Opera in the 21st Century: How opera adapts itself to new technology and a new generation
Collaborative, submission based magazine for the 21st Century Opera Enthusiast
Editor-in-chief Jennifer Choi www.operaswag.wordpress.com Editor Kim Feltkamp www.kimberlyfeltkamp.com
Contact Opera21 www.opera21.tumblr.com Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Announcement The theme for the upcoming issue is Wagner, mostly because there arenâ€™t enough celebrations around Wagnerâ€™s bicentennial. Guidelines for submissions can be found on our website. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or part is prohibited without written permission. The opinions expressed in Opera21 do not necessarily reflect those of the editor or publisher
Table of Contents Volume 1 No. 5
3 Letter from the Editor Jennifer Choi 5 Tweeting the Opera Ilana Walder-Biesanz
7 Opera + Technology = Winning Erin Mays
13 Spectable, Its Dosage, and Solutions Griffin Candey 17 The Doves all fly at Sunset Joey Newsome
18 Emotional Realism and Transcending Boundaries: Willy Deckerâ€™s Production of La Traviata Jacqueline 21 Come Scoglio* Kim Feltkamp
*Featured novella, in parts
Letter from the Editor The April issue for Opera21 will probably be one of my favorite issues, though that is probably a heavy handed statement, since we’ve only been around for a couple of months. Perhaps I should rephrase – of all of the issues I have put together so far, this one is probably the nearest and dearest to my heart. When I first dived into the online opera community, I was welcomed by all my fellow opera lovers with open arms, and it has been such a wonderful journey. I have made some life-long friends, I have connected with some of my musical idols, and I would have never imagined that one day, I would write a blog entry titled “My night at the Opera News Awards.” Despite all of the fun and flailing that happens on the internet community, I felt the need for a place where our generation could have intelligent discussions about our take on opera. Call me old-school, patriotic, or nerdy, but I truly believe that discourse is vital for progress, and I sensed a niche that needed filling. So began Opera21. In April’s issue, we are finally talking about opera and its existence in today’s world, a topic we had wanted to address from the very beginning but were waiting until the time was right (patience is a virtue, or so they say). The magazine has been growing, both in reach and size, and I feel the need to thank everyone who has supported us along the way. We have had encouragement from so many people, including Joyce DiDonato, an outspoken champion for this incredible art form, who penned a letter for us; our writers, who have taken their time to share their ideas; and our readers, who have been consistently reading and spreading the word. You guys have been wonderful, and it is paying off! We have been contacted by major recording companies, opera companies, and other opera bloggers. While I was at the Opera News Awards, all of the singers and writers with whom I discussed Opera21 had the same question – “Why hadn’t this existed before?” Kim has been invited to attend a performance of Don Giovanni with the New York Opera Exchange next month, and she will be writing about the performance in the next issue! (You can see the press release in this issue – I would highly encourage all of our NYC readers to attend!). As you read through this month’s issue, I would like to point your attention to the upcoming panel. We are gathering a group of young opera singers and bloggers to discuss opera in the 21st century. It will be streamed live (Monday April 29th 7pm EST) on Google+, and you can comment live/send in questions (isn’t technology great?). This panel will be recorded and uploaded onto Youtube afterwards. Please send us any questions or topics you would like our panel to address. A big thank you to everyone who has been a part of this magazine. We look forward to all the exciting things that will happen, and I am very excited to see how opera will evolve as our generation pushes it through the new century. Best, Jen Choi
Opera21 Online Panel
We are gathering a group of opera singers and/or bloggers to discuss opera in the 21st century. It will be streamed live on Google+. Please send us any questions and topics you would like discussed. While you are watching the chat, if you suddenly think of a question, there will be a live comment box! Afterwards, the chat will be uploaded onto YouTube, in case you canâ€™t be there.
When: Monday April 29th, 7pm EST Where: Google+ (we will provide a link on opera21.tumblr.com) What you need: a computer Panel Members:
Griffin Candey fachyeahoperasingers.tumblr.com
Jane Hoffman janehoffmansoprano.tumblr.com
Kimberly Feltkamp operarox.tumblr.com
Holly Nicholas tornamiadir.tumblr.com
Kevin Ng nonpiufiori.wordpress.com
Moderator: Jennifer Choi operaswag.wordpress.com
Tweeting the Opera Ilana Walder-Biesanz leg to sleep at night—I wasn’t sure what to make of the idea of live-tweeting an opera. It is a publicity idea that is very 21st Century. But, at the risk of sounding old-fashioned, I am not sure it is a good one. Live-tweeting operas can cause both artistic and practical problems. Despite the inherent anti-realism of opera as a genre, most traditional productions still try to engage opera audiences, pulling them into the emotional life of the story rather than creating a Brechtian sense of detachment. The obligation to generate in-the-moment, witty, 140-character summaries and comments requires viewers to create an alienating intellectual distance between themselves and the performance. That alienation can ruin the viewer’s enjoyment of the opera. The tweeting can also disturb other attendees; my friend mentioned that a nearby audience member complained about the light from his smartphone during the production. Another question arises: Who is the intended audience for these tweets? Some Twitter users are already members of Twitter-based opera communities like #operarox. Their followers will appreciate live Tweets from an opera performance, but are also precisely the people who are already likely to attend local opera performances. This outreach initiative presumably hopes to reach friends of the tweeters who are not already opera patrons. But are followers who are not interested in opera paying attention, or do they just tune out the opera-related tweets? There doesn’t seem to be any data about whether this tactic encourages young people who
Even if I am not listening to them, Met radio broadcasts are excellent times to be on Twitter. Yesterday, Giulio Cesare was on the Met’s live stream. I was treated to heated debates about the relative merits of Dessay and De Niese as Cleopatra, musings about the costumes (@FeliciaLaDiva: “Is it even possible to stand less than a foot away from Cleopatra’s dress?!”), all-caps aria lyrics, puns about Handel-ing the opera, and a step-by-step deconstruction of the dance moves during Cleopatra’s arias. My Twitter feed gained tweets more quickly than I could read them. The Twitter buzz is not limited to radio broadcasts; tweets come pouring in during the intermissions of live (and Live in HD) productions as well. Personally, I cannot imagine connecting with social media during an intermission: Part of the charm of the theater, for me, is its role as a sanctuary from the outside world (including the Internet). But that is merely a personal preference, and I certainly enjoy reading others’ in-the-moment comments on performances that I cannot attend myself. Can this phenomenon go too far? In October, I was surprised by an operarelated collection of tweets from a friend. The first of the bunch: “At @SFOpera’s dress rehearsal for Moby Dick. About to live tweet the entire opera. #MobySF.” At the invitation of San Francisco Opera, he was seeing the show for free with permission and encouragement to tweet not just during the intermissions, but while the opera occurred onstage. As amusing as his Twitter feed was for the next few hours—I learned that Captain Ahab removes his peg 5
adults, is a vital task and social media is an effective way to reach that audience. Still, I am wary of marketing tactics that have the potential to diminish current operagoers’ experiences. Experiments in outreach are valuable, and I am glad opera companies are trying all sorts of approaches, including live-tweeting. But I hope these experiments are being conducted scientifically: Opera companies should gather both quantitative and qualitative data from both tweeters and new ticket-buyers, and then share the results publicly. Before the default response to a stunning aria becomes a tweet, let’s make sure those tweets are doing some good.
would not otherwise do so to buy opera tickets. Despite the absence of success metrics, the tweet-seat phenomenon (so named for the practice of putting aside particular seats—sometimes at a discount—for tweeters) is growing. Lyric Opera was one of the first pioneers in 2009, and other companies—L.A. Opera, Dayton Opera, and Palm Beach Opera, to name a few—have since followed suit. San Francisco Opera repeated the experiment multiple times (with Die Walküre in 2010 and Moby-Dick in 2012). An increasing interest in opera, particularly among teenagers and young
Ilana Walder-Biesanz is an engineer, actress, and mezzo-soprano who adores philosophy, opera, theater, literature, historical fashions, and vintage dance. She can most frequently be found singing in the hallways of Olin College, where she is a senior Systems Engineering major and the president of the school's theater and opera organizations. After graduation and a relaxing summer of working for Microsoft, she will pursue a graduate degree in European Literature at the University of Cambridge on a Gates-Cambridge fellowship. She tweets about opera (and occasionally other topics) as @ilanawb.
