August 15

​​A Song of the Amazon: Collaborating with Gabriel García Márquez

By Marcela Fuentes-Berain

Cinematographic tales are told through the eyes; the author imagines the story, so to speak, from a visual point of view. In the case of opera, we could say that narrative develops from auditory imagination. Rhythm and meter must serve the melody, and ultimately, they both serve the voice.

Florencia in the Amazon was created as a tribute to the great Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez. Twenty years after its premiere, it now serves as a memento of both Márquez and its composer, the late Daniel Catán, a Mexican musician of audacious vision.

I had the privilege of working closely with Gabriel García Márquez, and the honor of befriending my mentor. He was a skillful writer and a creature of daylight. He woke up with the dawn and claimed that, before anything else happened, he connected his dreaming unconscious with his waking life through the act of writing. This is the moment where silence, calm, and solitude reign.

Our opera contains no direct quotes from Márquez. This meant a greater challenge for me, the writer responsible for the homage. To try to imitate the style of my outstanding mentor would have been as tasteless as impossible. Which is worse? I recently read a Buddhist/Zen aphorism, consoling words indeed: “Don’t follow your mentor’s footprints; rather, seek after what he sought.” That is what I have happily tried to do.

When I wrote the libretto I took into consideration that to sing and to tell (in Spanish, cantar/contar) makes demands on both hemispheres of the brain, each of which are also activated with the act of writing. Consciousness is present in Gabriel García Márquez’s work through both real and symbolic universes. But only through the unconscious mind can human nature be truly understood.

Our opera originates from an apparently linear story, which stretches from the two points—the two harbors—of Puerto Leticia and Manaus. The main character, Florencia Grimaldi, is a diva who was born there and belongs to the Amazon and its jungle. She left her hometown seeking fame, retaining only a murky memory of the place. Years have passed, and the long-awaited public recognition has become a burden to Florencia. Fame has invaded her world of inner emotions. She has lost her sense of identity in the process of trying to please crowds of strangers. She believes that if she can find the butterfly hunter Cristóbal—the boy who fell in love with her when her voice blossomed—she will recognize herself, and all that defines her. Instead, her journey down the Amazon will show her that true meaning lies not in a single encounter, but in the flow of events.

The other travelers are making the journey to witness the great prima donna as she reopens the Manaus Opera House with her singing, never dreaming that she is on the ship with them. The passengers hope Florencia’s singing will guide them toward a redefinition of the experience of love and happiness in relation to the present time.

The Captain guides the vaporetto and the passengers’ destiny; he maintains balance on the journey through his balmy voice and wise advice. He keeps the helm of the boat pretending to lead Florencia to Cristóbal, even if he believes that the butterfly hunter is dead. Ríolobo is also a leading character. The spirit of the river reveals itself always and forever, and, in its infinity, gives voice to nature, which is an important element in this opera. The ship is guided not only by its skillful captain, but also by Ríolobo’s timeless experience.

The two couples, one formed by youths, the other by adults, contrast with each other to express different stages of life and the experience of love. The Captain’s nephew, Arcadio, must prove to his uncle that he is capable of taking the helm and commanding the boat. Adding to this rite of passage, this character also faces the incomparable dazzle of first love. Rosalba, who is the subject of his passion, is not quite convinced by the idea of joining the adventure proposed by Arcadio. She wants to be the biographer of Florencia Grimaldi so that she can have the privilege of getting to know her closely. Because of Rosalba’s immaturity, she’s unable to realize that the diva stands before her.

Paula and Álvaro have ventured into the absurd labyrinth of power that can consume love. In their effort to dominate each other, they’ve fallen into the habit of addressing each other in opposed monosyllables. Between them sprout bitterness and resentment. They have forgotten the joy they once found as a loving couple and now habitually seek happiness from outside sources; they are traveling to Manaus because they hope the diva’s song will rekindle their love.

