In the fall of 1900, Giacomo Puccini sat in a London theater, mesmerized by a play entitled Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan. In the play, “Butterfly,” a Japanese geisha, abandoned by her American naval officer husband, Pinkerton, awaits his return. Puccini immediately grasped the operatic potential in the play’s doomed love story and clash of cultures. Yet one scene in particular—created by the play’s writer, producer and director, David Belasco—inspired him most of all.
Butterfly sits in the center of the stage, holding an overnight vigil, awaiting Pinkerton’s long-overdue return. For several long minutes, she does not speak. Time passes. The sun sets, the stars come out, fade, and then the sun rises again. In the audience, Puccini and those around him truly empathized with Butterfly. The powerful staging eliminated all the distractions, allowing them to focus solely on her emotional plight. It was at that moment that Puccini not only resolved to make Butterfly his next opera, but he also decided to make Butterfly’s vigil an arresting musical moment. Such a long stretch of silence had never been explored in opera and he was determined to see it come to life on the operatic stage.
There are some pieces of music that instantly make the hair on your arms stand up – or give you goosebumps – or both. It’s usually the ones that break your heart while they’re at it. In the opera world, arias are the go-to heartbreakers. You’ve heard them, from Violetta’s final aria (Verdi’s La Traviata) to “Il dolce suono” (Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor). Why? An aria – like a monologue in a play or a solo song in a musical – is the truest expression of a character’s desires and soul; it’s an outpouring of emotion. They’re usually sung when a character is most vulnerable.
We’re all about Puccini these days with Madame Butterfly opening next month and La Boheme in May. Those two are arguably his most celebrated, but have you experienced the intriguing show that is La Rondine? Starkly different from the dramatic operas with which Puccini made his mark on the musical world, La Rondine is a comic opera that strives to bridge the gap between Puccini’s vision of opera and more lighthearted operetta (a difficult thing to do during the grim World War I time period in which it premiered). Although it differs from standard Puccini repertoire, it’s still a must listen before diving in to our very Puccini spring.
The Queen of the Night’s second aria is the arguably the most recognized piece of operatic music. Yet, there’s something so refreshing about Papageno’s Aria (“Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” or “A Little Wife”) in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Papageno sings his aria towards the end of Act II, after Pamina has fallen in love with Tamino. He longs for a little wife of his own to keep him company (which he says is better than wine, according to an English translation used in 1984’s hit film, Amadeus). It’s a light aria that Papageno sings, while indulging in several cocktails, and in which he gets a sneak peek at his future wife, Papagena. The aria’s theme is later reprises at the end of the opera, when Papageno and Papagena have found each other.
The Magic Flute opens this Saturday and that means you’ll be able to hear one of the most famous – and extravagant – arias in opera history, “Der Hölle Rache” (aka the “Queen of the Night Aria”). Sung during Act II of the opera, this aria is a pivotal moment in the relationship between the Queen of Night and her daughter, Pamina. The Queen orders Pamina to kill the Queen’s rival, Sarastro, on pain of cursing and forsaking Pamina if she does not comply. It requires disciplined and killer vocal range, as it spans two octaves (hello incredibly low notes and incredibly high notes – all within one aria). Check out Diana Damrau (who will tackle all four heroines in next season’s The Tales of Hoffmann) take on the aria below.
Excited for The Magic Flute? Learn more below.
There is no better composer than Giuseppe Verdi to tackle the darkly complex tragedy that is Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Fascinated by the supernatural and the bloody betrayal of Macbeth, Verdi composed the original opera in 1847, making dramatic additions in 1865 to create the masterpiece opera. Starring Plácido Domingo, Macbeth will kick off our upcoming season at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion this September.
To say that Nabucco put Giuseppe Verdi on the map is a vast understatement. The opera – a telling of the Biblical story of Jewish oppression by the Babylonians – saved his career. After his first opera, King for a Day, failed miserably (and also after he lost his wife and two children), Verdi was ready to give up composing. But La Scala manager Bartolomeo Merelli slipped him the libretto for Nabucco. Once Verdi read the lyrics to “Va pensiero,” he knew that this would be his next project. Nabucco became one of Verdi’s most famous operas, reigniting his career as a composer capable of creating rapturous, nationalistic sound, so vastly different from the more melodic Bellini or frenetic Donizetti. In 1901, at Verdi’s funeral, crowds of mourners sang “Va pensiero,” in his honor.
