Friday, October 31, 2014

Opera on Broadway

No. 171 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at

pcast171- Playlist

Earlier in this month’s series of podcasts, I spent some time looking at operetta as the light-hearted cousin of what we have come to call “Grand Opera”. At that time, I had hinted to a relationship between operetta and the Musical Comedy, a genre that has taken root on American stages and on the Silver Screen.

The Musical has its fair share of – shall I say – bold and ambitious works, in a scale not unlike operetta or opera. The works that come to mind are Show Boat (Hammerstein and Kern) and West Side Story (Sondheim, Laurents and Bernstein). We could add – for not too dissimilar reasons – Hair (Rado, Ragni and MacDermott), Jesus Christ, Superstar (Rice and Lloyd-Webber) or even Rent (Larson) or Tommy (The Who) all credited as “Rock Operas.

Many of the stated works are indeed ambitious, but they were all designed (at least, originally) as “musicals” and not as operas, though some of these works have been staged by opera companies.
However, there are few stages in New York City available to mount operas. There’s the Met, the New-York City Opera, or even some of the music schools which offer opera training programs. As a result, it should not be surprising that there have been operas staged on theatres that line the Great White Way. Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess had its original 1035 New-York run on Broadway (Alvin Theatre), for example. According to an article, written in 1946, Kurt Weill, expressed rthis opinion:

When I first came to the United States eleven years ago, I became rapidly convinced that the Broadway legitimate stage is to the American public what the opera and concert halls are to the European. With that thought in mind, I have repeatedly aimed my music at the Broadway stage, and today I am convinced that the American public is ready to accept its own form of grand opera on the legitimate stage. […] In Europe, opera houses and legitimate theatres are subsidized by the state. I was able to compose for them and be assured of a hearing for my works. By the time I was twenty-six I had operas in virtually every major companyís repertoire in Germany. But I was playing to a limited public. My adaptation of the Three Penny Opera (on The Beggar's Opera theme) and its world success opened my eyes to the vast possibilities in an audience which did not seek opera as its daily fare.
Another composer who understood this equation was the Italian-American Gian-Carlo Menotti.  According to NPR music commentator Miles Hoffman, "Menotti thought it was crucial to bring opera to a large popular audience. He once wrote, 'If I insist on bringing my operas to Broadway, it is simply because of the letters I receive which begin, "Dear Mr. Menotti, I have never seen an opera until tonight." ' "

Menotti’s The Consul opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway in 1949, earning him not only a Broadway hit but also a Pulitzer Prize.

A couple of years earlier, between May and November 1947, the Ethel Barrymore Theatre presented 212 performances of an operatic double-feature of The Medium and The Telephone, both short oiperas by Menotti (Internet Broadway Database reference here). Before that, the pair was staged at the Heckscher Theatre by The Ballet Society in February of that year.

Today’s podcast presents this double-bill, featuring the 1947 Broadway cast in a studio recording supervised by Menotti and conducted by Emanuel Balaban. The two works could not be more different in terms of atmosphere. Aptly programmed for our Hallowe’en podcast, The Medium, introduces us to a woman who has posed as a person who can contacts spirits (but is shown to use trickery) starting to hear voices and feel phantom presences she cannot explain. The Telephone is a light-hearted piece where a man comes to his girlfriend's apartment to propose, only to find her preoccupied with talking on the telephone.

Both works have their twist endings – albeit the a propos ending in the tragic Medium is predictable. The works are sung in English, so I can dispense with a detailed synopsis. Here are some links to synopses and libretti for these operas:

I think you will love this music too.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Richard Wagner

No. 170 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at

pcast170- Playlist


This week’s podcast completes our very modest look at Richard Wagner begun on Tuesday’s Vinyl’s Revenge post.  As a tie-in between the two, the podcast begins with another excerpt from the opera Tannhäuser, the Festive March from the closing bars of Act II.