A cholera outbreak prevents El Dorado from landing. To Florencia, at this point, death is not considered a tragic, final experience, but one of many moments that are part of human evolution. Love is the door that connects mythical sleep and wakefulness in the hallucination of lovers who can meet, alive or dead, because the energy of their emotions. Florencia’s last song evokes Cristóbal, and she creates a magical moment of metamorphosis between Eros and Thanatos.

—Marcela Fuentes-Berain is the librettist of Florencia in the Amazon 

August 14

Embodying Florencia’s Journey

​by Kelley Rourke

Marcela Fuentes-Berain has said that nature is the eighth character in Florencia in the Amazon. In Washington National Opera’s reworking of the original production, the world of the Amazon is made present, in part, by the addition of video projections, but it is the five dancers who truly bring the natural world to life. “It boils down to theatrical interaction,” says choreographer Eric Sean Fogel, whose work was seen in WNO’s recent productions of The Force of Destiny and The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me. “The dancers allow both the audience and the principal singers to connect with the environment on a more personal level.” Like nature herself, the dancers are hard to pin down—one moment, they suggest members of an indigenous tribe, the next they are swarming piranhas or mating birds, says Fogel: “They also show us the constant, unpredictable motion of the waters, as well as the spirits called forth by Ríolobo.”

“I looked for dancers who had the ability to embody distinct aspects of the natural world,” says Fogel. “The original production used an equal mix of male and female dancers. This time, we started with the idea of all male dancers, because we wanted a very powerful, almost aggressive depiction of the Amazon. We also liked the idea that Florencia could see Cristóbal in any one of them. But as our ideas about the production evolved, I found that adding a female dancer allowed us to soften the energy. It also gave us the opportunity to explore and parallel Florencia’s journey in, for instance, a mating dance for the birds. I’m thrilled to be able to feature Alison Mixon; she is a very strong dancer who can hold her own with the men, but who can also introduce a different quality.”  

“Casting was interesting because I wanted to have as many different body types as possible,” continues Fogel, who compares the process to solving a puzzle. “Because of the array of beings and ideas they have to personify, I needed different things within the group—one dancer with more athleticism, one with more ballet experience, one more modern. Each choice informed the next. Alison brings incredible strength, much like the character of Florencia; she’s also not afraid to be vulnerable on stage. Matthew Steffens is like the Captain in that he is a strong partner and leader. Christopher Pennix is sinewy and delicate—you might even say aquatic. Durell Comedy has unlimited flexibility while Ricardo Zayas is a technical wonder; both of them can transform their bodies to represent anything a production requires.”

Before rehearsals at Washington National Opera begin, Fogel will spend two full weeks of studio time with dancers, improvising and developing the movement vocabulary to serve the story and the music. The process will be rich and challenging: “I did a lot of research because I wanted to honor the indigenous tribes the dancers sometimes represent. At the same time, there is a magical quality to the storytelling, which gives us a lot of leeway. Ultimately, it is more like a dream than a documentary.”

—Kelley Rourke is the dramaturg of Washington National Opera

August 14

Florencia in the Amazon: An Introduction

by Kelley Rourke
“El Dorado” (“the golden one”) is a term associated with a legendary city of gold that has lured many an explorer into the jungle. It is also the name of the steamship on which the action of Florencia in the Amazon takes place. The passengers aboard the El Dorado are making the journey to an opera house in the heart of the jungle, where they imagine that an encounter with the legendary diva Florencia Grimaldi will change their lives. What they fail to realize is that the diva is already among them. Over the course of the voyage, one by one, they will come to recognize her; more importantly, they will come to recognize that another person, no matter how great and gifted, cannot give them what they are seeking.

Florencia has her own reasons for boarding the El Dorado. Years ago, she made a journey out of the jungle, away from the man she loved, in pursuit of fame and fortune. Drawn back by the memory of the love that once transformed her, she hopes to reverse the journey and return to her Cristóbal. The words of the ship’s Captain—a man who describes himself as not merely satisfied, but happy—will prove prophetic: “There is no coming and going. Things always move forward. In life, there is no going back. No one step is ever the same. No turn is ever a return.”

