Do you love folk songs?
Me too. And I've loved "Danny Boy" for as long as I can remember. When Jacob and I traveled to Ireland, I couldn't get this tune out of my head, so I thought I would share it with all of you. I hope you enjoy it!
Have you heard this song before? Have you ever been to Ireland? Do you have any Irish heritage? Leave it in the comments below!
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I thought I'd try something different this week!
Here's a podcast-style Opera Spotlight, talking about one of my favorite operas, The Magic Flute. Let me know in the comments if you prefer this, or a written out version instead! I wanted to make this as easy as possible for you to listen to, so I've uploaded this as an audio file as well as on YouTube. I've included a transcription below, just in case that's what you'd prefer:
Hello beautiful ladies and gents, and welcome to Classically Abby. Today we will be doing an opera spotlight on Mozart’s The Magic Flute, or Die Zauberflote. Now, the Magic Flute is actually a Singspiele, which means that the dialogue is spoken. It’s more similar to a modern-day musical! But we’ll call it an opera for ease of understanding. I chose The Magic Flute because it’s a great introduction to opera for children and adults alike. The fairy tale is magical and follows a prince and princess, and the music is truly stunning. Now, The Magic Flute was written right at the end of Mozart’s life, and at this point he had truly mastered his techniques and embraced the things that made him so unique as a composer. If you’ve ever seen the movie Amadeus, you may remember that Mozart had to fight to compose in German – operatic composers of the time for the most part wrote in Italian and French, since German was considered an inelegant language to sing in. Mozart embraced his mother tongue and chose to write a few of his operas in German – this happens to be the most well-known.
As well, the story is filled with Masonic imagery. Mozart was a Mason and the librettist was too. Now, let's get to the crux of the opera – the music. The opera literally spans the vocal range by having Sarastro, a bass, which is the lowest voice type, and the Queen of the Night, a coloratura soprano, the highest voice type, sing at the very edge of their ranges. It’s very impressive to listen to!
We’ll be listening to the 1990 recording of The Magic Flute featuring Kiri Te Kanawa, Cheryl Studer, and Francisco Araiza and conducted by Sir Neville Mariner. I chose this recording for a few reasons. The first is that I grew up on this recording – I used to beg my father to let me listen to it in the car! The second is that the performances by the singers are truly masterful, and the conducting is fantastic. Kiri Te Kanawa is one of the most famous sopranos who ever lived, and for good reason. She sings with a beautiful tone and sensitivity. Sir Neville Mariner is acclaimed for his opera conducting, and he deserves it. The musicality he elicits from the orchestra and the singers is second to none.
So let’s get into the plot and hear some excerpts! To follow along and hear the full recording, head over to my Spotify and follow the Opera Spotlight: The Magic Flute playlist.
We begin with the overture. Mozart’s overtures are some of the most beautiful ever written, and this is no exception. Keep an ear out for the three chords at the beginning of the overture that mimic the masonic initiation ceremony, which begins with a person knocking three times for admittance! Excerpt 1.
The opera opens in the middle of the action. A young prince named Tamino is being chased by a giant serpent and faints in fright. At the moment that the monster is about to eat him, three young women, the attendants of the Queen of the Night, kill the serpent and save his life. After seeing how handsome he is, they each want him for themselves, but the three agree to depart.
When Tamino awakens, he sees what looks like a man-bird! It’s Papageno the bird-catcher, and he despairs that he has yet to find a wife. When Tamino asks if Papageno was the one who killed the serpent, Papageno takes the credit. At that moment, the three young women reappear and chide Papageno for lying. They put a padlock on his mouth, which causes a rather hysterical musical moment as Papageno hums his way through the music, and give Tamino a picture of a young princess named Pamina. Tamino instantly falls in love with her. It is then that he sings his aria, and one of the hardest arias for tenors in the repertoire. It is high and yet must be sung with sensitivity, which is always difficult. But Mozart illustrates the ecstasy of young love so beautifully here. Here it is. Excerpt 2.
It is then that the Queen of the Night appears. She tells Tamino that Pamina, her daughter, has been taken captive by Sarastro, and that if Tamino saves her, he will have Pamina as his wife. Tamino eagerly agrees. The three young women remove the padlock from Papageno, telling him he must not lie, and give the two men gifts to protect them along their travels: a magic flute for Tamino that will turn sorrow to joy, and a set of magic bells for protection.
