October 16

Bohemia 2014

“Today, as of old, every man who enters on an artistic career, without any other means of livelihood than his art itself, will be forced to walk in the paths of Bohemia. The greatest number of our contemporaries who display the noblest blazonry of art have been Bohemians, and amidst their calm and prosperous glory they often recall, perhaps with regret, the time when, climbing the verdant slope of youth, they had no other fortune in the sunshine of their twenty years than courage, which is the virtue of the young, and hope, which is the wealth of the poor.”
—Henry Murger, Scènes de la vie de bohème
 
Making a living as an artist has never been easy. According to data compiled by the National Endowment for the Arts, there are 2.1 million artists in the U.S. workforce, and just over one-third of them are self-employed. For the emerging artist, the gaps between engagements can be longer than one would like, and the expenses significant.
 
A typical college graduate may expect to spend a few months interviewing before settling into a job for several years; an opera singer who wins a role in an upcoming production is employed for only a few weeks before the cycle of auditions begins again. Landing a spot in a long-term program like WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program is a tremendous coup.
 
“There are so many talented young singers graduating from American conservatories,” says Michael Heaston, who directs both WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program and The Glimmerglass Festival’s Young Artists Program. “But those first few years after graduation are tough. It’s difficult to find work, and it’s expensive to stay in the game—in addition to covering their living expenses, singers need to spend money on voice lessons, audition and concert attire, scores, and travel. Programs like ours alleviate the financial pressure so they can focus on the art. We also provide them with the training they need to take their performances to the next level.”
 
“I feel like I won the YAP lottery,” says Christian Bowers, who sings Schaunard in WNO’s new production of La bohème. “I did the programs at Sarasota Opera, Santa Fe Opera, The Glimmerglass Festival, and now Washington. I haven’t really had any big gaps in employment. I have plenty of friends who have had to walk dogs or babysit to cover their expenses.”
 
Soprano Jacqueline Echols, who worked as a K-12 music teacher for several years before deciding to pursue performance studies at Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, says, “I wasn’t even planning to audition for any young artist programs, but my teacher told Michael Heaston he needed to hear me, so I auditioned for Glimmerglass, and boom!” Jacqueline not only landed a spot in The Glimmerglass Festival’s Young Artists Program, she was cast in the principal role of Giulietta in the company’s 2013 production of King for a Day, and was subsequently invited to audition for WNO’s young artist program. This season, she will sing the role of Musetta in the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Performance of La bohème on November 14. “If I were not in this program, I’d probably still be doing tons of auditions, or trying to get into competitions. The application fees really add up. People can spend up to $1,500 every audition season, only to get rejected multiple times.”
 
“The paths of art, so choked and so dangerous, are, despite encumberment and obstacles, day by day more crowded, and consequently Bohemians were never more numerous.” Henry Murger wrote those words in 1888, but anyone trying to make a living as an artist today is keenly aware that there are more artists than opportunities. Last year, Washington National Opera chose four emerging singers from among nearly 700 applicants for the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program.
 
The program also provides opportunities for pianists seeking work in opera. Kevin Miller began his career singing soprano with the Boys Choir of Harlem, taking his place at the piano a few years later. “When it was time for me to figure out what to do with my life, I chose music. At the University of Michigan, I realized that I didn’t like playing the piano by myself—I like making music with other people. “ When Kevin learned that it was possible to have a career as a coach/accompanist, it all clicked: “I got the opera bug when I was 12 or 13, when the Boys Choir participated in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Lake George Opera.”
 
An opera coach is more than a skilled pianist: he or she must be well versed in operatic repertory, performance traditions, languages, and singer psychology. “Having a good coach is extremely important in an opera singer’s life,” says Jacqueline. “You need that second set of ears, because it’s impossible to truly hear yourself. You may feel that you are singing very well, but someone who is trained to listen to the voice will always hear things that you don’t hear.”
 
As Kevin prepares for his own career as a coach, he is able to spend time working through standard repertory scores with renowned musicians like Louis Salemno; he also learns by watching how his mentors work with singers. “I take note of what they’re hearing, what they choose to go after. Playing for William Stone and Diana Soviero’s voice lessons has completely changed how I listen to a singer,” says Kevin. “Also, I’m getting to work with talented singers who are my age. I know we’ll be seeing each other throughout our careers.”
 
The Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists stay busy: “If I’m in a mainstage show, I’m in rehearsal all day,” says Christian, “and when there’s no show, I have Italian lessons once or twice a week, coachings on standard rep and whatever else I’m working on, and voice lessons. People don’t realize how much work goes into this career; if I tell someone I’m an opera singer, they say, ‘That’s nice, what do you do during the day?’” For Murger’s Bohemians, the little money they have goes to rent and food; for today’s young opera singer, the costs of education and training can exceed everything else. “I often say that Sallie Mae is like my first marriage and divorce,” says Christian, referring to his student loans. “I’ve been in school long enough to be a doctor, but instead, I’m an opera singer.” After school, singers continue to pay steep prices for regular coachings and voice lessons; at WNO, members of the Domingo-Cafritz program each receive the equivalent of more than $1,000 in coachings and lessons on a weekly basis.
 
Landing a spot in the Domingo-Cafritz program is an economic boost, to be sure, but there’s more to it than that, says Jacqueline: “We get so much support from the administration. Michael, Francesca, all the coaches—everyone is really pushing for us to be great. It’s an incredible team, and they work together to make sure all of us succeed.”
 
WNO has been training singers for more than a decade; more recently, the company began creating opportunities for composers and librettists through the American Opera Initiative, a comprehensive commissioning program. Each fall, the program presents three new 20-minute operas; an hour-long opera premieres later in the season. Composer/librettist teams have the opportunity to workshop their operas at the Kennedy Center, working with mentors that have included composer Jake Heggie, librettist Mark Campbell, and conductor Anne Manson.
 
Composer Liam Wade recalls feeling discouraged about his prospects after finishing his graduate studies. “There wasn’t too much going on. I had written a lot of songs for my friends, and I kept waiting for something to come along. I was starting to think it might be time to throw in the towel when I checked my email and found a message from Washington National Opera asking me to send a sample of my work.”
 
Liam’s Part of the Act, written with librettist John Grimmett, was part of the inaugural group of 20-minute operas commissioned and premiered by WNO. “It was a wonderful program—we really bonded with the singers and the music staff,” says Liam. “The librettist and I created the piece we really wanted to create. Strauss and Mozart are my idols, and I wanted to write a comic opera. At the time, WNO was doing Don Giovanni, and it was really cool to be around and spend time with that piece.”
 
“WNO has a great team of mentors,” says Liam. “Besides people like Mark Campbell and Jake Heggie, they have a wonderful music staff. Ken Weiss would say things to me like, ‘Maybe Shantelle needs an O vowel sound on that note.’ Ken also reminded me that Mozart, Strauss, and Verdi are my greatest teachers. I was working on one ensemble where the text wasn’t coming through, so he suggested I study some of those great ensembles where everyone is singing at once but all the words come through very clearly.”
 
Caitlin Vincent, who received an American Opera Initiative commission to write the libretto for a 20-minute opera in 2013, has worn many hats over the years. A classically trained dancer, she studied literature and history at Harvard and voice at the Peabody Conservatory. She now covers expenses with the help of an administrative position at Peabody. This is not unusual; earlier this year, the NEA looked at the phenomenon in a data set called “Keeping My Day Job: Identifying U.S. Workers Who Have Dual Careers as Artists.”
 
Just as Caitlin completed her master’s degree in music, Baltimore Opera went bankrupt. Her response? “I decided to take matters into my own hands and start an opera troupe,” says Caitlin. “I wanted to produce the work I was interested in seeing and singing. I thought, why wait for opportunities to come to me?” The troupe began with Caitlin’s original adaptations of Mozart operas (The Figaro Project and Who Killed Don Giovanni?, based on Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, respectively). In 2013, they commissioned a new opera, Camelot Requiem, featuring music by Joshua Bornfield with a libretto by Caitlin. “I think every period needs its own art. There is always room for the classics—we’ll always have Pride and Prejudice—but we need more things that speak to the world we’re living in.”
 
Caitlin believes her varied background makes her a better librettist. “As a singer, I have a sense of what sings well. As an administrator, I think about how I can make a piece that is as practical as possible. Sure, it would be great to have a set that is an island in the middle of a pool of water, but if my goal is to get my work in front of a lot of audiences, I need to make something that works for smaller companies.”
 
“We can’t teach someone how to write a great opera,” says Michael Heaston. “But we can give talented young writers a chance to prove themselves, and we can give them an opportunity to learn from some of the top professionals in this highly collaborative art form—established composers and librettists, accomplished singers, music staff, and more. As a company with ‘national’ in its title, I believe we have a responsibility to help identify and encourage emerging American talent.”
 
“Ever since I was 15, all I wanted was to be a composer,” says Liam. “Stravinsky once said that if you put a pig in the woods, trained or not, it will look for truffles. In the same way, I think I will always be rooting around for melodies, hearing them in my dreams. But it is nice to have a little bit of acknowledgement.”
 
