Pre-performance Opera Chats


Free, insightful and informative chats are presented by featured guest speakers, 45 minutes before every main stage COC performance.

Time/Duration: 20-minute chats, 45 minutes prior to every opera performance.
Tickets: No ticket necessary, free when you attend an opera. Arrive early as seating is limited. 

SPEAKERS

2018/2019 SEASON SPEAKERS

Stephan Bonfield is Lecturer in music, science and general studies at Ambrose University where he teaches the music history core program and advanced music theory. He is also research associate in an auditory neuroscience lab at the University of Calgary. Stephan runs his own music history and theory studio and is a senior examiner in both disciplines at the Royal Conservatory of Music. He is the dance critic for the Calgary Herald; reviews the performing arts at the Banff Centre plus new music concerts in Calgary. He now covers the National Ballet of Canada for Musical Toronto and lectures on opera for the Canadian Opera Company, Edmonton Opera and Against the Grain Theatre. 

 

Margaret Cormier is a PhD candidate in musicology at McGill University, where she has been a teacher’s assistant and guest lecturer in music history. She holds a Bachelor of Music with Honors in Voice Performance (2013) and a Master of Arts in Musicology (2015) from Western University. Recently, she has presented her work on opera at professional conferences in Oxford, San Francisco, and Dublin. Her current research considers the role of staging and production in creating operatic meaning, and focuses on representations of sexual violence on the operatic stage. Her PhD dissertation is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).



Wayne Gooding is a Toronto-based writer and former editor of the quarterly magazine, Opera Canada. In his earlier incarnation as a business journalist, he wrote for such publications as The Financial Post, Report on Business, Policy Options and served as editor of Canadian Business, Marketing Magazine and Financial Post Magazine. Over the past decade, he has increasingly focused on a lifelong interest in opera and music theatre. Besides Opera Canada, his byline has appeared in Playbill, Opera Now and The Wagner Journal, among other publications, and he has given lectures and presentations across Canada. For the COC, he also gives the Opera Talks series at the North York Central Library.

Kyle HutchinsonKyle Hutchinson is a Ph.D. Candidate in Music Theory at the University of Toronto. His research explores chromatic harmony in the music of Wagner and Richard Strauss. Other research interests include understanding the philosophic underpinnings of music analysis, and applying music theory to contemporary musical theatre. Kyle is also active and interested in music pedagogy, and in 2017 was one of twelve graduate students across U of T shortlisted for the university-wide award for outstanding Teaching Assistants, and has won a similar award from the Faculty of Music. Kyle has presented research at conferences across North America, and recently won the George Proctor Prize for best graduate student paper at the 2018 Canadian University Music Society Conference in Edmonton.

Brian McMillan is the Director of the Music Library at Western University in London, Ontario. In addition to a Masters of Information Studies from the University of Toronto, he holds a bachelors and masters in voice performance from McGill University. He has sung professionally with several ensembles across Canada including the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, Aradia Ensemble, Quebec's Les Violons du roy, and the chorus of the Canadian Opera Company.



Tegan Niziol is a PhD student in musicology at the University of Toronto. Her doctoral research examines alternative historiographical models to the narrative of musical Modernism in the early twentieth century. Prior research conducted during her undergraduate and master’s degrees focused on the historiographical causes of Rachmaninoff's diminished presence in the Western musical canon. Her article, “Progressive Chromatic Processes in Rachmaninoff’s Étude-Tableau Op. 33, No. 8” was published in Western University's Nota Bene: Canadian Undergraduate Journal of Musicology (2014). Her research has received generous support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada in the form of a master’s level Canada Graduate Scholarship (2016) and the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarships (CGS) Doctoral Scholarship (2018).


Matthew Timmermans

Matthew Timmermans is a PhD student in musicology at The Graduate Center, CUNY, in New York City. He has published on a variety of topics including philosophy of music, performance practice, age studies, and diva worship. He has also received a number of awards and scholarships, including the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship (2016) from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). He has been featured as lecturer at the Canadian Opera Company, Opera Lyra, Pellegrini Opera, McGill University, and on The Metropolitan Opera Guild Podcast, and has presented his research at conferences around the world. As a freelance writer, he has written editorials and reviews for Opera Canada and Ludwig van Toronto.






SCHEDULE

SCHEDULE

Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
 

April 17

La Bohème

Speaker: Stephan
Bonfield

6:45 PM

 

 

April 26

La Bohème

Speaker: Stephan
Bonfield

6:45 PM

April 27

Otello

Speaker: Matthew Timmermans

6:45 PM

April 28

La Bohème

Speaker: Stephan Bonfield

1:15 PM

 

April 30

Otello

Speaker:
Matthew Timmermans

6:45 PM

May 2

La Bohème

Speaker: Kyle Hutchinson

6:45 PM

May 3

Otello

Speaker: Wayne Gooding

6:45 PM

May 4

La Bohème

Speaker: Margaret
Cormier

3:45 PM

 

May 5

La Bohème

Speaker:
Kyle Hutchinson

1:15 PM

May 7

La Bohème

Speaker:
Margaret
Cormier

6:45 PM

May 9

Otello

Speaker:
Wayne
Gooding

6:45 PM

 

May 11

La Bohème

Speaker:
Margaret Cormier

1:15 PM

Speaker:
Tegan
Niziol

6:45 PM

May 12

Otello

Speaker:
Wayne Gooding

1:15 PM

May 15

Otello

Speaker:
Stephan
Bonfield

6:45 PM

May 18

Otello

Speaker:
Stephan
Bonfield

3:45 PM

 

May 21

Otello

Speaker:
Stephan
Bonfield

6:45 PM

May 22

La Bohème

Speaker:
Tegan
Niziol

6:45 PM

 

SPEAKER SCRIPTS: LEARN ABOUT ELEKTRA

R. Strauss' Elektra

Written by Wayne Gooding


You can hear Wayne give this lecture before the performance on Tuesday, February 12 (6:45 p.m.), Saturday February 16 (3:45 p.m.), or Friday, February 22 (6:45 p.m.).
 Richard Strauss

When Richard Strauss began work on Elektra in 1906, he was just 42 years old, but already among the most influential voices in classical music in Europe. He was known as a conductor of opera and instrumental music, and at the time was chief conductor of the imperial opera in Berlin; he had already composed almost all the large-scale orchestral works—including Till Eulenspiegel, Also Sprach Zarathustra and Ein Heldenleben—that are still part of the core symphonic repertoire today; he had published more than 100 songs; and just the year before, in 1905, he had enjoyed a sensational success with his third opera, Salome, which added enormously to both his notoriety and his bank account.

