Who’s Afraid of Opera? — Composers and Their Silly Opera Plots

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Ancient Greek Amphitheater
Ancient Greek Amphitheater

Welcome back for another round of Who’s Afraid of Opera? This latest chapter in our continuing series of instructional posts, which I’d like to call “Silly Opera Plots,” pretty much said it all, doesn’t it?

If there’s one thing people are constantly whining to me about, whenever the subject of opera comes up, it’s the ludicrous nature of the stories one invariably has to plow through every time we listen to a radio broadcast or a compact disc, or attend a live performance.

What do we mean by “silly opera plots”? Well, let me ask you this: have you ever tried to explain the historical subtext of Puccini’s Tosca to a friend or a relative? How about an amateur discourse on Freudian symbolism in Richard Strauss’ shocker Elektra, or a description of Masonic rites prevalent in Mozart’s The Magic Flute? Does anyone have his or her favorite plot that they’d like to impart to fellow readers? I can see you cringing at the prospect!

Actually, you’re probably asking what most folks would ask: where the heck did these crazy narratives come from? Why would anyone in his or her right mind want to set these half-baked ideas to music in the first place, let alone try to pass them off as an evening-length “entertainment”?

Look at the Source

Like most things involving the operatic art, there are no easy answers as to why this is. Still, it might help interested parties to know a little bit about the background of opera — a really short history, if you will — before we progress any further. I promise not to give you too much to chew on at one time.

To begin with, the original play, novel, poem, historical or literary source on which many if not most operas are based has undergone what can best be described as an “extreme makeover” prior to its full-blown incarnation as a theatrical event. At some unspecified point in the process, there must have been an aspect of the characters, the theme, the setting or the plot that “clicked” with their creators; something that attracted the attention, and fired the imaginations of, both the composer and/or his librettist to band together and write those magnificent words and music we generally call an opera.

In case any of you were wondering, the librettist is the guy — sorry, ladies, but historically it’s almost always a man — who’s been blessed with the poetic soul and wit, as well as the linguistic abilities, necessary to transform many of the aspects I’ve mentioned into a song-filled scenario of some substance.

You can learn a thing or two about what makes up the sum and substance of opera (i.e., those so-called operatic conventions) in my link to “The Basics” (https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/whos-afraid-of-opera/). To refresh your memories, these conventions can be grouped by common occurrences, for example, the overture, the aria, the duet, the trio, quartet, etc. Another convention is the specific voice category called for, and these include the soprano, the tenor, the baritone, mezzo-soprano, bass, contralto, even a countertenor.

Operatic conventions being what they are, we can pretty much expect that the finished product will be something quite out of the ordinary. And you know what? That’s exactly what you get with opera: something so different, so other-worldly in fact, that it’s fair to conclude that somewhere along the line we’re going to have to deal with a few of those outlandish plot points — several of which we’ll be looking at more closely.

What’s my purpose in doing this? For one, to demonstrate to you that out of this bubbling cauldron of chaos comes some kind of order; and along with order, there may be some truly “magical moments” in the theater, moments that can inspire as well as lift us out of ourselves.

For another, more important purpose, to tell you that it’s okay to overlook some of the more outrageous story elements. My personal rule of thumb is quite simple: to keep it simple; also, to never take things too seriously — especially when dealing with opera — or you’ll end up more frustrated than before. Besides, opera is serious enough without my making it indecipherable. The best thing for you to do, then, is relax and enjoy the program!

I’ll be presenting a few examples of these “magical moments” I just described in order to illustrate how the music — much of it truly memorable — can overcome even the silliest of manufactured plot devices.

So if you’re ready to get on board, let’s start this session off with the delightful “Dance of the Blessed Spirits,” from Christoph Willibald von Gluck’s pioneering opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, or “Orpheus and Eurydice”:

http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=video&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&sqi=2&ved=0CDQQtwIwAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DBGkOf64pJ5s&ei=Jn5MU_O1LeinsATzp4GQBQ&usg=AFQjCNGRzC0dLPib9CkAFGDp6CrKA8t3DQ&bvm=bv.64542518,d.cWc

"Dance of the Blessed Spirits" - Orfeo ed Euridice (Sara Krulwich/NY Times)
“Dance of the Blessed Spirits” – Orfeo ed Euridice (Sara Krulwich/NY Times)

The legend of Orpheus and Eurydice is one of those classical themes so beloved by great composers of the early to late Baroque (somewhere around the year 1600 to about 1750). It crops up with regularity not only in the opera house, where we may encounter several dozen different interpretations of their tragic story, but also in the theater and film world as well.

The reason for this is obvious: Orpheus, a poet-minstrel, is the embodiment of the arts. His mother, Calliope, was a Muse, one of those mythological figures from antiquity, the kind found on Greek vases that embodied poetry, history, tragedy, comedy, music, and science. His father was the sun god Apollo, so you can see that this kind of impressive lineage places Orpheus fairly high up in the allegorical “food chain,” and therefore worthy of respect!

It was this love of all things classical that inspired an informal group of poets, artists and musicians in Northern Italy to “revive,” so to speak, the lost art of Greek drama by taking on those mythological subjects and, in doing so, recycling them into a rudimentary form of musical entertainment. This group called itself the Florentine Camerata.

Literary scholars have long theorized that the ancient Greeks presented their plays in a highly stylized manner sometimes referred to as “heightened speech,” in addition to some form of musical accompaniment. Those famous Greek choruses, it turns out, were actually sung rather than spoken. However, the wily Greeks left no record of what their songs were supposed to have sounded like.

Despite this seeming setback, the Camerata went about their business by attempting to recreate those sounds in modern terms — I should add, modern for 1600. In the process, they came up with something totally revolutionary which, by all reported accounts, exceeded their wildest expectations. Thus opera was born into the world.