Where casual listeners criticize Wagner’s operatic output, more often than not length and plot complexity bubble to the surface. For the most part, Wagner’s works are set in the world of myth and legend – Tannhäuser being an excellent example. However, no work rivals in breath, length and plot complexity with the four-part Ring des Nibelungen, "ein Bühnenfestspiel für drei Tage und einen Vorabend" (a stage festival drama for three days and a preliminary evening). The cycle is a work of extraordinary scale and sheer length: a full performance of the cycle takes place over four nights at the opera, with a total playing time of about 15 hours.


Wagner's title is most literally rendered in English as The Ring of the Nibelung. The Nibelung of the title is the dwarf Alberich, and the ring in question is the one he fashions from the Rhine Gold. The title therefore denotes "Alberich's Ring". The scale and scope of the story is epic, following the struggles of gods, heroes, and several mythical creatures over the eponymous magic ring that grants domination over the entire world. The drama and intrigue continue through three generations of protagonists, until the final cataclysm at the end of Götterdämmerung.

As a significant element in the Ring (and his subsequent works), Wagner adopted the use of leitmotifs. These are recurring themes and/or harmonic progressions. They musically denote an action, object, emotion, character or other subject mentioned in the text and/or presented onstage. Wagner referred to them in "Opera and Drama" as "guides-to-feeling", and described how they could be used to inform the listener of a musical or dramatic subtext to the action onstage in the same way as a Greek chorus did for the theatre of ancient Greece.

In today’s podcast, I retained two selections from the Ring. The first, the infamous “Ride of the Valkyries” is taken out of an operatic performance, with the lyric sopranos providing the battle cry. The second selection happens to be the ultimate scene from the fourth and final opera. In a sense, it is a microcosm of the story, complete with a recap of the many leitmotifs Wagner used throughout the cycle to situate his characters.

Equally ambitious in its own right, Parsifal – Wagner’s last completed work, premiered in 1882, the year before his death - is the story of a young man whose virtue and compassion become the salvation of the Knights of the Holy Grail. He wards off temptation and danger to regain the spear with which Christ's side was pierced on the cross; in the process he heals the king, Amfortas, of a cursed wound, and relieves the fallen woman, Kundry, from her eternal wandering.

The podcast combines digital-era recordings and vintage classic performances by the likes of Kirsten Flagstad, Monserrat Caballe, and Lauritz Melchior, as well as Arturo Toscanini (featured in the last selection, the fanfare Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin)

I think you will love this music too!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Wagner overtures: Tannhäuser, Der Fliegende Holländer, Die Feen

This is my Tuesday Blog post from April 15, 2014.

Vinyl's Revenge returns this month with a nearly 35 year old release by the Philips label, which will act as a segue to this week's Friday Blog and Podcast featuring Richard Wagner operatic selections (read our below "teaser" for links).

My vinyl collection has three Wagner LPs, all of "orchestral favourites": the unavoidable "Highlights from the Ring" (George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, CBS "Great Performances" re-issue), an analogue disc of Wagner overtures (Silvio Varviso and Staatskapelle Dresde, Philips FESTIVO re-issue) and today's album, an early Digital recording from the Concertgebouw led by Netherlands native conductor Edo De Waart.

De Waart studied oboe, piano and conducting at the Sweelinck Conservatory, graduating in 1962. In 1964, at the age of 23, de Waart won the Dimitri Mitropoulos Conducting Competition in New York. As part of his prize, he served for one year as assistant conductor to Leonard Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic. On his return to the Netherlands, he was appointed assistant conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Bernard Haitink.

My first recolllections of maestro De Waart were his leading the San Francisco Symphony in the inaudural concert of the Davies concert Hall in 1980 or 81. He has since been associated with the Minnesota Orchestra, Sydney Symphony, Milwaukee Symphony and the Royal Flemish Philharmonic. 

As for the disc itself, it stays well-within the arcs of your typical Wagner Overtures disc, with the Tannhäuser overture (with the Venusberg extension), Flying Dutchman and the less-frequently heard overture to Wagner's first mature opera, Die Feen. As for many recordings of this era, this first-generation digital recoirding feels cold and rough around the edges, but the reading of the score is clear and the great Concertgebouw orchestra delivers art all the right places.