Opera + Technology = Winning Erin Mays This genre is alive and well and truly speaking to people. – Joyce DiDonato on opera, in an interview with Opera Lively
I’ve been pretty fascinated by mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato’s oft-used talking points countering the claim that opera is an elitist art form in decline, or that digital initiatives like Met Opera in HD could spell the very end of live operatic performance as we know it. What? Opera’s not declining? Video won’t kill the opera star? Everything I’ve heard in recent years about opera was a lie?? So began a collaboration between the data wonk in me and my inner opera fangirl (you read correctly – I do not actually sing. You’re welcome.) to discover whether opera is really on the decline in the U.S., or whether it’s truly thriving. Like any issue where viewpoints are so disparate, the answer is, “it depends upon how you look at it.” If you narrowly define opera as live, full performances of traditional operatic works staged in the nation’s historic opera houses, then yeah, maybe “outlook not so good,” as my magic 8-ball would say. But that’s only if you narrowly define opera. I would argue that it’s that specific definition of opera that’s declining, or stagnating at best – not opera itself. Let’s get the unpleasantries out of the way. After 3.3 percent of the adult population reported attending at least one operatic performance in 1992, participation dropped to just 2.1 percent in 2008, according to the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA). It’s worth noting that 2002 and 2008 coincided with some of the worst recessions this country has seen; still, losing more than 1/3 of an already small share of the population isn’t pretty.
Percent of U.S. Adult Population Attending an Opera Activity 3.5% 3.0% 2.5% 2.0% 1.5% 1.0% 0.5% 0.0%
Source: National Endowment for the Arts, Survey of Public Participation in the Arts 2008 7
Likewise, if you look at Google Trends data, opera-related searches have been steadily declining since the Google machine started keeping track in 2004. Symphony-related searches, while indexing lower, follow the same trend, though it might bring readers comfort to know that both topics win against less savory search terms such as “kardashians” and “fiscal cliff.”
Source: Google Trends, April 2013 The data has its bright spots, however. A follow-up to the SPPA focused on arts consumption beyond actual attendance found that about 42% of respondents between 18 and 24 reported “watching, listening to or downloading live or recorded music, theater or dance performances,” and while opera commanded the attention of only a small fraction (less than 4%), it indicates a promising willingness. Moreover, minorities, who were typically less likely than whites to attend a live arts performance, were actually more likely to get their fill outside of the performance hall by viewing or listening to recordings or live broadcasts – Latinos at 30% more likely than whites and African Americans at 17%. Looking at opera specifically, more whites still reported accessing electronic media than Latinos and African Americans (5.5% vs. 3.5% and 2.5%, respectively), but it’s still cool to see an audience extension of 2-3+ times that of live opera attendance was being achieved.
Opera Attendance and Access Via Electronic Media 8.0% 7.0% 6.0% 5.0%
Attended an Opera
Consumed Opera Via Electronic Media
2.0% 1.0% 0.0%
African American (non-Hispanic)
American Indian (non-Hispanic)
Two or more races (nonHispanic)
Source: National Endowment for the Arts, Survey of Public Participation in the Arts 2008 8
Let’s keep in mind that this is all based on 2008 data. In 2008, Facebook had 100 million users – today it has over 1 billion. When the 2008 study first began fielding in May 2007, you couldn’t even buy an iPhone yet – in 2012, Apple sold 115 million of them. So given how drastically our world has changed since 2008, I’m a bit anxious to get my hands on the 2012 data (come on, NEA!). In the meantime, there are a few other interesting nuggets of data out there indicating digital technology might be our ticket to reversing some unfortunate trends. In 2011, Pew Research found as part of its Internet & American Life Project that 44% of all adults had attended a live music, dance or theater performance in the 12 months prior to the survey, but that number jumped to 77% for people who reported following a music, dance, theater/arts group on social media. One way to read that is social media drives higher attendance and makes arts organizations stickier between performances. As does offering more ways to enjoy the arts, it would seem. Opera-related searches may be on the decline, but one topic dominates Google’s “rising” keywords – and no, it’s not “jonas kaufmann parsifal shirtless.” Search keywords related to opera in HD – specifically Met Opera in HD – are trending up. HD Opera Google Searches 2007-2013 (Indexed Over Time) 100
80 60 40 20
Source: Google Trends, April 2013
So enough with the stats – what does it all mean? As a marketer (please hold your rotten tomatoes for the end), much of my adult life has been spent trying to get into people’s heads, and the most important thing I’ve learned is that consumers don’t define anything the same way they did 10 or even five years ago, largely thanks to what techie MBA types call “disruption.” Disruption is what digital cameras did to traditional film cameras, and then what smartphones did to digital cameras (and handheld GPS navigation systems, calculators, ereaders, mp3 players, pedometers – shoot, I don’t even need a flashlight anymore because there’s an app for that). Disruption takes the experiences we already incorporate into our lives, throws how we’ve traditionally gotten them into a blender with cool new technology, and what comes out is something easier, faster, richer and even more fun.
Opera companies aren’t just selling live operatic performances, they’re selling the feeling you get when you listen to the music or gaze upon a brilliant set design and beautiful costumes, the opportunity to share an awesome experience with people you care about, the virtuosity and charisma of the performers, the excitement of witnessing something so much bigger than yourself – there are a million reasons we love it. Arts administrators see the potential brought by disruption for enhancing what it is to experience art, at least for the most part. A 2012 Pew Research study on arts organizations and digital technology found that arts administrators see the internet, including social media and mobile technology, as important for promoting the arts (81%), engaging their audiences (78%) and reaching the public with more educational content (33%). At the same time, however, 40% felt that negative implications of digital technology included shortened attention spans, and nearly 1 in 4 felt it impacted live attendance – this represents cultural organizations of all types, so I’d hazard a guess that the numbers are a bit higher for classical music organizations and opera houses. The key thing is that we can’t unring the bell. My expectations have been redefined by the fact that I can use my phone while sitting on a Chicago L train to play Words With Friends with my friend in North Carolina – and it’s totally fine that she probably won’t make her next move until tomorrow afternoon. I can Tweet a customer service issue at American Airlines and probably get a response within a few hours, buy and immediately start playing a new video game without even getting off my couch, and get notifications from ESPN about how badly the Cubs are losing while I’m sitting in a meeting. And if American Airlines, XBOX’s Microsoft or ESPN couldn’t do those things for me, I’d find companies that could. Even if my friend lived down the street, we might still be playing Words with Friends on our phones instead of Scrabble in person. According to Met Opera HD Google search trends, it turns out that the New York metropolitan area is the largest source of interest in the Met’s HD content:
Source: Google Trends, April 2013
If search activity is a proxy for actual Live in HD attendance and Met Opera on Demand usage, that’s pretty scary, right? If you’re Peter Gelb, probably not. According to the organization’s financial statements, HD earnings were $27 million for the 2009-2010 season and $31 million in 2010-2011 – I’m not exactly sure where they get those numbers, as the annual report’s pretty pie charts visualizing operating income attributable to HD operations should peg the numbers at more like $15 million and $17.7 million, so my assumption is they’re including charitable contributions dog-eared for HD in their figures. But if $27 million and $31 million are accurate and the operating expenses for HD of 5.1% in 2009-2010 and 6.5% in 2010-2011 are close enough (they’re not telling us the cost of fundraising for HD programs, which we need to calculate profit margin for real, so take my numbers with a grain of salt), we could be looking at a pretty sweet profit somewhere around $20 million between the two seasons – apparently without cannibalizing live performance sales. Except for a slip during the recession, box office revenues are up nearly 15% since the launch of HD in 2006 (4% adjusted for inflation, but still), and combined, total income for the Met not counting contributions – as in money actually exchanged for services rendered – saw an increase of 44% in that time (29% adjusted for inflation). Guess there’s something to be said for being able to capitalize on some New Yorkers’ desire to hit their local movie theater, computer or iPad for an opera fix instead of Lincoln Center. Does this mean every regional and local opera company should get into the business of broadcasting at their local movie theater, building apps, offering video content on-demand and posting social content 24/7? Maybe not, but my point here is that the key to getting someone to do something (especially something brand new, in the case of new audiences) is to let them do it on their terms and in ways that are consistent with how they’re most comfortable doing similar stuff. Opera is an awesome enough “product” to get new “buyers” on board – of this I have no doubt. The question is whether or not the industry is willing and resourced to help fans experience it their way.