How Strauss would follow up on Salome was a matter of intense speculation in music circles. News that he was working on Elektra broke in the Austrian press in late summer 1906 and spread quickly. A big part of the news was that he was collaborating with the eminent Austrian writer, Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

  Hugo von Hofmannsthal

 

The working relationship between Strauss and von Hofmannsthal would become one of the most productive in opera history, giving rise to five works, including Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos, both among the most-performed German-language operas in the repertoire. Last season, the COC staged Arabella, which was their last collaboration, unfinished when Hofmannsthal died in 1929.

Composer and writer had first met socially in Berlin in 1899, and the idea of working together emerged casually over the next couple of years as their paths crossed. In 1903, Hofmannsthal enjoyed a great succès de scandale with his play, Elektra, which he based on the ancient tragedy of Sophocles while freely adapting it to suit the tenor of his own times.

Gone were some of the key elements of Greek drama—the machinations of the Gods, the interplay of the supernatural and the human, even the traditional Greek Chorus. In their place, Hofmannsthal fashioned a psychological portrait of a severely dysfunctional family that sets parents in a murderous relationship with their children. Hofmannsthal’s Elektra is both naturalistic and expressionist, summoning deep-rooted emotions, obsessions and feelings of guilt that reflect the contemporary thinking of Sigmund Freud and the emerging practice of psycho-analysis.

 

When Strauss saw Hofmannsthal’s Elektra in Berlin, he immediately recognized its operatic potential, but was at the time engaged with other projects, including Salome. He and Hofmannsthal discussed other subjects for opera and ballet—on the Renaissance figures of Savonarola or Cesare Borgia, for example—but nothing came of them. The idea of Elektra was broached explicitly again early in 1906, though Strauss fretted in a letter to Hofmannsthal about “whether, immediately after Salome, I shall have the strength to handle a subject so similar to it in many respects with an entirely fresh mind.”

He nonetheless took the initiative to cut Hofmannsthal’s text by about a third for operatic purposes, and with the full encouragement of the author, who relinquished rights to the edited libretto, started to compose the piece in the summer of 1906. In the end, Strauss asked the author to add new material in only a couple of scenes for musical-dramatic purposes; the first is when Electra recognizes her brother, Orestes, and the other is in the final encounter between Electra and her sister, Chrysothemis, after Orestes has killed their mother and stepfather. Otherwise, Elektra is substantially a faithful setting of the Strauss-edited Hofmannsthal original, just as Salome was largely a faithful setting of the Strauss-edited German translation of Oscar Wilde’s original French play.


Strauss and von Hofmannsthal

Even though Hofmannsthal did not create Elektra as an opera libretto, Strauss soon recognized him as a worthy partner. “You are the born librettist,” he wrote after the writer met one of his requests for changes to the text, “—the greatest compliment to my mind, since I consider it much more difficult to write a good operatic text than a fine play.”

Strauss responded to the tight narrative structure of Hofmannsthal’s Elektra. The back story is that King Agamemnon of Mycenae has returned from the Trojan Wars, only to be murdered in his bath by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover (and cousin) Aegisthus. The murder has had a traumatic effect on Agamemnon’s three children, Electra, Chrysothemis and Orestes. Orestes, as Agamemnon’s lawful heir, has been long spirited away to safety, while Electra and Chrysothemis remain in Mycenae, nominally free though deeply conflicted in their relationship to their mother and stepfather.  

The action plays out entirely in the servants’ quarters and animal sheds outside the palace walls, represented almost surrealistically in this COC production with its off-kilter playing spaces and building structures, and piles of discarded trappings and mementos of the murdered Agamemnon.  The physical space mirrors the mental state of the protagonists.


Christine Goerke as Elektra (at left) in a scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Elektra, 2019. Conductor Johannes Debus, director James Robinson, associate director Omer Ben Seadia, set designer Derek McLane, costume designer Anita Stewart, and lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin. Photo: Michael Cooper

When the curtain rises a chorus of maids (Hofmannsthal’s only suggestion of the traditional chorus of Greek tragedy) sing about the crazy antics of the Princess Electra, who is obsessed with the memory of her dead father and lives on the outside like an animal. The one maid who shows some compassion for Electra is savagely beaten by the others.

From this opening gambit, the opera unfolds as a series of encounters between Electra and her family. While she is consumed by hate for her mother and stepfather and is driven to avenge her father, her sister Chrysothemis just wants to get on with her life and have a family. Strauss etches the conflict between the two sisters vividly, and it becomes clear dramatically that while Electra’s hate has warped her psyche, Chrysothemis’s isolation and frustration—sexual and social—has become equally damaging to hers.

Electra’s next encounter is with her mother, who in Hofmannsthal’s version of the story is consumed by guilt for her crime and alternates between visions while she’s awake and nightmares while she sleeps. Interestingly, in most versions of the story, Clytemnestra finds some justification for murdering Agamemnon insofar as he had been willing to sacrifice their eldest daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the gods and get fair winds to sail his forces to Troy. In other versions, he has returned from Troy with a mistress, Cassandra, and has fathered children with her. In Hofmannsthal and Strauss, however, Clytemnestra has no such justification or defense, and she is presented as a woman whose moral decay has triggered a corresponding physical decline.

The opera, then, is structured around three chronically disturbed female personalities who are unable to function in the present because of something that happened in the past. Electra herself is a Hamlet-like character who raves a great deal about vengeance, but seems incapable of action herself.

The scene between Electra and her mother is the turning point in the opera. After she leaves, we hear maniacal laughter from Clytemnestra, who has been given news—fake news as it turns out—that Orestes has died in an accident abroad, leading Electra to confront her sister again to help kill their parents. Refused by Chrysothemis, Electra finally determines to go it alone, but then is confronted by a stranger, who turns out to be her brother.

The extended recognition scene between the two is one of the scenes for which Strauss asked for additional material from Hofmannsthal. It’s also one of the few moments in the opera when Electra finds some repose, although her joy is short-lived. Even after Orestes goes into the palace to kill his mother and after Electra, in a comically tinged brief encounter with her stepfather, sends him into the palace to meet the same fate, she finds no resolution. At the outset, she talked of wanting to dance in celebration on the death of her mother and stepfather; at the end, that dance of celebration becomes a dramatic dance of death as she falls lifeless to the stage.

Even after Salome, Elektra still came as a shock to its initial audiences at the Greek-temple like Semperoper in Dresden in January 1909.

 


Dresden's Semperoper

Already an adept businessman who knew how to capitalize on his music, Strauss had signed a contract for the premiere to be part of a mini festival of his own music—Strauss-Tage (Strauss Days) or Straus Woche (Strauss Week), which are still held in Berlin, Munich and Dresden, the three cities most associated with his music. In 1909, the four-night festival was made up of performances of his second opera, Feuersnot, Salome and two performances of Electra.

The city was abuzz with anticipation. “The air was naturally full of rumours concerning the new work, from which it was not possible to distinguish much that was useful,” wrote the English critic Alfred Kalish. “Most of the sensational reports which were circulated about it were profoundly untrue… Apart from the stories, when one arrived in Dresden one met ‘Elektra’ everywhere. The shop windows were full of ‘Elektra’ boots, spoons, and beer mugs. Even the ‘Elektra’ costumes for skiing occupied the centre of one of the windows, and on the day of the first performance we were made to eat ‘Elektra’ ices.”