Happy Listening!

Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tannhäuser, WWV 70: Overture and Venusberg Music
Die Feen, WWV 32: Overture
Der Fliegende Holländer, WWV 63: Overture

Koninklijk Concertgebouworkest
Edo De Waart, conducting

Philips 9500 746 (stereo, digital DDA, 1981)

Internet Archive URL -

Friday, October 17, 2014

Wiener Operette

No. 169 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at

pcast169- Playlist


Operetta is a genre of light opera, light in terms both of music and subject matter. It is also closely related, in English-language works, to forms of musical theatre. Camille Saint-Saëns once described operetta in these terms: " [operetta] is a daughrter of the opéra-comique that didn't quite turn out right. However, girls that didn't turn out right aren't always without fun".
Though it is a genre made popular in France (notably by German transplant Jacques Offenbach), operetta was alive and well in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Its most significant composer in the genre was Johann Strauss II; his first operetta was Indigo und die vierzig Räuber (1871). His third operetta, Die Fledermaus (1874), became the most performed operetta in the world, and remains his most popular stage work. Its libretto was based on a comedy written by Offenbach's librettists. In all, Strauss wrote 16 operettas and one opera, most with great success when first premiered.
This week’s podcast finds its roots in an old CBC Records CD entitled “Oktoberfest Operetta”, which featured the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra under its then-music director, the Egyptian-born, Vienna-trained and adoptive Canadian conductor Rafi Armenian.
Certainly here in Canada, Oktoberfest is celebrated over a 9-day period ending on our Thanksgiving holiday (which was this past 3-day weekend), and the greater Kitchener-Waterloo area is the prime destination; since 1969, Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest has developed its own traditions, becoming the largest Bavarian festival in North America with the greatest Thanksgiving Day Parade in Canada. Through the celebration of this Spirit of Gemuetlichkeit, the local economy is stimulated and over 70 charities and not-for-profit organizations raise funds to support the high quality of life enjoyed in Kitchener-Waterloo.

The area has gained fame over the years, thanks greatly to the University of Waterloo, renowned for its Math and Computer programs that – among others – gave us the Blackberry. However, K-W has a long-standing German tradition, starting after the American Revolution and the migration of Loyalists and especially German Mennonite farming families from Pennsylvania. They wanted to live in an area that would allow them to practice their beliefs without persecution. One of these Mennonite families, arriving in 1807, were the Schneiders, whose restored 1816 home (the oldest building in the city) is now a museum located in the heart of Kitchener. Immigration to the town increased considerably from 1816 until the 1870s, many of the newcomers being of German (particularly Lutheran, and Mennonite) extraction. In 1833 the town was named Berlin, and in 1853 Berlin became the County Seat of the newly created County of Waterloo, elevating it to the status of Village.

Anti-German sentiment during the First World War led to the abandonment of much of this heritage and in 1916, following much debate and controversy, the name of the city was changed to Kitchener, after the late British Field Marshal The 1st Earl Kitchener.
Our podcast begins and ends with selections from Fledermaus and Der Zigeunerbaron (1885). Both sets of selections come from the aforementioned disc by Armenian and the K-W Symphony Orchestra.

The Armenian disc featured selected songs from two operattas and I chose to “expand” on these by embedding larger medleys of these.