The ever-evolving natural world is an important presence in the score and in this production. By turns luminous and threatening, inviting and savage, the jungle and its inhabitants serve as both guide and obstacle for each passenger’s journey.

The libretto for Florencia in the Amazon was inspired by the work of Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, who served as an important mentor to librettist Marcela Fuentes-Berain. Daniel Catán was the first Mexican composer to have an opera premiere in the United States (Rappacini’s Daughter, 1994). Florencia in the Amazon premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 1996, to great acclaim, and has gone on to be produced by companies across the United States, in Mexico, and abroad.
—Kelley Rourke is the dramaturg of Washington National Opera
April 08

Q&A with WNO dramaturg Kelley Rourke about her new adaptation of The Magic Flute

​Talk about your process of preparing a new adaptation of a classic opera.

For me, the process starts with the music—I need to understand how a number works musically before I begin to think about the words. The story has to be clear and compelling, but if it doesn’t sound good, I haven’t done my job.

Many people have had the experience of spontaneously inventing new text for an existing tune (“Weird Al” Yankovic even made a career out of it), and sometimes I’m lucky enough to have the perfect English rendering of a line pop into my head. Other times, I might make a list of words that have something to do with the aria in question, spinning off lists of synonyms and rhyming words—the same way a chef assembles her mise en place before she really gets cooking. If the opera has a play or novel as its source, I’ll keep that close at hand for additional ideas.

You have prepared other translations of The Magic Flute before. What makes this new adaptation different?

Jun Kaneko’s set and costumes offer a bright, playful setting for the familiar story, and I’ve tried to support that sense of whimsy through some of my verbal choices.

How do you balance the concerns of telling the story clearly and choosing words and rhymes that can be musical?

The task of creating a singing translation has many intersecting—but not necessarily competing—concerns. It can be like working a giant crossword puzzle: Is the story clear? Does the verbal climax or “punch line” align with the musical high point? Does it sound like vernacular English? Will this vowel work in that tessitura? Does the tone of the language match the tone of the music? Would the character in question use that turn of phrase? Sometimes I may have to let go of a line that 100% satisfies in one area because it flunks in another.

The music helps me set priorities. For Papageno’s jaunty, vaudevillian numbers, humor and sparkle are important; I’m less concerned about helping him create a perfectly liquid legato line. Much of Sarastro’s language, like his music, should sound like it comes out of a hymnal. Pamina and Tamino’s language is more heightened and romantic (except when they temporarily join Papageno’s earthier sound-world). Their rhymes may not always be perfect, but I’d better give them vowels that let their high notes soar!

Many people don’t think of English as a particularly lyrical language for opera—what do you think?

Did you see Show Boat last season? OK. Next question.

Seriously, English can be a challenging language to sing in. It tends to be further back in the mouth than Italian, and it has a lot of dipthongs (blended vowels). I try to choose words that let the voice come through as lyrically as possible. English can be a grand tongue for singing. It just takes a little bit of care on the part of the lyricist (or translator). But this is the case in any language. German can also be quite a mouthful.

What is your favorite part of this new translation that people should listen for?

It’s hard for me to think of the words separate from Mozart’s music, and it’s even more difficult for me to pinpoint favorite musical moments in this glorious score.  But I will say that I had a lot of fun writing for Papageno! 

April 08

The Magic Flute: Further Reading

Mozart and the Enlightenment:
Truth, Virtue, and Beauty in Mozart’s Operas
Nicholas Till explores how Mozart’s operas are informed by ideas and discoveries of the Enlightenment, drawing on writings by Richardson, Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant, Goethe, Schiller, and Blake, among others.

The Operas of Mozart
William Mann gives each of Mozart’s operas a separate chapter in which he considers composition process, source material, and musical analysis, as well as biographical details.

Mozart in Vienna, 1781-1791
Volkmar Braunbehrens’ account of Mozart’s final years considers the intellectual, political, economic, and cultural landscape in which the composer lived and worked.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces
The classic work by Joseph Campbell traces the story of the hero’s journey as revealed by mythologies from diverse cultures.