In the event, Elektra’s premiere performances garnered a mixed response, albeit passionate on both sides. Some were alienated by the lack of a sympathetic story, or, indeed, any sympathetic characters. Some purists objected to the way Sophocles’s original tragedy had been contorted beyond recognition first by Hofmannsthal’s adaptation and then with the addition of Strauss’s violent music.

Some were repelled by what they perceived as the unremitting ugliness of the music. In another cartoon from the period, the music is conceived as a murderous torture on an “elektrische” chair. The hapless victim, chained to a chair made of drum and harps, is forced to listen to Strauss’s music. Even the original cast members were divided in their response. “It was a horrible din,” was the opinion of the venerable Ernestine Schumann-Heink, who created the role of Clytemnestra. “We were all mad women.”

 Satirical cartoons depicting ElektraSatirical cartoon depicting Elektra

Alfred Kalish, on the other hand, was an immediate admirer. Concluding his review with a note on the opera’s final scene, he writes: “Not only is there colossal skill in the way in which all previous threads are woven into one, not only is there great art in the way in which the climax grows and the orchestral colour gradually changes from darkness to the bright light of noonday; but the result is achieved without sacrifice of euphony or beauty, and the whole conception of the scene betrays the creative power which is certainly without rival in the present day.”

Elektra was, or friends and foes, a shocking experience. Its raw drama and fraught music still have the power to shock today, though in 1909, it was more the shock of the new. Hofmannsthal’s take on the Sophocles original played into contemporary fascinations with the femme fatale (as had Strauss’s Salome), while the musical language Strauss employed seemed to be a head-on engagement with the ever-lurking question of how music might develop in the decades immediately following the death of Richard Wagner in 1883. 

By the time he wrote Elektra, Strauss was already in expert command as a composer of instrumental music, as witness his decision to expand the Elektra orchestra to more than 100 players—the biggest orchestra in any of his operas—and his deployment of 60 strings against 40 brass and woodwind. Vocally, he etched a distinctive style in Elektra that he would deploy in almost all his operas after. Elektra was the first in which he wrote multiple brilliant parts for the female voice and confirmed a tendency that had originated in Feuersnot and Salome to prefer lower male voices as counterfoils to the women.


Clytemnestra and Elektra

Still, what counts as musical brilliance for one listener can be painful to another. During the first London performances in 1910, a lively and not-so-amicable public debate broke out in the pages of The Nation between two eminent critics—the Wagner biographer Ernest Newman and the playwright George Bernard Shaw. Newman described Strauss’s score as “like a huge volcano spluttering forth a vast amount of dirt and muck, through which every now and then, when the fuming ceases and a breath of clear air blows away the smoke, we see the grand and strong original outlines of the mountain.”

Shaw experienced things quite differently, seduced into forgetting “that there was an orchestra there at all, and [hearing] nothing but the conflict and storm of passion. Human emotion is a complex thing. There are moments when our feeling is so deep and our ecstasy so exalted that the primeval monsters from whom we are evolved wake within us and utter the strange tormented cries of their ancient struggles with the Life Force. All this is in Elektra; and under the baton of Strauss the voices of these epochs are kept as distinct in their unity as the parts in a Bach motet.”

 

Shaw recognized that Hofmannsthal and Strauss had touched some disturbingly raw emotional and psychological nerves in Elektra, and considered Strauss’s musical language dramatically apt. Even today, the score sounds “modern”—densely textured, rhythmically unpredictable, often tonally harsh and dissonant, moving forward mainly through the interplay of short motifs and themes with little respite in longer lyrical lines.

Shaw was also right to invoke the name of Bach because, for all its modernity, Elektra still falls squarely in the tonal tradition that Strauss knew intimately from his insider reading of Austro-German music history. He wasn’t trying to invent a new musical language for his disorienting subject matter. He was content to leave radical experiments in music structure to younger contemporaries like Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. But while he never gave up on traditional approaches to musical structure, he did in Elektra push the envelope in the way he put musical building blocks to dramatic use—through ambiguous key signatures, harmony and dissonance, counter rhythms, timbre and colouring, to name a few. For his portrait of Clytemnestra, Strauss resorts to some of his most dissonant and vivid musical effects.

At the same time, however, dance is important in Elektra, not least because the title character begins by proclaiming her desire to dance on the death of her mother and stepfather and ends, literally, dancing herself to death. For all its restlessness and discordance, there are dance-like passages throughout Elektra, and the orchestra, which is the main expressive force in the opera, often sounds as if it is about to break out in dance. This tendency to dance can bring an almost lyrical quality to the violence and madness of the scenario and the characterization.

Strauss never again created such extreme music as he did for Elektra. Barely a fortnight after the premiere, Hofmannsthal wrote to the composer about a storyline he was developing for a second collaboration— an “entirely original scenario for an opera, full of burlesque situations and characters, with lively action, pellucid almost like a pantomime… Period: the old Vienna under the Empress Maria Theresa.” This is the first reference in their correspondence to Der Rosenkavalier, which premiered two years after Elektra in 1911.

For many critics, Rosenkavalier and the operas that followed were a betrayal of Elektra, with Strauss backing away from the kind of extreme scoring that characterize that opera. Strauss, however, remained ever loyal to musical tradition, and having taken conventional forms to the edge, could not go any further without destroying them. But musical iconoclasm was no more part of his agenda in 1909 than it was when he wrote his final work, the Four Last Songs, shortly before his death in 1949. It is perhaps no accident that Elektra ends in C-major, one of the most common key signatures in western music. 

Strauss himself gave a very practical and realistic summing up of his achievement in Salome and Elektra when he reflected on his life and career a few years before he died. “These two operas,” he wrote, “stand alone in my life’s work. In them, I went to the utmost limits of harmony, psychological polyphony and the capacity of today’s ears to take in what they hear.”

SPEAKER SCRIPTS: LEARN ABOUT COSÌ FAN TUTTE

Mozart's Così fan tutte

Written by Brian McMillan


You can hear Brian give this lecture before the performance on Friday, February 15 (6:45 p.m.), or Sunday, February 17 (1:15 p.m.). 

Good evening, my name is Brian McMillan. I am the Director of the Music Library at the University of Western Ontario, but in a past life, I was a professional singer. I sang with several ensembles across Canada including the Aradia Ensemble, the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, Les violons du roy, and right here with the COC Chorus. It’s my pleasure to share some thoughts with you on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s and Lorenzo Da Ponte’s Così fan tutte. In my past Mozart opera talks, I’ve inevitably discussed some aspect of sexual politics. This focus both reflects my own interests in this issue and responds to the directors’ decisions to highlight these issues in their stagings. And certainly in an age of “MeToo” and “TimesUp,” the power dynamics between women and men are forefront in our cultural zeitgeist. In tonight’s opera, Così fan tutte, we simply can’t avoid the discussion. Love versus reason is the theme, the fidelity of women its central question.