The path of an artist is seldom easy, but, as Murger wrote: “Talent is the diamond that may for a long time remain hidden in obscurity, but which is always perceived by someone.”
 
—Kelley Rourke is the dramaturg of Washington National Opera
October 16

A Special Time in Paris: How costumes help create the world of WNO’s new production of La bohème.

by Kelley Rourke
 
La bohème, the timeless tale of a group of struggling young artists, has been reinterpreted countless times since its 1896 premiere. For Washington National Opera’s new production, explains costume designer Jennifer Moeller, “the company wanted a production that felt traditional; at the same time, we wanted something that would be accessible for a modern audience.” The creative team eventually settled on the period just after World War I. “The men are wearing suits, so it is a little more contemporary, a little more relatable,” says Moeller. “It was also a special time in Paris—Hemingway was there, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Modigliani. It was an artistically exciting time, but also a difficult one. The number of people who died from starvation and disease during this period exceeded the number of people killed on the battlefield. Modigliani died at 35, completely destitute, of tubercular meningitis.”

Photos from the period were a rich source of inspiration as Moeller began to develop the look of the young artists in La bohème. “We know Rodolfo is a writer, and while you don’t want to say Rodolfo equals Hemingway, we certainly looked at photos of Hemingway and Ezra Pound. A woman known as Kiki de Montparnasse really defined so much of Parisian culture then; she was a painter, performer, and artist’s model featured in numerous portraits by Man Ray. She was our inspiration for Musetta, so when we thought about Alcindoro, we thought about what Man Ray, a successful American artist in Paris, represented.”
 
When Moeller begins thinking about a production, she pulls together visual research from the period; she began the process more than a year ago, and began sending sketches to Costume Director Marsha M. LeBoeuf in March and April.
 
“I start by looking at everything with my team,” says LeBoeuf. “We look at the designer’s sketches, the research, the singers’ measurements and photos. We have discussions about whether we will build something from scratch, modify something in stock, or make a purchase.”
 
Making something from scratch “is not like making a costume for your child’s school play,” says LeBoeuf. “We’re lucky to have a wonderful group of artisans who figure it out, who take us from a two-dimensional sketch to a one-of-a-kind garment in three dimensions.”
 
“If you’re doing a new man’s suit from 1919 for one of the cafe customers in the second act, It takes a costume tailor at least 20-30 hours to create the pattern,” continues LeBoeuf. “An assistant will cut out the pattern in muslin, which takes another 10 or 15 hours, and then it takes a couple more days to stitch the mock-up of the coat, vest, and trousers. After an hour or so of fitting time with the singer, the draper will spend another five or so hours correcting the muslin. Then the process will be repeated in real fabric. So it takes three people a full week to make a one-of-a-kind suit.”
 
Each costume is a masterwork in its own right, but that’s not the entire goal. “Ultimately,” says Moeller, “I want to give the characters clothes that help tell the story and inform the character. For this production, I’ve given them elegant shapes, but these are not wealthy people, so we have the costume crafts artisans distress the clothes. Everyone should look pretty dirty. We also thought about how the war affected these men. Maybe Marcello still has his military-issue boots. Maybe one of them has a limp. There is a real silhouette shift from the teens to the 20s, particularly for the women, who go from longer length skirts with high waists to more of a flapper silhouette. We begin with the longer skirts, but when the women come back later in the show, we see that shift a little bit. It helps tell us that time has passed, but it also says something about the characters. Once Musetta and Mimì take up with wealthy men, they are able to be a little more fashion forward.”
 
LeBoeuf, who has been WNO’s Costume Director since 1988, never tires of the process. “My favorite part, and it always will be, is the moment we introduce a costume to a singer. We’ve been working on these costumes for almost a year now, and the singers have also been working—they have their own inner vision of who their characters are. We get to show them what they will be wearing when they show the audience their character. It’s important for the designer to have a dialogue to explain the why of it. Sometimes there are problems, but mostly it’s fun to see the wheels begin to turn. Some artists will begin to work immediately, trying different movements, asking practical questions. If singers have been in rehearsals before the fitting, they may have information that will be useful to us, such as whether they need to run up stairs or have a sword fight. Maybe we will learn we need to add a pocket for a prop. Ultimately, we don’t want the audience thinking about these practical questions. We owe singers clothes they can breathe in, move in, and be safe in. We want to take care of the details so they can become the characters and the audience can absorb the beautiful singing and storytelling.”

 

 
—Kelley Rourke is the dramaturg for Washington National Opera

 

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

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