The Power of Myth
In 1988, PBS broadcast a six-part television documentary, featuring Joseph Campbell interviewed by Bill Moyers. Their wide-ranging conversation—including sections cut from the broadcast—is captured in this volume.

April 08

The Center of Our Own Existence

​by Kelley Rourke

Furthermore, we have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.
—Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces
Many sources have been cited for the richly overstuffed cabinet of curiosities that is Mozart and Schikaneder’s The Magic Flute. Jakob August Liebeskind’s “Lulu, oder der Zauberflöte” (“Lulu, or the Magic Flute”), published in 1786 as part of a collection of fairy tales, tells of a prince sent by a fairy to rescue her daughter from an evil wizard; he accomplishes his mission with the help of—you guessed it—an enchanted wind instrument. Ritual elements can be found in Sethos (1731), a novel by Jean Terrasson that sought to forge a link between contemporary Freemasonry and ancient Egypt. Other possible sources include Phillip Hafner’s play Megara, the Terrible Witch (1763) and the Karl Ludwig Giesecke’s Singspiel Oberon (1789). The Zauberoper, or “magic opera,” a popular genre in Vienna at the time, was itself defined by some of elements we associate with Flute—splendid scene changes, onstage animals, and magical objects used to conquer villains.
In truth, the archetypes and encounters that make up The Magic Flute have been a part of our collective consciousness as long as stories have been told. Tamino’s journey shares certain features with other works Mozart and Schikaneder were likely to have encountered; it also follows the universal hero-path described by Joseph Campbell, a path that is traveled again and again in ritual, in literature, in dreams.
This path begins with a call to adventure; in Tamino’s case, the irresistible lure of a beautiful girl in need of rescue. The hero responds to the call with refusal at first; here, it is not Tamino, but his companion, Papageno, who is reluctant to answer the call of destiny. He is persuaded to go forward when supernatural aid is offered in the form of a magic flute and bells, as well as guidance from three spirits. The hero’s next task is crossing the first threshold, where a guardian (the Speaker) tests whether he is ready for the challenges that lie within, in the belly of the whale. As Tamino continues the journey inward, he undergoes a series of trials before he can be reborn, united with his female complement, as a mature, contributing member of society.
Both Mozart and Schikaneder were members of Masonic lodges—secular fraternal organizations concerned with spiritual and moral values—so it is no surprise that the hero-path they present in The Magic Flute also borrows details from Masonic initiation rituals. The initiation is only that, a beginning; the path does not end with the completion of the final trial. Like the initiates of Mozart’s lodge, our hero must now go forth to share his revelations and encourage others on the path of self-perfection, tolerance, and enlightenment.
When virtue and enlightenment
arise in human hearts and minds
Elysium is every place
and mortals shine with godlike grace.
 —Kelley Rourke is the dramaturg of Washington National Opera. 
February 26

Beautiful Singing

The operas of Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848), Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868), and Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835) are at the core of what we now call the bel canto repertory. Italian for “beautiful singing,” the term first appeared in the late 17th century. The aesthetic embodied in Donizetti’s operas calls for vocal elegance, evenness, and flexibility; his Elixir of Love demonstrates bel canto ideals beautifully, with vocal lines that thrill our ears and touch our hearts.

Written with librettist Felice Romani, Elixir was an immediate success, and today it is one of Donizetti’s best-loved scores. At the center of the story is Nemorino, a young peasant in love with a girl who seems hopelessly out of his reach. His opening aria, “Quanto è bella,” is a sweet and slightly pathetic plea, soon drowned out by a jolly chorus of workers; his music takes on a bright new character when he sips an elixir guaranteed to change his luck. Nemorino’s celebrated second act aria, “Una furtiva lagrima,” is both a beautiful melody and a remarkable musical illustration: we hear how he shifts between hope and uncertainty after he catches a glimpse of his beloved in an unguarded moment.

