In Character: Opera Portraiture, available from Amadeus Press 11/04/14, memorably captures operatic performers away from the audience but fully inhabiting their roles. It showcases the work of John F. Martin, who for years set up a portable studio in the basement of the San Francisco Opera and photographed the players – in costume and full makeup – right before or after they took the stage.
Their roles run the gamut of opera personalities: heroes and heroines, villains and outcasts, royalty and common folk, Biblical figures and creatures of myth. Facing Martin’s camera, each artist projects the essence of his or her character, however great or small the part. A collection unlike any other, In Character will have broad appeal-to opera and theater buffs, costume and fashion aficionados, and anyone who appreciates fine art photography.
Today is the premiere of the HD broadcast of Tosca by the Metropolitan Opera! The complete libretto of Puccini’s Tosca, published by Amadeus Press, is also being released in conjunction with the event. Below is Peter Gelb’s introduction to the libretto.
With nearly a thousand performances since its 1901 company premiere, Puccini’s Tosca is one of the most-performed works in Metropolitan Opera history, currently ranking fifth on the all-time list (behind just Aida, Carmen, La Traviata, and, in the top spot, the composer’s own La Bohème). The opera’s enduring appeal is not hard to understand. Tosca offers a captivating heroine, gripping melodrama, and some of the most powerful and instantly recognizable arias in opera, from the painter Cavaradossi’s “E lucevan le stelle” to the villain Scarpia’s “Te Deum” to the heroine’s indestructible “Vissi d’arte.” A prime example of verismo opera, Tosca functions as a kind of operatic thriller, a juggernaut that doesn’t let up from the very first chords until the curtain comes down. (In the article “Thrill Ride,” featured in this guide, Met Music Director James Levine compares Tosca to a Hitchcock film.)
This first volume of the Metropolitan Opera Presents series aims to give readers a 360-degree view of Puccini’s timeless drama. In addition to the complete libretto, we’ve included a synopsis, a detailed program note with musicological background, and the “In Focus” feature we offer each night in the Met’s house program—a quick, easy primer intended to provide the essentials for a given opera in a format that audiences can absorb easily in the minutes before the curtain goes up. We’ve also featured a number of archival photographs of Tosca throughout its century-plus history at the Met. Whether you experience Tosca at the Met, through our Live in HD movie theater transmissions, on the radio, or online, we hope this guide gives you all the background you need to appreciate this Puccini masterpiece to the fullest.
An idealistic artist, a celebrated opera singer, and a corrupt police chief engage in a fierce battle of wills in this tempestuous tale of passion, intrigue, cruelty, and deception. Puccini’s great melodrama may be set in 1800, amid the Napoleonic wars, but the conflicts between love and loyalty, the state and the individual, and hypocrisy and principle are anything but dated. Floria Tosca, the beautiful, glamorous singer who has all Rome at her feet, is one of the iconic soprano roles in the Italian repertoire. She’s caught between two men-her lover, the handsome painter Cavaradossi, who defies the law to hide a rebel friend; and the villainous Baron Scarpia, Rome’s all-powerful chief of police, who will stop at nothing to crush the rebels and conquer Tosca for himself. This gripping story of torture, attempted rape, murder, suicide, and general mayhem is as thrilling and dramatic as anything seen on the operatic stage.
The following is an excerpt from Richard Wagner: The Lighter Side by Terry Quinn.
In Götterdämmerung, the final opera of The Ring, Brünnhilde’s horse is named Grane. At the climax of Act III Wagner’s stage direction calls for Brünnhilde to mount Grane and ride into the flames of Siegfried’s funeral pyre and the burning Valhalla. Most directors consider that discretion is the better part of valor, and Brünnhilde addresses her comments to an offstage Grane. In some productions a mock horse has been used, but this has often had an unwanted comical effect just as the production approaches its emotional climax.
At Bayreuth in 1926 the horse playing the part of Grane kicked out and injured both Siegfried and a stagehand, who suffered a broken ankle. No singers or stagehands were injured by the Grane in the 1939 production, but the unfortunate horse could not stand the excitement and died after the first act. A replacement horse was found and performed admirably.
