Today, we have for you the completed program notes for our upcoming concerts on Feb. 23rd and 24th, written by singer Susan Wladaver-Morgan. We hope that reading them gets you just as excited about the music as we are! You won’t want to miss this one; it’s going to be great fun. Remember that you can save 10% on your ticket price by purchasing them ahead of time through our website. We’ll hopefully see you all next weekend!
From Broadway to the Met
This year we celebrate the bicentennial of two giants of musical theater—Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner—with works that reveal how music enhances drama. Operas and Broadway musicals may seem worlds apart, but both can sweep audiences along more powerfully than speeches in plays. Both allow multiple characters to express wildly different emotions all at once, and both use music to move from the grand to the intimate in a heartbeat. Finally, both allow us to carry a performance with us in the music we hum on our way out the door.
We begin with opera at its grandest—the Triumphal March from Verdi’s Aida. The scene presents the festivities that greet Radamès as he returns to Egypt after his military victory over Ethiopia. The celebration features an enormous throng marching before the Egyptian royalty—soldiers, prisoners, priests, scantily clad male and female dancers, a contingent of on-stage trumpeters, and sometimes even an elephant. Aida premiered in Cairo in 1871, shortly after the Suez Canal opened, and the lavish production reflected Egypt’s new strategic importance. Interestingly, Aida also became a Broadway musical by Elton John and Tim Rice in 2000.
German composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) actually rejected the word “opera” altogether, preferring the term “music drama.” In his 1849 essay “Art and Revolution,” Wagner focused on the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk—a completely integrated total artwork—and he wrote the librettos and music for nearly all his dramas, usually based on themes from German history and Norse mythology. Tannhäuser (1845) combines history and myth: Tannhäuser, a real-life 14th-century minnesinger (sort of a troubador), is lured away from the pure love of Eva by Venus. We perform a chorus of pilgrims, including Tannhäuser, returning from Rome, where he had unsuccessfully sought a papal pardon. Although our hero dies at the end, sacred love triumphs at last.
Sacred love rarely concerned Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880), the French composer of nearly 100 operettas, including La Jolie Parfumeuse (The Pretty Perfume Seller). Offenbach had his first success in the 1850s and 1860s as he gently satirized the court of Napoleon III. France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War made such light-hearted fare less popular, so he relocated to England, returning in 1871. La Jolie Parfumeuse (1873), full of mistaken identities and risqué humor, returns to his frothy style. The Neighbors Chorus cleverly recreates the frantic chatter of busybodies hoping for the worst.
Although Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) eventually became Italy’s most prominent opera composer, his composing career almost ended before it began. He was working on his second opera, a comedy, when his wife and both their daughters died one by one—all within two years. Understandably, his efforts to write something funny fell flat, and he decided to stop composing. But a friend persuaded him to write one more opera, based on the Biblical story of Nebuchadnezzar. Nabucco (1842) includes a chorus sung by the Hebrews slaves in Babylon, longing for their lost homeland. Italians too longed for a unified homeland, for Italy was split into several small regions, many controlled by foreign powers. The Risorgimento, a movement for national reunification, was gaining strength in the 1840s, and this chorus, “Va pensiero,” became an instant hit and an anthem of the movement. People regularly joined in singing it during performances, as well as at rallies, marches, and political funerals. Verdi’s music continued to inspire the nationalist cause in his later operas.
American Aaron Copland (1900-1990) composed The Tender Land (1954) for the new medium of television. Although he studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, he created works that sound quintessentially “American,” like Rodeo and Appalachian Spring. Inspired partly by the photographs of Walker Evans, Copland set this chamber opera in the Depression-era Midwest, focusing on a farm family. At the end, one daughter decides she must move away to make her own way in the world, but “The Promise of Living,” sung by all the main characters, exalts the enduring values of sharing and community.
Solos and small ensembles provide insight into the feelings of individual characters. Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) wrote both serious operas, like Lucia di Lammermoor, and comic ones, like Don Pasquale (1843). In the latter, Dr. Malatesta sings “Bella siccome un angelo” to cajole his foolish old friend into a fake marriage and to teach him a lesson; the aria caressingly describes a woman who is clearly too good to be true. Mozart (1756-1791) based his Marriage of Figaro on Beaumarchais’s play, sweetening its revolutionary message with music. In the duet “Sull’aria,” Countess Almaviva and her maid Susanna compose a note to trick the unfaithful Count into a secret rendezvous with his own wife, though he won’t realize that until too late. The duet hints at sensual delights but leaves much unsaid, for the women know the Count’s imagination will fill in the rest.