The title sums it all up: “Così fan tutte” translates literally as “Thus do all women.” And what, you may ask, do they do? They break men’s hearts with their infidelities. The opera opens in the midst of an argument. Two young soldiers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, defend their fiancées, Dorabella and Fiordiligi respectively, against the slanderous claims of their friend, Don Alfonso. “Constancy in women,” Alfonso declares, “is like the mythical phoenix. Everyone says it exists, yet no one has seen it.” To prove who’s right, the three agree to a wager. The men will pretend to depart for war, then – with the aid of the women’s maid, Despina – Don Alfonso will reintroduce them, now in disguise as two Albanians. Each man will then attempt to woo the other’s fiancée. At first, all goes in favour of Ferrando and Guglielmo: they receive a tearful farewell and their initial attempts at courtship are haughtily rejected. By the end of Act I, however, the women begin to waver and, sure enough, through the second act, first Dorabella, then her sister, Fiordiligi, surrender to the ardent attentions of the strangers. On the verge of signing wedding contracts, the ruse is exposed and all four lovers, contrite and a little more worldly wise, sing a closing “moral” in praise of reason, vowing to laugh in the face of life’s trials and tribulations.

You can perhaps understand why critics such as Charles Ford have called the opera “a vicious attack on femininity.” “The two women,” Ford writes, “are placed under the bright lights of an experimental psychodrama, and prodded and pushed into the arms of each other’s disguised fiancés. One woman takes about twenty minutes longer than the other to ‘fall’, and makes a good deal of fuss about it, but this display of emotional turmoil only goes to prove the point – Così fan tutte.” (107-108). Ouch! At the same time, the opera has enjoyed sustained popularity since its premiere. I can’t believe that audiences simply tolerate a sexist plot to revel in the fabulous music Mozart lavished on this opera; there is more nuance revealed in the piece than my synopsis let on. Did Mozart and Da Ponte really believe the bald-faced claim of the title? While we can never know for sure, there are enough clues in the work itself to raise doubts. This ambiguity makes Così fan tutte an especially rich theatrical experience.

To frame tonight’s discussion, the questions I ask will spring from and, I hope, be answered by the music of Mozart’s overture to the opera. Always inclined to re-use his own music, Mozart places an unusual variety of musical references throughout the score of Così, which music critics have parsed ever since the opera’s debut in Vienna in 1790. I will touch on only three tonight that relate to the challenging attitudes towards the two sisters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella.

Let’s listen then to the beginning of the overture. The first 14 measures are in fact a prelude – yearning woodwind lines punctuated by emphatic chords from the full orchestra. Then suddenly a faster section begins passing whirling melodic snippets from instrument to instrument. I want you to listen for the opening oboe line (Example 1a, mm 2-4), the chord progression that closes the prelude (Example 1a, mm 8-15), and the end of the second section’s first complete statement (Example 1b, mm. 43-44). I’ll point them out as they go by.

Example 1a: Mozart, Così fan tutte, Overture, mm. 1-17
Example 1a: Mozart, Così fan tutte, Overture, mm. 1-17[1]

Example 1b: Mozart, Così fan tutte, Overture, mm. 35-36 and 43-44

Example 1b: Mozart, Così fan tutte, Overture, mm. 35-36 and 43-44

PLAY: Mozart, Così fan tutte, Overture (Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; James Levine, conductor), 

I want to start with the second excerpt I pointed out to you: the cadential pattern that closes the prelude to the overture. It’s divided into two phrases: the first ends like a question by means of what is called a deceptive cadence; the second – though almost identical to the first – sounds more affirmative since it closes with a perfect cadence, the harmonic pattern that finishes practically every piece in the classical music canon and most Western folk and popular music, too. These two phrases reappear at the end of the overture: while structurally important in a musical sense, their real significance only becomes clear as we watch the opera. We get a clue when a slightly modified version of the motif underscores Don Alfonso’s hypothesis, which I quoted a moment ago. Comparing women’s honour to the phoenix, he asks, “where can we find it?” The question hangs in the air as the motif begins to sound in the orchestra. Taking over the second affirmative phrase, Don Alfonso declares, “No one knows!” (“Nessun lo sa.”) (Example 2a) The full meaning of the motif rings out loud and clear only near the end of Act II, after both women have capitulated. Don Alfonso commands his two sullen pupils, Ferrando and Guglielmo, to repeat after him the title and the central lesson of the opera: “Così fan tutte” (Example 2b). Let’s listen:

Examples 2a: Mozart, Così fan tutte, No. 2 Terzetto, mm. 8-19

Examples 2a: Mozart, Così fan tutte, No. 2 Terzetto, mm. 8-19

PLAY: Mozart, Così fan tutte, No. 2 Terzetto (English Baroque Soloists; John Eliot Gardiner, conductor),



Example 2b: Mozart, Così fan tutte, No. 30 “Tutti accusan le donne,” mm. 17-26

Example 2b: Mozart, Così fan tutte, No. 30 “Tutti accusan le donne,” mm. 17-26

PLAY: Mozart, Così fan tutte, No. 30 (English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor),from The above example plays between 2:46:18-2:46:53


Such a prominent underscoring of the title seemingly leaves little doubt as to Mozart and Da Ponte’s thoughts on the matter! And, in fact, this wasn’t the first time the two dealt with the issue of marital fidelity in an opera. Going back to the excerpt of the overture I played first, we find a brief reminder of a moment in The Marriage of Figaro, composed 4 years earlier, when another woman’s fidelity was also cast in doubt. Recall the very last element I pointed out in that excerpt, the flute line that wavered then fell step-wise down to the tonic. My language gives me away because this is indeed an example of Mozart using music to illustrate Da Ponte’s text almost literally. Just as the flute alternates between two notes, so can a woman’s heart flutter between two loves before falling into vice. The scheming music master Don Basilio says as much in The Marriage of Figaro when the Count discovers Cherubino, a lovestruck young page, in the women’s private chambers: “Così fan tutte le belle, non c’è alcuna novità!” (“Thus do all the pretty women. There’s no news in that!”) (Example 3). Besides the obvious textual reference to tonight’s opera, this melodic phrase pops up in Così occasionally, a subtle reference to the opera’s premise. I must point out, however, that the accusations against the Countess and Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro are false; it’s the Count who is ultimately called to task for his philandering. Perhaps Mozart and Da Ponte recognized the accusation is unfair in Così fan tutte as well.

Example 3: Mozart, The Marriage of Figaro, No. 7, mm. 161-167 (vocal line only), reproduced from Heartz, “Three Schools for Lovers, or ‘Così fan tutte le belle’,” p. 219 (Compare with Example 1b above.)

