Budd is a beautiful novella by Herman Melville.  It is everything that Moby Dick is not and far more satisfying for the general reader.  During the Napoleonic War, a handsome young sailor, Billy Budd, was impressed into service on a British warship.  Billy is as innocent as he is handsome, and he is fortunate that his new captain is Captain ‘Starry’ Vere.  Vere is a civilised product of the Enlightenment with a refined sense of justice.  But Billy comes under the notice of the Master-at-Arms, John Claggart.  Claggart is in effect the Chief of Police on the ship.  He is morally bereft.  He may well be gay.  He cannot stand being in the presence of beauty and goodness like that of Billy ‘Baby’ Budd.  Claggart falsely accuses Billy of mutiny before Captain Vere.  Billy is horrified and incredulous.  When stressed, Billy’s voice falters.  When he is pressed for an answer, he strikes out at Claggart, and strikes him dead.

During a time of war, therefore, Captain Vere has witnessed a sailor strike and kill an officer.  He summons a drumhead court martial.  Billy is plainly guilty of the legal offence charged, but the officers are reluctant to give a verdict that will see Billy hanged.  They agonise over Billy, but Captain Vere persuades them to do their legal duty.  Billy is hanged.  The threat of mutiny passes.  Captain Vere carries the responsibility for the death of Billy to his grave.  A morally innocent man has been killed to preserve the integrity of the law of arms.

That is a beautiful plot for an opera, and Britten and E M Forster did a wonderful job on it.  (There is a great film with Terence Stamp, Robert Ryan and Peter Ustinov.)  The drama is elemental – pure evil against pure innocence: which way does the law go?  If an angel must die for responding to evil, is this another redemption story?  In my view it is, and to my taste, it is a far more successful redemption story on every level than Parsifal.

Well, the music brings this out with an all-male cast – homosexuality is touched on by Melville in the text – and we already know that Britten can conjure up the sea musically like no one else.  You can see the full opera starring Peter Peers in a television film made in 1966, or you can see it performed at the Vienna Staatsoper in 2001.  You can also see and hear Billy’s final aria ‘Billy in the Darbies’ (Billy cuffed, the night before execution and taken from Melville) sung in concert or in rehearsal.  It is for me one of the most beautiful and moving songs in all opera.

That leaves Midsummer Night’s Dream based on the play of Shakespeare.  When I saw this in rehearsal with one daughter about thirty years ago, I thought that the music might be above our pay level, but the two of us nearly died laughing at the rustics at play.  This was ruthlessly hilarious slapstick.  The production was both gutsy and gorgeous.  The play was set in the Raj, and the little orchestra was put on stage in a rotunda.  You can see a clip of this quite wonderful AO production or watch the whole show.  There is a full recorded version, and various clips from others, but as far as I could see, no full vision of the whole show.  Enjoy, then, the clip from the AO version.  It is fully worthy not just of the composer, but the original playwright.

There then is what I think is a representative sample of what I see as the best of twentieth century opera.  I am very fond of a lot of it now, but it has taken me some time and effort.  I incline to the view that opera as an art form is not as dead in composition as some people fear.

Why opera? 7 Puccini



Now we come back to the problem of snobbery. In the case of Puccini, I have felt it at Oxford, but the worst culprits tend to come from the acolytes of the Master whom we have just been looking at.  It is, frankly, hard to see why people should feel so superior for worshipping at the same shrine as Adolf Hitler, but some of that Wagner crowd do stick their noses in the air and then hold them when the subject of Puccini comes up.  Well, there is one crowd that is hardly well placed to claim the high moral ground over the other on private life.  Perhaps the problem is that Puccini is and always has been popular.

Now, populism is right on the nose just now for obvious reasons.  But why was Puccini so popular?  He had an eye for drama, a natural sense of theatre, the knack of creating good songs, and the skill in manipulating the emotions of his audience.  Isn’t that essentially the case with Wagner – or any successful composer of opera?  Ah, yes, old boy, but think of the difference in the audiences – the Master did not patronise the gutter.  It is hard to think of a better case of pure snobbery.

In truth I think too many purists get needled by Puccini because he was like The Magnificent Seven – he just knew when to unleash his big guns, and the crowd – the unwashed crowd – specifically including ME – just bloody well loves it and calls out for more.  And, of course, Puccini was Italian, and opera is their invention.

Giacomo Puccini (1858 to 1924) was born into a fine musical family.  He began studies with his father who had studied with Donizetti, and then his uncle.  He then went to the Milan Conservatory and studied with Ponchielli.  His first works flopped, as did Verdi’s, but he had a success with Manon Lescaut in 1893 and a big hit with La Bohème in 1896.  Bernard Shaw then said that he was heir to Verdi.  Tosca and Madam Butterfly were also huge hits and came out at regular intervals.  Then came some hiccups around the time of the premiere of La Fanciulla del West in New York in 1910.  Puccini was working on Turandot when he died.  It premiered in Milan in 1926.

Puccini had become very wealthy and he could indulge himself in fishing and shooting.  His marriage was unhappy, as was his extra-marital life.  Many affairs became public, and one servant was driven to suicide.  Puccini won no friends by calling her ‘a silly girl’.

He did not have the sure conviction of his predecessors, but it might be said that he fused bel canto with verismo.  The Rough Guide’s summary is fair.

It can’t be denied that Puccini has his weaknesses: he often lapses into glutinous sentimentality; there’s more than a hint of misogyny in his preference for helpless heroines dominated by despotic men; and his plots are sometimes feeble or trivial.  But for most audiences, these weaknesses are beside the point, for his operas contain some of the most enjoyable music ever written, carrying into the twentieth century the legacy of Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi.

Now for the operas.  There is for some, including me, a structural problem with La Bohème and Tosca – some feel that the climax comes too soon, or, put differently, that each opera reaches a peak that it never gets back to – or that the end is a bit of a fizzer.  For some that problem is worse in the first opera than the second because the perceived climax comes at the end of the first act – in Tosca, you wait for the end of the second act – and, boy, there you do have a climax.  Some people feel the same about Beethoven’s third symphony, the Eroica.

Poor garret residents in the Latin Quarter are doing it hard – and cold.  Rodolfo falls for a consumptive seamstress, Mimi.  Some past attachments lead to rift which Rodolfo tries to heal too late.  The songs of the lovers in Act I are among the most popular in all opera – ‘Che gelida manina’ and ‘O soave fanciulla’.  The 1952 recording with Bjorling, Victoria de Los Angeles and Robert Merrill was long seen as pre-eminent.  But now we are again spoiled for choice.  For the whole opera, you can go straight to Netrebko with Villazon, or listen to versions conducted by Karajan or Carlos Kleiber, who some good judges thought was one of the best, conducting at La Scala.  The Karajan version was directed by Zeffirelli, but it is fascinating to compare the two orchestral sounds.  At the least, you should listen to the two great songs I referred to.  They are best sellers for good reasons.  Try the 1964 concert version in Russia of Pavarotti – he really had the bullets to fire when the composer unleashed the guns.  That’s what the fans have come for.  Or try the Peruvian Juan Diego Florez, who is hot in bel canto and here.  He reminds me of Di Stefano.

When I was looking at Thomas Allen in the last act of Don Giovanni, and I said that it may have its dramatic equal, I had in mind the second act of Tosca, and one famous version of it in particular.  A painter, Cavaradossi, the lover of Tosca, a jealous opera singer, shields a political prisoner.  The evil head of police, Scarpia, forms a scheme to seduce Tosca while destroying the painter.  Scarpia has him tortured in her presence.  She reveals where the escaped prisoner is and agrees to sleep with Scarpia if he lets Cavaradossi go.  They do a deal which backfires even after Tosca kills Scarpia at the end of Act II.