Erin Mays is a Chicago-based marketing professional and former trumpet player who, after stumbling upon Parsifal excerpts during her ill-fated college auditions process, fell head-over-heels in love with opera. Among her more notable opera-related pursuits include membership in the Chicago Lyric Opera’s Young Professionals and attempting to curb her fangirling of Joyce DiDonato, Renée Fleming, Susan Graham, Rolando Villazón and Diana Damrau to varying degrees of success. Follow her at irreverencesavedtheoperastar.tumblr.com or @ErinAtCars on Twitte.
New York Opera Exchange nyoperaexchange.com email@example.com Press Contact: Gregory N. Elfers FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: New York Opera Exchange Presents:
Don Giovanni Directed By, Jennifer Shorstein Featuring the New York Opera Exchange Orchestra Conducted By, David Leibowitz May 1, 3, & 4 at 7:30pm May 5 at 3:00pm Church of the Covenant 310 E 42nd St New York, NY
New York Opera Exchange invites you to experience Mozartâ€™s classic tale of power, seduction, and desire seen through the lens of Washington D.C. in the summer of 1963. In our thrilling new production the infamous libertine runs free, abusing his status and wealth to seduce and indulge in an array of sexy vices until past demons return to seek justice.
Don Giovanni â€“ Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Presented by New York Opera Exchange Performance Schedule: Wednesday, May 1st at 7:30pm Friday, May 3rd at 7:30pm Saturday, May 4th at 7:30pm Sunday, May 5th at 3:00pm Church of the Covenant 310 E. 42nd St. New York, NY Tickets are $30 each ($10 student rush) and are available at the door or in advance at www.nyoperaexchange.com
Spectacle, its Dosage, and Solutions Griffin Candey I’ve been having a friendly ongoing debate with my friend Caitlin, in this case spurred by the Met’s broadcast of their Las Vegas-themed Rigoletto. I hadn’t seen the production — and still haven’t, although I believe my friends when they say that it had some great singing in it — but its updated nature prompted me to get on my soap box for a moment. The discussion that followed (and has yet to reach a conclusion) started small and, as it often does, spiraled into a debate which is messily tied into the biggest questions that we in the opera world face today: how to get new audiences and how to maintain them, how to treat ‘updates’ in production, how to bring opera back into popularity — if that is even a possibility — how to keep a house afloat, the role of new opera in all of this, and on and on. There’s truly no way to tackle all of these questions succinctly in one post (or at all, one might argue.) Instead, let’s focus on the root of this debate, the subject about which dear Caitlin and I have been head-butting one another for more than a week now: What is the role of spectacle in opera? Is spectacle the best way to bring in new audiences — and does it keep them coming back? Her answer, yes; my answer, no. Caitlin argues that, in a world in which media rules in almost all aspects of our lives, our greatest weapon to bring in new audiences is with our use of spectacle. People who might otherwise not go to an opera may come if they hear about visually-stunning effects; that is, people who might not have otherwise come to see the aforementioned Rigoletto may attend if they hear about the captivating neon set and vintage cars on stage. Once there, they will understand the opera’s musical value in a way that they didn’t expect and return on that basis. (She notes that she doesn’t wish to discredit the old productions or replace them, as they have their own unwavering value.) Opera has changed its feathers many times, and it’s time again for opera to catch up: resting on its laurels will only make it more and more outdated and less appealing. Seats need to be filled. People need advertisement. Audiences need bait. I believe the opposite. I think that, in the midst of the aforementioned media drive, trying to dress up an opera to fit a Michael Bay film standard simply does not fly. (Transformers, the Opera!) The malleability of opera is broad but has limits; going past a certain threshold compromises the intrinsic value and artistry of an art form with a long, proud history. To me, using fireworks or useless updates to bring in new audiences is childish peacocking, the same as a middle school girl wearing too much make-up to attract a boy that she likes. It is a grumpy, traditionalist viewpoint, but one that I have a hard time ignoring: I want audiences not just to attend the opera, but to understand and love opera. Opera houses shouldn’t seek only to fill seats, but to make lifelong opera lovers. For that, I think that we need a way to instill in them the value of opera that doesn’t involve sugar-coating. As is almost always the case, the most viable answer lies with neither of us, but somewhere on the spectrum between us. 13
On the subject of spectacle: 1. People like spectacle. No, spectacle is not the center point of the stage, but yes, it is an element. As my girlfriend thoughtfully pointed out when we were discussing this same question, Aristotle includes ‘spectacle’ on his list of the six necessary elements of drama. These elements read, in order of importance: (I) Plot or Action, the happenings of the drama (II) Characters, the devices and voices that interact in said drama (III) Theme or Thought, the underlying message of the drama (IV) Dialogue, the tool that the characters use to further the plot (V) Rhythm, the characters’ manner of delivering the dialogue, and (VI) Spectacle, what the audience sees, the sets and set pieces, the costumes and the effects. One source even describes this as “visual excess.” Spectacle is part of what differentiates live theater from recordings, a battle that has been raging for a while. (Glenn Gould is shouting in his grave.) Opera depends on many things, and spectacle is one of them. The two are inextricably linked. The plots of operas contain people jumping of castles, stabbing one another, poisoning themselves, being dragged to Hell, and essentially set Heaven on fire. Operas that consist only of careful introspection and calm conversation are tellingly infrequent. Uber-artsy minimizations of operas can be and have been effective, but they run the risk of not providing a rounded experience for the audience. Putting on new productions, even if pared down, must involve some manner of heightened spectacle, be it in visuals or in content, because we’re playing to a growingly-distant and media-heavy audience, and something should make them sit up in their seats. 2. Spectacle can be, and has been, misused. Spectacle is like a spice: being heavy-handed with it can entirely overpower all other flavors. Example: The Met’s last (2011-2012) Ring Cycle, in which Robert Lepage employed a tremendous series of robotic biscotti onstage, was plagued with difficulties — actor complaints, technical issues, structural difficulties (they had to severely reinforce the stage floor so that the entire set would not collapse through it,) and, most grievously, a complete overshadowing of many other necessary aspects of the production. The machine was the central aspect, not the music, the plot, or the performers. I won’t deny that it was very interesting and beautiful to look at: making such a tremendous installation serve (via projections) as a forest, a cave, a ring of fire, and every other disparate setting in the Cycle was a hefty accomplishment. What it did not accomplish, however, was a balanced production. The opera served the machine, not the other way around. There are plenty of other shock-and-awe productions that I’m sure you’ve experienced personally: unnatural and clunky updates, uncalled-for nudity – in short, being edgy for edgy’s sake. They sometimes bring in audiences, but the audience leaves with the impression that
opera is what the media imagines us to be: all fluff, no substance. We may employ fluff, but we must convey substance. Spectacle is on Aristotle’s list, but it is sixth: the things above it are what bring a production to life. Spectacle should never, never overshadow or replace quality or content. It must help and amplify the show — If it gets in the way, it’s too much.