Example 3: Mozart, The Marriage of Figaro, No. 7, mm. 161-167 (vocal line only), reproduced from Heartz, “Three Schools for Lovers, or ‘Così fan tutte le belle’,” p. 219 (Compare with Example 1b above.)

Discomfort with the treatment of Così’s heroines, the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, has a long history. The opera appeared in many corrupted forms soon after its premiere in 1790, ones where the women are aware of their lovers’ deception, even ones where the women turn the tables on the men to teach them a lesson. An 1860 German production, for example, had Despina inform the women of the plot at the top of Act II. The desire to rework the ending or at least to rebalance the gender inequities of the piece certainly continues today. For example, consider Jenna Simeonov’s take on the opera recently published in the Globe and Mail: “Rather than fainting on couches or weeping on vanities, these two young women make the very liberated, very feminist decision to laugh. They’re laughing at how hard their men must work to tell the world that they are desirable, and laughing at the men’s naïve assumptions of monogamy. After all, if Mozart’s title is true – that “così fan tutte” (“all women are like that”) – then what’s the harm in singing a few sexy duets?” Simeonov has taken to heart the maxim that ends the opera: “Lucky is the man who is ruled by reason: He knows to laugh when others cry. He will find peace in the whirlwind of life.” In the Cambridge Opera Handbook to Così author Bruce Alan Brown concurs. “All six characters now join to sing the philosophical moral of the opera,” he writes of the finale. “Da Ponte and Mozart chose not the misogynist creed represented by the motto “così fan tutte”… but rather a more generous message of reconciliation” (56). But other critics are not so ready to dismiss the implications of the opera’s title. Kristi Brown-Montesano argues that “readings [like Brown’s] imagine a happy outcome to the men’s chicanery… The fundamental methodology of Don Alfonso’s demonstration that “all women are the same” is deception, and he heavily rigs the outcome. Whatever they may or may not learn, Fiordiligi and Dorabella are explicitly taught only one thing: to conform to the motto of the main title so that Ferrando and Guglielmo will acknowledge it as truth” (215).

Neither does Atom Egoyan’s production take the opera’s closing text at its word. Once the ruse is exposed, none of the lovers is in any mood to laugh. The past is not all swept away, the slates cannot be wiped clean. All four have gained some unpleasant insights into their fiancé(e)s, their siblings, and themselves. Love is not an immutable force and humans are not always constant. In the finale, the pairings we’ve seen forged over the past three hours dissolve. In this production, the lovers make tentative attempts at reconciliation, but in the end they separate and stand alone. While it is opera buffa convention that the original lovers should reunite, we can’t help but wonder if indeed they will once the curtain falls.

At first, this reading may seem like a violation of Mozart and Da Ponte’s original intentions, but, as I’m arguing tonight, even the opera’s creators allowed a little doubt. The libretto and music in the second act finale leave room for interpretation that runs against the grain of convention. Several writers point out, for example, that only the briefest of stage instructions indicates that Don Alfonso reunites the lovers and “makes” them embrace (“Li unisce e li fa abbracciare.”). You have to wonder how sincere the reunion can be when only a moment earlier the women are described by their lovers as “stupefied and half crazy” (“stupefatte” and “mezze matte”). Second, as they do throughout much of the opera, the characters sing in ensemble at this point, not individually. Therefore, the specificity of who addresses whom is lacking. Do Fiordiligi and Dorabella sing their final oath of faithfulness to their original lovers or to the ones who just won their hearts? To whom do the men respond, promising never again to test their affections?  Such lingering questions provide fertile ground for today’s opera directors to read “against the grain,” to introduce shades of ambiguity with gesture and physical staging that chafe against the printed text.

In fact, one could argue that Mozart gradually builds the musical argument against the last-minute romantic rearrangement demanded by theatrical convention through the entire opera, at least in the case of Fiordiligi and Ferrando. In his essay “Citation, Reference, and Recall in Così fan tutte,” music historian Daniel Heartz asks, “Did Mozart and Da Ponte at any point consider breaking with operatic tradition in this matter? They must have been tempted by a different ending, since they made Ferrando and Fiordiligi into such a splendid pair of seria lovers” (249). To prove his point, Heartz analyzes telling similarities between the music given to these two characters.

Through their common musical expression, Fiordiligi and Ferrando demonstrate much greater affinity than Fiordiligi does with her fiancé, the baritone Guglielmo. One need only listen to Guglielmo’s jocular arias to appreciate the difference between these two and him.  Ferrando and Fiordiligi are typical opera seria lovers, sharing a heightened rhetoric, more elaborate and lyrical vocal lines, and – as tenor and soprano – a similar vocal range. For this last point alone, Heartz jokes that these two are destined for one another: “Fiordiligi belongs with the tenor Ferrando,” he writes, “because by all the laws of opera, if not of Heaven, high voices should be paired together” (250). There is more to Heartz’s argument. The key is found in Ferrando’s opening phrase in the third number of the opera, when the two young men gleefully describe how they’ll spend the money won on their wager with Don Alfonso. Ferrando declares that he’ll organize a serenade in honour of his fiancée – his “goddess,” he calls her – Dorabella. I’ll play that opening now. Pay close attention to the melody he sings at the very end of this excerpt – I’ll point it out to you (Example 4).

Example 4: Mozart, Così fan tutte, No. 3 Terzetto, mm. 3-13 (vocal line only), reproduced from Heartz, “Citation, Reference, and Recall,” p. 238

Example 4: Mozart, Così fan tutte, No. 3 Terzetto, mm. 3-13 (vocal line only), reproduced from Heartz, “Citation, Reference, and Recall,” p. 238

PLAY: Mozart, Così fan tutte, No. 3 Terzetto (English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor),


That closing phrase – essentially the arc of a fifth first rising by leaps, stretching one tone higher, then descending step-wise (C-E-G-A-G-F-E-D-C) – reappears at key moments of Ferrando’s subsequent pursuit of Fiordiligi. This musical signature next surfaces – albeit briefly – in the soprano’s bravura Act I aria, “Come scoglio” (No. 14, mm. 19-22). Later in Act II, when Fiordiligi is struggling to remain faithful to Guglielmo, the phrase appears twice more as a crucial cadential figure in her aria “Per Pieta” (No. 25, mm. 10-11 and 34-35). However, the motif’s most significant sounding occurs at the moment of Fiordiligi’s capitulation to Ferrando. “You have won,” she cries, “Do with me what you will.” Here, the oboe sings the theme, sustaining the tenor’s yearning vocal line (Example 5). Let’s listen:

Example 5: Mozart, Così fan tutte, No. 29 Duetto, mm. 97-101, reproduced from Heartz, “Citation, Reference, and Recall,” p. 241

Example 5: Mozart, Così fan tutte, No. 29 Duetto, mm. 97-101, reproduced from Heartz, “Citation, Reference, and Recall,” p. 241

PLAY: Mozart, Così fan tutte, No. 29 Duetto (English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor),

Daniel Heartz contends that this “musical symbiosis” (242) – where Ferrando and Fiordiligi adopt the same musical signature – proves that the two lovers are destined to be together, regardless of the demands of 18th-century opera conventions.

