Tom Minter's Off The Stoop Blog

a playwright's journey, creating, connecting, and conversing.

Archive for the ‘Opera Education’ Category

In The Smoke Of The Sting .. a journey of ‘otherness’ for Pianist & Baritone

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..woke now -to the changes in directions buffeting country and personal journey..

Fully woke. And working.

It is my honor to be in process of collaborating with two esteemed artists -Ms Dana Kristina-Joi Morgan, and Jarrod Lee- in a performance piece I have written for Washington National Opera entitled “In The Smoke Of The Sting”, a music journey which threads the words, determination, and courage of three Champion boxers -Joe Louis, Emile Griffith and Muhammad Ali- through music and poetry, and arias from operas written about these men.
The intimacy of this salon piece invites us all to experience the nature of discrimination that was a daily fight to these men, who endured the truth that being titled ‘Champion’ did little to stop the public’s disquiet at such prominent ‘otherness’.
Current dates/locations of presentation that I will update should there occur any changes:
2/14/2017, 10:30 am, Anacostia Library
2/15/2017, 12:00 pm, National Postal Museum
2/18/2017, 2:00 pm, Takoma Park Library
2/22/2017, 10:30 am, Francis Gregory Library
2/24/2017, 6:00 pm, The Sitar Arts Center
2/26/2017, 3:00 pm, Westminster Presbyterian Church
2/28/2017, 7:00 pm, Shaw Library
3/1/2017, 7:00 pm, Petworth Library
3/2/2017, 2:00 pm, Bellevue Library
3/7/2017, 7:00 pm, Woodridge Library
3/9/2017, 7:00 pm, Mount Pleasant Library
3/14/2017, 7:00 pm, The Hill Center
…the energy and focus of Dana and Jarrod speak to how fierce artists work under & through all conditions – and capture attention, with fierce artistry!

Embracing my Geek!

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…well, I’m embracing my Geek -as come to find out, I get rather squirrelly when it comes to things opera -but especially when it comes to things touching on Verdi, his contemporaries and associates..
On the bookshelves in the back of my mind, I keep a catalogue of operas that I would love to find recordings of, as they are, invariably, operas no one would ever do live -being too obscure; too costly; too much of a dig into musical depths of history..!
Foremost on my list is an opera that was written by Franco Faccio.
Faccio was a schoolmate of Arrigo Boito; Boito came to be the librettist for Verdi, and created the librettos to two of the maestro’s greatest works: Otello and Falstaff, both after Shakespeare..
-but Faccio; I knew that Boito had written a libretto, based on Hamlet (Amletto) for faccio, who composed an opera from it – charting a course of much tribulation, and no more than two serious productions, which did not come off very well; but Boito, and Verdi as well, had great faith in Faccio (who, incidentally, went on to be an amazing conductor; on the podium at the premieres of Verdi’s operas Aida and Otello).
..-sorry- (squirreling about in the Geek)..
It has been many years that this work has intrigued me, especially for all the godparents at its birth.. But I’d never imagined coming across anything on the opera .. as it’s far too obscure..
So imagine my surprise in receiving a flier from Opera Delaware (-who- honestly- I’d never signed up to received anything from) alerting me to their season this year – which includes a full production of Faccio’s opera AMLETTO!!
..the history alone and convolutions of this work’s inception and initial productions, makes this event of great importance..

And as Washington National Opera mount their Ring cycle, it is also heartening to know that there remain companies who wish to investigate .. adventurous ..if potentially ruinous, journeys which resonate full of the ‘unknown’.. and envelope a willing audience in the rich tapestry of Italian opera history.. Thank you, Opera Delaware!

Cedar Hill

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..it was in 2010 when I was first at Cedar Hill having created an enrichment program for Washington National Opera, in collaboration with DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities. That presentation was called Black Women In Opera Celebrate Black Women In Community.

On October 24 2015 there is to be another gathering at Cedar Hill, with new partners and ongoing collaborators. This event is an original enrichment for Stanford in Washington, and is being shared as programming enrichment with Stanford in New York; to be creating for these two constituencies of students is a marvel for me, as well as an incredible opportunity for facilitating connection to DC history, as well as threads of a national, historical narrative, through the life of the last resident owner of Cedar Hill, Frederick Douglass.