In 1986, LA Opera’s inaugural season opened with Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello, starring Plácido Domingo. Of the opera, director Götz Friedrich said, “The theme [of Otello] is eternal and current: The Soldier, shoved into peacetime, proves to be defenseless and helpless in the face of the attacks of everyday life, the persecutions of injured vanity. In ancient tragedy, the heroes fell because of the gods. With Shakespeare and Verdi, it is the envy of men which destroys the outsider.” This would become one of the company’s iconic productions.
Since its successful premiere in 1887, Otello has catapulted audiences to the Shakespeare of Verdi. This is a world where all the essentials of storytelling meet the heightened emotions of an operatic score. Take, for example, the below duet between Otello (Domingo) and Iago (Sherrill Milnes), “Si, pel ciel.”
“Everyone cried out at the idea of putting a hunchback on the stage; well, there you are. I was very happy to write Rigoletto…and it is my best opera.” – Giuseppe Verdi, July 26, 1852
Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto is Victor Hugo’s play Le roi s’amuse on steroids. Verdi’s music energizes the story’s tragic drama, a father-daughter tale that ends unhappily. In the opera, the title character is a court jester to the womanizing Duke of Mantua, who openly mocks his social superiors in order to please the Duke. One day, he mocks the wrong man – the Count Monterone, whose daughter has been seduced and discarded by the Duke. The Count warns him never to make light of a father’s grief, a threat which haunts Rigoletto, as he is father to the beautiful Gilda, whom he keeps secluded from eyes of lecherous men like the Duke. When Gilda falls in love with the Duke, Rigoletto decides to have him murdered, but his plans go awry and Gilda ends up dying as a result.
Rigoletto’s most famous aria is the Duke’s Act IV show of callousness in the form of “La donna e mobile” (women are fickle), an unforgettable tune that returns—to heart wrenching effect—at the very end of the opera. The main point of the aria? Women are flighty and untrue, but men still need their love. (Warning: This may change your perspective on your favorite pasta commercial.)
Plácido Domingo as Rigoletto and Vittorio Grigolo as The Duke
Erwin Schrott performing “El dia que me quieras” in Vienna
Bass-baritone Erwin Schrott may have skyrocketed to fame as the title character in Don Giovanni, but his interpretations of classic Latin songs are also not to be missed. One of these interpretations is “El dia que me quieras,” a tango standard originally composed and performed by famous Argentinian singer, Carlos Gardel, for his film of the same name.
This upcoming Saturday night, “El dia que me quieras” will be the first song Schrott sings to kick off his Cuba Amiga concert, Schrott will be joined by an ensemble of outstanding classical and jazz musical friends from around the world, including special guest José Feliciano, the legendary singer and guitarist. Taking the audience on a musical journey through Latin America, Cuba Amiga delivers a thrilling international spectrum of Latin rhythms: bolero, salsa, flamenco, timba, rumba, cha-cha, samba and tango.
“Casta diva” from Bellini’s Norma is one of the most recognizable soprano arias, found in pop culture from many soundtrack appearances (Mildred Pierce, anyone?) and legendary renditions by the likes of Maria Callas (see below), Joan Sutherland, and Beverly Sills. Norma takes place on a Druid temple mountaintop during the Roman occupation of Gaul. It follows the heartbreak of Druid priestess Norma, who unbeknownst to her followers, fell in love and has two children with Pollione, the leader of the Roman forces. The Druids call for her to declare war on the Romans. Yet, Norma does not want to destroy the man she loves. During “Casta diva,” she prays to the Goddess for peace.
In just a few short weeks, Moby-Dick opens at LA Opera. Melville’s tale of obsession, the nature of good and evil, and the search for the elusive, titular, white whale is set to an evocative score by famed American composer, Jake Heggie (Dead Man Walking). When Heggie describes tackling the mammoth tale, he speaks of finally finding the music of Moby’s universe in four simple chords. These chords capture the spirit and yearning inherent in Melville’s story and resurface throughout the rest of the score, in a haunting fashion.
“We are starting in the middle of a huge family fight,” conductor Grant Gershon says as he directs the orchestra during a rehearsal for Gianni Schicchi. They are reviewing the overture and the opening scene of the opera, where family members gather at the deathbed of Buoso Donati. There are moments when Gershon perfectly describes how the music changes to reflect the action on the stage. A section they rehearse contains a large crescendo reminiscent of classic Hollywood-era films (very fitting connection for a Woody Allen production) that lightens towards the end. Gershon says this is the moment where the music “switches to decaff.” Orchestra members laugh at this and play the music accordingly, completely understanding the charming analogy.
When Renée Fleming starred as Blanche DuBois in André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire, she wowed audiences with her many showstopper arias. Start your week off right by listening to the blues-inspired opera, particularly Blanche’s radiant Act III aria, “I Want Magic,” in which she reveals her innermost desires.