Some of you may have recognized this melodic phrase as the third and final excerpt I wanted to point out at the beginning of this talk: the oboe line that opens the entire opera. In the prelude to the Così’s overture, therefore, we find Mozart playing with two very different musical ideas – this oboe melody versus the incisive “Così fan tutte” motif – each of which accrues significant meaning through the course of the opera. Heartz believes this juxtaposition signals Mozart’s insistence that “romantic, idealistic love figures in the opera just as importantly as the schooling of lovers…” (242). Ultimately, we cannot say which wins out. The sentimental force of Fiordiligi’s emotional struggle between Guglielmo and Ferrando makes a powerful impact on us, the audience, and yet we can’t ignore the “rational” lesson taught through the frame of Don Alfonso’s experiment.

Atom Egoyan’s production explores this tension, though as I’ve already hinted, his interpretation is more sympathetic to the women’s plight than the opera’s scenario might suggest at first glance. Picking up on the work’s subtitle, The School for Lovers, he sets Così in a schoolroom, dominated by an oversized cabinet of curiosities. Both female and male students, played by the principal singers and members of the chorus, attend to Don Alfonso’s lessons. Egoyan makes clear early on that the women are aware of the men’s wager – they are not mere “lab rats,” they are willing experimental subjects – although Fiordiligi and Dorabella, like Ferrando and Guglielmo, cannot anticipate its devastating emotional toll. Two dominant visual elements underscore the duality of love and reason. Butterflies appear throughout the opera, both free in nature and dead in a frame, pinned for observation. And over the entire stage hangs an arresting painting by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, a double self-portrait titled “Two Fridas.” One Frida, to the right, is dressed in native Mexican costume and holds a broach decorated with a picture of her ex-husband, the artist Diego Rivera; the other on the left wears a European dress and closes an open vein with surgical clamps. The hearts of both Fridas are exposed, linked by a single vein emanating from the blood-red frame of the broach. Egoyan uses elements of this image to symbolize the two sisters; the life-blood of love; the cool, detached gaze of science; the opposing forces of love and reason locked hand in hand and tied heart to heart. Mozart and Da Ponte leave us similarly conflicted, struggling to reconcile the frivolous, yet harsh comedy of Così with the depth of human emotions it stirs.

Thank you very much. I hope you enjoy tonight’s performance.

Selected Bibliography

Brown, Bruce Alan. W. A. Mozart: Così fan tutte. Cambridge Opera Handbook. Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Brown-Montesano, Kristi. Understanding the Women of Mozart’s Operas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

Ford, Charles. Così?: Sexual Politics in Mozart’s Operas. Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1991.

Heartz, Daniel. “Citation, Reference, and Recall in Così fan tutte.” In Mozart’s Operas, edited by Thomas Baumann, pp. 229-254. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

———. “Three Schools for Lovers, or ‘Così fan tutte le belle’.” In Mozart’s Operas, pp. 217-228.

Hunter, Mary. The Culture of Opera Buffa in Mozart’s Vienna: A Poetics of Entertainment. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus. Così fan tutte, ossia, La scuola degli amanti. Piano reduction by Rasmus Baumann. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2006.

Salmon, Gregory. “Tutti accusan le donne: Schools of Reason and Folly in Così fan tutte.” Repercussions, Spring 1992: 81-102.

Till, Nicholas. Mozart and the Enlightenment: Truth, Virtue and Beauty in Mozart’s Operas. London: W. W. Norton, 1992.

 [1] All musical score examples are taken from the 2006 Bärenreiter piano-vocal score of Così fan tutte (BA4606a) unless otherwise indicated.

SPEAKER SCRIPTS: LEARN ABOUT LA BOHÈME

Puccini's La Bohème

Written by Margaret Cormier


You can hear Margaret give this lecture before the performances on Saturday, May 4 (3:45 p.m.), Tuesday, May 7 (6:45 p.m.), or Saturday, May 11 (1:15 p.m.).

Good evening, everyone. I’d like to welcome you to tonight’s pre-performance chat. My name is Margaret Cormier. I hold Masters of Arts and Bachelor of Music degrees from Western University, and am currently a PhD candidate in musicology at McGill. This evening, I will be speaking about one of the most familiar, most beloved operas in the repertory. Puccini’s La Bohème tells the stories of a group of Bohemians living in Paris around 1830. Rodolfo, the poet, Marcello, the painter, Schaunard, the musician, and Colline, the philosopher are our charming yet impoverished heroes. A central love story emerges between Rodolfo and Mimì, a poor seamstress in their building. But Mimì is tragically ill, and the Bohemians’ poverty makes a happy ending for the lovers impossible.

In 1896, La Bohème was a highly anticipated work after the success of Puccini’s previous opera, Manon Lescault, and although it was immediately a popular sensation, opera critics at the time were unconvinced of its value. Bohème’s first performances were just months after the Italian premiere of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, the fourth and final opera in the Ring cycle, and comparisons with Wagner tended to make the critics skeptical of Bohème—was it modern enough? Could Italian opera compete with this new German style into the new century? Despite these critical concerns, Bohème’s popularity exploded in its earliest tours of Europe, and its ubiquity in the performance canon now is unquestionable. This season, Bohème is the third most programmed opera in the world with 599 performances.

This talk is organized around the question, why Bohème? What is it about this relatively small and simple story about a handful of poor artists that has resonated with its audiences so consistently for over a century? Bohème’s storytelling is fragmentary, composed of a series of brief musical-dramatic snapshots of the important moments in our characters lives together. In this chat, rather than try to come to some full composite understanding of Bohème, I will similarly guide you through a mosaic of a few specific contexts and techniques that help to place this opera both in its own cultural context and our own, in service of this guiding question. We will move through elements of Bohème’s genesis and story, to its music, with an eye in particular to accessibility and reception.

Adolfo Hohenstein, Original 1896 Poster
Adolfo Hohenstein, Original 1896 Poster

 

La Bohème’s plot comes from a novel by Henry Murger called Scènes de la vie de Bohème, adapted by a pair of librettists, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. Puccini and his team were not the only ones interested in Murger’s novel as an operatic topic, however. On March 20, 1893, Ruggero Leoncavallo, the composer of I Pagliacci, announced in a Milan newspaper that he was working on an opera based on Murger’s novel. The announcement states that Leoncavallo had been working on the opera for months and “Maestro Puccini, to whom Maestro Leoncavallo declared two days ago that he was writing Bohème, confessed that only upon his return from Turin a few days ago did he have the idea of putting La Bohème to music…Maestro Leoncavallo’s priority as regards this opera is thus indisputable.”[1] The next day, in a different Milanese paper, Puccini wrote back that he had no such knowledge of Leoncavallo’s interest in the topic before he began composing and mourned that “now—for reasons easy to understand—I am no longer inclined to be as courteous to [Maestro Leoncavallo] as a friend and musician as I would like.”[2] Puccini closes his announcement with a challenge to Leoncavallo to each write his own Bohème and let the public be the judge. Then as now, Puccini won.