Several skeins of education weave through this event, by way of Douglass.

In November 2015 WNO is mounting a production of Philip Glass’ opera Appomattox. Though its initial incarnation was premiered in 2007 with the San Francisco Opera, there was work to be done on the piece and the Washington National Opera commissioned Glass to re-visit it. It is this reimagined creation which will receive its premiere in DC.

With this unique event I found myself in a position to pull several threads of opportunity into one tapestry; SIW has kept to a track of offering enrichment programming on issues and paradigms of diversity. In seeking to further expand their students’ view into contextualizing conversations on race, civil liberty, and our nation’s gripping tatter, into the harrowing march of civil war, the fact of the opera and the site of Cedar Hill became cause of a mutual exposition.

Cedar Hill was Frederick Douglass’ house and acknowledged home from 1877 to 1895. Here he would often have evenings of song performed in his parlor with the windows opened wide, so that his community could enjoy the music too. This was a purposeful exchange of society, as it was meant to offer opportunity to singers and musicians of color, so that all could see that music, in itself, held no barriers, but was available to be performed for anyone who would take it up.

Douglass, a man of exacting proportions of intellect and endeavor, by the late 1800’s was very widely traveled and accustomed to a wide variety of music; he shared knowledge easily, and with a deliberate taste for assortment.

Salon opportunities of socializing at his home included the music of spirituals as well as ‘parlor songs’ -a term for the American response to the fashion of European ‘art songs’, and performed by singers in the intimate settings of recitals, or salons.

Here are some selections of spirituals, and ‘parlor songs’ that might have had moment on Cedar Hill.

 

 All God’s Chillum Got Wings -Spiritual

Ain’t That Good News -Spiritual

Think On Me -composed (1850’s) by Alicia Ann Scott

 

Douglass would have heard original “art songs” in his traveling through Europe, and during the period of 1885 – 1887 he would have come across the songs of Johannes Brahms who was contemporary to this time, prolific and well known as a composer of the German art song called “lied”..

 

Sommerabend – composed (1885) by Johannes Brahms

 

At twilight the summer evening lies

Over green fields and forest;

Golden moon in the blue sky

Shines down, hazy, fragrantly refreshing.

By the brook chirps the cricket,

And the waters are stirring,

And the wanderer hears a ripple

And a breathing in the stillness.

Yonder, alone, by the brook,

The beautiful mermaid is bathing;

Arm and neck, white and lovely,

Shimmer in the moonlight.

 

Though not heard on Cedar Hill, Charles Ives is an American composer creating at the beginning of the 20th century. He took the many models of Europe, but sieved the form through American folk music and American ethnic rhythms into a style of classical interpretation that spoke of American origins and ‘soundscapes’.

Ives utilized the model of ‘art song’ to inform a growing musical language, reaching into atonality.

 

Afterglow –composed (1922) by Charles Ives

 

Moving forward into the musical landscape of American composer Philip Glass ..

Appomattox presents us with many of the characters of the civil war period, but central to this narrative is the character of Frederick Douglass. In its entirety  the opera skews time and weaves a tale that presents dynamics of power, with issues of civil liberty, through an assortment of historical characters that include President Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, as well as President Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

Philip Glass’ musical idiom is essentially referred to as “minimalism”, in that his use of orchestration and rhythmic dynamics are spare and utilized to accentuate and articulate patterns of speech and sketch specific emotion.

At first fully embracing this style of idiom, Glass, as he progressed from enfant terrible, to eminence grise, emended his identity to that of “being a composer of music with repetitive structures”.

These are some samples of Glass’ music.

The piece, Dance, was created in 1979, and was a work done in collaboration with Lucinda Childs (choreographer) and Sol LeWitt (artist); it was premiered in Amsterdam, then at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

 

Dance 8 – composed (1979) by Philip Glass

 

Moving closer to composition of Appomattox, Glass’ Symphony No.8 was written in 2006.