In the 2001 and 2005 productions of the Seattle Opera Ring, the director, Stephen Wadsworth, used a real horse, although not for Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene. The horse, a handsome animal with a gleaming black coat, made a surprise appearance in Götterdämmerung. When Brünnhilde and Siegfried trade gifts before he leaves her mountain cave, he gives Brünnhilde the ring and she tells him that she will give him her horse, Grane. Brünnhilde, played by Jane Eaglen, walked offstage and seconds later reappeared leading the magnificent animal, at which point the normally silent Seattle audience collectively gasped. Siegfried, played by Alan Woodrow, held the horse on a short bridle to reduce the chances of an unplanned movement. But he need not have worried. Grane performed beautifully during the short walk along the mountain path high on Brünnhilde’s rock. The horse took a good long at the sea of faces to its left before rounding the rock to make his exit.
Speight Jenkins, general director of the Seattle Opera, revealed later that contrary to Wagner’s specification, the role of Grane was played by a filly called Blackie, but it is safe to assume that few in the audience noticed or cared. When the Wadsworth Ring returned years later, the role of Grane was played by Star. The prize for bravery must go to the director of the Vienna Opera’s first production of The Ring in 1877. It featured eight Valkyries hurtling around the stage on live horses. The director had enlisted the help of the riding teacher of Empress Elizabeth to help train the eight army horses borrowed for the occasion. He also hired accomplished Polish horsemen who were outfitted with wigs and helmets and doubled as Valkyries for the scene.
Live horses had been used the year before, in the first Bayreuth Ring, but there Wagner decided to take no risks, and the singers walked the horses onto the stage. In Vienna no punches were pulled, and even the critic Eduard Hanslick found the sight appealing. It all went according to plan. The only problem was complaints from the Polish riders that the music was too loud.
However, it was not such smooth going for Amalie Materna, the Vienna Brünnhilde. During rehearsals she had problems with the horse playing the part of Grane and could not persuade it to stand still. The director, Franz Ritter von Jauner, came up with a cunning plan. He hid a soldier from the Army Service Corps behind a stage rock and instructed him to feed the horse a handful of oats whenever it became restless. But there were some negative audience reactions, according to Marcel Prawy in his book The Vienna Opera:
“Malicious tongues maintained that every now and then a great red orb came bobbing out from behind the rock; it was generally assumed to be the rising sun—in fact it was only the seat of the soldier’s trousers.”
Richard Wagner: The Lighter Side appeals to classical music and opera enthusiasts in general, but particularly the many thousands of members of the 135 Wagner Societies around the world. There are many books about every aspect of Wagner’s life and works, but none has focused on the trivia, the interesting facts, anecdotes, and quotations about the man and his operas. For more than twenty years, Terry Quinn has collected information on each of Wagner’s 13 completed operas and the difficulties encountered in staging them; famous Wagnerian directors, conductors, and singers; key persons in the composer’s life, especially the women, not to mention the dysfunctional Wagner family; Wagner’s visits to London; the festival and theater he created in Bavaria; and a great deal more. Also included are interviews with current Wagnerian scholars.
Today marks the 75th anniversary of George Gershwin’s death. Some of his most memorable compositions include Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris, and Porgy and Bess. Below is an excerpt from Robin Thompson’s book The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess:
The opera Porgy and Bess would prove to be unique in an even greater way. The period of its creation and its subsequent performance history have been unlike that of any other American opera. As far as George Gershwin was concerned, Porgy and Bess was an opera composed in the operatic tradition, rather than in the musical-comedy idiom of the mid-1930s. Like the book and play, it would break its
own share of boundaries. Certainly, it would contradict the public’s perception of what constituted opera at the time of its New York opening. Porgy and Bess examined American themes rather than those of European history, mythology, or Roman and Greek literature.
It had the structure of opera, built from its customary musical forms of arias, duets, trios, choral ensembles, orchestral interludes and the like, but it was to be composed using the American musical idioms of jazz, “Negro” spirituals, and American popular song. “If I am successful,” Gershwin wrote to a friend, “it will resemble a combination of the drama and romance of Carmen and the beauty of Meistersinger, if you can imagine that.”
