What A Production!

What A Production!

I am a musician.  Actually, there are lots of things you could call me, some flattering and many not.  Among all the hats I wear, I see myself as a musician and composer.  I write music because I am compelled to.  One of the things I have tried to do with this blog is share my love and enthusiasm for some of the music I love, point out some of the things I am listening to, and inspire enough interest for the kind reader to take the time to listen as well.  

For the last few months I have immersed myself in the music and operas of Mozart, then moving on to a larger world of opera.  Much of my experience is in the world of instrumental music, and there is little on the season long programs of my local Detroit Symphony Orchestra that I have not heard at least once before.  It must be obvious that I am first drawn to the operatic repertoire because of the music.  The composer of the opera is the person I identify with, admire, and hope to emulate (or at least steal from 🙂 ).  Much that I have written concentrates on the composer and the music.

Opera 101Familiarizing myself with different operas used to be a very expensive habit.  My own adventures as an opera autodidact began with the Fred Plotkin book Opera 101, A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera.  Mr. Plotkin has done a marvelous job of conveying his vast experience and love of opera.  In addition to introducing us to eleven different operas that span the entire range of the repertoire, Plotkin walks us through specific recordings and points out moments for us to pay special attention to.  Back then, I had to purchase each recording on compact disc, which would cost $40 or $50 each.  The recording mercifully included a libretto, although in the tiniest print imaginable.  I dutifully worked my way through all eleven recordings, usually one act each evening, and built a deep love and appreciation for opera.  I started going to my local productions at the then newly renovated Detroit Opera House.  My seats at the time were in the very last row of the balcony, with no one behind me and only three seats available to the right of me.  I loved every minute of it, but alas budget concerns limited the amount of time I could spend listening to opera.

In recent times, I have been blessed with much more access to video and audio recordings of operatic performances.  I haven’t actually looked, but I am guessing that the exact eleven recordings that Mr. Plotkin recommends in his book are now all available on Spotify.  Instead of the approximately $600 I spent to purchase compact discs, you can hear them all for a mere $9 a month, or for free if you can stand the commercial interruptions.  Libretti are not expensive on Amazon, and even less expensive if you order a used copy of the little books.  Today, I could work through my little self taught independent study of Plotkin’s book for the money I spent on only one of the recommended recordings (which are all wonderful, I assure you).

librettoSimply listening to the music will expose you to some of the most gorgeous melodies ever written.  Listening to the music with the libretto will open up a world of understanding that really begins to give a sense of the operatic experience, especially if you are not a native speaker of the language being sung.  The real key to getting a taste of the experience of going to the opera house is watching video recordings.  Fans of opera are simply rabid about their favorite singers and productions, and it is with video that you begin to get a feel for what they love about a trip to the opera.  Moreover, subtitles in English (for me) are a key to enjoying the production as it happens.  I can read a short synopsis of the action, familiarize myself with the characters, and off I go.  

Opera is after all, and above all, theater.  The composer is the real dramatist, but the ultimate experience is shaped by the librettist, the composer, the conductor, the singers (who are now also actors), and the actual production.  Every production is different, and some directors give traditional settings that follow a vision of the original performances.  Other directors look to put their own spin on things, and reimagine the setting and costumes entirely.  For many, the Gestalt of the experience of opera includes dressing up for the evening, going to a beautiful opera house, seeing gorgeous costumes, beautiful sets, hearing some of the best music and singing in service to some of the most dramatic stories ever put on stage.  Having the life experience of seeing an opera live very much enriches the imagination when listening to audio recordings later.  

One example of the many different ways for directors to interpret opera can be shown using a few clips from Mozart’s Idomeneo.  Idomeneo, re di Creta is a story of ancient Greece, an opera seria composed by Mozart wherein the King of Crete, Idomeneo, has his life saved from a shipwreck by Neptune in exchange for a promise to sacrifice the next person he sees to the god of the sea.  Being a Greek tragedy, the next person he sees is his son, Idamante.  One way for a director to put on this production would be to create costumes and scenery that look like a vision of ancient Greece.  I would call the production in the following video a very traditional interpretation of the opera, from the Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 1974.