 

Symphony No.8  – 1st movement (partial) -composed (2006) by Philip Glass

During the program at Cedar Hill on the 24th October, along with a selection of parlor songs performed by local performing artists, there will be selections from Appomattox presented as well.

..in seeking to create this full program I have revisited a great deal of Douglass’ writings and speeches..

These are two which resonate with the wide dynamics of compassion and Abolitionist fire that was embodied within the man..

 

Douglass the Abolitionist; content of ‘July 4th’ speech (1852)

 

Douglass as Statesman; giving the oration at the unveiling of the Freedmen’s Monument, in Lincoln Park (1876)

Verdi and NABUCCO; crossing into genius..

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The Washington National Opera Company has a rousing new production of Nabucco on the boards, and ahead of going to see it, the current alert crop of students, at Stanford in DC, endured a luncheon lecture of mine..

_______

In the cult of opera, there are always stories. Opera, by its very nature, is a heightened species; it’s all about the drama –even if it’s comedy.

..but in the deep aisles of history, there is one man in particular who stood on his life as one vast opportunity, and single mindedly honed his musical expression into works that became the yardstick of style and composition, which then stood as measure for future generations of Italian composers, and more often than not, left them short, or insignificant in comparison..

This man was Giuseppe Verdi.

Verdi was born in 1813; he died on the 27th January, 1901.

As a person Verdi could never be considered a ‘humble’ man, but being from country stock, he was –direct; earthy; clear eyed; shrewd; determined; disciplined; calculating; innovative; hard working; honorable -Italian; and each of those qualities, defines his operas, especially the ones which are based in the observations of frailty, and the dignity required to overcome such affliction.. La Traviata; Don Carlo; Aida.. grand works, based in the chambers of the human heart..

In the early years, there was only groping towards an ill defined future.. up, through the general publics’ common taste, and the byzantine permissions required of the foreign powers which ruled the land..

Italy was not a unified country at Verdi’s birth, but by the mid point of his fame, this man’s name was on the lips of every Italian, as acknowledgement of genius, and more seditious, as acronym for unification: Viva V-E-R-D-I [Vittorio Emmanueal, Re di Italia].

Verdi was born in a village in the Duchy of Parma, a land under French authority and dominion; his birth was registered with the French civil authorities. Within a few years, the Duchy of Parma was lost to Austrian advances, and in the transfer of power, things Italian were further subsumed.

As a young adult Verdi found a patron in the nearby town of Busetto, in the guise of a very paternal businessman –Antonio Barezzi.

Barezzi’s investment of love and fortune paid off in Verdi; the young man loved, and married, his patron’s eldest daughter, Margherita, on May 4th, 1836. She gave birth to their first child, a girl, Virginia Maria, in 1838; she had their second, a boy, Icilio Romano, in 1839.

In this period of time –between 1836 and 1839, Verdi’s operatic career ignited; though not as yet of a readily identifiable ‘style’, Verdi’s musicianship mastered and manipulated the conventions of the music of the day.

It is clear, in his first opera, that he was trying to make his own way, through the style of the leading, serious, composer of the period –Saverio Mercadante; but Verdi was also sensitive to the currents of Romanticism and melody, mastered by Bellini and Donizetti.

These composers’ works were predominant on the stages of Italy, in the various duchies and territories of occupation; as a matter of fact, the musical struggle for dominance was very heated; Rossini was out of the picture, in operatic composition; Bellini had died, suddenly, in 1835 –and Donizetti, in the fall of that same year, had tossed opera convention on its head with the sensation of Lucia di Lammermoor.

Verdi, who was 23 years old in 1835, was strong enough of a composer to want to strike a chord in his own vein –but smart enough to look to currying patronage and public support; his first opera, Oberto, which premiered in 1839, makes its way between the ‘symphonic’ darkness, prevalent in the period’s works of Mercadante, and the thrust of melody in the rousing style of Donizetti.

Though not considered a sensation, Oberto squarely hit the mark; it promoted his name in the ranks of potential masters, in the landscape of opera.