We then cut to the palace of Sarastro, where Pamina had tried to escape. Monastatos, Sarastro’s minion, is singing creepily to her when Papageno appears. The two men are terrified of each other, and Monastatos runs away, leaving Papageno alone with Pamina. Papageno tells Pamina that he and Tamino are there to rescue her, and that Tamino has fallen in love with her. After Pamina reassures Papageno that he will find a partner as well, they share a duet, which is our next excerpt. The duet tells of the happiness and duty of married life, and is beautiful in its simplicity. Excerpt 3.
In the next scene, Tamino is led by three spirits to Sarastro’s temple, where he is denied entry on the left and right sides, but is allowed in by one of Sarastro’s priests through the middle door. There he learns that Sarastro is not evil - in fact, the Queen of the Night is. Pamina has been rescued from the clutches of her mother, and all will be revealed if Tamino opens his mind and heart.
Meanwhile, Papageno and Pamina are recaptured by Monastatos and his men. Papageno plays his bells, and the men all dance happily away. But Sarastro and his retinue are close by and there’s no way for Pamina and Papageno to escape. Pamina asks Sarastro’s forgiveness and says she ran away because Monastatos was making sexual advances. Sarastro tells her he only wants her to be happy, just as Tamino enters the stage having been captured by Monastatos. Instead of getting the reward he had hoped for, Sarastro sends Monastatos away for his lustful behavior.
He then tells Tamino that in order for him to be worthy of marrying Pamina, he must undergo several trials of wisdom – another reference to Masonic imagery, perhaps?
We have now come to the second act. It begins with a prayer: Sarastro prays to Isis and Osiris, asking them to guide Tamino and Pamina along their trials. I chose this excerpt just to show you how truly low basses voices are! And this aria shows off those deep notes better than anything. Excerpt 4.
Tamino and Papageno are now led into the first trial – the trial of silence. They are tested when the three young attendants of the Queen of the Night reappear and try to make them speak, but Tamino will not budge. Of course, Papageno, ever the comedic relief, gives in and begins speaking with them!
As this happens, Pamina sleeps while Monastatos creeps over her. Just as he’s about to make his move, the Queen of the Night appears. He hides behind a curtain as the Queen of the Night asks Pamina what she’s doing. When Pamina reveals that Tamino is joining Sarastro’s brotherhood, the Queen of the Night is furious. She gives Pamina a dagger with which to kill Sarastro and threatens to disown her if she doesn’t complete her mission. This is probably the most well-known aria in the opera. Why, you may ask? Because the Queen has to sing so high and so accurately! It’s truly astounding. Excerpt 5.
After the Queen leaves, Monastatos reappears and threatens to tell Sarastro of Pamina’s betrayal unless she gives in to his advances. Sarastro enters in the nick of time and chases Monastatos away – Pamina apologizes to Sarastro for her mother’s behavior and asks him not to take revenge. Sarastro responds by saying that anger and hatred have no place in his temple.
As we return to Tamino and Papageno, they are reminded that they must remain silent. When Papageno complains that he is thirsty, an old lady appears and gives him water. He teasingly asks if she has a boyfriend, and she responds, “Yes. And his name is Papageno!” then disappears. Tamino then plays his magic flute and Pamina appears. Since Pamina doesn’t know that Tamino has been sworn to silence, when Tamino won’t speak to her, she believes he loves her no longer. She then sings this next excerpt. The accompaniment is so sparse and almost sounds like a heartbeat because she’s alone and in pain. Excerpt 6.
Later, the old lady reappears to Papageno. She makes him promise to marry her, and when he does, albeit reticently, she turns into a beautiful young woman. When he tries to embrace her, the priests of Sarastro’s brotherhood hold him back, telling him he’s not yet worthy of her.
Now, do you remember the three spirits who led Tamino to the temple a while back? They return and see Pamina suicidal as she believes that Tamino no longer loves her. They reassure her of his love, and Pamina accompanies Tamino into the final trials of fire and water. By playing his magic flute, the two are protected and pass the trials!
Meanwhile, Pamina is not the only one contemplating suicide! Papageno can’t find his young woman, and he wants to kill himself. Fortunately, the three spirits stop him from accomplishing his goal and bring the young woman to him – a woman who just so happens to be named PapageNA! The two sing this next duet, discussing the hundreds of kids they want to have and how they’ll all be named either Papageno or Papagena. It’s very cute and rather funny, too. Excerpt 7.
But what about the Queen of the Night and Monastatos? Well, they have returned to destroy Sarastro’s temple, and the Queen of the Night has promised Pamina to Monastatos in return for his help. But they are magically destroyed when they try to enter the temple!