Idomeneo, Glyndebourne Festival Opera 1974

The Idomeneo from the Salzburg festival of 2006 is a very different production.  The word that comes to mind to describe it is minimalist.  It has a very lean and modern look.  The front half of the stage has been built out around the orchestra pit, so much of the action happens on this lighted sidewalk encircling a dark hole.  The only thing that can be seen in the center of the stage is the tops of the double basses and occasionally the thinning hair on the top of Sir Roger Norrington’s head as he conducts.  The costumes are likewise simple, with poor Ilia spending the entire opera in a white potato sack.  I don’t know that I would get the feeling that this story was one of ancient Greece if all I had to go on was the costumes and set of this production.

Idomeneo, Salzburg 2006

What makes the Salzburg production a smashing success is the singing and the acting.  It has to be that way, as there is little else upon which the audience can focus.  This modern staging forces the audience to be consumed by the individual singers and their performance.  Fortunately for Salzburg, the cast of this production is brilliant, with the Elektra almost stealing the show at times.  

This kind of modern production can be a refreshing change for an audience that has seen some of the same works dozens of times.  Directors long to do something new and creative with their productions.  La Boheme, for example, is a beloved work by Puccini that receives hundreds of performances worldwide every year. The traditional way to stage the work is to tell the story of four young artists starving away in poverty in their apartment in Paris, with the poet Rodolfo falling in love with the terminally ill Mimi.  The following clip with Luciano Pavarotti as Rodolfo and Renata Scotto as Mimi is the usual way the work is staged.

La Boheme, Pavarotti and Scotto

A recent production of La Boheme from the Norwegian Opera is a reimagining of the story, with sets that were first used in 1963.  In it, the opera opens in a hospital, with Mimi on her deathbed and Rodolfo there for her last heartbeat.  Partway through the first act, the hospital room set opens up, like the Red Sea parting for Moses, and the familiar story of the two lovers meeting in the apartment in Paris is shown as a flashback.  It is shown as Rodolfo remembering the beginning of their tragic love affair.  It is a clever, intelligent retelling of the story of the opera, especially for an audience that likely has seen multiple productions of the work.  I do still wonder how it plays for someone seeing La Boheme for the first time.  

La Boheme, Norwegian Opera

Met Opera on Demand LogoSMVideo productions of opera are more accessible than ever before.  YouTube has a treasure of complete works available.  Many have English subtitles, but sitting at my desk computer I have watched complete operas while following along with the libretto with good success.  YouTube is free, which fits in everyone’s budget.  My newest discovery is also completely free, a streaming service from Europe called The Opera Platform.  All of their videos are available with subtitles in multiple languages, and some very interesting productions are on the site, including the Norwegian La Boheme in its entirety.  The grandaddy of all opera streaming services is by far the Metropolitan Opera On Demand, which provides a 7 day free trial.  All 86 of the Opera In HD productions are available at the site, as well as hundreds of audio and other video recordings form the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  There are tablet apps available for iPad as well as Android tablets, and for Roku streaming television devices.  I have found the monthly subscription to be well worth the money.


Scenes from the Life of a Bohemian Girl

Scenes from the Life of a Bohemian Girl

Boheme-poster1In a couple of weeks, I will be attending a performance of one of the world’s best loved operas, Puccini’s La bohème, at the Detroit Opera House.  Michigan Opera Theatre is opening their fall season with the crowd favorite.  It is one of my favorite operas as well.  When I adopted my cat a few years back, she had a respiratory infection and I named her “Mimi” after the lead soprano of Puccini’s work.  My feline compatriot recovered well, and has been the chief inspector of all shopping bags entering the home ever since.  There is a saying around my house, that dogs have masters and cats have a staff.  I am definitely part of “Mimi’s” staff.