With the public’s pleasure of this work, and the clear promise of a great future, Verdi was signed by Tito Ricordi, head of the publishing house, Casa Ricordi; Verdi would make the fortune of this company, who, to this day, retain the rights to many of the composer’s work.

Simultaneously Verdi was signed to a contract by Bartelomeo Merelli, impresario at the prestigious opera house la Scala, in Milan; the contract committed the composer to write three further operas at 8 month intervals!

With Verdi’s name creating a stir, Merelli wasn’t going to waste a moment in getting the composer’s next work onstage!

This was to be a comedy; Un giorno di regno –“One Day to Reign”. But from the outset, Verdi was struggling against personal tragedy.

In August of 1838, nearing the end of composition on Oberto, Verdi’s daughter, Virginia, died; she was 18 months old. Then in 1839, after the premiere of Oberto, his son died; he was 15 months old.

Carrying this weight, Verdi engaged in fulfilling the contract with Merelli –but in June of 1840, the composer’s wife, Margherita, died, at the age of 26.

His comedy was scheduled for premiere that September.

Verdi had to be forced to fulfill the contract; opening night was a fiasco. Verdi never heard a note of that opera again in his lifetime.

This period of debilitating hardship and loss left the composer near emotional collapse. He was convinced his life –artistic and emotional- was over.

In the wake of the ridicule over Un giorno di regno, Verdi entombed himself in despair and a gloom of death.

In desolate frame of mind, he wanted to be out of his contract, and pleaded with various contacts in Milan’s music circles, to speak with Merelli and make this happen.

Merelli, often unscrupulous, and always demanding, managed to hold himself in check, and tread a different course with his young composer; he was casual about the next work, in fulfillment of the contract, and bided his time and wit to find the right moment to seduce Verdi into moving forward.

The story of this set of circumstances is almost legend; but the mythology, in this case, is true.

..the libretto, of Nabucco, had first been presented to a different composer of the day –Otto Nicolai (creator of Die Lustige Weib von Windsor), who had unceremoniously turned it down.

Merelli was stuck; he’d already paid for the libretto, and now had no composer to fashion it.

One cold afternoon, while walking Verdi through the streets of Milan, Merelli casually complained; he muttered something about a “stunning” libretto, crafted by an eminent librettist, Solera; and crabbed that Nicolai was a “German” and a fool; Merelli stated that the work was written to inflame the imagination of a good composer, but that a ‘great one”, could be catapulted to the heights of success if he took it in hand.

Verdi would not be swayed; but Merelli overrode the composer’s indifference, and stuffing the libretto into the pocket of Verdi’s overcoat, waved him off, saying “-go on, go on. It won’t do you any harm. Read it and then bring it back to me again.”

Verdi tells this story, and relates that, on his way home from the encounter, he felt a sudden and immense weight of debilitating sadness and distress. By the time he got home, the feelings in him focused on the libretto, and turned malevolent; he violently threw the work on the table in his room, and in a vertigo of emotion, stood looking down on the page opened before him; he stared at the page for some moments, before realizing that he was reading one line over and over again –the line was “Va, pensiero, sull’ ali dorate”..

..”Fly thought, on wings of gold”..

What struck him, was that the words were almost a perfect paraphrase, out of Psalm 137 from the bible, which he had been comforting himself with in this period..

He continued reading; then broke away, closed the manuscript, and went to bed –where he could not remain; got up, read the libretto, beginning to end, several times, and then several times more, so that by morning, he virtually knew it by heart.

Even so –he returned it to Merelli, but had to admit that the work was “beautiful”.

Merelli, scenting victory, agreed, and seductively offhanded, encouraged Verdi to keep it. And set it to music.

Verdi balked –but Merelli baited him, by saying that it was a useless piece to him, and Verdi might as well keep it for exercise.

Verdi continued to hesitate –but again Merelli shoved the libretto into the composer’s over coat pocket –and this time, shoved him out of his office!

Verdi returned to his rooms, and, in his own words –“..one day one verse, another day another, here a note and there a phrase, little by little the opera was composed.”