The necessary follow-up question: if not only spectacle, then what? What builds lifelong audiences? Bring it to them, and on their terms. Our modus operandi currently seems to be fishing from the roofs of our theaters, trying to bring in anyone who wanders by with methods that are growing cold. People might be willing to play ball if we stopped the stuffy routine and incorporated ourselves more into the fabric of their lives. This trend is already happening. Chicago Lyric is putting on shows with a premiere comedy troupe, Second City, mixing media and bringing in audiences that might not otherwise enter the Lyric’s doors. There’s a bar in New York called Le Poisson Rouge where the entertainment in a single night might include both a small, contemporary chamber opera and a rock band. And although it’s not specifically opera, it is worth noting that the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (under the brilliant Leonard Slatkin) made more than $1 million dollars during severe financial struggle by putting on a single concert with Kid Rock. If we’re going to survive, we need to operate, perform and advertise in the present, not in a glorified past. Broaden and refresh the repertoire. I won’t write paragraphs and paragraphs about this, since I literally have another article devoted entirely to this idea*, but it’s valid enough for second iteration. New opera, if applied correctly and non-apologetically, brings in new audiences and obliterates age barriers. It can mold to current zeitgeist and popular trends. It can travel. It can grow. It can make poignant modern social commentary where traditional opera cannot. Build a new generation. Bring opera to children. All the other solutions are short-term bandages – this is the real balm. This practice, too, is already in play and has been for a while, but it deserves more of our time and money. Bringing opera to children and writing opera for children – I’m lookin’ at you, B. Britten – is a long-term investment in the culture and diversity of our future audiences. It needs to go beyond occasionally bringing a troupe to perform a few scenes for children in elementary schools (although that practice is valuable, as well.) We need more events that bring them into the theater and shows opera from all angles; in this, we will help build a new and stronger generation of not only opera lovers, but singers, set and lighting designers, costumers and composers.
A note to finish: Our younger generation of singers is the ideal group to begin enacting these ideas. Itâ€™s easy to imagine that administrators and those longer in the profession are the ones carrying the weight and ensuring our future, but we who are just now entering the field are ideally suited to bring fresh ideas and enthusiasm where it is sorely needed. Let your goals be not only performance-centered, but also built into the needs of the opera field as a whole: participate in outreach, take on interesting projects, and bring opera to new audiences and locales. On top of that, donâ€™t shy away from the kind of conversation that Caitlin and I had: without introspection and dissection of the issues, we are preparing and educating ourselves only to sing to empty houses. *This article can be found on our website at opera21.tumblr.com
Griffin Candey is both an opera performer and composer, currently working towards his MM at the University of Illinois at UrbanaChampaign. As a tenor, he performs a great deal of Mozart and Rossini, as well as classical oratorio; as a composer, he strives to create and establish a more approachable, communicative form of opera. Maurice Ravel is his spirit animal.
The Doves all fly at Sunset (an Evening Song) The bells sang out their five short tunes Through a window opened to the din of the city, The sirens, the great growls of buses bound for suburbs, The calls of birds just going to their homes Beyond the hills still golden in the dayâ€™s last dance, Perhaps even the cries of other young lovers Too frightened of being alone at sunrise To be torn apart by life even at the tea-hour, The hour of closing up shoppes and catching trams, The hour above all of proper, decent people Taking up their evening papers and having off their shoes, Of seeing spouses and children in at the doorâ€” And you at this hour like a perfumed prince of the East Turned out to the dreams that trickle through twilight, Your ivory splendor unfurled upon the afternoon And the duvet dripping with the tears of the fleeing sun Inconsolable to be ripped away from seeing you By other stars anxious for night and the gift of sight, The little field of hairs on your chest rustling and resting In the ins and outs of the city air that lulls you With its flashes of sea and flowers and gripping smoke, Just the wisp of a smile laying on your lips Like the accidental stroke of a painter transforming A coincidental canvas into brilliance and truth made color, All the cares of what passes beneath and above and about Swept under the pillow for another hour When there is not so much to dream of.
Joey Newsome http://voix-des-arts.blogspot.com
Emotional Realism and Transcending Boundaries: Willy Decker’s Production of La Traviata Jacqueline Phillips Over the course of its long history, opera has evolved into more than just a leisure activity for the privileged. It has become a cultural experience that undoubtedly carries with it a slew of expectations. Audiences arriving at opera houses once expected lavish sets and conventional staging. They wanted to be transported to a different world for a few hours. However, in the past several decades, the dynamics of the opera house have evolved yet again and instead of ornate period costumes, directors often gravitate towards minimalist scenery, urban or abstract settings, and modern day garb (or sometimes no clothing at all). As David Levin notes in his 2007 book Unsettling Opera, this trend in opera – to revive and reconstruct works that have become engrained in the repertoire – seems to stem largely from an attempt to “unsettle” opera, a genre that is, itself, inherently “unsettled.” By admitting that opera is an intrinsically unruly art form and by using the performance text to further illuminate or even challenge an opera text’s contradictions, 21st century directors have the chance to breathe new life into tried and true works from the opera canon. One recent production that attempted to break the “closed” text of a work is Willy Decker’s unconventional version of Verdi’s La Traviata, staged in 2005 for the Salzburg Festival and premiered at the Metropolitan Opera this season with soprano Diana Damrau in the title role.
Decker’s stark, white stage, modern day costumes, and lack of scenic context “unsettles” the work by removing it from its original nineteenth century setting and typical Realistic staging. This production takes note of the contradictions between Verdi’s opera and others of its time by illuminating La Traviata’s shift to emotional depth, deeply human characters, and a contemporary setting. Decker’s choices highlight the work’s emotional capacity and prove that La Traviata’s story is just as accessible to audiences now as it was in the 19th century. Although Decker’s influence on the Salzburg production is obvious, every great opera production starts with a brilliant libretto and score. Giuseppe Verdi, whose compositions are often considered the epitome of Romantic drama and passion, composed La Traviata in 1835 with an Italian libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. La Traviata (or “the fallen woman”) tells the story of a beautiful courtesan, Violetta, and the love of her life, Alfredo. Alfredo’s father thwarts Violetta’s desire to relinquish her role as a courtesan and marry Alfredo, afraid that the woman’s less than favorable social station will destroy his family’s reputation. Eventually, Alfredo’s father repents, allowing Alfredo to find Violetta and speak of their future together just in time to watch her die from tuberculosis. To many music enthusiasts, the plot of La Traviata seems to fit the quintessential formula for a tragic opera. It features a pair 18
the focus of the tragic opera genre from external events to internal struggles. According to Norton’s History of Western Music, Verdi, who had become “disillusioned with political concerns,” chose not to engage in historical conflicts or issues of the state in this opera. Instead, the opera concentrates on interpersonal relationships and a more focused psychological depiction of the characters. In this sense, La Traviata was groundbreaking. La Traviata was one of the first operas to recognize and conform to the blossoming trend of Realism in the fine arts. This Realism is evident in the emotion and character-driven narrative of Verdi’s opera. Realistic style choices also appear in traditional staging of La Traviata, which typically utilize very specific props, settings, and costumes that place the viewer firmly within the frame of the story. At first, it seems as though the Willy Decker production unsettles the inherent Realism of the text by removing any trace of scenery or props and leaving us with a white stage and just a few essential props. Still, I would argue that this new production actually succeeds in highlighting the opera text’s innate Realism. The production’s plain white backdrop shifts our attention from period and place to people. The emotional ferocity and delicate psychology of the characters become even stronger. Without any of the “distracting” contextual elements, we are free to focus more intensely on the raw, emotive exchanges which Verdi so expertly animated with his lush compositions. As the musicologist Pierluigi Petrobelli once said (as quoted in Levin’s book), opera is a culmination of various systems. The impact of the combination process itself is greater than the end product or the sum of each force. As such, new and unusual
of lovers kept apart by some conflict of duty or responsibility and resolved only by a character’s death. While this opera is, in many ways, typical, La Traviata broke the mold of both Verdi’s style and tragic opera of the time in several ways. Until this point, most, if not all, tragic operas were historical in nature. Verdi’s opera became one of the first to employ a contemporary setting. Willy Decker’s 2005 staging capitalizes on this contradiction between La Traviata and other operas from the same era through means of (in Levin’s terms) both “decorative” and “abstract” performance text choices. Traditional productions of La Traviata are grounded in the story’s original nineteenth century context. In contrast to this, Decker’s production utilizes few props, only one set, and modern-day clothing. Because of this costuming decision (one of the “decorative” choices made), many argue that Decker consciously places La Traviata in a contemporary context. While some interpret this decision as an homage to the fact that Verdi’s piece was the first of its kind to have a contemporary setting, it seems to me that Decker has instead removed our sense of context or setting entirely. Although the costumes reflect the mid-2000s, the blank slate of the set and the fact that neither the scenery nor the props acknowledge a specific period or location leave the production suspended in time and space. While hinting that the story of La Traviata is equally relevant today as it was the day it premiered, Willy Decker also succeeds in highlighting the fact that Verdi’s plot and characters seem to transcend location and era entirely. This feeling of spatial and chronological weightlessness speaks to another important distinction between Verdi’s opera and its contemporaries. La Traviata began to shift 19
productions that use unconventional stagings put the director’s performance text in conversation with the original text of the opera, creating a more complex mixture. Such performances can add new and complex layers of meaning to an opera that was once seemingly firmly grounded in its time period. In Levin’s words, “Any production can unsettle opinions that had
become settled.” Willy Decker’s production of La Traviata did just this in 2005 and continues to do so at the Met today. By placing Verdi’s iconic opera in a state of suspended time and place, Decker both “unsettled” the opera’s traditional nineteenth century context and helped the piece achieve accessibility and reach its fullest emotional potential.
