The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘opera’

Let No One Sleep

October 18, 2016 | by

“Nessun dorma,” Donald Trump, and the best and worst of fans.

Scene from Turandot.

The hero of Turandot lurks behind the opera’s icy princess.

Ever since Jacopo Peri wrote Euridice (1600, the earliest extant European opera) to celebrate the marriage of Henri IV of France and Maria de’ Medici, opera has been ripe for political interpretation, partisanship, and misappropriation by its makers and its fans. Unfortunately, one of opera’s most fervent, prominent boosters used Richard Wagner’s music for anti-Semitic propaganda in Germany in the thirties and forties. Opera fans who aren’t Nazis—especially, perhaps, Jewish musicians—sometimes feel a little embattled about our fan community alliances and image; defensively, we latch onto more congenial fellows like hard-core Wagnerite W. E. B. Du Bois, who attended performances of Lohengrin and the Ring at Bayreuth. Or the ten-year-old fan who listened to Marian Anderson’s 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert on the radio, later wrote about it for a high school speech contest (“there was a hush on the sea of uplifted faces, black and white, and a new baptism of liberty, equality and fraternity”), and married a classical singer, Coretta Scott (who said of the New England Conservatory of Music, “This is where I knew I was supposed to be”). Or Juilliard-trained pianist Nina Simone, whose opera fandom would leave an indelible mark on Porgy and Bess and The Threepenny Opera.

Then Donald Trump joined our fan club. Last November, the fact that his rally sound track featured the late Luciano Pavarotti singing the aria “Nessun dorma” (“Let no one sleep,” from Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot) was just a weird frisson troubling opera Twitter. By July, when the Pavarotti family argued that Pavarotti’s “values of brotherhood and solidarity” were “entirely incompatible” with Trump’s worldview, none of us could ignore the aria’s message anymore: “Vincerò!” I will win! Read More »

Layla and Majnun

October 17, 2016 | by

Photo: Susana Millman, via

The choreographer Mark Morris’s latest work is a rendering of Layla and Majnun, an Azerbaijani opera composed by Uzeyir Hajibeyli in 1908. This fall it launched Cal Performance’s season, premiering at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley on September 30. Layla and Majnun may be the most exotic and obscure score that Morris (who’s renowned for his eclectic musical taste) has ever set a dance to. No doubt many in Baku would take issue with my characterizing it as exotic and obscure: Hajibeyli’s opus was the first piece of composed music created in Azerbaijan and the first opera in the Muslim world, where it’s still considered a foundational work. Its story is simple: it relates, with mystic overtones and an undeniably fatalistic worldview, the tribulations of a boy and a girl in love who are not permitted to marry and thus die of despair.

Hajibeyli based his libretto on a poem by Muhammad Fuzuli, a sixteenth-century philosopher. Fuzuli, in turn, was borrowing from a set of legends and folktales known throughout the Middle East. Unlike the tragic love stories we’re most familiar with, there’s little in the way of context, at least in this version: no tribal conflict in Verona or East Harlem, no court intrigue at Camelot or Mayerling, no sorcerer or vengeful sprite in sight. Layla’s mom and dad think, with some apparent justice, that Majnun’s a bit crazy. They marry her off to someone else. She dies. He dies. End of story. Given this, and the lack of physical consummation (one reason the tale is sometimes interpreted as an allegory of the spirit), Layla and Majnun is a relatively tame affair in terms of action, however deep its currents of feeling may run. Read More »

Black Pearls Before Swine

September 22, 2016 | by

Florence Foster Jenkins is remembered as a failed opera singer. What can we learn by listening to her today?

Florence Foster Jenkins.

When Florence Foster Jenkins made her self-financed public debut as a singer—in October 1944, when she was seventy-six—she sang “Clavelitos,” crying “Olé!” and flinging carnations at the audience in Carnegie Hall. For her encore, she had the carnations collected—and then pelted the crowd again. “Olé!” they roared back. Her friends cheered, hoping to drown out the screams of hilarity and derision.

Born in 1868 to a wealthy family in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Jenkins had been a talented child pianist. She eloped with, then separated from, a man from whom she contracted syphilis, transforming herself into a working woman who supported herself with piano lessons; an heiress; and a socialite, arts patron, and founder of the musical Verdi Club. By 1944, she may or may not have known that her invitation-only recitals and vanity recordings of operatic arias had attracted a cult following. “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing,” Jenkins famously (maybe apocryphally) said.