Nabucco was completed by the autumn of 1841, and was set for performance in the Carnival season that fall.

Now it was Merelli who balked; he did not want to jeopardize a critical season of making money, as he had already engaged well know composers for work; Verdi insisted, however, because he knew that the roster of singers that Merelli had enlisted for the winter Carnival season, were the best and most talented artists of the day –and Nabucco –Nabucco would only make a sensation, if it had the right artistic, experienced singers in the lead roles.

Verdi got his way.

Nabucco premiered at La Scala on the 9th March, 1842.

As I mentioned earlier, at the time of this opera’s premiere, Italy was a collection of fiefdoms and foreign powers; Milan, was under Austrian dominion, and for most Italians of the day, the concept of “Italy” –did not exist.

Not until the impact of Garibaldi, and the successive efforts (from 1848 – 1860) to remove foreign powers from Italian soil, did the full sense of “unification” start to engage the average Italian, and make every moment of song an opportunity to inflame that passion.

Even so, already in 1842, as public policy, the Austrian authorities of Milan did not permit encores to be given at the opera house; they felt it encouraged demonstrations of civil expression- that only heightened, already overwrought Italian passions.

But on that night of Nabucco’s premiere, something extraordinary happened; there was an encore –because the opera house went wild.

The story is that the encore was Va pensiero..

This gained ground as myth, with the patriotic passions of the Risorgimento, as its ideals were in the subsequent chorus of the piece, and its reminiscence of a “lost country”..

“Va, pensiero, sull’ ali dorate..

..oh mia patria si bella e perduta!

Oh membranza si cara e fatal!”

 

Fly thought, on wings of gold..

..oh, my country so beautiful and lost!

Oh, remembrance so dear and so fatal!

 ..the story that this was encored makes for rousing mythology, but it is not the most accurate truth; the chorus that was encored that night was “Immenso Jehovah!” sung by the Hebrew slaves to celebrate their deliverance.

However it is true, that in 1901, as Verdi’s funeral cortege passed onto a boulevard in Milan, the crowd of thousands spontaneously, and almost as one voice, moved to sing Va pensiero..

..there’s also something else that has been overwhelmed by the dust and distance of history; a comment made by Otto Nicolai, the composer who first tossed aside the libretto of Nabucco.

His own career had endured an operatic fiasco, in 1841, and he’d had to cancel his contract with Merelli, and leave Italy.

The next year in Vienna, when the composer learned of Nabucco’s success, Nicolai commented that “Verdi’s operas are really horrible.. ..he scores like a fool –technically he is not even professional, and he must have the heart of a donkey; and in my view he is a pitiful, despicable composer.. –(that) opera is nothing but rage, invective, bloodshed and murder!”

….you know, by the standards of the day, there is a grain of truth in Nicolai’s tirade; as a young composer, Verdi music was brash, and new; but the texture was what best suited the material.

As he gained in stature, and was able to craft the works he wished (rather than ones he was contracted to do), Verdi’s manner of “orchestral directness” helped create a new genre of drama, especially exemplified by his last two great operas, both of which were based on Shakespeare.

Otello, Verdi’s penultimate work, cemented the direction of Italian opera to a course that reached far into the future; not only pointing the way into the meaty style of verismo (later mastered by composers such as Mascagni, Giordano, Ponchielli and Puccini), but with his last opera, Falstaff, Verdi’s musical palette contained the orchestral colors of a 20th century style of composition; it flies on word pointing and wit, sustained by music of thematic flexibility and conciseness; key features of the intimate operas of  Richard Strauss, such as Intermezzo, and Capriccio..

In hindsight, we have the whole truth of Verdi’s unique gifts.

And the reality, that the fruit of his genius was established with this particular work, which had grabbed his own heart, when he first felt the power of the words..

..va pensiero..

…touching the past

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These days of instant ‘access’, where information remains available for placing and plucking in the ‘cloud’, and history can be found in motion at You Tube, museums, to my mind, seem often to be overstepped, and their place as primary sources that can offer more visceral ‘context’ to an investigation of history or excavation of information, are second thoughts for the average Indiana Jones..