This episode from Bohème’s genesis speaks to the resonance this subject had in Italy at the end of the nineteenth century. Contemporary taste in opera was shifting from grand tales of mythic heroes and historical monarchs (think Donizetti’s Anna Bolena or Bellini’s Norma for recent productions seen in this theater) to stories concerning the lives and problems of lower class, “ordinary,” people. This Italian realist movement in opera was called verismo, based on a literary movement of the same name. Many critics found verismo’s concerns to be vulgar and undeserving of operatic treatment. Eduard Hanslick, a major music critic at the time, bemoaned that these “wretched” and “dissolute” stories signaled a break with the last “romantic and artistic traditions of opera.”[3] Yet the style boomed in popularity in literature, theatre, and opera. There is a democratizing function to bestowing the tools of high art on the stories of the poor that resonates with the revolutionary character of nineteenth-century Europe.

Some of the power of La Bohème’s particular veristic plot comes from Puccini’s management of suspense and tragic inevitability. The tragedy of La Bohème centers on Mimì and her slow death from tuberculosis, known commonly as consumption or phthisis at the time. The consumptive heroine is a nineteenth-century archetype that would have been familiar to Bohème’s early audiences. Linda and Michael Hutcheon have written about this phenomenon in their book, Opera: Desire, Disease, Death, noting that tuberculosis “is perhaps the perfect operatic disease: it involves the breath—as both inspiration and expiration, as both site of song and locus of disease.”[4] In the earlier part of the century, people commonly believed that moral indiscretion, especially sexual indulgence, made one vulnerable to the disease, and that the disease conferred powers of seduction to women who had it.[5] The ideal of female beauty in the nineteenth century was a consumptive one: extreme thinness, long neck and hands, shining eyes, pale skin, and red cheeks; the secondary symptoms of tuberculosis were thus sexualized when the diseased victim was a woman.

Dante Gabrielli Rosetti, "Head of Elizabeth Siddal"
Dante Gabrielli Rosetti, “Head of Elizabeth Siddal
Reclining on a Pillow,” pencil sketch, ca. 1850-1860
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Mimì is separated from her consumptive operatic forebears, Violetta in La Traviata and Antonia in Les Contes d’Hoffmann, by the discovery, in 1882, of the mycobacterial cause of tuberculosis. This revelation confirmed that the disease was infectious and thrived in poverty conditions; that is, it could be attributed more readily to poor nutrition and inadequate housing, than to sexual expression. Yet despite this improved understanding of the disease, Mimì is still predominantly represented as conventionally consumptive—sexually attractive in part because of her symptomatic physical appearance. When they meet, Rodolfo comments on Mimì’s cold hands, her pale complexion, and her frailty. Bohème presents in Mimì a composite of a century’s worth of cultural obsession and anxiety about tuberculosis. When you get into the theatre, see if you can recognize some of the ways that Puccini and his librettists depict Mimì’s illness as both a disease of the poor, and one that is still fundamentally tied up with ideas about feminine beauty and sexuality.

In addition to the cultural cachet of its story, La Bohème’s music is evocative and accessible, both to its contemporary audiences and to audiences today. One of the great strengths of this score is its atmospheric quality. Puccini creates a musical picture of Paris so striking that even Debussy, who famously disliked Puccini’s school of young Italian composers, reportedly said that he knew of no one who had described the Paris of the 1830s better than Puccini in La Bohème.[6] This interest in slice-of-life local colour is an element of verismo opera in general, but Puccini is particularly good at creating ambience in his orchestral writing. Bohème’s fragmentary storytelling works as well as it does because the different locales of the first three acts are all so vividly reflected by their own musical worlds. To take the opening of the third act as an example here, Puccini captures not just a sense of tranquility as the setting shifts to dawn at the Barrière d’Enfer, but even depicts the falling snow in the high-pitched descending figure in the flute and harp.




This moment may not seem so extraordinary to us now, as a century of film music has modeled itself largely on this kind of impressionistic evocation of scene, but to Puccini’s earliest audiences they would have been quite striking. And today, these sound worlds are relatively easy to hear and interpret even to novices of opera and orchestral music. In the theatre, listen in particular to the opening music of each act, which reinforces the setting we see onstage and sets the mood for the action to come.

            At the time of its premiere, La Bohème’s music was also unusual for the directness and spontaneity of its vocal writing. This was and remains to be music whose meaning is easy to grasp, and whose rhythms mimic the patterns of the speech they set. The opera’s opening scene between the four Bohemians illustrates this musical character immediately. Listen for the way the characters slip in and out of more melodic passages throughout the casual back-and-forth of their conversation.



On this point too, Hanslick was unhappy, lamenting that in Bohème music could not possibly shine as an equal art to the text because it was relegated to set what he called the libretto’s “insatiably garrulous dialogue,” and what I might prefer to call its veristic naturalism.[7] This declamatory style of vocal writing, as you can hear, is quite removed from the ornate, carefully balanced, long-spun melodies of the bel canto style which defined much of Italy’s nineteenth-century opera. Puccini, while certainly a great melodist, leaned heavily on this style of down-to-earth lyric realism. Critics like Hanslick feared that Puccini’s naturalistic approach dragged the high-artistic form of opera into the gutter of everyday life, but Puccini did not abandon opera’s capacity for transcendence. From these casual, jocular, conversational forms arise some of the most beloved soaring themes of the repertory, like this one from Mimì’s first aria. 

            The power of Bohème is in Puccini’s ability to combine the high with the low, the transcendent with the everyday. He elevates the impoverished lives of the poor to the realm of high art, uplifting their joys and sorrows with his most beautiful music in the midst of the mundane. The brief love duet in the first act, “O soave fanciulla,” encapsulates this union of high and low, sublimity and banality. After Rodolfo and Mimì exchange arias, the other Bohemians shout up to Rodolfo from the street on their way to Café Momus to hurry him along. In this excerpt, we will hear the exchange between Rodolfo and his friends offstage before Rodolfo changes gears completely and begins to sing the love duet. The orchestra swells up in a new key, A major, with a familiar theme Rodolfo introduced a few minutes earlier in his aria. Listen for how Rodolfo’s first line in the duet overlaps with one final goad from Marcello on the street.