Adina, Nemorino’s love interest, takes her own musical journey to reach that point. Pert and sassy to begin—the first sound we hear out of her mouth is a laugh—she goes on to display considerable warmth and generosity by “Prendi, per me sei libero.” Donizetti’s musical characterizations for Sergeant Belcore and Doctor Dulcamara, two distinctive charismatic figures, are no less telling. Belcore, the romantic hero of his own dreams, is all long lines and martial rhythms, while the shifty salesman Dulcamara makes an impression with rapid-fire patter and engaging bluster. In addition to sparkling solos for each of the four main characters, Donizetti’s score is stuffed with brilliant duets and ensembles.

With the operas of Verdi and Wagner, a heavier, more declamatory style of singing came into fashion. Only a handful of Italian masterpieces from the first half of the 19th century remained in the repertory; it was not until the mid-20th century that singers like Maria Callas, Beverly Sills, and Joan Sutherland began to champion forgotten bel canto works, demonstrating that “beautiful singing” need not be an end in itself, but can be a vehicle for greater expressiveness.”

Donizetti wrote some of our most beloved bel canto operas; in addition to Elixir, we can thank him for Lucrezia Borgia (1833), Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), The Daughter of the Regiment (1840), Don Pasquale (1843), and many others. A review of his career reminds us that it can be premature to judge a composer based on his first (or second, or third, or even tenth) opera. Donizetti wrote his first opera when he was nineteen, but it was not until 35 operas later that he had his first major hit, Anna Bolena. Elixir followed two years later, one of four operas he wrote in 1832. Donizetti eventually wrote more than 60 works for the stage.

WNO's first production of The Elixir of Love was in 1977, followed by performances in 1981, 1983, 1997, and 2006. Other productions of Donizetti’s works include Don Pasquale (1979, 1987, 1993, and 2011), Il furioso all'isola di San Domingo (1979), Lucia di Lammermoor (1980, 1989, 2002, and 2011), The Daughter of the Regiment (1986, 1994, and 2007), Anna Bolena (1993 and 2012) and Lucrezia Borgia (2008).

—Kelley Rourke is the dramaturg of Washington National Opera

February 26

The Elixir of Love: Recommended Reading

The Bel Canto Operas of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini
This volume examines more than 100 operas by three great masters of bel canto, giving attention to performance history, plot, and musical analysis.

Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera
While Philip Gossett’s book does not treat The Elixir of Love in depth, it offers a fascinating study of the issues involved in producing the operas of the bel canto period. (Hint: “Stick to the score” rarely offers a complete solution.) Gossett, who serves as general editor for the new critical editions of the complete works of Verdi (University of Chicago Press/Casa Ricordi) and Rossini (Bärenreiter Verlag), calls on careful scholarship and years of practical experience in the theater for this illuminating and entertaining volume.

The Placebo Effect: An Interdisciplinary Exploration
This book, edited by Anne Harrington, collects articles by experts in a range of fields—neurology, neurobiology, psychology, gastroenterology, and history. It also includes an interdisciplinary “conversation” across disciplines that explores when and how placebos can play a role in health.

Plants with Benefits: An Uninhibited Guide to the Aphrodisiac Herbs, Fruits, Flowers & Veggies in Your Garden
Looking for a homegrown love potion? Award winning garden writer Helen Yoest explores the idea of aphrodisiac plants through the lenses of history, lore, ethnobotany, and modern science. The New York Times called the 2014 book “a diverting rabbit hole.”

—Kelley Rourke is the dramaturg of Washington National Opera

February 26

Snake Oil, Suggestion, and the Power of a Taking a Stance

​“Comprate il mio specifico,” Doctor Dulcamara tells the unwitting residents of a sleepy Basque village. “Come buy my secret recipe!” Touted as a cure-all for paralytics, apoplectics, asthmatics, hysterics, diabetics, and a host of other sufferers, Dulcamara’s elixir is part of a run of “patent medicines” that began a century earlier. These tonics represented progress, all right—not for medical science, but for the emergent field of advertising.