The Viennese operatic tradition was carried on by Oscar Straus, Carl Zeller, Karl Millöcker, Leo Fall, Richard Heuberger, Edmund Eysler, Ralph Benatzky, Robert Stolz, and Nico Dostal. Emmerich Kálmán and Franz Lehár were the leading composers of what has been called the "Silver Age" of Viennese operetta during the first quarter of the 20th century. Kálmán became well known for his fusion of Viennese waltz with Hungarian csárdás. Gräfin Mariza (Countess Mariza) is an operetta in three acts composed by Kálmán, with a libretto by Julius Brammer and Alfred Grünwald. It premiered in Vienna on 28 February 1924. In this operetta, Count Tassilo has lost his job and his entire fortune. And so Countess Mariza, on whose lands he has sought refuge as an estate manager, initially shows him little respect. An attractive and successful woman herself, she can barely fend off her many troublesome admirers. Only gradually does she realize that it is actually the poor but proud estate manager whom she loves…

Die lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow) is an operetta by Lehár, with librettists, Viktor Léon and Leo Stein, an 1861 comedy play, L'attaché d'ambassade (The Embassy Attaché) by Henri Meilhac. The story concerns a rich widow, and her countrymen's attempt to keep her money in the principality by finding her the right husband. The operetta has enjoyed extraordinary international success since its 1905 premiere in Vienna and continues to be frequently revived and recorded. Film and other adaptations have also been made. Well-known music from the score includes the "Vilja Song", "Da geh' ich zu Maxim", and the "Merry Widow Waltz".

I think you will love this music too!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

ROSSINI: Six Sonatas for Quartet

This is a past Tuesday Blog from Oct-14-2014 

At first glance, there seems to be two groups of opera composers: those that dabbled mainly in concert music and those that dabbled mainly in opera. We can clearly say Gioachino Rossini falls in the latter category – but it’s not to say that he composed exclusively for opera.

Indeed, Rossini “retired” from opera composing in 1855 when he and his new bride settled in Passy, a suburb of Paris. He spent the remaining years of his life writing sacred music as well as delectable miniatures for both piano and voice (some of which he called "sins of my old age"). It is also known that Rossini composed instrumental chamber music early in life, however the only existing pieces were an out-of-print set of string quartets published by Schott in 1823. This set of quartets had been arranged anonymously into traditional string quartet instrumentation and also existed in a configuration for woodwinds. As it turns out, the original parts (on which the published parts were based) were actually written for the extremely unconventional string quartet form of two violins, a cello, and a double bass.

In the 1940s, composer Alfredo Casella discovered (in the US Library of Congress) a set of six string sonatas written by Rossini. From Rossini's own handwriting, we know that the pieces were written in 1804, when he was still quite young - if we are to believe his comments (which he added to the manuscripts much later in life) he says that he was only 12 years old when he composed the complete set of these "horrendous" sonatas in three days. The pieces were written for his friend, Agostino Triossi, who was an accomplished amateur bassist. Triossi, Morini (Triossi's violinist cousin), Morini's cellist brother, and Rossini performed the pieces, apparently in a less-than-stellar fashion. Rossini says his playing (on the second violin part) was the worst of all.

Each of the sonatas follows a similar three-movement format (fast-slow-fast). The second movements contain many soloistic, lyrical passages that foreshadow the style of the composer's great operatic arias. It is known that Rossini studied the quartets of Haydn and Mozart in his younger years, but the musical qualities of his string sonatas are not especially characteristic of these compositional influences. The pieces are, however, imaginative and lively, carrying Rossini's own stamp of originality.

Happy listening!

Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Sonate a quattro, for two violins, cello and double bass (1804)
String Sonata No.1 in G
String Sonata No.2 in A
String Sonata No.3 in C
String Sonata No.4 in Bb
String Sonata No.5 in Eb
String Sonata No.6 in D

Quartetto Rossini
Glauco Bertagnin, violin (Carlo Guadagnini, Torino, 1803)
Kazuki Sasaki, violin (Paolo Castello, Genova, 1776)
Luigi Puxeddu, cello (Custode Marcucci, Early XXth Century)
Gabriele Ragghianti, double bass (Anonymus, French, Early XIX Century)

Label: DAD Records
Catalog Number: DAD003-2
Downloaded from MP3.COM, May 2004
Hyperlink (Internet Archive):

Friday, October 10, 2014

Viva Verdi!

No. 168 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at

pcast168- Playlist


As part of our look at opera through this month, I plan to spend some time showcasing the works of a pair of operatic giants of the 19th century: Richard Wagner representing the German tradition, and Giuseppe Verdi representing the Italian tradition. Missing is the French tradition – which could probably be suitably represented by either Jules Massenet or Charles Gounod. Maybe some other time…
Giuseppe Verdi was to opera in the Italian tradition what Beethoven was to the symphony. When he arrived on the scene some had suggested that effective opera after Rossini was not possible. Verdi, however, took the form to new heights of drama and musical expression. Partisans see him as at least the equal of Wagner, even though his style and musical persona were of an entirely different cast. In the end, both Verdi's popular vein—as heard in the operas Rigoletto, Il trovatore, and La traviata—and his deeper side—found in Aida, Otello, and Falstaff—demonstrate his mastery and far-reaching development of Italian opera.
Verdi has graced our pages earlier this year in the form of his Requiem Mass, and will come back next month when we pay tribute to Carlo Bergonzi – we also featured Verdi operas (Aida, Traviata and Trovatore) on Once or Twice a Fortnight.
For the moist part, the works I chose to underscore in today’s podcast feature both orchestral pages (like overtures) and arias from my personal collection. The first work featured, La forza del destino, opens with my very favourite Verdi overtire, and this is my very favourite performance, taken from a WWII-era documentary featuring the great Toscanini and his NBC Symphony. The recording integrated into the podcast isn’t of the best audio quality, but the performance is remarkable for how distinctly Toscanini singles out sections of the orchestra.
There are instances of Verdi operas that were either restaged or entirely redone for Parisian audiences. Jérusalem is a heavily revised version of Verdi's third opera, I Lombardi Alla Prima Crociata. Not only is the music rewritten substantially and the libretto different, but the text is in French. In the end, the work so pleased Verdi that he had the new version translated back into Italian! As it was the custom, Verdi included sometimes elaborate ballet sequences for Parisian use– the podcast includes the ballet scene from Jérusalem.
Many of the Verdi selections found here, including the highlights from Act I of La Traviata, come from a DECCA compilation called Viva Verdi! Issued as a 2 CD set for the centenary of Verdi’s death in 2001.
I think you will love this music too!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Opera Transcriptions

No. 167 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at


Our October programming on the Friday Blog and Podcast is entirely dedicated to opera, with some orchestral and sung selections planned for later podcasts, and even some complete operas. This week, however, we will explore the world of opera transcriptions for piano.
During the 19th century the piano transcription became popular for several reasons - the bourgeoisie grew in number and wealth, they were interested in symphonic and chamber music; the availability, quality, and affordability of attending ensemble music was not able to keep pace with this interest. Since recording technology would need another hundred years to catch up and that pianos were commonplace in the houses of wealthy people, piano transcriptions filled this gap with transcribers turning old and new popular works into arrangements involving one or two players.

Two of my earliest posts for OperaLively explored this very subject, with a particular look at transcriptions by Franz Liszt and Sigismond Thalberg who not only made their mark in this genre, but were also the two dominant virtuosi of their era. As I said in those posts, it is quite natural for them to have used opera as the seed for their inspiration, as these were popular “tunes” for the day, and thus a familiar point of departure for them to show off their talents – both as virtuosi and as musical thinkers.

The sources for these transcriptions include some the 19th century’s prominent opera composers: Wagner, Rossini and Donizetti. I also inserted an excerpt of music from Glinka’s “A Life for the Tsar” (re-imagined by Balakirev). Other than Thalberg and Liszt, some of the transcribers include Moritz Moszkowski and  Henri Herz, who could also impress audiences with their own piano virtuosity.
As luck would have it, the works on today’s program were entrusted to a pair of great piano virtuosi of the 20th century: Cuban pianist Jorge Bolet and American pianist Earl Wild. In both cases, these kinds of virtuoso showpieces found their way into their live recitals (as some of the audience reaction attests).

I think you will love this music too.