It is relatively unusual to find a piece for the stage where a central figure is a study in pure evil.  That is very much the case in Billy Budd with John Claggart.  It is so here with Scarpia.  The tenor has two wonderful arias ‘Recondita armonia’ and ‘E lucevan le stella’ and the soprano has ‘Vissi d’arte’But the whole show centres on the life and death struggle between Tosca and Scarpia in Act II.  The 1953 recording of Callas with Gobbi was one of the most successful records ever made.

But now you can watch them on screen.  Try the 1964 Covent Garden version directed by Zeffirelli.  The voice of Callas may not have been what it was, although this was not her biggest test vocally.  But just look at the stage presence of each of Callas and Gobbi in a struggle between ineluctable evil and overwhelming innocence by two superstars of the stage in one of the great set pieces of theatre, so well-known that it has its own liturgy.  Just look at their eyes and feel the timing.  I doubt whether many saw intensity like that since the soprano’s ancestors were putting on Orestes and Medea.  The sense of elemental force is physically unsettling.  At Covent Garden, they take curtain calls at the end of the act.  You will see here that the audience does not applaud ‘Vissi d’arte’, and properly so because of the point in the drama, but they can let go at the curtain.  Even from here you can feel the tension – it reminded me in part of the tension on Broadway when Richard Burton loaded up on Hamlet.  And just look at the serene way these two pros take their bows.

Now, we have some wonderful singers now who can act, but I doubt whether the two we have just been looking at will ever matched for raw horse-power on the stage.  If you get nothing else but this act from these notes, you will not have done your money.

Madame Butterfly is another tear jerker.  It is all so inevitable – and for that reason, like Othello (on stage), it is not among my favourites.  You just find yourself bracing for the fall.  An American naval officer marries a young Japanese girl, impregnates her, and dumps her.  When he comes back with a white wife, Madame Butterfly kills herself.  I can’t help thinking that plot might be better placed in a ballet.  It crashed on its first night in the face of concerted attacks on the composer before an audience not as entranced with the orient as the French, but one used to the hard action of verismo.  Then Puccini cleaned it up a bit and it became a hit.  It has always played well for the AO.  I prefer the Tebaldi and Bergonzi version.  You may wish to see Alana Gheorghiu sing ‘Un bel di’ at the Lincoln Centre in New York.  (I saw Carmen there.  At the first break in the action, a guy about four rows back said, with a perfect Brooklyn accent that carried: ‘She’s got great legs, but she can’t (pronounced ‘Kant’) sing!’)

That brings us to another show set in the east.  Turandot is about an evil princess who tempts young blades to their death when they fail to answer her riddles.  She finally succumbs to the hero after the unfolding of a story involving his servant Liu.  It is a show that can stand a big production, and it got it from the AO when it was choreographed by Graeme Murphy, the ballet choreographer.  It now gets featured on Sydney Harbour.  It is a big role for the soprano.  Some think that ‘In questa reggia’ was what broke Callas.  I have a Wagnerian soprano Birgit Nilsson doing it with Bjorling.  You might listen to her doing the opera with Franco Corelli – and then you can listen to two belters.  Another big voice for this aria was the great Leontyne Price.  You can get the famous Sutherland and Pavarotti version.  You should look out for the big aria for the soprano, and a lovely song for the tenor, ‘Non piangere, Liu’.

And yes, you are allowed to take ‘Nessun Dorma’. It comes near the end of the show. Try Jonas Kaufman who is thought by some to the best tenor now going.  You can get him on Last Night at the Proms with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by a woman.  Again we see that assurance.  It’s like being passed by a Bentley – you know he’s got a fair bit left in the tank.  Just watch him at the end before an enraptured English audience.  He knows he’s nailed it.  And he bursts out in laughter.  I mean this – really – when I say that it reminded me of the 2007 NRL Grand Final.  Greg Inglis ran more than half the field, and then while balanced just inside the line, he put on a fend to see him over the try line – he was a freak, and as he touched down, he burst out laughing.  At that level, you are entitled to enjoy your own great talent.  God bless all of them!

I might mention two well-known pieces from other Puccini operas that are popular in the concert hall – ‘Ch’ella mi creda’ from La Fanciulla del West and ‘Donna non vidi mai’ from Manon Lescaut.  Both are on the disk Allegro al dente that we began with.

For completeness we might mention here also the French composer Georges Bizet (1838 to 1875).  You will see that he died too soon.  He of course wrote Carmen and The Pearl Fishers that has the great duet we looked at when we started.  Bizet said: ‘I tell you that if you were to suppress adultery, fanaticism, crime, evil, and the supernatural, there would no longer be the means for writing one note.’  He was not alone.  For even more completeness, I may say that Tchaikovsky (1840 to 1893) who is famous for his ballets, wrote two operas.  Eugene Onegin is well supported when put on by the AO.

Well, there you have Puccini – a wonderful source of entertainment at the opera and of solace before the fire.  Don’t let any snob tell you anything different.  And remember, he was an Italian – and second in opera only to one other Italian and Mozart.

Why opera? 5



When Verdi died in 1901, the nation that he had helped to shape, Italy, was convulsed with grief.  It was not just that the Italians could be heard whistling tunes like Donna e mobile or De quella pirra the day after they had seen the relevant show.  Verdi had become associated with the movement for the unification of Italy, known as the Risorgimento.  The chorus from Nabucco known as the Slaves’ Chorus (Va pensiero) had become a kind of anthem.  It is thought that more than 300,000 attended the memorial service.  Arturo Toscanini led a choir of more than 800 in performing that chorus.  (When Caruso died in 1921, at the cruel age of 48, the King of Italy opened the Royal Basilica for the funeral.)

Verdi was born to parents who owned a tavern in the Parma region of Italy.  Shortly after he was born, Russian troops committed an atrocity in the local church.  Verdi’s mother hid with him in the bell tower and they survived, but the incident left its mark.  The family was poor, but the young boy showed talent with music – but not enough to get a pass at the conservatory at Milan.  (Well, Harvard would later knock back Warren Buffett.)  Verdi took some private lessons and got a job with the local orchestra.  He married and then he moved north and submitted the first of his operas which has survived to La Scala.  He became known for being single-minded and coming straight to the point.  With help from a young soprano called Giuseppina Strepponi, La Scala accepted one opera, and gave a contract for three more.

In 1840, Verdi lost his wife and children, and he went into depression.  He wrote a bad comic opera, but in 1842, he produced Nabucco.  This biblical tale spoke to the needs of the Italian people at the time.  In the next eight years, he produced thirteen operas mostly tragic and historical.  He married Strepponi in 1859.  The relationship would last half a century.  She was the ideal companion for a man who could be blunt.

In 1851, Verdi produced Rigoletto. It was based on a story by Victor Hugo.  This was followed by Il Trovatore and La Traviata.  Verdi was now both famous and rich.  He was obsessed with Shakespeare (whom he read in translation).  Macbeth came early, but Otello and Falstaff are among his mature masterpieces.  He had fully mapped out his King Lear, but he never wrote it.

The most famous and wealthy composer in the world set up a retirement home for musicians in Milan.  He died of a stroke in 1901.  He was not overtly religious and he had prescribed for his funeral ‘One priest, one candle, one cross’, but, as we saw, the occasion became one of national mourning.

Verdi managed to blend drama and melody, and in his later works, he gave opera new direction.  About a dozen of those are still in demand.  He had a natural ear for melody, and a feel for drama, and some of his greatest music sounds like a tuneful village band.  From Rigoletto on, he was able to devise melodies that were striking and that expressed the deepest emotions without sacrificing what sounds like simple tunefulness.  That is a very high form of art.

One biographer of Verdi said this:

What, then, remains in his work if the ephemera of time and place are drained away?