Jacqueline is a 21 year old soprano in her final year of study at a small liberal arts college. In May, she will graduate with a B.A. with a double major in Media & Communication and Music. She is currently looking for jobs in marketing, public relations, and social media with the ultimate goal of working in the marketing department of an opera company. Along with having major mezzo crushes on Joyce DiDonato and Alice Coote, she thinks Diana Damrau and Juan Diego Florez are perfect human beings.
Come Scoglio A drama giocoso in three acts* K. A. Feltkamp
About the Author Kim Feltkamp is a mezzo-soprano currently pursuing her MM at Bard College in Dawn Upshawâ€™s Vocal Arts Program. She has been part of the online opera community as OperaRox, providing interactive opera liveshows and contests to educate and unite the opera community. She is also a published writer. You can find her at OperaRox, Kimozart, and her professional website.
Note from the Author I wrote this story to depict, as closely as possible, the people and events in Mozartâ€™s life when he was at the height of his compositional success. The people in this novella all really lived and had personalities close to the characters portrayed here. This is a work of fiction, but the goal was to remain as close to history as possible. I took the time to read countless letters, journal entries, autobiographies, and the like, not only to capture the true essence of the people in the story, but also to get all the facts and dates straight. Many of the things said or alluded to by the characters are directly from these sources. The one exception to this is the narrator, Louise Villeneuve. History tells us what and where she sang, but not who she was. Therefore, I have taken some license in regard to the narrator and her connection to the composer, especially in ways which strengthen the plot. In short, everything relating to Ms. Villeneuve is completely from my imagination. I have made educated guesses from what others said about her, which is very little, and from the music that Mozart wrote for her, which tells us a bit more. Therefore, this story is a conglomerate of sorts, as all fiction tends to be, but there is a great deal of truth in it. I hope you enjoy the ride and learn a little of who Mozart truly was and what he experienced as a composer and a man. *continued series. Previous chapters can be found in earlier issues of Opera21. 21
August 19, 1789 The Burgtheater bustled with activity as the audience settled in for Mozart’s opera. Laughter and chatter dominated the atmosphere, bathing the room as though to prepare it for the sparkling music to come. I took my seat in Mozart’s box (“You’ll take Constanze’s place,” he’d said in his last letter) and anxiously awaited the start of the opera. My mind wandered, concerned by Constanze’s absence. Why couldn’t she attend the premiere of her husband’s opera? Granted, she’d probably seen it at the real premiere (this was just the premiere of the revival), but still… I thought that the thing keeping her away must be big. She wasn’t the type to miss something like this. She was always there for her husband. Across the way, Joseph II pushed his elaborate white tails out of the way as he took his seat. The elaborate jewel-work on his large sleeves sparkled in the candle-light that lit up his box. I accidently caught his gaze and he looked away shyly. He had stepped in on a rehearsal the other day and upon noticing him, he asked that everyone pretend that he wasn’t there. The task is a bit easier for us actors, for we pretend all the time, but it is a silly thing to ask of anyone. Trying to ignore the Emperor is like trying to ignore an uncontrolled fire. He sure knows how to make an awkward situation out of anything. I turned my attention to the stage. It was set up to look like a bedchamber. I wondered just how this opera would start. I hadn’t read the libretto yet. I held it tightly in my hand instead, refraining from opening it. I didn’t want to know what was going to happen. I wanted to be surprised. Vincenzo and Teresa stepped into my box, all smiles and adoring greetings. I embraced them intensely. How I’d missed them! Teresa sat beside me and took my hand, quickly apologizing for her lack of communication. Her son had been battling a serious bout of scarlet fever. “It’s been going around,” she mentioned. “The poor baby was so sick. We feared for his life.” “But he has recovered,” I said. I didn’t want to make it sound like a question. Teresa nodded. I smiled and then gestured toward her increasingly-large stomach. “And how is the baby?” “Doing well,” she said, smiling. Vincenzo leaned over his wife and said to me, “Lu, you’re really in for a night of magic tonight. The things I’ve heard about this opera! And of course it’s Mozart, so it’s sure to be good.” Teresa nodded, adding, “It’s really too bad that it’s taken this long for his work to be recognized. He’s no Cimarosa or Salieri yet, but he will be in a few years. Just you wait. Work like his can’t be ignored for too long.” “And I’m so glad we’ve come to the premiere,” Vincenzo said. “I hate it when the dignitaries talk through every other number. As if their gossip is more important than the music! At least we know they’ll be quiet tonight.” We chatted a little while longer, catching up. I was so happy to see them both, and to find them well, that I felt overwhelmed with elation. I tried to calm myself, especially when the orchestra members began to take their seats. We hushed our conversation as Mozart came out. He was wearing his favorite red suit and dressy white periwig. When he tried, he could look so well put-together. His low-heeled shoes clicked on the wood floor as he took his place at the harpsichord. As he stood there, accepting applause with a lift of his hand and a deep bow, I thought: Most of all, this is where he belongs. He bowed to the imperial box. The audience stood and did likewise. After everyone was seated
again, Mozart took his seat at the harpsichord. I could almost feel the excitement radiating from him. The audience waited patiently as he arranged his long, lacy sleeves and prepared himself for the opening chords. He looked over the long instrument at his first violinist. With a breath and a nod of his head, Le Nozze di Figaro began. There wasn’t a huge explosion of sound as I’d expected. It started softly, a mere murmuring in the lower-pitched instruments. It stayed as such for a while, and then the expected explosion of music came. The main theme frolicked about the theater, inevitably bringing a smile to my face. What fun music! It suggested all sorts of mischief and pleasure. It shocked me how close to Mozart’s own character it seemed. There were his sudden passionate outbursts and his never-still hands and the soft smiles that accompanied an idea for some sort of prank or other such foolishness. And the music, for music’s sake alone, was fantastic. It rushed through my body, bringing illumination and an intense sense of hope. Once again I was wrapped up in music. It surrounded me and took me away to some new place: a place of light and goodness. The opera continued in quite the same way. The characters and plot made me laugh and jump with surprise. The music was gorgeous and witty and eternally complex. I loved every part of it. When it ended and the singers took their bows, I sat in my seat, stunned. I clapped vigorously, tears streaming down my face. Suddenly every other comic opera that I’d seen before seemed so childish, so insignificant and shallow. What had Mozart created here? It superseded concrete explanation. My heart was full of it and I could not make sense of its importance to me. All I knew was that I’d seen something different, something new, and I wanted to remember it forever. Vincenzo reached behind his wife and grabbed my arm. I turned in his direction and he laughed. “I know exactly how you feel,” he said. Teresa squeezed my hand. Finally it all died down and I collected my things to go. Vincenzo said, “Mozart is going with the cast and orchestra to Signor da Ponte’s place. He told me that we’re all invited. Teresa and I will go for a while. Do you want to come with us?” “Yes,” I answered. “I would like that very much.” “Good. Our carriage should be outside waiting for us.” The maid answered the door for us, smirking slightly as we entered. She didn’t say anything, just let us in and then disappeared. We entered the colorful sea of dresses and suits. The first thing I heard was La Ferrarese’s voice squawking over the general hum of conversation. “It seems that the illustrious prima donna has made it here before us,” Vincenzo said with a smirk. “Quite a miracle.” “It’s in her best interest to be here,” Teresa added in a low voice. “She wouldn’t want her lover flirting with other girls in her absence.” Vincenzo smiled at his wife and kissed her cheek. “Aren’t you glad you don’t have to worry about those sorts of things?” he whispered. “Very glad,” she replied. I turned my attention to the people around me. I recognized some of the singers, including “Pietro” Benucci. More than anything, I wanted to congratulate Mozart on his success. My eyes scanned the room for his small form. I spotted his red suit from among the crowd. He was standing by the drinks, pouring himself a glass of wine. He chatted, reluctantly it seemed, with the soprano who had played Cherubino. The young woman with the pretty face spoke carelessly, downing wine. Her elaborate dark purple dress