…but there remains something almost mystical in the act of walking into an edifice that contains exhibitions of the past, where you know that artifacts and tangible effects of crucial detail and consequence lay in subbasements, in temperature controlled environments, sequenced, dormant..

For me, being able to ‘touch’ the past, to have it in its original ‘state’, tangible in the same space where I am, is an opportunity to revel in imagination of a previous moment in time; this is the excitement that I have connected to, in my exploration of the soprano Madame Lillian Evanti.

Madame Lillian Evanti

..she was a native Washingtonian, born, Annie Wilson Lillian Evans; in the first phase of her professional life, Miss Evans taught kindergarten in DC Public Schools; subsequently, in the heart of her passion as a singer,  married, she took the stage name of Evanti (a conflation of her maiden name, and the initial letters of her husband’s –“Tibbs”) creating the European flare of her moniker; having studied music and dedicating herself to the bright flame of her voice, Madame Evanti left American, and conquered Europe with a premiere in Delibes’ opera Lakme, in Nice, France, in 1925.

All this information is readily available online; what is not, is the full portrait of this woman, whose character, drive, network, self-promotion and artistic acumen, made her a true African American pioneer -in a music art form that most of America, at the time, considered (at the most ‘generous’ end of the spectrum) incompatible for negroes.

Wishing to discern the nuances of temperament, and the details of thought that sculpted her life’s journey, I reached out to the Anacostia Smithsonian Museum who are the curators of Madame Evanti’s papers and artifacts, to be found in the Evans-Tibbs collection.

Jennifer Morris is the archivist and she facilitated my visit, maneuvering us down tight back hallways, and through a maze of stored exhibition furniture.. up, past corridors lined with offices, and across stairwells with large picture windows that looked out into the winter meadow surrounds of the museum.. and ultimately leading to a short hall at the end of which was the Archive Reading Room.

The rectangular space was chilled and bright; a long wood table with chairs took up the majority of the space.

On a steel gurney, ready for perusal, were three cartons of material from the collection..

I arrived at 10AM; I left that room at 12:45PM, having not looked at the clock once, far too astonished and aware of the items passing through my hands..

There were many nuggets of discovery waiting for me in these cartons; one in particular widened my eyes: in a nondescript manila folder, marked “Correspondence”, I came upon a small, short letter, on personalized light grey/blue stationary..

Written in ink, in swift, wide character, Madame Evanti’s handwriting appeared as breathless as her note; dated “1932”, she wrote to her mother in short sentences, ‘whispering’ the unheard of event of “a private audition with Giulio Gatti-Cassazza” (then General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera); she went on to exhort her mother “not to mention it to anyone”, as it was “unusual” and a “private audition”; she wrote that she was going to perform two arias, both Bellini -one from I Puritani, the other from La Sonnambula. She went on to mark in afterthought, in the margin of the note, that Tullio “Serafin has prepared them” with her, and that she was also “going to be there with Tetrazzinni”, the (world famous) soprano, who was a supporter. After her audition, she would be “going to hear Roland Hayes”.

..the files illuminated the diverse musical ‘questing’ and scope of this artist, as the cartons I perused included Madame Evanti’s copies of her music scores, each full of notations; her comments on the front piece of her copy of Die Meistersinger  was: “..Collosal score ..Monumental work ..Comic opera ..Majestic music set & stage..”

There were also notated scores for Seigfried; Tannhauser; Lucia di Lammermoor; Cosi fan tutte; Parsifal; Le Coq d’Or; and Gli Ugnotti -the Italian translation of Meyerbeer’s, French opera, Les Huguenots.

..and at the end of the first session of research, I discovered Madame Evanti the composer; several of her works were in the files, written out in her hand. Some –immense and choral; other’s pieces for “public occassions”..

There were songs for children as well, tender, spirited, and clearly written with her own child in mind..

I hope to “premiere” one of these songs, in the February presentation.

..but here’s a lingering thought on Lakme, in a modern performance:

In a different context..