First, the potential nobility of man.  In his early and middle years, Verdi saw men and women risking life and personal happiness to further an ideal, and in his operas he celebrated them, holding them up as models to be copied.  In La Traviata, Verdi wept for Violetta, but he presents her decision in her circumstances as right.  His operas, though with artistic restraint, are didactic: they urge men and women to be noble.

As a corollary, however, his work throughout sounds a constant note of melancholy.  Life, he suggests, is hard, happiness fleeting, and to death the only certainty.  He never pretends in his call for generous, noble actions that these do not often end in suffering, but offers them as the best response to death.

Though these themes, the potential nobility of man and the tragedy it often entails, was stimulated  by the events of the Risorgimento, they are universal, sensed by adult men and women everywhere.  Though in different eras they may be more or less to the fore, they are never wholly absent from the feelings of men.  They are an important reason why Verdi’s operas, generations after his death, still find an audience.

Let us start with Rigoletto which, with La Traviata and The Marriage of Figaro, would be the ideal opera for the first timer.  The hero is a misfit, a hunchback who hates his court, and is hated and baited by them in return.  His only solace is his daughter, but she is cruelly seduced by the evil duke.  They plot revenge with a professional killer.  Verdi said of the Victor Hugo plot that it was ‘the best plot and perhaps the best play of modern times…it cannot fail.’  He said Rigoletto was ‘grossly deformed and absurd but inwardly passionate and full of love.’  The opera overturned many conventions, but it was a quick success and it remains hugely popular.

As you could imagine, there is a smorgasbord of great performances on offer, and you will not be surprised to hear that my fancy is for the EMI with Callas, di Stefano, and Gobbi.  This was a golden time for the three of them, and together, they were in my view unsurpassed.  In his prime di Stefano was a thrilling and assured lyrical tenor.  There are many complete versions of the opera, and even more of the big hits like ‘Donna e mobile’ and ‘Caro Nome’ (neither of which enthrals me) and the famous quartet in the last act ‘Bella figlia dell’amore’.   In that quartet, you might compare the version above with the raw horse power of that of Sutherland and Pavarotti.  But this is an opera where the acting of the lead is vital, and Gobbi had no peer.  And if you want to see and hear the beating heart of Italian opera get the ‘Si, vendetta, tremenda vendetta’ (you won’t need translation) and watch Tito Gobbi and Renata Scotto set the stage ablaze – the clip begins with a repeat of the curse.  You just can’t get more Italian or dramatic than this, and it’s a reminder of the sustaining influence on opera of commedia dell’arte.  As nights go at the theatre, this is very hard to beat.

You can just about repeat all of that for La Traviata, including the preferred casting.  There was a famous photo of Callas on a record cover showing her wringing her hands, and someone said that ‘even her hands wept.’  (I think this was from the famous 1955 Visconti version.)  This is one of the great tear-jerkers of the stage; when it comes to Kleenex, this is a full box job.  It is also the most frequently performed and recorded of these operas.  The story comes from Alexander Dumas’ La dame aux caméllias.  Violetta is a courtesan who is unwell.  Alfredo, a member of the gentry, falls for her.  His father, Germont, persuades him to drop her.   She reluctantly agrees – for his sake.  He then throws money at her.  He later repents, but too late.  La Traviata has about it the horrible inevitability of King Lear.  In the famous letter scene, you can hear Callas, you can feel Callas, spitting her anguish at God.

We are really spoiled.  Why not start with the whole of the Salzburg 2005 version with Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazon and Thomas Hampson with the Vienna Philharmonic under Carlo Rizzi.  Years ago, I bought the DVD (for $34).  The DG sleeve notes said that this was the opera event of 2005 and that ‘this thrilling production prompted riotous ovations not see since Karajan’s heyday.’  After that you can take your pick.  There is a famous duet for Violetta and Germont in Act II which you can take, among others, with Renée Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky in Moscow, in 2006.  The sound is gorgeous – but the gorgeous soprano looks like anything but a sick prostitute – not least because she is dressed in white in something like a bridal gown.  This duet is a shining moment in our theatre.

A Masked Ball got savaged by the censors.  It resembles Traviata in that it’s about love and death among the better people, but it has the kind of hot drama we get in Trovatore.   Some see it as flawed.  I’m not one of them.  It might sound silly, but for me it is intensely musical.  One critic called it ‘the most operatic’ of operas’.  A ruler – the censors forced some changes: political assassination was sensitive – meets the wife of his mate who warns him of plot to kill him.  A fortune teller tells the ruler he will be killed by the next person to shake his hand.  That is the wife of the mate.  A lot of the music has a kind of dancing, mocking lilt, but, if you key in the Italian name, you can get the whole opera featuring either Pavarotti or Domingo.  The Domingo version comes with Claudio Abbado from Covent Garden, if you are not familiar with it, and it features Katia Ricciarelli and Piero Cappuccilli – each of them is assured with Verdi.  It would be hard to top this version.

Don Carlos is long, and the plot is not simple, but it has great music and drama.  As to length, Bizet wrote that ‘Verdi is no longer Italian, he is following Wagner.’  We listened to the great duet in the first chapter, and there is a magnificent confrontation between the Grand Inquisitor and the King.  The show is charged with tension, and lyrical moments are rudely interrupted.  This show is not one for the first timer.  The Solti version has Tebaldi, Bergonzi, and Fischer-Dieskau.  Renata Tebaldi and Carlo Bergonzi may not have the cachet of others of their time, but they are Italian, and they are normally flawless, as is their German colleague on this recording.  There is also Von Karajan at Strasburg in 1975 with Domingo, Freni, Cappuccilli and Ghiaurov.  Both these performances represent opera royalty.  If you want to know how things are now, you could try the fearfully good looking and assured Kaufman and Hvorostovsky with another version of the show-stopping duet.  This is men into bodice-ripping on each other!  These guys may have tickets on themselves, but they are entitled to at least some.  Assurance at this level counts for so much, and I could imagine footy coaches using this before a grand final.  This is spell-binding stuff from a man who had ascended his own Everest.  If you ever hear more powerful music than this, could you please let me know?

That leaves us with Falstaff.  Some romantics get seduced by the lying coward Falstaff, who is probably Shakespeare’s most popular character, but opera goers only get the soft version that comes from the comedy farce The Merry Wives of Windsor, the only plot, I think, that Shakespeare ever invented for himself.  The silly old drunk thinks he can seduce the wives, but he is easily foiled, and a sub-plot for young lovers allows some very pretty tunes.  So here we have a combination of humour and sadness, redolent of Mozart.  The farce is brilliantly orchestrated by Verdi, and it requires a strong orchestra and baritone.  This is an ensemble piece in which the company is the star.

Rossini had said that ‘Verdi was incapable of writing a comic opera.’  Verdi decided on the project at the age of seventy-five.  He laboured on it for four years with the librettist in secret.  He conducted it at the opening at La Scala.  It was received as the masterpiece that it is.

My preferred version is that of Gobbi with Karajan – you can choose your own.  But you should watch the clip of James Levine in rehearsal at the Met – it is from one of those HD films (one that I saw) and the clip is presented by Renée Fleming.  You should also see the clip of Ricardo Muti assisting an awe-struck student at rehearsal.  The young man could not get over being taught by the maestro – who has a sense of humour – in person.  There are some full versions including the 1982 Covent Garden production under Giulini with Bruson, Nucci, Ricciarelli, and Hendricks.

Well, there are just some of the reasons that we owe so much to this Italian composer.  The English philosopher, Sir Isaiah Berlin, wrote a paper called The Naiveté of Verdi.  In it, he said:

Noble, simple, with a degree of unbroken vitality and vast natural power of creation and organisation, Verdi is the voice of a world which is no more.  His enormous popularity among the most sophisticated as well as the most ordinary listeners today is due to the fact that he expressed permanent states of consciousness in the most direct terms, as Homer, Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Tolstoy have done.  This is what Schiller called ‘naiv’.  After Verdi this is not heard in music again.  Verdi’s assured place, in the high canon of the musical art, which nobody now disputes, is a symptom of sanity in our time.