But soon after reading the New York Post’s damning assessment of her Carnegie Hall debut (“she can sing anything but notes”), Jenkins suffered a heart attack and, within weeks, died. Today, her notoriety endures in five plays and three films, including a new Meryl Streep movie, and in a tradition of private entertainments reminiscent of Jenkins’s own soirees: at midcentury critic and photographer Carl van Vechten’s parties, “Often the evenings were spent innocently, writhing on the floor in laughter at Florence Foster Jenkins.” Streep first heard her at a theater students’ gathering. Even I heard first Jenkins’s “Queen of the Night” over digestifs at a New York dinner party. Read More »

Inside the Volcano

September 16, 2016 | by


“Ash had fallen. Perhaps it had fallen the night before or perhaps it was still falling. I can only remember in patches.”

In 1976, three years before she died, Jean Rhys published “Heat,” an autobiographical story about the 1902 eruption of Martinique’s Mount Pelée volcano, which destroyed Saint-Pierre, then the largest city on the island. Some thirty to forty thousand people died; Rhys, who grew up nearby on Dominica, would have been eleven at the time.

Some said the disaster was divine retribution for Saint-Pierre’s moral depravity; not only was the city a haven for loose women, it had a theater and even an opera. But in the immediate aftermath, an air of grave concern fell over the region. “Nobody talked in the street, nobody talked while we ate, or hardly at all,” Rhys writes in “Heat”: “They all thought our volcano was going up.” The night after the eruption, the narrator’s mother points out the black clouds hovering over Martinique. “You will never see anything like this in your life again,” she says. When the narrator’s friends offer her a bottle of ash, she refuses to touch it. Read More »

The Power of Perfect Park Pics, and Other News

September 14, 2016 | by

Roger Minick, Woman with Scarf at Inspiration Point, Yosemite National Park, 1980. From the series ‘Sightseers’. Courtesy of the artist and George Eastman Museum. Via Hyperallergic.

  • Every morning I wake up and I turn to the computer and I ask it, Did they turn a Thomas Bernhard novel into an opera today? The answer has historically been no, which brings me down. But today the answer is yes: David Lang’s opera adaptation of The Loser made its world premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and it is, apparently, good. Francine Prose writes, “The beauty of the music makes us more intensely aware of the grief and disappointment that fuel the narrator’s anger. [Conrad] Tao’s marvelous performance and Lang’s restrained and gorgeous score are haunting reminders of what the narrator has given up. This is, after all, his whole life that he is talking about: his blighted dreams, his unrealized hopes.”
  • A new book, Picturing America’s National Parks, lives up to its name: it’s full of useful park pics, many of them perhaps not as rugged and authentic as you might expect: “Even in the nineteenth century, photographs were more propaganda than truth, conveying an idealistic vision of these ‘untouched’ lands. Eadweard Muybridge, for instance, added perfectly wispy clouds to his wet-collodion images. And notably, these landscapes were usually completely void of people, suggesting another West to be won and protected. If a person does appear, they are a tiny specter dwarfed by the grandeur of nature, and they are certainly not indigenous. There are plenty of ladies in full skirts strolling with parasols among the burbling springs of Yellowstone or the mountains of Yosemite, but no images of the tribes that had inhabited many of these regions for centuries.” 

Read More »

How Do I Live? I Live.

August 8, 2016 | by

La bohème, live at Attica State Correctional Facility.

The mess hall at Attica Correctional Facility, 1977. Photo (c) Karl R. Josker. Used with permission.

Opera audiences are all the same. There are always two bald guys seated in the third row, whispering a phrase-by-phrase critique. Someone cups his ear, frustrated by the hall’s faulty acoustics. Everyone looks daggers at the miscreant whose phone interrupts an aria. And some listeners sit with their hands folded under their chins, eyes half-closed in reverie. One man perches literally on the edge of his seat, listening with his whole body; his chest seems to swell with the singers’ every breath. Afterward, I’m not surprised when he says that, before today, “I didn’t know that Latinos do opera,” but “for a brief fifteen minutes, I was up there, I was singing.”

On August 2, performers from the Glimmerglass Festival, the summer opera festival based in upstate Cooperstown, New York, hit the road for a one-hour matinee of excerpts from Giacomo Puccini’s lush, popular opera about Parisian artists, friends, and lovers, La bohème (1896). The cast waited onstage, in costume, while an audience numbering about 150 took their seats: emerging from the cellblocks, they’d walked, in double rows, in groups of no more than forty, through several barred gates into the hall. Officers armed with batons ringed their seats, forming a standing-room only section. At the conclusion of the concert, when inmates leapt to their feet for a standing ovation, two officers shifted closer together, eyeing them: the ones who’d risen sat down immediately. We were at Attica State Correctional Facility. Read More »