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Incorporated into the WNO/Kennedy Center/DC Public School “Creating Opera” program, is a presentation of an operatic work, out of the WNO season, which is reduced to a one hour, kid friendly, bite size performance.

This year’s presentation is Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte –an operatic jewel, refracting a dissection of characters; a comedy, and a six hander: 2 sisters, their 2 lovers, a rumpled philosopher, and a maid.

In brief: the philosopher baits the 2 lovers to test the fidelity of their girlfriends; the men, staunch in their belief in the steadfast character of their loves, agree to impersonate a pair of foreigners, and test the other’s amour..

The first assault fails; the ladies remain faithful –but with the cunning connivance of the maid, who has tossed in her lot with the philosopher, the stakes are raised, and the game gets heated; one lady falls to persistence, going so far as to hand over a locket (given to her by her lover), to be used as goad by her new beau, behind her back, in the face of her old one!  The second sister is then assailed with passion, fueled by a deep furnace of vengeance, to which she succumbs.

In the end, all is revealed, and the wisdom of the age is collected in the refrain: cosi fan tutte..

Loosely translated to mean, ‘they’re like that’, but taken in context and application, comes closer to –“women are like that” –fickle, ‘flatterable’, and fawning, failing.. but loveable, if they are accepted as fragile and not tested.

..I did mention that this was a comedy, didn’t I? Yes; a comedy of 18th century manners, humor and social comment, that continues to vex easy distaste by cutting close to the bone of sexual politics, and political incorrectness. An uneasy romp under the yoke of Mozart’s mastery, driving our ears to savor a musical landscape of searing and volatile emotional complexities, that can wring and anger our heart..

At first I wondered how best to offer this meal to 5th graders, and wondered further how they would take it..

I tried not to shade my synopsis of the basic elements of the story with my own 21st century lens; I did put the bare bones forward..

And in response-..in one class, the 5th graders rounded up the story as one on issues of friendship; they then created a list of the attributes of a ‘good friend’ –  loyalty; trustworthiness; caring; honesty – which instantly begged the question if these were attributes the men in “Cosi” exampled; there was a resounding, emphatic, and very disapproving choral cry of “no”!

To a person, these students felt that the actions of the Philosopher, who instigated this test –which they argued was more of a “bet” than “experiment”- was probably someone who had had “his heartbroken”, which left him “angry with love”, and ready to sour anything that even looked like happiness!

In another class of 5th graders, they argued the point that the philosopher, though “deceitful”, was not entirely to blame for the carnage of what transpired thereafter; they argued that the women had some responsibility, but that it was the men who were most at fault, as it was the men who could have turned their back on “bad friendship” and the suggestions of the philosopher. And they went further, totting up a list of attributes, that the philosopher exhibited that should have given fair warning to the men that he was a bad influence, and was working with “bad judgment”.

Even more interesting was the discussion that broke out in this class when it came to speaking about the maid’s involvement; half the class at first lumped this girl with deceitful complicity –until the other half, put her “social position” into context, pointing out that she was a “maid to the women”, and probably suffered under their general selfishness, and daily orders. They recognized that the maid might look at this alliance, with the philosopher, as “opportunity” to pay back her mistresses with some “bad behavior” of her own. Once that point had been made, the class, as a whole, stepped back from blaming the maid for anything, except taking advantage of the opportunity.

In the end, it all, always, came back to the men..

And that’s when the conversation really grabbed hold, and lead to the opportunity of speaking about “free will”, and the choices we make in life.. that elicited current examples of “peer pressure”, and conversation on the daily hurdles students face to be true to their own convictions..

.. in a different context, it seems that the art form is reasserting its universality; Kettle has given their chip the ‘uptick’ of being better than the rest, and not just a potato chip, through a new series of commercials, without a spoken word of dialogue:

 

.. oddly enough I find myself relieved by all this; not only is an opera written in 1790 engaging 5th grade students in 2011, proving itself as relevant and opportune with fodder for conversation, comment and unease, as it had originally.. but the art form has again merged with  contemporary humor, offering its unique convention for broad entertainment and connection..