It is significant that in this essay Berlin distinguished Verdi as a composer from the kind that is up next.

Why opera? 4 Bel canto


Bel canto

On 17 February 1959 a young Australian soprano made her debut in the title role of the bel canto opera Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti at Covent Garden.  A bad marriage leads to a murder at a wedding and the most celebrated Mad Scene in all opera.  This young woman darted and flitted about in a bloodstained shift, and struck amazing notes.  She generated intense excitement in the audience.  Almost no one had heard or seen anything like this.  The last act ended after the death of Lucia with what one observer called a ‘riot’.  The audience could not wait to give the Australian the biggest ovation heard at Covent Garden for years.  She seemed to be a different person through countless curtain calls.  She blew kisses to the crowd and that just made them hungrier.  Her reception was such that for the first time, the BBC changed its advertised schedule to broadcast the opera in full later that week.  A bright new star had erupted.  Well, you can’t hear Joan Sutherland on that debut night, but you can hear her nine days later on 26 February.  It is hard to know what is the more spine tingling – the singing or the audience reaction.

Bel canto means beautiful song or singing.  (An impresario would have to be a dill to offer mal canto.)  Sutherland would become a leading exponent of it for decades.  She was in some part responsible for its renaissance.  She had sought out Maria Callas in concert and in rehearsal as a model for her to follow.  The genre is associated with three Italian composers of what is called the Romantic period – Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini.  With its customary pithiness, the Rough Guide says that we are speaking of:

…. highly dramatic operas in which the bulk of the emotional freight was carried by the vocal line – whereas in German opera, the orchestra was emerging as the dominant partner.  At its weakest, bel canto amounted to little more than floridly pretty music applied to a weak plot and inane libretto, but although the hugely prolific Donizetti was culpable of spinning a fair amount of musical candy floss in his operas, the same could not be said of Bellini, who often applied himself assiduously to the setting of the texts he used.

The genre comes in and out of vogue and it is not currently heavily represented in Australia.  The work of Bellini did however influence Verdi and Puccini and Wagner always acknowledged the importance of Bellini to him.  It is still widely taught, especially in Italy, where it is put forward as a goal which all singers should seek to achieve.

Before looking briefly at the three composers, may I make two introductory observations?  First, when we talk of opera as an art form, we are speaking of at least two kinds of artist – those who compose the work, the composer and the author of the libretto, and those who perform the work.  The latter include the singers, the orchestra, the director, the conductor, the costuming and lighting people, and all of the other people backstage or the front of house.  There is obviously a great scope for differing levels of quality to be delivered.  The reference we have just made to the performance of Joan Sutherland can reveal the immense impact of a single performer who just hits everything right on the night.  The examples that we looked at in the last chapter show the high place of acting now in opera.  As we saw, Sutherland was not there to act.  She took the view that if you want to see acting, you can go to the theatre.  She had the horse power to deliver at the limit, and no one has everything.  She was in truth a freak, but very few opera performers can get away with that attitude now.  But the simple point remains that opera is one of the performing arts.

And all sorts of learning and training and experience goes into developing the art and craft required by singers.  Like the rest of us, they learn as they go.  In the DVD Three Legendary Tenors, Nigel Lawson said that Beniamino Gigli had learned every trick in the book.  The memoirs of Richard Burton are replete with references to actors who would steal the limelight or the scene.  (A major culprit was Michael Hordern.  You can see why if you recall him as Kate’s dad in the Zeffirelli Taming of the Shrew, or the way he deals with Parolles in Act 5 Scene 2 of the BBC All’s Well that Ends Well.  The sidelong glances come from an alchemy that cannot be taught.)  Callas taught master classes, but the one thing she couldn’t teach was how to be Callas.

Let me here say something about the role of the director in opera.  The Ring Cycle of Wagner is a massive project for any company.  The first two Australian Opera efforts were great successes, in no small part because of the role of Neil Armfield (whose production of the AO The Makropolous Case was terrific).

Let me give an example of where a director can really get offside with at least some of the audience.  The 2006 Salzburg Figaro had Nikolaus Harnoncourt with the Vienna Philharmonic, and a cast that included Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, Anna Netrebko, and Christine Schafer (this time as a more orthodox Cherubino).  A Bentley cast for the Rolls Royce of operas.  But the director, a man called Claus Gutt, decided that they needed help.  He would improve on Mozart.  He put on a fairy.  A young man in the same schoolboy clothes as Cherubino, with two white wings attached to his back, wonders about casting spells and shedding feathers.  I regard this interference as an outrage.  Yes, Raphael put two putti in one of the most sacred paintings in western art – but they were Raphael’s putti.  This director had no right to second guess the greatest composer ever, and this act of defilement spoiled the whole show for me.

The New York Times did not mention this outrage, but they got another one:

In Act II, when Susanna and the Countess start dressing Cherubino in girl’s clothing, the game gets out of hand: the women fondle Cherubino like some boy toy, and all three wind up rollicking on the floor atop a fur coat. 

That’s what my kids used to call ‘gross.’  We have to put up with this kind of callous arrogance with Shakespeare.  In my view, it should carry jail time.

The problem may be not just the competition in Europe, but the sheer number of performances of the most popular operas.  Wagner is routinely treated in a way that would have horrified him, but if his operas were performed now as he wanted them performed, not many would turn up.  I recall hearing Simone Young give a talk before Tristan und Isolde.  She said that many Germans inclined to the view that a show might be thought to be a flop in Germany unless there were as many raspberries as cheers.  It’s very sad if Mozart has to put up with that sort of nonsense.

The second point is that although I have seen and enjoyed the operas I will refer to in this chapter, which contain some of the best known songs on the concert stage, this kind of thing is not really my cup of tea.  Well, there had to be a let-down after the descent from the Everest of Mozart, but you can sense the coolness in the guide I have referred to.  Even the more prosaic Oxford Dictionary of Opera refers to the ‘traditional Italian art of singing in which beautiful tone, fine legato phrasing, and impeccable technique are emphasised, though not at the total expense of dramatic expression, as some of its greatest exponents, above all Callas, have demonstrated.’

It rather reminds me of some batsmen in cricket who think that style is everything.  It’s not – their job is to make runs.  We go to the opera to be entertained – but to be entertained by the drama in the music, not by vocal pyrotechnics.

Well, I have made my disclaimer, but any introduction to opera, even one as short as this, must look at bel canto.  And, as indicated, we will come across some of the best known songs of all opera.  And if you like a good serve of Italian melodrama, or if you just want to wonder at the range of the human voice, it would be hard to think of anything better than the Mad Scene from Lucia.  And just spare a thought for those sopranos coming on who see and hear how high Joan Sutherland set the bar for everyone else that night at Covent Garden.

Now, for the bel canto composers.  Gioachino Rossini (1792 to 1868) became a national treasure in Italy, a place that he would cede only to Verdi.  His parents were both musicians, and he quickly learned a number of instruments – by the age of fourteen, he had learned the horn, violin, cello, and harpsichord, and he had sung professionally, and written a cavatina in the buffo style.  Within three years of starting at the Bologna conservatory, he had composed his first opera.  He had written ten of them by the time he turned twenty-one.  His first comic masterpiece was L’italiana in Algeri.  He tried tragedy with Otello – but the Italians were not then conditioned to Shakespeare, and they didn’t like the unhappy ending – which was replaced with the Rome revival.  His enduring prize is The Barber of Seville, which again features the Figaro of Beaumarchais.  It in fact got a stormy reception, but it soon recovered and it is in a lot of top tens today.  For whatever reasons – perhaps he had just run out of steam – Rossini retired from conducting at the age of thirty-seven.  Stendhal had said of him: ‘The glory of the man is only limited by the limits of civilisation itself, and he is not yet 32.’  But for his last 39 years, he wrote no more opera.