enhanced her excellent figure, although the effect was ruined by the dress’ obnoxiously low neckline. I watched them for a moment, my attention moving to Mozart’s right hand. He was tapping his leg to some unheard rhythm. I wasn’t sure he noticed he was doing it at all. He laughed at something the woman had said, turning his gaze aside as he did. His glance wandered around the room as the woman continued. In his wanderings, he noticed me. Our eyes met and he smiled broadly at me. The woman raised her voice and Mozart looked quickly back at her. She continued and I could tell now that she was complaining about something. Mozart’s body language betrayed him; he was growing more and more impatient with this woman. I tried to remember her name from the program. It was an Italian last name and it started with a B. While I was thinking, someone touched my arm. I turned to find a tall middle-aged man. As he spoke I heard that his German had an Italian accent to it. “I saw you in Diana. You sang well.” “Thank you,” I said. I extended my hand and introduced myself, “Louise Villeneuve.” “Francesco Bussani,” he said. Bussani! That was the name I’d been trying to remember. So the woman speaking with Mozart was his wife. What an age difference between them! I wondered what their story was. “A pleasure to meet you,” I said to him. “I must say,” he said, “that breeches do you no disgrace.” What an embarrassing thing to say! “I’m not sure I understand your meaning,” I said. “What I mean to say is that it must be freeing to escape the drudgery of a dress every so often.” “I suppose so,” I answered, not really sure how to respond. “I admire a woman who’s not afraid to show a little.” No kidding. If only his wife wouldn’t show so much. The conversation was growing incredibly uncomfortable. It was time to take over. “I suppose you have had a lot of experience with this phenomenon of women in breeches,” I said. “Considering that your wife has played Cherubino. Has she played many other trouser roles?” The mention of his wife seemed to startle him. He stuttered, answering mindlessly, “Not many. What do we have the castrati for?” I nodded, half listening. Mozart was looking across the room at me. Curiosity and amusement shone through his gaze. I gave him a quick look of sympathy then turned to smile sweetly at Signor Bussani. “I’d very much like to meet your wife,” I said. “I wish to congratulate her.” “Of course,” he said. “I’ll introduce you.” He put out his arm and I took it. My dress brushed against his expensive grey suit as we walked toward Mozart and Signora Bussani. Mozart saw us coming over and there was a smile in his eyes. “Good evening Signor Bussani and Mademoiselle Villeneuve,” he said when we were close. He kissed my hand. “We were just discussing tonight’s performance. What did you think of it?” He directed the question at me. “The opera was simply brilliant,” I said sincerely. I turned to Signora Bussani, saying, “You’re lucky to be part of it.” She didn’t respond. “I’m so glad,” Mozart said. “I knew you would love it.”
“I do love it,” I said. We smiled at one another. There were so many other things that I wanted to say, but I refrained. They were too precious to be put out before such company as the Bussanis. So I kept my words inside. Signor Bussani, shifting uncomfortably, asked his wife, “Do you want more to drink?” She looked down at her nearly-empty glass and nodded, handing it to him. He disappeared into the crowd. Signora Bussani started up conversation again, staring at her fingers as she asked, “So, where is Frau Mozart tonight? I thought she’d be at the premiere.” “She couldn’t leave the house tonight,” Mozart answered bluntly. He shut down completely, all emotions leaving his features. I’d never seen him do this before and it took me off guard. “That’s too bad,” Signora Bussani continued dispassionately. “I know how much she enjoys Figaro. It must be strange to not have her there.” “Yes,” Mozart said. Signora Bussani pouted her lips at Mozart. The gesture was so artificial that it made me angry. “You must be lonely without your Susanna,” she said, referring to the character of the wife of Figaro from the opera that night. “Very much so,” Mozart replied. It was strange to stand there and listen to their conversation. Their words had the potential to be caring and intimate but there was no emotion in them. They were flat, mere platitudes. Mozart might have meant what he said, but he didn’t show it. He matched Signora Bussani’s total lack of sincerity and emotional depth with a stoicism of his own. She didn’t seem to notice. Signor Bussani returned with wine for his wife and for himself. “Come, dear,” he said. “There are others who wish to speak with you.” He offered her his arm and they walked away. “Thank heaven,” Mozart breathed. Energy and emotion returned to his body. He smiled at me as though we were partners in a conspiracy. “How they irritate me.” “I can understand why,” I said. “However, they can be useful from time to time,” he said. “Signora Bussani has told me that there’s a new opera floating in the air. The Emperor himself has suggested the plot. He has commissioned our illustrious host, Signor da Ponte, for the libretto. The music side of it will probably be given to Kapellmeister Salieri, but da Ponte assures me that he will write a libretto that the Kapellmeister will be sure to turn down. Da Ponte knows every little thing that vexes Salieri; he will be sure to include them all in the libretto. And when Salieri turns down the commission, who will be suggested as the substitute?” My jaw dropped involuntarily. “What a plot,” I said. “Does Signor da Ponte really prefer you that much?” “He does. Our two collaborations have done well, as you can see from tonight’s performance.” “Still,” I said, “that seems a bit underhanded for you.” Mozart shook his head as though remembering something. “I’ve been nice for too long. Salieri has tried to sabotage me before. I think it’s about time to fight back. Besides, it will not hurt him much. I need the commission more than you know.” I wondered if this had to do with the situation at home. What could be the matter? I so much wanted to ask.
As I watched now, I saw it. Beneath the usual, happy exterior something was eating away at him. If I looked long enough, I could see it: drawn face, tired eyes, a heaviness in his body. I could no longer hold back my words. “Mozart,” I said softly, gently. “What is the matter?” He shook his head. “I am too proud. I cannot bear to say it. Frau Weber, my mother-in-law, always said that pride was my greatest flaw. I cannot overcome it, not even now.” “It is not demeaning to admit to suffering,” I said. “Life is not a kind master. You have no control over what is given to you.” He looked away. “I just want to help,” I said. “I don’t have any other motives, I assure you. I care about what happens to you and Constanze.” He looked at me, saying, “I believe you. But not here. Follow me.” He took my hand and was about to lead me away when a loud voice said, “My good Mozart! You mustn’t be leaving so soon!” Signor da Ponte and La Ferrarese were suddenly beside us, demanding our complete attention. Mozart dropped my hand. “I wouldn’t dream of it,” the composer said, all evidence of his sadness gone. “Good man,” Signor da Ponte said, slapping the smaller man on the back. “Now, have you heard the rumor?” “Of course,” Mozart said. “Then you shan’t worry. I will be sure to fix it so that that no-good Salieri will have to turn it down. Besides, La Ferrarese will be singing prima donna and we all know how much our friend the Kapellmeister loves working with her.” La Ferrarese pouted and her lover added, “Nothing against you, dear.” “How did you manage that?” Mozart asked. “Simple,” Signor da Ponte said with a sly smile. “I told the Emperor that I wouldn’t write the libretto unless he allowed my lovely to sing prima donna.” Mozart shook his head, saying, “If only you could have made such a request about the composer.” “Mozart,” Signor da Ponte said, “if only you’d learn the art of flattery. Half of your troubles would be fixed if only you would tease the egos of the aristocrats. You have too much pride.” “I don’t need to stoop so low for my music to be accepted,” Mozart said, his tone icy. “If I rise or fall, it must be by my own doing.” He paused, then asked, “How long will this ordeal take?” “All in time, my friend,” Signor da Ponte said. “Patience.” “Why must I always be patient?” Mozart grumbled. “It seems to be my lot in life.” “Don’t worry,” the other man said. “This should all unfold rather quickly. But there is more bad news.” We all looked to him, waiting. Even La Ferrarese was giving him her rapt attention. He took his time, postponing the moment so to hold the attention for as long as possible. Then, he said, “The Emperor has required that the Bussanis be cast as well.” Mozart swore under his breath. He said aloud, but still in a whisper so as not to be overheard, “Can I never escape them?”