Detroit_Opera_House_with_treesThe Detroit Opera House is a wonderful venue, a theater originally built in 1922.  It had been closed for almost a decade when the Michigan Opera Theatre bought the building in 1988 to renovate into their new home.  The renovations took 8 years to complete, and the Opera House opened in its present form in 1996.  The building overlooks Grand Circus Park, and is a gem of the musical scene in Detroit.


Giacomo Puccini

Giacomo Puccini

La bohème by Puccini is set to a libretto put together by two men, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.  It is a story adapted from a French novel by Henri Murger, Scènes de la vie de bohème.  Murger’s book is not a standard novel, more a collection of vignettes, and the libretto is loosely based on the book.  Both the book and the opera are set in an area of Paris called the Latin Quarter,  home to several universities and institutions of higher learning.  The “Latin” part of the name comes from the Latin language traditionally spoken in universities ages ago.  The story centers around the life of a group of artistic young people living in poverty in an apartment, and a love affair between the poet Rodolfo and the seamstress Mimi.  Mimi is able to sing some wonderful soprano arias in spite of suffering from “consumption”, one of the biggest health care scourges of the time.  

Ruggero Leoncavallo

Ruggero Leoncavallo

Giacomo Puccini was not the only composer to work on the story of these young artists.  His good friend and fellow composer Ruggero Leoncavallo was working on a libretto for La bohème at the same time.  Leoncavallo wrote his own version of a libretto from the Murger novel, and approached his friend Puccini with a completed story with which to work.  Puccini had no idea that his friend had been working on the same subject, and had completed much of his own opera already.  Leoncavallo felt a measure of disrespect, and the friendship between the two ended over the matter.  Being a gifted composer in his own right, Leoncavallo wrote the music to his own libretto for La bohème.  It is Puccini’s version however, that has been the most successful and has entered the standard repertoire. Leoncavallo later revised his work and renamed it Mimi Pinson, but it has never received the acclaim of  Puccini’s opera.

Interestingly enough, the libretto that Puccini used (from Illica and Giacosa) was found to originally have five acts, not the four that Puccini set to music.  The “missing” act of the libretto was discovered in 1957 after the death of Illica’s widow.  In this act, Mimi is encouraged by her girlfriend Musetta to dress up and attract the attention of a Viscount as a potential sugar-daddy.  Rodolfo is overwhelmingly jealous when the Viscount and Mimi do dance together.  These missing scenes actually help explain some of the jealous remarks that Rodolfo makes later in the opera.  Puccini chose not to use this act, leaving it out of his opera for the purpose of concision.



Opera fans love to discuss, argue, and arm wrestle about their favorite singers and roles in their favorite works.  My favorite audio recording of  La bohème is the 1972 recording conducted by Herbert von Karajan with Luciano Pavarotti as Rodolfo and Mirella Freni as Mimi, featuring the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.  Pavarotti made his operatic debut in La bohème as Rodolfo way back in 1961, in Italy.  In 1972 he was in top vocal form, but not yet the international superstar that he would become.  Rodolfo was a signature role of the star tenor, and many of his performances in operatic roles are my favorite version.  There is a connection between Pavarotti and my hometown Detroit Opera House.  Luciano had promised David DiChiera that he would perform at the Opera House for free when it was ready to open.  In 1996, Luciano kept his promise in a free concert with other opera stars to open the renovated theater.  Tickets were no cost, but impossible to get.  I heard the concert on the live radio broadcast, and the packed audience of 2700 opera lovers sounded like they appreciated every note at the gala event.  I imagine some of the same fans of opera will be joining me this month at La bohème.