Rossini was nothing if not Italian.  He was also a famous food tragic. Not only did he come from an area where food was central to life, but he went to a school in Bologna, that was known as La Grassa, or ‘The Fat One.’  Then he moved to Paris. His life was spent in the most famous food cities in Europe.  His modest upbringing made him value the pleasures of fine food.  He adored truffles and foie gras.  Recipes are still being attributed to him even now.

He had a long running feud with another composer, Meyerbeer.  The latter would send two well-dressed gentleman to every performance of a Rossini opera.  They had to sit in the most observable box and fall asleep after fifteen minutes – to be woken by the usher at the end.  Rossini sent Meyerbeer some tickets – the best in the house – with a note that ended: ‘Shortly before the end of the performance I shall have you waked.  Your true admirer, G Rossini.’  It’s hard not to like a dude who has that kind of sense of humour.

Leigh Hunt described Rossini’s operas as ‘the genius of sheer animal spirits.’  We know that Stendhal, the great novelist, was a fan, but so too was D H Lawrence, and he was no lightweight.

I love Italian opera – it’s so reckless.  Damn Wagner, and his bellowings at Fate and death….I like the Italians who run all on impulse, and don’t care about their immortal souls, and don’t worry about the ultimate.

Some might say the same for Scuderia Ferrari – at least on a bad day.

When it comes to recordings of bel canto, two pairings tend to dominate – Callas and di Stefano, followed by Sutherland and Pavarotti.  For The Italian Lady in Algiers, you can catch the overture played by the wonderful Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Georg Solti.  (Just where do they get their white ties laundered?)  You will recognise the style if not the tune.  You can get the Finale to Act I from the Met Centennial in 1983.  For a composer who worked at a whirlwind pace, this music is amazingly intricate.

For The Barber of Seville, you can get one of the great pairings of opera – Callas and Tito Gobbi (at least on EMI).  The opera has edges of commedia dell’arte.   You can watch the indecently good looking Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky having a whale of a time entertaining a Montreal concert crowd with the famous ‘Largo al Factotem.’  Again, it’s hard to see what is more affecting – the performance or the crowd, which erupts like kids at a birthday party – and they know how to stand in North America.  You can get the pairing of the whole opera with Callas and Gobbi live at La Scala in 1956.  There are also many other arias and couplings from this opera from these two including ‘Una voce poco far’ and Figaro’s aria above.  This Italian, Tito Gobbi, was the outstanding opera actor of his time, and some of his pairings with Callas will never be forgotten.

Gaetano Donizetti (1797 to 1848) comes to us as a sad character.  If you look at his portrait, you may see a withdrawn, anxious character, someone down on his luck.  If you look at a portrait of Bellini, you see assurance and breeding, nobility even.  Heine called him a ‘sigh in silk stockings’ – which is one up on what Napoleon said of Talleyrand.  He produced a massive seventy-three operas – it is very hard not to debase your currency at that rate of printing.  His syphilis helped to send him mad, and he wound up in an asylum.

Yet The Oxford Dictionary of Opera is sympathetic.

…Donizetti is the most important direct forerunner of Verdi.  The tunefulness of his 70 stage works, not to mention their superiority, even at their most erratic, over most contemporary operas, long ensured their place in the repertory; and in modern times, they have won new audiences for their dramatic power as well as for their melodic charm and skilful stagecraft.

We have looked at Sutherland in Lucia.  You can get her at later times in the same role.  You can hear Callas and Di Stefano at La Scala in 1953 for the whole opera.  There is also a better recording of the pair at Berlin with Von Karajan.  There is stunning vision of Anna Netrebko at the Met if you want to be brought up to date – stunning to the eye and ear.

Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I never met – but they do in Maria Stuarda and there is the mother of all catfights.  You may care to watch Joyce Didonato rehearse and talk about her role in one of those HD broadcasts from the Met.

L’elisir d’amore is full of songs the most famous of which is ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ (‘A furtive tear’).  You can hear Pavarotti either in concert or, when he was younger, and softer, and when the engines fired on all cylinders, in the theatre.  The effort and strain are palpable, and the crowd goes wild.  You should also listen to the great Caruso.  The differences are remarkable.  You can also get Netrebko and Villazon in a duet.

Vincenzo Bellini (1801 to 1835) is a very different proposition, but as you can see, he died young, Keats young.  He left ten operas – the other two were in their thirties by then.  He sought to focus more on the drama.  Wagner said that Bellini was all heart – ‘he is one of my predilections because his music is strongly felt and immediately bound up with the words.’  Bellini even saw himself in much the same way as Beethoven – the instrument of a greater force.  It was said that Chopin’s long melodies owed a lot to his admiration of Bellini.  He fell ill and died alone in Paris.  At the Requiem mass at the Invalides, Cherubini and Rossini each held a corner of the shroud.

The best known opera is Norma.  Wagner said he hoped Isolde would become his Norma.  You can have Sutherland in Sydney, or Callas with Corelli at La Scala.  The Rough Guide says that Corelli’s part:

….is one of the most moving examples of heroic tenor singing on record.  If you think Pavarotti is exciting, listen to this – Callas rarely came so close to being outshone by her leading man….Callas’s voice is not what it was , with some shrill high notes and plentiful outbreaks of the notorious late Callas vibrato, but as a singer-actress, she has no equal…’

That is a sensible critique.  You can also see an astonishingly statuesque Netrebko sing the famous aria ‘Casta Diva’ in concert, and compare this to the stage versions of Montserrat Caballé, the powerful Spanish singer who was a gun in Bellini roles.  The trouble with Norma is a bit like the trouble with Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.  It’s set among pagans; the names are dumb; and the plot is dumber.

For La Somnambula, try Nathalie Dessay at the Met with some very imaginative staging.  It is a very evocative reading of ‘Ah! non credea mirarti’ and a beautiful example of bel canto.  You may wish to see the same artist entertain the crowd with a song and dance routine to the folksy ‘Ah! Non giunge.’  This is an artist working at her limit, and getting her reward from the audience.

Natalie Dessay had some issues with her voice, but she had a vital and perky presence on the stage.  This lovely French born woman started off in dance but having discovered her voice, she became a greatly loved coloratura on both sides of the Atlantic.  She left the stage at about the same age as Renée Fleming, and for similar reasons.  After a Carnegie Hall concert in 2017, The New York Times said:

Ms. Fleming, 58, and Ms. Dessay, 52, faced the same problem over the past decade or so.  Their voices didn’t much darken or deepen in their 40s, leaving them basically stranded in the ingénue roles they’d been singing since they were young.  This was a particular frustration for Ms. Dessay, whose specialty was cute, spunky girls whose vocal lines exploded into stratospheric coloratura, the likes of Zerbinetta in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos.

L’elisir d’amore was done by the AO in an Australian setting in 2015.  Lucia was, I think, last done by them in 2012, with Emma Matthews.

Well, that is the intro to bel canto.  I enjoyed this part of the journey more than I thought I would, but now it is time for Italian opera royalty.

Before coming to that, may I for completeness mention two works by Italian composers who were anything but bel canto?  Leoncavallo (1857 to 1919) and Mascagni (1863 to 1945) wanted realism – opera verismo.  The first wrote I Pagliacci and the second wrote Cavalleria Rusticana.  Each is a short one act affair, with plenty of vendetta.  They are commonly paired on the one program, although in the reverse of the order above.  ‘Veste la giubba’ is the famous aria from the first and ‘Mama quel vino generoso’ from the second is popular with concert audiences.  There are plenty of versions of each in full.  You might for example take the Zeffirelli film of the first with Domingo, although you may want to catch Jonas Kaufman rehearsing the aria.  For the second, you can again get a Zeffirelli film, and listen to the aria sung by Kaufman and Corelli.  (Do you think it may help if you are Italian to sing these numbers?)