“That’s assuming you get the commission,” Da Ponte said. Mozart gave him an irritated expression. “But you will,” Da Ponte added. “I’ll be sure of it.” “What is the opera about?” I asked, hoping to move the conversation along. Da Ponte turned his attention to me. “It’s perfectly scandalous,” he said. “Apparently the Emperor heard this story about these sisters who were tricked into switching lovers. I’ve taken the basic story and expanded upon it. It’s the kind of story I’ve been waiting for. Finally I have a chance to be my cynical self and comment on love and the stupidity of youth.” I was not too intrigued. “Ooh, explain it to them,” La Ferrarese said. “Tell them the part about going to war and such. It’s simply delicious.” Signor da Ponte smiled at her and turned back to us, saying, “Basically, these two soldiers believe that their lovers (the sisters) would never betray them. Their friend, an older and wiser man, (in other words: myself) makes a bet that he can prove their lovers unfaithful. So the men pretend to go off to war and then they approach their women but they’re disguised as Albanians.” “Albanians?” Mozart asked, laughing. “Ridiculous, no?” Signor da Ponte said. “I love it. So the men start to woo their girlfriends. The girls hold out for a while, but they eventually end up falling for the men. But they fall for the other sister’s man.” La Ferrarese laughed loudly, the sound coming out through her nose. She sounded more like a poodle than a person. “Eventually they get to the point where they’re going to get married to the Albanians. But then the soldiers ‘come back’ and the sisters’ infidelities are revealed. The old man wins the bet and they all learn a very important lesson. Brilliant, no?” I didn’t comment. I thought the entire plot was rather pathetic. I worked hard to keep my opinion away from my facial expression. Acting lessons can be useful even in everyday life. “Interesting,” Mozart said. “And you wrote all this yourself?” “It’s completely original,” Signor da Ponte said proudly. “Just the kind of commission I’ve been waiting for.” “Naturally,” Mozart said. “But you already know that if I do get the commission, your libretto is going to be experiencing some revisions.” “As is expected,” the librettist said. “But enough talking. Mozart, have you had some of the wine?” “Yes, thank you. I think I shall go get some more. Excuse me.” He walked away and my heart sank as I realized I wouldn’t uncover the mystery that night. I left with Vincenzo and Teresa an hour or so later. When we said our goodbyes, Mozart kissed my hand with the utmost affection, thanking me for attending his opera and for being a loyal friend. I thanked and congratulated him once again before making my exit. Then the three of us huddled into the carriage, rapidly exchanging stories. I mentioned the opera commission and they brought me up to date on all the opera house gossip. Thus we went home, bumping along over the streets of Vienna, bubbling with wine, happiness, and an anticipation for all that was to come.
September 5, 1789 Paper-thin Salieri sat and pounded away at the harpsichord, his trusty box of chocolates beside him. I stood in the wings, checking my costume and listening for my entrance music. The house was empty—it was only a dress rehearsal—but I wanted to make sure everything was covered. I’d already complained, to no avail, to the costumer about the lack of fabric at the neckline of the dress. Still, anyone could step into the audience at any time. I heard the signature phrase in the harpsichord and I stormed onto the stage. This was my favorite part of Cimarosa’s I due baroni. This was when I had the privilege of singing “Alma grande,” the aria Mozart composed for me just a month before. Cimarosa’s music was tuneful and nice, but Mozart’s music was superior in every way. Sure, I might be biased, but there was something special about Mozart’s work, something indefinable…something deeply human that really made it shine. I sang my scathing recitative and the strings played those familiar opening chords. I felt anger rise in me. The strings continued with their little running notes and I shot my partner a scornful look, mentally preparing myself for the aria to come. The last chords before my entrance gave me chills even though I’d heard it before. My heart beat wildly. I planted my feet and absorbed the final chord of the orchestral introduction. Here it was! “Alma grande e nobil core.” A grand soul and a noble heart. Two things I had and my lover did not. How easily I could keep the repeated high G in my resonance! Every time I sang that, I thought: Thank God that Mozart knows how to write for the voice. I continued my aria of vengeance, feeling the emotions in every note. The fioritora that I loved so much flew by, launching me into the next section. The chattering strings continued and all I could hear was Mozart’s laughter. The tempo sped up. “Ingrato! Ingrato!” Ingrate, ingrate! My favorite part! The strings were ruthless in their interjecting attacks. Before I knew it, I sang my last note and the orchestra finished the aria with the usual flourish. Applause from the audience jolted me, completely destroying my concentration. Without thinking, I looked out into the house. I could have recognized that blue suit and messy hair anywhere. Mozart sat in the house, clapping. What was he doing here? It was so good to see him. He’d been elusive ever since the Figaro premiere. Then it registered. He’d just heard me sing his aria! And he was applauding! My face flushed. I fought to control my emotions and failed. My heart pounded so hard that I feared it would break out of my chest and leave me forever. I was utterly overwhelmed. I finally noticed that Kapellmeister Salieri was glaring at me. His hands waited over the keys to start the recitative. We locked eyes and he played the chord. I continued on, trying to completely forget everything that had just happened. I forced myself to get back into character. I pushed all my energy into my acting. I slowly calmed down. I couldn’t be more grateful when it came time to exit. Once in the wings, I sat down. My legs were shaking and I found it difficult to breathe normally. That passed and anger rose up in me. I couldn’t believe that I’d lost my concentration during a final dress rehearsal! How had I let myself lose control like that? I should have been better than that. My attempt to calm myself down was essentially a failure. Everything in me was tight and I felt like a student again. I hated it. How could I have let this happen?
The rehearsal finished normally. I took off my costume as fast as possible and dressed to go home. For once I was looking forward to the solitude of my room. I nearly ran down Mozart as I emerged from my dressing room. “Excusez-moi,” he said. “It wasn’t my intention to startle you.” I shook my head, attempted to calm myself. “I’m sorry.” “I just wanted to tell you that your performance was magnificent,” he said. “I was especially proud of how you handled my aria.” Those words nearly killed me. “You’re welcome.” I didn’t know what else to say. He laughed. “Did my presence really bother you that much?” he asked. “If so, I am sorry. I didn’t mean for any of this.” His smile made me feel better. I relaxed slightly. “I’m just angry with myself,” I said. “Don’t be,” he said. “As I said, you were fantastic. There’s no reason to be upset.” I nodded, trying to get back into the natural way of things. “Listen,” he said, “I have a few things to talk to you about. Do you want to take a walk?” Things to talk about! My heart started racing again. “Of course,” I said. He gave me his arm and we left the confines of the Burgtheater. Grey clouds hung in the late Saturday afternoon sky, warning of more rain to come. The humidity nearly crushed me with its intensity, but a soft breeze made the weather bearable. We walked aimlessly on the Viennese streets. Mozart was silent for a while. All I heard was the sound of our low heels on the street and the songs of summer birds in the linden trees. He wasn’t paying attention to me at all. Every so often he accidently walked so close that we bumped hips. I took deep breaths, simply waiting and walking. The sound of a harpsichord floated onto the street as we passed a house. Mozart muttered instinctively, “There is an F-sharp in G major…” He fell silent again. I grew impatient. Finally, after a few minutes of this, I said, “Is there something you wanted to tell me?” He must have heard something in my voice because he looked at me with surprise in his eyes. “Of course,” he said. “I just thought it was so nice to have a quiet walk. It is a blessed change from my previous state of affairs. Besides, I was enjoying your company.” So he was aware of my existence. “I’m sorry,” I said, “it’s just that I cannot bear the delay. You cannot promise information to a woman and then withhold it. It is too much to ask.” Mozart smiled at this. “I’d forgotten,” he said. Then, his mood shifted and he was completely engaged. His attention was entirely on me as he said, “They have given me the opera commission.”