We close the first half with two of Verdi’s most popular choruses. Although both Il Trovatore (The Troubador) and La Traviata (The Woman Who Strayed) date from the same year, 1853, they could hardly differ more in subject and style. Trovatore is a blood-and-thunder melodrama, complete with babies switched at birth, gypsy curses, and elaborate schemes for revenge. Act II’s opening chorus depicts a gypsy camp where the men are hammering weapons on their anvils and singing about the pleasures of gypsy life. Often parodied (in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera and by Gilbert and Sullivan in several operettas), Trovatore is still as fast-moving and gripping as the latest thriller. Traviata, by contrast, is a drama of believable, flesh-and-blood people. Verdi based it on The Lady of the Camellias, the novel and play that depicted Alexandre Dumas’s own doomed affair with a woman of compromised virtue. Setting an opera in the demi-monde of contemporary Paris, not the distant romantic past, was a risky move, and it took time before Traviata caught on. Despite the opera’s tragic ending, “Libiamo,” featuring two characters on the brink of love, captures the mood at a festive party.
In the second half, we turn to the Broadway stage, and our first three numbers feature composers who also wrote their own lyrics. Frank Loesser (1910-1969) wrote “Fugue for Tinhorns” for Guys and Dolls (1950) based on two short stories by Damon Runyon—one about lovable gamblers and con men, the other about a Salvation Army lass. Vaudeville singer, dancer, and all-around showman George M. Cohan (1878-1942) composed “Give My Regards to Broadway” for Little Johnny Jones (1904) and also starred in the show. Russian immigrant Irving Berlin (1888-1989) produced all-American songs for over 50 years, starting with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1911). “There’s No Business Like Show Business” comes from Annie Get Your Gun (1946) about Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) holds a preeminent place in 20th-century American culture as a conductor, composer, and the person who, more than any other, explained music of every sort to Americans through more than 50 televised Young People’s Concerts. As a composer, he wrote everything from symphonies, ballets, operas, and a mass to hit Broadway shows. Originally inspired by choreographer Jerome Robbins, West Side Story (1957) represented a breakthrough for both Bernstein and his young lyricist, Stephen Sondheim (b. 1930), with its complex jazzy score, clever lyrics, striking dance numbers, and vivid story of New York street gangs and ethnic conflict. Some numbers sound almost operatic, while others, like “America” and “Gee, Officer Krupke,” are as slangy as the nearest street corner.
Bernstein composed his operetta Candide, based on Voltaire’s satirical 18th-century novel, while working on West Side Story. The two shows illustrate some differences between operettas and musicals, even though the boundaries are fuzzy. Operettas tend to further the plot with sung recitatives rather than spoken dialogue; they may take place in more exotic locales or historical times, or they employ a less colloquial style of singing, as in “Glitter and Be Gay,” an aria for coloratura soprano from Candide. Reflecting the title character’s hard-won wisdom, Candide closes with the thoughtful chorus “Make Our Garden Grow.”
Like Bernstein, George Gershwin (1898-1937) wrote orchestral works, piano concertos, a grand opera (Porgy and Bess), and an amazing number of hit songs for Broadway shows that have become standards in the popular repertoire. “Someone to Watch Over Me” comes from Oh! Kay (1926) and became the show’s biggest hit. In the 1920s, when most shows resembled reviews more than the well-integrated scores from the 1940s on, composers often wrote songs with minimal connections with a specific plot so they could use the same songs in other shows equally well. That happened with this song in 1990 when it was added to an updated version of George and Ira Gershwin’s Girl Crazy.
We close with “One Day More” from Les Misérables. With music by Claude-Michel Schönberg (b. 1944) and original French lyrics by Alain Boublil (b. 1941), a team that also produced the rock opera La Révolution Française and the hit musical Miss Saigon. Based on Victor Hugo’s sprawling novel and originally released as a French concept album, Les Miz, as fans affectionately call it, was first staged in Paris, then London, and then New York (1987), where it ran for 6,680 performances, making it one of the longest-running Broadway shows ever. Les Miz brings us nearly full circle, for unlike many musicals, it is completely “sung-through,” with no spoken dialogue, just like traditional operas. In the climactic closing number of Act I, several sets of characters express their hopes and fears for the coming day—a day that will bring revolutionary turmoil, new love, or tragedy.
Whether as opera, music drama, operetta, or Broadway show, musical theater moves us in ways no other art form can. Happy singing to you all!