Each of Mozart and Wagner is in a class of his own, but when we get to dedicated opera composers in the great tradition, there is only one king.

Why opera? Part 3



When the great spin-bowler Bill O’Reilly died, Keith Miller, his all-rounder team-mate, said that after Bill O’Reilly, there was space – before you get to the next great bowler.  This is sometimes called the blue sky test.  Well, with Mozart you can take the blue sky of Bradman, Phar Lap, Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali all rolled up into one.  There may have been a competitor in the concert hall or in the opera house – but someone who could be ranked with Mozart in both?  The very idea is insane.  In the concert hall, Mozart comes between Haydn and Beethoven.  Haydn’s operas are forgotten.  Beethoven’s one opera, Fidelio, is dour and not box office.  At any given time, you may find four or five of Mozart’s operas among the ten most popular in the world.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was born in Strasburg, the youngest of seven children.  Five of those children died in infancy.  That is a sobering reminder of the dice-board of Providence.  Mozart remained very fond of his sister.  His father was a musician and composer who soon discovered that his son was a prodigy.  He was playing the piano at three and composing at four.  He had written more than half of his forty one symphonies by the time he was twenty.  He is now thought to have come of age in opera at the age of twenty-four, with the opera Idomeneo, which may have been his personal favourite.  It was then that he was showing his own personal command of values in drama.  In corresponding about the drama, Mozart certainly felt old enough to say that if ‘the Ghost’s speech in Hamlet were not so long, it would be far more effective.’

His father showed him off on road-shows across Europe and their relationship grew rocky.  The child prodigy would become the leading pianist in Vienna, the musical capital of the world.  Mozart had a happy marriage that produced some children who survived.  It is hard to assess his finances, but he never looked settled.  He relied on patronage.  He was only thirty-five when he died, and, as was the custom, he was put in a common grave.  The film Amadeus gravely offended a lot of people, but it may not have been too wide of the mark, and it led many people to some of the most beautiful music ever written.  Mozart was a freak, but like most of us, he had to work to pay the rent.

To that end, his output was staggering.  It covers more than 200 CD’s.  He wrote about twenty–two operas.  He also wrote many concertos for piano, piano sonatas, and string quartets.  It is said that he wrote his last three symphonies – each one a masterpiece beyond that of any other composer ever with possibly one exception – in six weeks.  His letters contain many references to his love of the German nation, and to his love of the fugues of Bach and Handel.  He put several of the fugues of The Well-tempered Clavier into his own handwriting.

Mozart liked to compose in the fresh air.  Don Giovanni was said to have been written on a bowling-green, and the principal part of the Requiem in a garden.  In a letter that he wrote in a garden, he said that he had arrived in Vienna to find that dinner was served ‘for me unfortunately rather too early’ – 11.30 am!  One of the greatest artists the world has seen sat down to eat with, among others, two valets, the confectioner, two cooks ‘and my littleness.’  (He was only about five feet in height.)  Mozart told his father that there was ‘a great deal of coarse silly joking’ from which he remained aloof.

When Mozart died, he was working on the Requiem.  He had previously composed the Ave verum corpus (‘Behold the true body’), possibly the most refined sacred music ever written.  Einstein (the music critic) said of it that Mozart had ‘resolved the problem of style’.  Either work could only have been written by a man of profound Catholic conviction.

A few years before that, this man beloved of God (amadeus), had written to his father: ‘As death, rightly considered, fulfils the real design of our life, I have for the last two years made myself so well acquainted with this true friend of mankind, that his image has no longer holds any terrors for me, but much that is peaceful and consoling….I never lie down in bed without reflecting that – young as I am – I may never see another day….’Some say that those who are beloved of God die young.  This small young man probably never hurt a soul, but he did so much for all of us that we are all under obligation to his memory.

Before our big four operas of Mozart, I may mention The Abduction from the Seraglio, a farce sung and spoken in German, a singspiel?  It is seriously funny when well done on the stage, but is also very easy to listen to.  The Victorian Opera production in 2016 was hilarious.  I may have been the only non-German speaker in the Athenaeum.

That brings us to The Marriage of Figaro, which Stendhal said was ‘a sublime mixture of wit and melancholy, which has no equal.’  He was dead right – it is farce laced with misgivings.  (Don Giovanni is the reverse – it is heavy drama with comic asides.)  The magic is in the mixing.  Mozart was under thirty when he wrote it – ridiculous by our standards; old in Mozart years.  It was the first of three miraculous combinations with a baptised Italian Jew, Lorenzo Da Ponte.  It was based on a play by Beaumarchais that had been a smash hit in Paris.  That play was revolutionary in more senses than one.  It was an attack on the aristocracy.  Its most famous line was ‘Monsieur Le Comte, what have you done to earn your exalted position?  You put yourself to the trouble of being born, nothing more.’  The French nobles thought it was hilarious – until a few years later when they felt the worst kind of blade.  (A few years after that, they were effectively extinct.)

A randy old count, with a disappointed wife, has eyes on the maid who is to marry the hero that day.  All the action takes place in one day, and a lot of the farce is supplied by a randy young lad, played by a woman, who is accident prone, and who has the hots for the countess.  Historians have differed about the so–called ‘first night’ (prima noce) rights or rites, but you will see already that this show is about class privileges.  And that’s what the French Revolution was about.

Start with the overture.  Try the Vienna Philharmonic – possibly the best band in the world – playing in Japan and conducted by a young Italian.  Not many girls, and one fiddle looks to be held together by a rubber band, but you get the dignified courtesy of the concert hall, and the urgent drama of the music.  Then go to the aria ‘Se vol ballare’, not my favourite, but this is when the hero throws down the gauntlet to the ancien régime, which is what the show is about.  Try the great Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel at the Met in 1998.  Both in singing and acting, this part is blood to a tiger for Terfel – who has moved on to heavier parts in Wagner.   Then go to Cherubino singing ‘Non so piu cosa’ (‘I no longer know what I am or what I am doing’).  Try Frederica Von Stade with Solti at the Opera Garnier or the Latvian Elina Garanca who is very much á la mode.  Then try Christine Schafer.  She is a distinguished singer who is drop dead gorgeous – she could have started a riot the way she turned out as Lulu at Glyndebourne.  Here she makes a heroic sacrifice to art by turning out as schoolboy in glasses and a sawn-off haircut and a flattened chest.  Listen to the wonderful Jessye Norman on ‘Porgi amor’. Then go to the underlying melancholy of the opera in the other great aria ‘Dove sono’ of the Countess.  This was a role well suited to Kiri Te Kanawa, but her Met Centennial piece in 1983 is not to my taste.  Try Mirella Freni, who was pre-eminent in her day, or the delicious Lucia Popp.  The Countess will move from being a passive victim to an agent of reconciliation (as David Cairns remarked). Finally go the Finale, where all participate and where the Count asks for forgiveness.  Those who have seen the movie Amadeus will recall the glum horror of Salieri as he heard this miracle unfold.  Try the amazing John Eliot Gardiner version.  This great expounder of Bach has a complete mastery of the drama of Mozart.

There you have a picture or slice of one of the great works of art of the western world.  The magic is in the blending of music and drama and of humour and sadness.  Frankly, if you haven’t found this to your taste, and you stay that way after seeing or hearing the whole show, there may not be much point in reading these pieces any further.