Written by tomminteroffthestoop

November 6, 2011 at 2:11 PM

Passing on the fudge..

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Classes have begun; public schools and DC colleges. And, luckily, I find myself engaged in dealings with both!

Last week I gave an introductory lecture on Tosca to the incoming class of Stanford in DC, an opera they are going to see at the Kennedy Center this Friday evening.

..the class had started the morning touring, visiting monuments, and the Mall, and being given a succinct orientation in neighborhoods and institutional layouts.

I wanted to start the talk with some trivia; some delicious entry into the ’suspension of disbelief’ the art form requires..

..so many famous dubious accounts of peril and mayhem are associated with Tosca; there is the one of a very rotund and famous soprano: in the last scene, warbling her way to the highest reaches of the set’s parapet, turning to the audience, unleashing the note perfect cry of exit, and leaning into her fall off the rampart of the Castel Saint Angelo, ostensibly to her death – only, in fact, to reappear, in the reflex of a prodigious ‘bounce’ off the trampoline meant to catch her!

.. and then there is the folklore; an instance with Tito Gobbi and Birgit Nilsson, a pair of singers who always delivered performances of chilling vocal excellence, and, in the case of Gobbi, a perfect portrayal of evil.. His Baron Scarpia was an unwavering concentration of a malignant soul, driven by his lust for Tosca, and his determination, if not of conquering her, then cornering her into submission to his desire..

..one hot performance at the Met, in New York, as Tosca strained to discern some way out of the predicament of Scarpia’s intentions, her hand fell upon the knife, left beside the plate of the Baron’s unfinished dinner, and snatching it aloft –the diva found herself plunging a stiff,  unripe banana into Gobbi’s chest!! He was forced to die –the libretto required it, as did the momentum of Puccini’s music –but it was with some ghost of a glint of unease, no doubt in the hope that the audience would be attached to the act of his murder, and not the instrument of his death..

Or the mess of pulp left on his waistcoat.

-…then there was the Tosca where the prop person had forgotten to lay out the knife, on the dinner table, for the diva to “discover”.. and the poor intrepid singer found herself with her fingers in the jam pot –literally- and maintaining that gift for managing the impossible, flung a handful of jam into her Scarpia’s face! Her Baron, au fait with improvisation, did not hesitate, and cried “-murder –murder –the jam is poisoned!” -in Italian of course, perfectly in tempo; and exhibiting the agony of arsenic poisoning, died on cue.

For many of the Stanford students, this opportunity of an evening at the opera is their first contact with the art form..

In the end, I didn’t relate any the ephemera of devoted opera gossip, and chuckle, but told them the story of Puccini’s heroine, and how this opera is one of the hinges, which couples the end of the 19th century, to the 20th.

The opera was based on the play, La Tosca, written in 1887 by the French playwright, Victorien Sardou.

Puccini saw the play in an Italian translation, presented by a touring company in 1889; he didn’t receive the rights to the work, until 1895.

On the evening of the 14th January 1900, Puccini’s opera, Tosca, premiered in Rome.

In 1901, almost exactly one year later, in an uncanny moment of ‘succession’, the acknowledged master of Italian opera, Giuseppe Verdi, died; Puccini was seen as his heir, and Tosca, playing throughout the world, was the work which moved Italian opera into a new era, fully fusing music and theatre, into a unison of dramatic purpose, unheard of before that time..

The heart of this work beats with passion and violence; murder and ecstasy; revolution and religion; it covers 24 hours of life, in less than 2; its musical landscape is lush, passionate, descriptive, wrenching, violent, and frenzied enough, to keep an audience on the edge of their seat, through scenes of torture and attempted rape..

..But for me, Puccini’s most dramatic masterful instant comes in his abrupt halting of the action of Cavaradossi’s torture, to give one precious moment’s respite to Tosca (and the audience), allowing her a fervent prayer, that gives perfect compass of this woman’s borders- in life, in love, in belief..

Vissi d’arte. Vissi d’amore… out of which the story, and our protagonists, hurtle to their imminent destinies..

Written by tomminteroffthestoop

September 21, 2011 at 12:14 PM