Three years after Donizetti wrote The Elixir of Love, William Brandreth moved from England to the U.S. hoping to find a market for his “Vegetable Universal Pill,” but the product did not take off until his grandson, Benjamin, began printing pamphlets and books to promote the brand. Brandreth’s cathartic went on to earn a mention in Moby-Dick—and a not insignificant fortune. The younger Brandreth, who later served in the New York State Senate, was the first President of the Westchester County Savings Bank and the owner of the first private preserve (some 26,000 acres) in New York’s Adirondack Park.

Many old-time topical elixirs claimed snake oil as an active ingredient (hence the term “snake oil salesman”). The advertising may have been false, but the relief was often real, thanks to a couple of ingredients still used in modern panaceas: camphor (Mentholatum, Vicks VapoRub, Bengay) and capsaicin (Icy Hot, Zostrix).

French Wine Coca Nerve Tonic, developed by Colonel John Pemberton to offer non-addictive pain relief to Civil War vets, offered a double buzz—alcohol and a trace of cocaine. A non-alcoholic version, Coca-Cola, was introduced during the Prohibition era and advertised as a cure for diseases including morphine addiction, dyspepsia, neurasthenia, headache, and impotence. Today’s Coke omits the cocaine but delivers a substantial hit of caffeine and sugar to help consumers shake off lethargy.

While some elixirs contained ingredients that offered effective and replicable distraction from symptoms, others relied on the placebo effect. Latin for “I will please,” the term refers to sham medications given—sometimes by bona fide physicians—to soothe a patient’s health concerns. Research suggests that the power of suggestion can actually relieve some conditions. Since pain, muscle fatigue, and certain immune responses are directly controlled by the brain, a patient’s belief in a medication can stimulate the body to heal itself.

Dulcamara’s elixir relies less on the placebo effect than on the temporary euphoria brought on by alcohol consumption. When he appears on the scene, his “specifico” has been neither marketed nor tested for its ability to inspire love, but such trifles are of no concern to Dulcamara when he sells a bottle to Nemorino; the Doctor intends to be long gone before his ruse is discovered.

The Doctor’s prescription is an unusual one; most love potions (think of Tristan and Isolde or A Midsummer Night’s Dream) must be applied to or consumed by the reluctant object of affection. Certainly the “secret ingredient” in Dulcamara’s preparation has a track record of lowering inhibitions, although, as Shakespeare notes, alcohol “provokes the desire, but takes away the performance.”

Nemorino needs no provocation, of course, but his newfound confidence attracts Adina’s perplexed attention immediately. This comes as no surprise—the body language of an alpha male can exert a powerful attraction. More recent research has found that taking a “power position” (for instance, standing with legs spread and hands on hips) can alter body chemistry, increasing levels of testosterone and decreasing levels of cortisol. In other words, it’s possible that Nemorino’s swagger triggers his attitude adjustment, rather than the other way around.

—Kelley Rourke is the dramaturg of Washington National Opera
January 28

Moby-Dick: Recommended Reading

​Further Journeys with the White Whale
Start with Herman Melville’s epic novel—or not. There are a number of ways to learn more about the crew of the Pequod and their doomed quest.

Heggie and Scheer’s Moby Dick: A Grand Opera for the 21st Century
Inspired by the world premiere production of Moby-Dick, Robert K. Wallace, a past-president of the Melville Society, tells the story of the opera’s creation. This handsome volume includes more than 200 color photos, interviews with artists, and the full libretto.

Moby Dick | Big Read
In spring of 2011, artist Angela Cockayne and writer Philip Hoare invited artists, writers, musicians, scientists and academics to participate in a three-day symposium inspired by their obsession with Moby-Dick. The tremendous response inspired an online version of Melville’s epic, with an original artwork to accompany a recording of each chapter. Readers include Tilda Swinton, Simon Callow, Fiona Shaw—and 132 more.

Moby-Dick in Pictures
Artist Matt Kish created on image for each page of the 552-page Signet Classics paperback edition of Moby-Dick. He uses collage, ballpoint pen, marker, paint, crayon, ink and watercolor for his “deliberately low-tech” response to the text.

The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick
Howard P. Vincent’s study of Melville’s sources was an important resource for librettist Gene Scheer as he created his version of the story.

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