Pavarotti in La bohème, “Che gelida manina”

The Dreaded Opera Category for $200 Please, Alex

The Dreaded Opera Category for $200 Please, Alex

JeopardyThe long running game show Jeopardy! is a frequent guest during dinner in my house.  This classic “answer and question” trivia contest is often on a small television in the background as dinner is being prepared and the table set for a meal.  Recently, during one of the college or teen tournaments for the show, there appeared the “Dreaded Opera Category”, which made me laugh.  For me, opera is a rewarding challenge to learn, one that I enjoy, and one that offers a buffet of artistic pleasures.  Opera should really be experienced live to get the full effect.  Opera houses are usually gorgeous theaters to be in, and there is an army of creative individuals working together to mount a production.  Set design, costume design, and grand theater all come together for a visual spectacle.  Writers distill a libretto to give the composer text to set to music, and vocalists display acting and singing talents to the artistry of a full orchestra in the pit.  Even the audience attends the opera to be seen.  There are few occasions in modern life for people to show off formal wear and fashion like a night at the opera.  Trying to learn an opera for the first time with only a sound recording, or even video, just doesn’t do justice to the experience.

I truly understand some of the obstacles in learning to understand and love opera.  Most of my “formal” music education was in the realm of instrumental music, and I was a bit of an autodidact in my efforts to become familiar with the operatic repertoire.  Some of my favorite composers wrote important operas, and some important composers in history wrote operas almost exclusively.  I promise you, it is well worth the intellectual effort to understand an opera performance.    The first intellectual challenge is simply that of attention span.  Operas are long, and excruciatingly so if one is lost and unsure of what is happening on stage.  A second challenge, for a monolingual fellow like myself, is the barrier of language.  There are major operas in Italian, French, German, Russian, English all regularly performed in the repertoire.

Opera 101Aside from the differences in language, there are many different sub-categories of opera.  There are Classical operas, comedic opera, Romantic Opera, grand opera, Verismo opera, psychological opera, opera seria, opera buffa, and so on.  One of the best tools in my early self-guided study of Opera was the Fred Plotkin book, Opera 101: A complete guide to learning and loving opera.  This wonderful text gives you a brief history of opera, then guides one through 11 different operas representative of various styles, each with a recommended recording.  Plotkin makes specific comments to things happening at exact moments in these recordings, so you can hear exactly what he is talking about at a given moment.  The book is a delightful, thorough introduction to a cross-section of the opera repertoire.  If you find a particular chapter that is a favorite, he gives a list of other works in a similar style for the reader to continue with something they love.  I spent many weeks with this book and the recommended recordings.

Boheme-poster1Learning a new opera is a project.   I thought I might share with you one person’s approach to this 400 year old art form.  To get the most out of the experience takes a bit of preparation for me.  Puccini’s 1896 masterpiece La Bohème can serve as an example.  (I adopted a cat that came down with a respiratory infection.  I named her “Mimi”, and I hope you will get that inside joke by the end of this post.)  More than one composer has set the story of La Bohème to music, but the version by Puccini has been the most popular.  Giacomo Puccini was a great Italian composer of opera in the verismo style, meaning “realism”.  Right away, I can expect that there are no unicorns, mermaids, Norse gods, magic lamps or other elements of fantasy in one of Puccini’s operas.  The first thing I can expect is story of real people in real life situations apropos to the setting.  The second thing I can expect is that the words of the opera are in Italian, and I will have to work around that since I do not speak Italian.  That being said, I go through this same process when learning an opera in English, a language I am, allegedly, actually able to speak.  My first step is to familiarize myself with a synopsis of the plot of the opera.

Synopsis of La Bohème

LibrettoThe dramatic action of an opera is usually greatly simplified from that of a novel or play.  They are not usually hard to follow once you are familiar with the characters and plot synopsis.  Much of the underlying expressive element is in the musical setting, which gives me a great advantage over watching a dramatic play in a language I am unfamiliar with.  The second step in my approach to studying an opera is to obtain a libretto with a side by side English translation.  Libretto is the Italian word for “little book”, and it is the complete text and stage direction that the composer has set to music.  The librettist (the writer of the libretto) usually has distilled the essence of a novel or play down to something that is manageable to be set to music.  If the entire novel were set word for word to music, the production would go on for days.  Some composers have written the libretto themselves for their opera, but most of the time there is another writer for this task.  When listening to a recording, I find it invaluable to follow the words and translation as they are sung.  This is how I know what is going on at a given moment.