Incidentally, does anyone want to venture a guess as to what the word “opera” means? It comes from the plural form of the Latin opus (meaning “work”). An “opera,” therefore, is a compilation of different “works” that feature, among other things, poetry, music, art, scenic and lighting designs, and, of course, dance.

Now, our old friend Gluck came along about 150 years later to shake things up even more, mostly by incorporating these very same elements into his operas. As stated before, his path-breaking Orpheus and Eurydice was not the first such version to have been given the operatic treatment: that honor is reserved for Jacopo Peri’s one-act wonder Euridice from the magical year of 1600.

Most historians consider Gluck to be a kind of reformer in his day, in that he took what had by then become a stale, strictly formula-laden affair, and refashioned it into a more plausible musical-dramatic art. Without dear old Uncle Christoph and his clear-eyed vision for the future direction of the form, there might never have been a Wagner to kick around, or any number of opera composers. We are clearly in Master Gluck’s debt!

“Okay, Joe, that’s all well and good, but what’s so silly about Orpheus and Eurydice?” Uh, nothing much, I’m afraid. Remember, we’re dealing with a Greek tragedy here. But the point is well taken: how does one convey their tragic tale from an operatic standpoint? Let me give it a try.

You may (or may not) know the original plot: Greek guy meets Greek girl. Object: matrimony, or something close to it. Greek girl steps on poisonous snake, gets bitten, dies and taken to Hell in a hand basket. Greek guy goes bonkers; then decides to go after her. He bargains with Hades, the local boss of the Underworld, to let him take her back to the land of the living. Hades says, “Sure, why not? Oh, but you can’t look at her or even talk to her, deal? Deal!”

Wouldn’t you know it, but the Big O gives in to temptation and glances back at his blushing bride just as they’re about to reach the surface; only to see what remains of her physical form fade away into oblivion… Get out your handkerchiefs, folks, we’re in for a bumpy night of opera!

Contrary to what you might expect, Gluck’s version actually substitutes a happy ending in place of the usual teary-eyed finale, as Love itself descends from the rafters in true Deus ex machina fashion to restore Eurydice to vibrant life. The end… Silly, isn’t it? Gluck couldn’t leave well enough alone, now, could he? Ah, but what glorious music he makes in his telling of it!

A Gypsy Violin

If none of this bothers you, then you’re ready to move on to the next level of “silliness.” And one of the best — or should I say, one of the worst — is Giuseppe Verdi’s 1853 thumper Il Trovatore, or “The Troubador.”

By far, this work has got to have one of the opera world’s poorest reputations. Put in charge of a new production at the Metropolitan Opera a few seasons back, Scottish director David McVicar had little praise for it: “On a bad day I think Il Trovatore is one of the stupidest operas ever written. Obviously it doesn’t work on an intellectual level the way Mozart’s great operas do. But at an emotive level the grand passions have huge power.” And, I might add, the music makes up for any literary shortcomings we may encounter along the way.

To give you an idea of its absurd nature, much of the so-called “action” takes place offstage and before the curtain goes up! This leaves the main characters to explain — in flashback form, of course — all that has previously occurred in the form of some of the most melodious arias ever written.

What of the story? Try this one on for size: years ago, an old gypsy woman was burned at the stake for allegedly bewitching the younger brother of a certain Count Di Luna. The gypsy’s daughter, Azucena, seeking vengeance for her mother’s wrongful death, kidnaps the little boy (that’s the younger brother) and tosses him into the flames of her mother’s funeral pyre. In her “confusion,” she inadvertently throws her OWN child into the fire by mistake.

Are you with me so far? In spite of this rather nonsensical turn of events, Azucena decides to raise the Count’s younger brother as her own son — a sort of on-the-spot adoption, you might say — in an effort to use the boy later as leverage for her elaborate revenge scheme. As I said, all this takes place BEFORE the curtain rises!

To complicate matters further, there’s that older brother lurking about; and when the two siblings eventually grow up, they each just happen to fall in love with the same woman! The rest of the drama is concerned with how the now-mentally unstable Azucena brings her little revenge plot to fruition, along with these other interconnected developments.

I don’t know about you, but it’s all “Greek” to me! To my ears, it sounds suspiciously like one of those Spanish-language soap operas. Rather than belabor you with this hopelessly convoluted tale, let’s listen to a musical excerpt instead: the justly famous Anvil Chorus from Act Two, Scene One, of Verdi’s Il Trovatore: http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=video&cd=5&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CE4QtwIwBA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.metoperafamily.org%2Fvideo%2Fsearch%2Fwatch%2Fil-trovatore-vedi-le-fosche-anvil-chorus%2F1498427927001%3Fterm%3DdHJvdmF0b3Jl&ei=xX1MU9PoLu-nsATSxIGgAQ&usg=AFQjCNHV7ttcOxNMtB_TRQSjuET5kpIpWw&bvm=bv.64542518,d.cWc

Anvil Chorus, Act II (Sara Krulwich/NY Times)
Il Trovatore: Anvil Chorus, Act II (Sara Krulwich/NY Times)

Long before the Marx Brothers wreaked havoc with this particular piece, the British operetta team of W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan took potshots at the absurdity of Il Trovatore’s proceedings in their hilarious takeoff, The Pirates of Penzance. In it, they masterfully parodied the Anvil Chorus, in the rousing musical number “With Cat-like Tread” (more commonly known to English-speaking audiences as “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here”):

Come, friends, who plough the sea,
Truce to navigation; Take another station;
Let’s vary piracy with a little burglary.

You will notice its similarities to Verdi’s oompah-music. Gilbert and Sullivan also got in a dig at the contrived plot: the titular pirates of the fictional isle of Penzance are themselves all ADOPTED ORPHANS.

Intermission

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

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