“That’s wonderful!” “It couldn’t have come at a better time,” he said. “It seems that da Ponte has come through for me once again. Salieri made a pathetic attempt to compose a few numbers and then he abandoned the project. Imagine his fury when he’s told that I’ve replaced him. Actually, considering how much he hated the libretto, he probably thinks this project’s going to be a failure. Then maybe he’s happy that I’m the one who has to deal with it. Either way, I can assure you that this opera will not be a failure. Da Ponte and I have already begun revisions on the libretto. I have some ideas. Composition will start as soon as I find it possible. But that is another matter.” Once again he was alluding to something! What could it be? At that moment, I became determined to find out. But Mozart was still talking. “Now for the best news of all,” he said. He paused for dramatic effect. “What is that?” I asked. “In the next few days, you will be receiving a request to participate in the Burgtheater’s premiere of a new opera. My opera.” I couldn’t believe it. My shock and delight must have been apparent because Mozart laughed. “I insisted that the seconda donna be a mezzo-soprano,” he explained, “and they could hardly disagree with the composer. Your name was discreetly brought up and it was a unanimous decision. I can tell you one thing: the Emperor simply adores you. I just mentioned your name and he immediately agreed. It’s never been so easy to get approval for casting.” Brushing aside the uncomfortable information about the Emperor, I asked, “Who else is in the cast?” “La Ferrarese, as you already know, and the Bussanis. There’s also Vincenzo Calvesi and that rascal Pietro Benucci. It’s a simple three-man, three-woman cast. At least three of you will be a pleasure to work with. I wouldn’t say anything for the other three. I suppose that as long as we don’t have a scandal, the show will be a success. I doubt the Bussanis will try and sabotage their own premiere. Although considering what Signor Bussani tried to do to my Figaro, I wouldn’t put it past them…” Vincenzo! I was glad to know that I’d be working with him again. “Thankfully I know all the voices,” he continued. “I won’t have to do any extra work before I start composing. That’s a blessing.” Thunder rumbled from somewhere far off. “Rain’s coming,” he said. “Let’s get indoors. I wouldn’t want you to ruin that nice dress of yours.” We looked around for someplace to go. I naturally began to walk in the direction of my house. As we walked, it began to drizzle. Just as the rain was picking up, I saw the dark outline of the Stephansdom with its single spire pointing the way to Heaven—that gorgeous cathedral to whose bells I awake every morning. “Let’s go in there,” I said, pointing. Mozart nodded and we started for the doors. Mozart shut the heavy wooden doors, separating us from the rain. The church smelled as it always did: of old wood and burning candles. Dim light filtered through the stained glass windows, casting colorful shadows on the floor. I stood by one of the windows, watching the water fall in sheets down the glass.
“We got inside just in time,” Mozart said. His voice echoed through the empty church. He walked over to a set of candles in the back of the church. I watched him light one, his movements solemn as though praying as he moved the flame from one wick to another. I moved away from the window, sitting on a hard wooden pew. He came over and sat beside me, every sound amplified in the high-ceilinged cathedral. His pensive mood remained. He spoke quietly, reverently. “Every time I come in here, I hear the Bach organ fugue that I played as Constanze walked down the aisle. We were married in this church. I remember it all so vividly. We waited so long to be married. When the day finally came, we couldn’t stop crying. We cried right through our vows and everything. I just couldn’t contain myself.” He didn’t look at me, but at everything else, as he continued, “I wonder how many people have spent their entire lives here. How many people have been baptized, married, and then given their funeral service here? How many people come here to escape the world? Can’t you imagine a man kneeling here…tears running down his face as he prays out of sheer desperation… Where else is there to go when everything else falls apart?” Mozart was moving toward something, I could feel it. He wanted so badly to tell me something. Should I be patient and simply wait for him to say it or should I ask for information? I found it impossible to hold my tongue, so I said, “It is safe here.” He finally looked at me. The quietness and seclusion of the place intensified everything. His large blue eyes seemed more expressive than usual. The sound of his hand moving over the fabric of his pants seemed too loud. I shifted, my dress scraping against the worn wood of the pew. I could hear him breathing. Thinking. Deciding. “I have kept you in the dark and I’m sorry for that,” he said. It sounded more like a confession than an apology. He took a breath, then continued, “The reason for my distress, and for our break in communication, is Constanze.” Something squeezed my heart. I listened to his every syllable. “She’s very ill,” he said. “She has been since July. For a while, it was on and off. One day she’d be fine and the next she’d be bedridden. Now she is always confined to bed.” “What is it? Do the doctors know what it is?” I asked. For his sake I tried to keep the urgency out of my voice. Mozart shook his head. There it was again—that weariness that I’d glimpsed at the party after Figaro. His pain affected me. I reached out and took his hand. “What are you going to do?” I asked. “I’ve decided to send her to Baden. That’s the only thing that can save her. I didn’t have a way to pay for it until now. That opera commission came just in time…” Mozart looked to the front of the church. A huge, wooden cross hung there. His lips moved soundlessly as he stared at it. He kept his gaze on it as he said, “There is something else that we haven’t told you.” What else could there possibly be? “Yes?” I asked. Mozart squeezed my hand, as though clinging to it for support. Slowly, and with a small smile, he said, “Constanze is with child.”
I couldn’t believe it. She hadn’t ever mentioned it to me. How long…? “When is the baby due?” I asked. “November.” I did the math. She knew before I had even met her. For some reason, I felt betrayed. “Why did she keep it a secret?” I asked. Mozart must have heard the hurt in my voice because he turned his gaze back to me. “We’ve lost children before. Constanze doesn’t like to tell anyone until it can no longer be hidden.” I tried to understand but I couldn’t. I’d never had children. I’d never even had a husband. How could I begin to imagine what it would be like to lose a child? I wished I could lend true sympathy but I could not. “When is she leaving for Baden?” I asked. “As soon as I can arrange it. Hopefully within the next few days. The maid and Karl will be going with her. I’ll be left alone in the house.” His expression changed, as though he suddenly forgot everything that he’d just explained. “There is one good about all this,” he said. “I will be able to completely focus on my composing. I couldn’t compose with Constanze in the house. Her illness upset me too much. The music wouldn’t come. But now…that opera will be finished in no time at all.” He looked past me to the window and then stood. “Look, the rain has stopped,” he said. “Let me walk you home. What’s your street?” “Domgasse.” “I used to live on that street!” he said. “Where are you staying?” “I have a room in the boarding house.” “Ah,” he said, lifting me to my feet. “I shall have you home in a moment.” “Thank you,” I said. We left the Stephansdom and remerged onto the streets of Vienna. We chatted normally on the short walk to my place. As we stood at the door to the boarding house, I thanked him again and then asked, “I’ve been wondering. Have you come up with a title for the opera?” He nodded. “Cosi fan tutte,” he answered. Women are all the same. “How cynical,” I said. “On da Ponte’s end, maybe,” he admitted, “but I’m not cynical. I like to consider myself a realist with a flair for irony.” “I like that much better.” “Me, too,” he said with a smile. “Good day, Madame Villeneuve.” “Good day, Herr Mozart.”
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