The duet blossoms into one of the most familiar and beloved musical moments in the entire opera. It is a soaring proclamation of the power of love—and its first bars are punctuated by Marcello’s good-natured sass from offstage. This is a different kind of operatic love than we are used to seeing. The music cues us to take Mimì and Rodolfo’s love very seriously, but not without a sense of humour, and not without an awareness of the realities of the world they live in.

            The recurrence of music from Rodolfo’s aria “Che gelida manina” in the love duet “O soave fanciulla” is a technique that Puccini uses throughout Bohème to great dramatic effect. In this example, the short interval of time between the first and second occurrence of this musical material makes it quite easy to recognize, and makes the duet feel right. The familiarity of the music lets us feel that their love is inevitable, already written, and it is immensely satisfying. Puccini’s use of recurring musical motifs was unfavourably compared to Wagner’s Leitmotivic technique by many of Bohéme’s early critics. Because they had likely just seen Götterdämmerung for the first time earlier the same season, the comparison is understandable, but not helpful. Whereas Wagner’s Leitmotifs act as building blocks for elaborate networks of reference that structure his music dramas, Puccini’s thematic recurrences seem to owe more to the earlier operatic technique of the reminiscence motif. Puccini evokes familiar thematic material for direct dramatic purposes. In Bohéme, when we hear music we recognize from earlier in the opera, we are meant to think back to the moment that originated that music, and the characters often seem to be doing the same. This is nostalgia rendered audible. What I find to be the most powerful use of this technique comes in the scene preceding Mimì’s death. Tonight, try to listen for the themes from the lovers’ first meeting littered throughout the fourth act, representing the ever-present memory of what has been lost, culminating in a direct quotation from the first act love scene on Mimì’s deathbed.

            This is music that invites audience understanding and arouses an emotional response. The negative criticism that has dogged this opera through so much of its history is typically rooted in an expectation that Bohème should be something that it is not. The intense love/hate relationship with Wagner in Italy at the time of Bohème’s premiere, deeply-felt anxiety about what Italian opera should be after the death of Verdi, concerns about encroaching movements of musical modernism and their relationship to the Italian tradition, were all factors that significantly coloured Bohème’s reception. And Puccini’s modernism is still a topic of debate. To quote a recent study on Puccini by Alexandra Wilson, “a long-held cultural distrust of overt, comprehensible artistic sensuality seems to relegate Puccini to the second-class carriage of music history.”[8] I know that I, myself, forget that I like Bohème until I listen to Bohème. I find myself torn between rolling my eyes at its hyperbolic romanticism and shivering with pleasure at my favourite lines of music—between frustration at yet-another-dead-soprano and tears at the incredible sensitivity with which Puccini treats her final moments.

            I would like to close by considering one last element of La Bohème that I believe is involved in its cultural staying power and why I love it even in the moments I am most critical of it. Bohemianism, in the sense that it is presented in La Bohème, emerged in nineteenth-century Europe as a practice of rejecting the “good life” as defined by the bourgeoisie. Bohemians were typically artists and usually impoverished, as they are in this story. This new marginalized class of artists became associated with the Romani people because they tended to live in the same inexpensive low-class neighbourhoods. The Romani in France at this time were incorrectly thought to have come to France from Bohemia in what is now the Czech Republic. So “Bohemian” was mistakenly applied to this new artistic low class due to their proximity to the Romani, who themselves were not even Bohemian. As misleading as this name was, it stuck, and with it a new Bohemia, without borders in time or space, emerged. Historian Jerrold Siegel places Bohemia “at the intersection of life and cultural symbol.”[9] Bohemianism was an escape from the frustrations with the public sphere to focus on private life and individual development.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “The Bohemian,” 1868
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “The Bohemian,” 1868
Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin

            Other prominent Bohemias have emerged in Greenwich Village around World War II, as well as through the Beat movement and Hippiedom of the 1970s. Bohemia has continued in this way to present a haven for artists who may feel the ills of society deeply, but also want space to explore themselves and one another away from the mechanisms of bourgeois capitalist society that they feel so alienated by. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the craze around the musical RENT, loosely based on La Bohème, speaks to the emergence of another Bohemia closer still to home. Jonathan Larson set his adaptation in New York’s Bohemian neighbourhood Alphabet City. The nineteenth-century obsession with consumption that shaped Mimì’s fate is here reimagined in the context of the AIDS crisis. Although La Bohème, like so many of the stories we have about Bohemian life, ends in tragedy, we can still see in Bohemia a powerful image of how we might live differently and on our own terms despite the chaos and confusion of the world around us. The romanticism of Bohemia is tempered by the crass reality of poverty, but as we see in La Bohème, the Bohemians find the beauty in these contrasts. They make them art.

[1] Ruggero Leoncavallo, article reproduced in Arthur Groos and Roger Parker, Giacomo Puccini: La Bohème, Cambridge Opera Handbooks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 32.

[2] Giacomo Puccini, article reproduced in Groos and Parker, La Bohème, 32.

[3] Eduard Hanslick, quoted in Groos and Parker, La Bohème, 133.

[4] Linda Hutcheon and Michael Hutcheon, Opera: Desire, Disease, Death (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1996), 37.

[5] Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978), 13.

[6] Manuel de Falla quoted in Jaime Pahissa, Manuel De Falla, His Life and Works (London: Hyperion Press, 1954).

[7] Hanslick, quoted in Groos and Parker, La Bohème, 134.

[8] Alexandra Wilson, The Puccini Problem: Opera, Nationalism, and Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 1.

[9] William Drabkin, “The Rise of Bohemia,” In Giacomo Puccini: La Bohème, Cambridge Opera Handbooks, ed. Arthur Groos and Roger Parker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 1.

Bibliography

Atlas, Allan W. “Mimì’s Death: Mourning in Puccini and Leoncavallo.” The Journal of Musicology 14, no. 1 (1996): 52-79.

———. “Stealing a Kiss at the Golden Section: Pacing and Proportion in the Act 1 Love Duet of La Bohème.” Acta Musicologica 75, no. 2 (2003): 269-91.

Bianconi, Lorenzo. “Italy (opera).” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online.

Budden, Julian. “Bohème, La(i).” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 

———. “Puccini, Giacomo (opera).” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online.

Groos, Arthur, and Roger Parker. Giacomo Puccini, La bohème. Cambridge Opera Handbooks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Hutcheon, Linda, and Michael Hutcheon. Opera: Desire, Disease, Death. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1996.

Puccini, Giacomo. Letters of Giacomo Puccini: Mainly Connected with the Composition and Production of His Operas. Edited by Giuseppe Adami. Translated by Ena Makin. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1931.

Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978.

Wilson, Alexandra. The Puccini Problem: Opera, Nationalism, and Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.





Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 2010, photo: COC Staff


Christine Goerke as Elektra (at left) in a scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Elektra, 2019. Conductor Johannes Debus, director James Robinson, associate director Omer Ben Seadia, set designer Derek McLane, costume designer Anita Stewart, and lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin. Photo: Michael Cooper

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