However, from its glittering opening on October 10, 1935, at Broadway’s Alvin Theatre and for some years to come, the power to “imagine that” was somewhat lacking. Critics and audiences stationed themselves on either side of the great genre divide. If Porgy and Bess was an opera, then what was it doing in a Broadway theater? Since Gershwin himself called the solo musical numbers “songs” rather than “arias,” didn’t he mean us to understand the piece as a musical? Could American vernacular music really support the dramatic weight of larger-then-life operatic subject,
and so forth. Porgy was confusing in a few ways. More than anything else it was confusing in its newness. Initially, Porgy and Bess did not have the long and successful run that its creators, producers, and cast had hoped for. However, it was far from a failure. Within a few short years, Gershwin’s mix of traditional operatic form with American vernacular music came to be recognized as one of the work’s principal glories rather than its central failing. Few now question the ultimate success of Gershwin’s efforts.
The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess by Robin Thompson (Amadeus Press)
In this lavishly illustrated 75th anniversary volume, created with the participation of the Gershwin estate, opera producer and author Robin Thompson recounts the history of Porgy and Bess as he looks at the various interpretations of the work and the many layers of meaning to be found in the story of the crippled Porgy, the conflicted and vulnerable Bess, the dope peddler Sportin’ Life, and the other residents of Catfish Row.
Packed with unique, rarely seen archival photographs and documents associated with the production, Porgy and Bess commemorates this uniquely American blending of musical, ethnic, and creative styles and the people, the performers, and the times that produced it.
In the last ten to fifteen years, many changes have occurred in the operatic profession largely due to a dwindling audience and a need to attract the next generation of operagoer. The most obvious example of such a change is the advent of the high definition broadcast – for an eighth of the price of an orchestra seat at the Met, opera lovers can go to their local movie theater (maybe “theatre” is more appropriate here) and see the latest operatic offering.
In addition to changes in marketing and the diversification of mode of presentation (and perhaps, because of these changes), artistic directors are now looking for the “total package” performer – one that can sing, looks the part, and (hold your breath), can ACT.
Most people think opera is a musical art form. Well, they are only half right. When the Camerata met in the late 1500’s, they were not setting out to create a new musical art form – they were setting out to create a new theatrical art form. It was Greek theatre and the use of the voice in Greek theatre that inspired the first operas. Letters from the great composers including Verdi, Mozart, Gluck, and Wagner (to name only a few) prove their desires for singers to be not just great singers, but also great actors. Gluck and Wagner went so far as to say that drama was more important than music. And these guys were no slouches.
So, why did we get away from the theatre of opera? There are likely many reasons, one of the most interesting being the advent and mass distribution of sound recordings, which allowed consumers to listen to the music of opera devoid of the theatrical spectacle. Whatever the reason or reasons, operatic theatre (and by association, acting) seems to be making a comeback.
Singer and Actor demystifies theatrical acting technique stemming from Stanislavski’s Method of Physical Action and provides singers at all levels a roadmap with which to complete character preparation, using a clear and organized progression based on the work of Franchelle S. Dorn and exercises and examples (recitatives, arias, and ensembles). Singers (including choristers) are given the necessary tools to prepare auditions and inhabit a character from rehearsal to final performance.
Singer and Actor also provides a history of acting from its beginnings to the present day, including a survey of acting techniques from Stanislavski, Meisner, Hagen, Strasberg, Larry Moss, and others. Drawing additionally on the writings of composers and other creators of opera, the book deals with the misconception that only the singing matters in opera and includes a discussion of previous approaches to operatic acting.
Alan E. Hicks, in nearly twenty-five years in the arts, has worked as a professional opera singer, award-winning stage director, and teacher of musical theatre and opera. He is a former faculty member of the Actors Studio Drama School and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts as well as schools of music across the country. His students have found success from Broadway to network television and from opera to major motion pictures. He lives in Iowa City, Iowa.