As mentioned, in Don Giovanni, it’s the darkness that comes first, edged with humour, most of it very black.  It was at least in part composed in Prague, and it was first performed there.  (You can visit Bertramka, the house it was written in.)  The people of Prague still have a soft spot for the author.  This show too is shot through with references to the privileges of the aristocracy, but the Don makes the Count in Figaro look like a saint.  He is a gross sexual predator with more form than the current President of the United States.  He begins by murdering the ageing father of a woman he has seduced or raped.  He has to deal with past victims while he tries to seduce a peasant girl about to be married.  Eventually his past catches up with him – the ghost is like Hamlet in reverse – but he goes out unrepentant.

A demonic force, unlike anything else in opera, underlies the whole show.  All emotions arrive at high pitch.  The great German poet Goethe said: ‘How can anyone say that Mozart ‘composed’ Don Giovanni?  It is a spiritual creation, the detail like the whole, made by one mind in one mould, and shot through with the breath of life…[the author] bidden by the daemon of his genius to do what he did.’

Again, start with the overture, and hear that demonic force.  One critic says that it began with ‘the most magically evocative chord in the history of music.’  Try Ricardo Muti, who is terrific with Mozart, or if you want a slice of history, go to Furtwängler at Salzburg in 1954.  (He got into trouble with the Americans for shaking hands with Hitler; the great Von Karajan went further – he joined the party – twice.)  Well, you know from the start that you are in for a big doom laden night.  Now try ‘La ci darem ma mano’ (‘Give me your hand’) with the Don in serenade mode.  Try Bryn Terfel with the gorgeous Renée Fleming, in concert, but delivered with massive assurance and style.  And try Thomas Allen with Susanne Mentzer at La Scala (with Muti).  I studied Allen in this part at a summer school at Oxford and the evil he could evince was uncomfortably close to being frightening.

Near the end of Act I, two female victims meet with the male friend of one of them in masques to go to a ball put on by the Don.  Don Ottavio just schleps about getting knockbacks, but he gets two gorgeous songs and a part in a trio ‘Protegga il giusto cielo’ (‘May just heaven protect.’)  One version I have is an EMI recording conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini that features Joan Sutherland and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf with Luigi Alva.  It is on the internet and the trio is at I hour 13 minutes 30 seconds.  It just exceeds two minutes, but it is I think what Mendelsshon thought was the most beautiful music he had heard.  If you find something closer to God let me know.  This is the precise point where this artist reminds me most of Shakespeare – some of the most beautiful music ever put down is an interlude in nowhere, almost a throwaway line.  It’s the sheer bloody profligacy of it all!

The trio comes at a time of eerie tension – you can feel the tempest coming – and it is followed by a defiant Don celebrating ‘liberty’ when he means ‘licence’.  That brings the first act to its thunderous end.  Then go the scene with the Commendatore at the end of Act 2 with Thomas Hampson at La Scala.  This scene is very famous – part of it was in Amadeus – but it’s not hard to get it wrong.  Allen’s acting is riveting.  If you stick with us, and if you come across a piece of theatre as strong as this scene, you might let me know.  Offhand I could think of one bit of theatre that some might put in that league, and I will try to recall it when the time comes.  This is drama at its most elemental.  Sophocles and company would have gone big on this kind of drama.  For me personally, I have not seen drama like that since the 1964 Grand Final.  (And, yes, with the curse of Norm Smith, that was the Demons’ last flag.)

Cosi fan tutti has had an up and down ride.  It is tricky in what might be called a political sense.  Take the title for starters.  ‘All women are the same.’  You could be shot for less.  Two young blades are conned by a nasty old codger into betting on their brides to be, and, not incomprehensibly, the result gets what NRL footy callers describe as ‘ugly’.  It’s like ripping off a scab.  But it is a remarkable ensemble piece and it is often the favourite of the musically literate.  It is a great night out for those who like great music and theatre, but not many go home thinking that all will be well with the lovers.

My preferred version is James Levine on DG with the Vienna Philharmonic, and a cast that includes Kiri Te Kanawa and Ann Murray, whose credits include ‘Animal Crackers in my Soup.’

But there was a production in 2006 at Glyndebourne directed by Nicholas Hytner.  It is nothing if not modern and opulent and hot.  The Guardian said:

Rather than allowing Ferrando and Guglielmo (Topi Lehtipuu and Luca Pisaroni) the usual measure of comic absurdity when they don their disguises to begin their games of seduction, Hytner re-introduces them as a pair of glamorous Byronic brigands, whose sexuality is an unstoppable force. It’s a touch of genius that allows us to understand not only why Ainhoa Garmendia’s coldly rational Despina finds their poses so absurd, but also why Fiordiligi and Dorabella (Miah Persson and Anke Vondung) are so swiftly swept off their feet.

What follows is often deeply erotic, as the two pairs of lovers find their emotional security undermined by desire. The scenes between Pisaroni and Vondung are particularly incendiary.

So, that may or may not be a show for aunty, but it is available on the internet.  Check out first the trio ‘Una bella serenata’.  The two heroes are insolently good looking, and riding for a fall.  Then check out the two gorgeous ladies in ‘Soave sia il vento.’  The heroines and the malefactor farewell the lover boys – and, yes, it’s another two minute miracle trio.  (This one is very well known – I don’t why the Don Giovanni trio is not as well known.)  The women are as pretty as the boys, and they’re not holding back.  You can compare this with Renée Fleming, Susan Graham, and Thomas Hanson.  Then at Glyndebourne get the sextet ‘Alla bella Despinetta.’  The two idiots are in stupid disguise, and the maid (who is perfect) is in on the joke, but the women respond like country gals whose portraits get shown in Country Life.  This is adult musical comedy and it is hilarious.  Then check them when they are dotty in ‘Prendero quel brunettino.’  If you compare it to the Gardiner version, you will see the premium that is now placed on acting in this famous duet.  Then go to the uneasy bodice ripping quartet ‘E nel tuo’ before the traditional finale ‘Fortunato l’uom che prende’.

This is sensational – bravura – musical comedy, but it does come with an edge.  Perhaps, therefore, it is a show for our times.  Indeed, 2006 was a bumper year for Cosi.  The Glyndebourne production, that is part of the boxed set of the complete operas, is in my view as close to perfection as we can decently hope to get in opera.

By contrast, there is something almost holy about The Magic Flute.  Mozart was a devout Catholic and a dedicated Mason.  The two come together in a piece that combines the sacred and the profane, the farcical and the sacramental.  His accomplice for this his last opera was not Da Ponte, but an actor-manager-playwright called Schikaneder.  He was into popular theatre, and that conjunction troubles some snooty people who see themselves as purists.  Balls.  The show combines high sentiment and pantomime, and it has been admired by poets from Goethe to Auden, but it has inspired almost as much conjecture as Wagner.  The plot – about the elevation of a bird catcher – inspired the English philosopher Isaiah Berlin to fresh heights in a famous essay.  When I saw it at a matinee in the opera house on Unter den Linden, a lot of the Germans brought their neatly attired children who sounded like they enjoyed at least the panto parts.  The text is in German.

My preferred version is the EMI Classic with the great classical conductor Otto Klemperer, and a cast that includes Nicholai Gedda, Gundula Janowitz, Lucia Popp, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, and Christa Ludwig.  That is serious music and I may not recommend this show to a first timer.  Start with the overture – try Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic.  This time the fairy music is mixed with the sacramental and the result is almost symphonic.  Then try the aria ‘Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön’ with the great Placido Domingo.  Then go to Papageno’s Song.  There is a version in Swedish directed by the great Ingmar Bergman.  Then go to the finale – this is not a show that responds to fragmentation.

If you want the full Masonic treatment – this is definitely one opera that I prefer just to listen to – try Kathleen Battle at the Met in 1991.  (Battle’s behaviour was so bad the Met fired her in 1994.  She was due for a comeback in 2016.  After a stint at San Francisco, some staff wore T-shirts ‘I survived the Battle.’  She was once in a limo in New York.  She rang her agent, I think in Europe, to get him to ring the limo company to get the air con changed by the driver sitting three feet away.  Perhaps she had read too much about divas, and believed some of the propaganda.)