Libretto of La Bohème

The story of La Bohème is taken from a French novel by Henri Murger, Scènes de la vie de bohème.  The novel romanticizes the bohemian life of four impoverished artists in a Paris apartment.  It has been adapted into several dramatic settings, including our opera La Bohème, and the hit Broadway musical Rent.  Although the novel is the source material, it is not as important to me to be familiar with the novel as it is the Italian libretto created from the novel by Luigi Illica, which Puccini set to music.

The two main vocal events in an opera are the arias and the recitative.  The recitative portions are the “spoken” dialog sections, where the singer has a looser, almost free rhythm delivery that mimics the pattern of speech.  The arias are the musical showpieces, the big song settings to show off the star singers.  It is the aria that is usually broken out in the highlights of an opera, or sung in a concert setting by a star vocalist (think the Three Tenors).  Other “big numbers” in an opera are duos or trios (for 2 or 3 singers, of course) and sometimes numbers for an entire chorus in big grand operas.  The arias and other big numbers contain the great musical moments that hit key dramatic points in the plot, and truly are worth the price of admission, and the time you have spent learning the opera.  One can attend an opera, enjoy the beauty of the sets, the lavish costumes, and simply enjoy the beauty of the vocal performance in these arias.  There is nothing wrong with enjoying opera entirely on this level, but with a little effort I have found so much more depth of meaning by being able to follow the story and dramatic action in greater detail.

Rodolfo’s Act I aria from Puccini’s La Bohème.

Listening to recordings with a libretto is good.  Watching a video of a stage production, or version made entirely for film (with subtitles) is better.  Experiencing a live performance in an opera house is undoubtedly the best way to enjoy an opera.  I very much approve of the practice of projecting “supertitles”, which are English translations in real-time displayed above the stage.  It is a practice that has been controversial, but one that I find helps me.  Opera tickets are not inexpensive, so I do what I can to be familiar with the work and insure I get the most out of my trip to the opera house.  I find the live translations useful in helping me follow along, but with a little prior preparation I am not glued to the words above the stage.  Detractors from the practice would say it takes an audience members attention away from the production as people stare at the words.  The best solution, I think, is currently in use at the  Metropolitan Opera House in New York, where translations are on a device displayed on the seat in front of you.  Each audience member can turn the translations on or off, depending on their preference.

A practice I am very much opposed to is the attempt to stage an opera in translation, for example, presenting an opera in English that was originally composed in Italian, German or French.  Composers spent a great deal of effort marrying words to music, and putting notes, vowels, rhythm and emphasis in such a way that unites language and tune.  Eviscerating that composer’s work by putting a different language, pronunciation and grammar over the existing tune is a crime against nature.  Spend the time learning a bit of a new language and studying the libretto for a rudimentary understanding of the dramatic action, and avoid any bastardized versions of opera in translation.  I feel strongly about this point, and I can assure you that foreign language is the absolute weakest part of my educational background.  If I can do it, I know anyone reading this can.

Met Opera on Demand LogoSMLa Bohème is one of the most popular and often performed operas of all time.  It should be no problem finding a recording to spend time with, but I will give you two good leads.  The Metropolitan Opera offers a library of videos which can be streamed online, offering a wide array of performances both past and present.  There is a monthly fee for the service, but they offer a seven day trial which is absolutely free.  Of course, La Bohème is represented in the collection.

Metropolitan Opera On Demand

A very nice film version of the work, made entirely for the screen, was created by Robert Dornhelm.  It is in HD, and contains English subtitles.  In this modern world of 144 character twitter posts, 10 second sound bites, and faster-than-instant gratification, it is healthy to stretch one’s attention span out for a couple of hours with a gripping story set to some of the most beautiful music ever composed.  Give it a try, maybe someday you will be on Jeopardy! and earn a wad of cash with the knowledge.

Giacomo Puccini: La Bohème — A Film by Robert Dornhelm — Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazón