Tag Archives: Opera

The signifyin(g) rabbit

Bugs Bunny has been recuperated as a queer cultural icon, a parodic diva whose campy excesses and canny games are profoundly though tacitly indebted to the African American rhetorical tradition of signifyin(g).

Interrogation of Bugs Bunny’s characteristic strategies of trickstering demonstrates the connections, both theoretical and material, between the queer camp of gender bending and the slippery strategies of resistance, the semiotic play of signifying as back-talk.

The rabbit of Seville (1950, directed by Chuck Jones and scored by Carl Stalling) presents specific situations of parody and allusion, illustrating the ways in which transvestic performance, inflected through camp, participates in a highly queer mode of phallic divestiture.

This according to “The signifying rabbit” by Eric Savoy (Narrative 2 [May 1995] 188–209; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1996-12504).

Below, excerpts from the cartoon classic in question, with live accompaniment!

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Filed under Humor, Opera

Anne Brown and “Porgy and Bess”

Anne Brown literally put the Bess in Porgy and Bess by inspiring George Gershwin to expand the character’s part in an opera that was originally to be called Porgy.

Brown was the first person Gershwin heard singing the role of Bess, who was a relatively minor character in the original 1925 DuBose Heyward novel. As he composed the opera, often with Brown at his side, Gershwin added more and more music for her. Because Gershwin died at 38 in 1937, she was the only Bess he ever knew.

Brown was in her second year of graduate studies at Juilliard when she read that Gershwin was writing his opera. She wrote to ask for an interview, which his secretary granted. She sang music by Brahms, Schubert, and other classical composers; then he asked her to sing a Black spiritual. Brown hesitated at the racial stereotyping, but finally sang an unaccompanied spiritual. Gershwin was silent after she finished; then he told her that it was the most beautiful spiritual he had ever heard, and they hugged.

In the last days of rehearsals, Gershwin told Brown that he was expanding the title of the opera to include Bess, her part. Though critics initially weren’t sure what to make of the work, her performance in it received wide acclaim.

This according to “Anne Brown, who was Gershwin’s Bess, dies at 96” by Douglas Martin (The New York times 18 March 2009; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2009-633).

Anne Brown would have been 100 years old this month! Above and below, a filmed excerpt from her performance.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Black studies, Opera, Performers

Donizetti studies

In 2021 Musicom launched Donizetti studies (ISSN 2785-0331; EISSN 2785-4140),  a peer-reviewed print and online journal whose scope is not limited to Donizetti, but extends to include Simon Mayr, the rich musical tradition of Bergamo, and, in general, Italian and French opera in the first half of the nineteenth century.

The journal’s format involves multiple sections: the first comprises original essays, the second presents unpublished or partially known documents, and the third takes on varying contents and forms, depending on needs. Also, the journal provides bibliographic materials that cover the most recent studies on Donizetti and his period.

Below, an excerpt from L’ange de Nisida, one of the works discussed in the inaugural issue.

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Filed under New periodicals, Opera, Romantic era

Minnie Hauk, American savage

When the U.S. operatic soprano Minnie Hauk (1851–1929) first toured Europe in 1868, her instant success was due largely to shrewd marketing by her teacher and manager Maurice Strakosch.

Capitalizing on Hauk’s childhood on the American prairie, Strakosch’s advance publicity described her as “a kind of half-civilized Pocahontas, who, back in the wilds of her homeland, was accustomed to riding a mustang bareback and being worshipped by the continent’s aborigines as a ‘dusky daughter of the sun.’”

Thanks to widespread curiosity about this exotic creature—and, of course, to her prodigious talent—Hauk remained abroad for the next eight years, performing at all the major opera houses in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, Hungary, and Russia.

This according to Women in the spotlight: Divas in nineteenth-century New York by Andrea Saposnik (Saarbrücken: Lambert Academic Publishing).

Today is Hauk’s 170th birthday! Above, the soprano in her highly acclaimed role as Carmen; over the course of her career she performed the work in four languages.

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Filed under Opera, Romantic era

Vincenzo Bellini, zampognaro

When he was growing up in Catania, Sicily, Bellini undoubtedly heard the peasants from the far side of Mount Etna who came to town every Advent with their zampogne (bagpipes). The young prodigy was influenced by these traditional musicians in several ways.

The bagpipers’ improvisations helped to shape the seemingly meandering and unpredictable melodies that Bellini became famous for. Also, the balance between the drones and the chanters influenced his handling of accompaniment and melody. Finally, the music of the bagpipes found its way into Bellini’s uses of modality, his chromaticisms, and his oscillations between major and minor keys. The Mediterranean vibrancy of his slow music was particularly grounded in the traditional music of his youth.

This according to Vincenzo Bellini, zampognaro del melodramma by Salvatore Enrico Failla (Catania: Maimone, 1985).

Today is Bellini’s 220th birthday! Below, a modern-day incarnation of the Sicilian Advent zampognaro.

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Filed under Curiosities, Instruments, Opera, Romantic era

Enescu and makam

Georges Enescu’s use of elements of Romanian traditional music is well known; his most popular works today, the Rhapsodies roumaines, attest to his enthusiasm for his homeland’s music. Less known is his interest in the Turkish melodic type makam (pl. makamlar) and its influence on his masterpiece, the opera Œdipe.

In this work, Enescu used three makamlar: Müsteâr, for music associated with the characters Creon and Jocasta; Hisâr, for the motif of fate, and Nişâbûr, for the motif of justification.

This according to “Modale Strukturen in Annäherung zur orientalischen Kirchenmusik im Oedip von George Enescu” by Adriana Şirli, an essay included in Enesciana II-III: Georges Enesco, musicien complexe (Bucureşti: Editura Academiei Republicii Socialiste România, 1981).

Today is Enescu’s 140th birthday! Below, an excerpt from the 1970 production of Œdipe by the Opera Naţională Bucureşti; above, the Enescu statue in front of the opera house. For more Enescu iconography, see Music on money.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Opera

Sound stage screen

In 2021 the Dipartimento di Beni Culturali e Ambientali at the Università degli Studi di Milano launched Sound stage screen (SSS, ISSN 2784-8949), a biannual, peer-reviewed journal devoted to historical and theoretical research into the relations between sound, performance, and media.

SSS addresses a wide range of phenomena, practices, and objects pertaining to sound and music in light of the interconnections between performing traditions and media archaeologies: from opera to musical multimedia, and from cinema to interactive audiovisual platforms. An open-access journal published in English, SSS wishes to redefine the academic study of music as an open field whose boundaries—historical, geographical, and theoretical—are constantly being negotiated.

Below, the official trailer for Christopher Cerrone’s opera Invisible cities, a work discussed in the inaugural issue.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Dramatic arts, New periodicals

Rinaldo and the Enlightenment

The resounding success of the premiere of Händel’s Rinaldo, his first opera in England, was tempered by satirical and sarcastic criticism in The spectator, a weekly journal dedicated to combining wit with morality.

The spectacular scenery and costumes, textual weaknesses, and lack of logic were all points of criticism. Joseph Addison, measuring the performance by the standards of reason, truth, and naturalness, hardly found occasion to mention the music and excellent cast.

The main forum for these ideas of a new moral, social, and national function for opera was the London coffeehouse. Thus the Enlightenment, through the medium of opera, came to influence the thought of large groups and stimulated new social behavior and artistic standards.

This according to “Mit Rindern, Schafen und Spatzenschwärmen: Die Londoner Uraufführung der Oper Rinaldo von Händel” by Wilhelm Baethge (Das Orchester XLIII/11 [1995] 17-22; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1995-14126).

Today is the 31oth anniversary of Rinaldo’s premiere! Below, the opera’s march remains one of its most popular excerpts.

BONUS: John Gay’s celebrated repurposing of the march for The beggar’s opera.

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Filed under Baroque era, Opera, Reception

Re-encoding Carmen’s identity

The 2005 film U-Carmen eKhayelitsha is a South African adaptation and reconceptualization of Bizet’s Carmen. The change in culture and context affects the interpretation of the character of Carmen, who emerges as a strong black woman striving for autonomy within a patriarchal and sexist postcolonial South African society.

The film involves an interpretation of identity as a social construct dependent on the interaction between character and place within a specific period of time–in this case, Khayelitsha, a township on the outskirts of Cape Town, at the beginning of the 21st century. Its portrayal of the modern Carmen as an emancipated woman within a postcolonial and postmodernist context can be traced by interpreting semiotic signs and specific narrative strategies.

The re-encoding of Carmen’s identity questions intransigent or stereotypical perceptions of Carmen as the iconic femme fatale to which audiences have become accustomed; the indigenized production offers recourse to alternative perceptions of Carmen’s identity. U-Carmen eKhayelitsha does not deny the sensuality and femininity attributed to Carmen in the precursory texts, but it depicts her as an even more complex character than the one in Bizet’s opera.

This according to “The same, yet different: Re-encoding identity in U-Carmen eKhayelitsha” by Santisa Viljoen and Marita Wenzel (Journal of the musical arts in Africa XIII/1–2 [2016] 53–70; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2016-49747).

Below, the trailer for the film.

Related articles:

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Filed under Africa, Film music, Opera

Cherubini and revolutionary opera

Luigi Cherubini’s Médée was the first new major operatic work based on classical subject matter to appear on a Paris stage after years of lip service to—but little artistic concern with—the heritage of Gluck.  The work’s 1797 premier met a lukewarm reception because it attempted to reinterpret the classical tradition in revolutionary terms at a time when the conservative backlash of the Directoire had already begun.

Dramatically, the character of Médée symbolizes the fury of the Jacobin, while musically the colorful mass effects and harmonic boldness of revolutionary opera are matched with stylistic conventions of prerevolutionary composers. The result is an intermixture of musical realism and expressionism that anticipated not only the last works of Verdi and his veristic successors but also the psychological dramas of Strauss and Berg.

This according to “Cherubini’s Médée and the spirit of French Revolutionary opera” by Alexander L. Ringer, an essay included in Essays in musicology in honor of Dragan Plamenac on his 70th birthday (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1969 281–99; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1969-1154).

Today is Cherubini’s 260th birthday! Above, the composer as a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, ca. 1820; below, Maria Callas sings an aria from Médée in a widely used Italian translation.

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Filed under Classic era, Opera