Well, there are Mozart’s big four.  When Rossini was asked which of his own operas he preferred, he replied ‘Don Giovanni.’  Shortly before his death, Richard Strauss put his hand upon a score of Mozart’s clarinet quintet and said ‘I would have given anything just to have written this.’  We have a kind of convention that when it comes to genius in art and letters, both as to output and as to range, there are Shakespeare and Mozart, and then there is blue sky.

Why opera? Chapter 2

[This chapter may seem prosaic to some, but from now on, it will be all systems go.]


Sources and courses

Would you be surprised to hear that the Greeks were toying with what might be called a version of opera centuries before the birth of Christ?  Aristotle had something to say about everything.  He commented on the Greek use of music in drama:

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of some action that is important, entire and of a proper magnitude – by language rendered pleasurable… language that has the embellishments of rhythm, melody and meter… In some parts, meter alone is employed, in others, melody.

About two thousand years later, Greek scholars had fled west after the fall of Istanbul in 1453.  They sought to recreate Greek drama and they worked on this in the late 1500s.  A group of these scholars in Florence looked closely at the use of music and drama.  So, we have people in Italy, and indeed especially in Florence, going back to the ancients to see how an art form might be revived – in other words, we have an example of the Italian Renaissance in action, and one that is not often noticed.

During the period of what we call the Renaissance – about, say 1400 to 1600 – we can see two strands in western music – the glorification of God, and the celebration of the harmony of the spheres.  During the period that we describe as the Baroque – about, say, 1600 to 1750 – we see the emergence and development of opera.  The actual birthplace was Venice.

The progress involved both the sacred and the profane.  Music was vital to the Mediaeval and Renaissance church.  Music had spilled out of the church into the town or village square, but then the church banned biblical representations from musical exposition.  One source of opera was removed, but there was among the profane in Europe a very strong tradition of commedia dell’arte, a stage presentation of stock figures like Harlequin and Columbine ad-libing a kind of farce, and there was a strong tradition of masques in England and of ballet in France that provided sources for the development of music drama in those countries.  (My tutorial notes for Harlequin read ‘twisted wit and the cunning of an amoral child.’)

What we now know as opera first appeared in Venice at the end of the 16th century.  A piece called Dafne was performed there before Orfeo by Monteverdi was staged at Padua in 1607.  That opera is still performed and recorded.

People also began to write oratorios after the church had taken biblical themes from the stage.  The movement crossed the channel, and in about 1689 Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell was performed in England.  The French continued to be more influenced by the dance, while in Germany Bach wrote countless cantatas and two of the great monuments of Western civilisation, the St Matthew Passion and the St John Passion.  His work for piano, The Well-Tempered Clavier, liberated the keyboard.

In Italy, they were discovering what it was for material to be musicabile – with experience, they found that for material to be capable of being set to music, they needed three things: a certain ambience, striking characters, and strong scenes.  In very broad terms, music went from moving feelings to expressing them, and in what we call the classical phase, we get orchestral colouring and the contrasts of chiaroscuro.

Now we get our first composer who is still celebrated in the opera house and the concert house, Handel, the German who settled in England.  Handel was undoubtedly a great composer, and he wrote many operas, but those operas have not commanded the same following and respect as his oratorios and orchestral works.  Mozart would free up the structure, but the profligate Handel has left us some of our most beautiful songs.

Throughout his career, Handel borrowed freely from himself.  Before the opening of the opera Rinaldo, his first London opera, Handel and his backers let it out that he had composed it in only fourteen days.  The opening at the Haymarket in 1711 was a sensation.  The Spectator said: ‘The opera of Rinaldo is filled with Thunder and Lightning, Illuminations and Fireworks.’  The composer was, as many of them had to be back then, something of an impresario.

Haydn wrote some opera, but it is hardly heard of.

Until now, the role of the singer was just to sing, with perhaps a gesture or two – acting was not yet part of the deal.  The structures of the arias and the recitative were formal and observed.  It was more like watching tableaux of gods or heroes.  Mozart would change all that, and would give us the emotions of real people.  Gluck provided a bridge, and his Alceste and Orpheus and Eurydice are still played.  Some say that Gluck’s emphasis on emotional truth could be compared to Rousseau’s view of naturalness.  Nature was coming into its own then in poetry and painting.

The Australian Opera went through a purple patch in the 1990s.  Their production of Orpheus and Eurydice in 1993 (David Hobson and Miriam Gormley) and Handel’s Julius Caesar in 1994 (Graham Pushee and Yvonne Kenny) were huge hits, and justifiably so.  The National Library holds videos of each of them.  The sets and the ballets are adventurous but wonderfully entertaining.  And you can get to see David Hobson suspended over a dancing horde climbing up a wall and Yvonne Kenny as Cleopatra taking a bath in milk.  It is hard to imagine a better night out at the theatre than either of these great AO productions.

Well, if you go to Orfeo by Monteverdi, and start at the beginning with the Toccata, you will hear the music that Kenneth Clark used for at least one episode of Civilisation.  Then in the Ritornello you get a kind of chorus called ‘Music’ who acts as a kind of prologue to set the opera up.  The music is the sound of the Renaissance.  It is tightly disciplined.

The Saint Matthew Passion is not an opera, but it is like an opera performed in concert.  As a music drama, it has never been surpassed for either drama or music.  The Evangelist acts as a kind of MC, or, if you prefer, he fulfils the role played by Joel Grey as the MC in Cabaret.  Some people will recognise tunes of Lutheran hymns, but there is absolutely no religious test for this masterpiece, which is one of the title deeds of our civilisation.  If you want to feel the awful power of a choir in music drama get the famous Chorus ‘Sind Blitze, sind Donner in Wolken verschwunden’.  It is an eruption of outrage at the arrest of Christ.  ‘Have lightning, has thunder vanished in clouds?’  In his magisterial work Bach, Music in the Castle of Heaven, the conductor and musicologist John Eliot Gardiner agrees with the proposition that this is ‘one of the most violent and grandiose descriptions of unloosed passion produced in the Baroque era.’

You may feel the passion if you see Nicholas Harnoncourt conduct this work in rehearsal.’  You may compare it to the previous Chorus with Duet, ‘So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen’ ‘So is my Jesus captured now.’  It is very hard to imagine more intense moments in music drama.  Then go to near the end of the work for a recitative with Chorus ‘Nun ist der Herr zur Rach Gebracht/ Mein Jesu, gute Nacht!’ ‘Now the Lord is brought to rest. /My Jesus, good night!’  Try the Herreweghe version (which I have) and then go to the final chorus.  It’s like a Negro spiritual.

Now try ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from Rinaldo.  Try Cecilia Bartoli.  (The castrato sings it in Farinelli, but that makes some of us nervous.   I forget whether the film shows the audience shouting ‘Long live the blade!’)

Handel’s Xerxes (or Serses) is famous for the aria ‘Ombra mai fu’ which comes early in the opera and is known as ‘Handel’s Largo.’  The Caruso recording is scratchy, but this song is one of the most popular in the repertoire, and Caruso is said by many to have been the greatest tenor ever.  And you can compare him head to head on this with Bjorling.  You might also try Franco Corelli, if only to see the film star good looks.  There are buckets of choice.

Finally, try ‘Che faro senza Eurydice’ from Orpheus and Eurydice.  You can choose between two great mezzos, Janet Baker from England or Marilyn Horne from America, or you can hear Callas sing it in French.  And don’t forget the terrific AO production.

Well, there are the stately and ordered songs of the baroque.  We now move to when that world is exploded, like a planet being hit by a shooting star.