As the sun rises, Sarastro declares that light has won over darkness. And that’s the end of the opera!
Now you have some context before going to a production of the Magic Flute! Did you enjoy this podcast-style Opera Spotlight? Have you heard the Magic Flute before? What’s your favorite Mozart Opera? Let me know in the comments on my blog post. You can always follow me on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube at Classically Abby. And thanks for listening!
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As you guys may have known, I sang in a concert last week and had the best time.
One of the arias I sang is called, "Ain't it a pretty night!" by Carlisle Floyd. It's from an opera he composed called Susannah, which was written in 1955. The story is incredibly moving and tragic, and Floyd's use of color, composition, and foreshadowing is truly masterful. In the story, which is based off the Apocryphal story of Susannah and the elders, Susannah, a young woman in a small mountain town in Tennessee, becomes the target of the town's hatred and anger when her youthful beauty attracts attention.
Through the duration of the opera, we see Susannah go from a kind, light-hearted young woman to a woman destroyed by others hate and condemnation for sins she never committed. She sings this right near the beginning of the opera. She went to the town square dance, had a lovely time, and is now enjoying looking at the stars with her friend, Little Bat. She sings of her hopes and dreams, of her love of where she comes from even as she hopes to explore the outside world. That is what makes this aria so striking and so tragic - we, as the audience, knowing that her life will soon be destroyed, see her innocent and happy before all of this destruction comes her way. It's really painful to watch. She sings of her hopes for the future, of her excitement to see the world - and we know that none of it will come to fruition.
It's an interesting aria to sing for this very reason. As the actress, I know what is coming and why this aria is so sad. As the character, I have no idea. It's a fine balancing act, letting the audience know what to expect but not giving that away to the character I'm portraying.
Singing this aria made me think. There's a reason that we don't know what will happen to us in the future. In many ways, it's a gift. We don't know if the things we long for will come true; we don't know if the things we're enjoying now will last. And if we did know the future, we wouldn't be able to bask in our current happiness.
What do you think? Did you like this aria? Let me know in the comments below!
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Have you heard this aria before?
It's pretty famous at this point. And for good reason! I mean, the music is simply beautiful. But what always cracks me up about this aria is how everyone listens to it and thinks - wow, this must be really meaningful and deep. In reality, this aria is a young woman manipulating her father to get what she wants. Daddy dearest, may I PLEASE marry this boy I'm in love with? Or else I will simply THROW myself in the Arno river!
In the opera, Gianni Schicchi, a man with that name has a daughter named Lauretta. Lauretta is in love with a young man named Rinuccio. As is often the case in opera, they are of different social standings - he comes from a wealthier family, while she does not. When Rinuccio's family tries to throw Schicchi and Lauretta out of the house, Schicchi declares he will have nothing else to do with them. In a panic, Lauretta begs her father, in this aria, to reconsider and help them in their predicament.
Now, Lauretta is 21 and in many ways, she's still young. She's still living with her father, as unmarried women of the time were wont to do, and she is a daddy's girl. She knows how to get what she wants. She's the only child of a widower. So when she sings this aria, she knows exactly what she needs to say to get her father on her side. She knows that saying that all she wants is a ring will make her seem sweet and child-like. She knows that promising to throw herself in the river is a threat that her father would never want to see come to fruition.
Now, does this make her any less in love with Rinuccio? Absolutely not! But it does mean there's a tinge of comedy to the whole endeavor, because she is truly trying to convince her "daddy" to let her marry this young man. And Giacomo Puccini, the composer of this opera, plays into this by pulling on every listener's heartstrings! We all hear this aria and assume that it is entirely honest and heartfelt. The long, sweeping lines, the high notes and the deeper notes - it's all a ploy to make us, as listeners, and Gianni Schicchi, as her father, fall prey to her wants.
All of a sudden, Lauretta is more layered - she's not simply a young ingenue. She's a girl. A real girl. A girl who knows how to manipulate. And that is a lot more fun to watch from the audience, or to act and sing from the stage.
What do you think? Did you know this aria before now? Let me know down in the comments!
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Welcome to the first in my Opera Spotlight series!
I decided to start this series to give novices and experts alike all the tools they would need to watch or listen to a specific opera, either for the first time or as an old favorite. I tend to think that going to a new opera with some sort of preparation will give you a better shot of enjoying it than going in blind. One tip I generally give opera-goers is that before you go, listen to about ten excerpts so that when you hear them, you recognize them! Think about going to a rock concert: we all love when the band chooses an old classic that's one of our favorites. The same applies to any familiarity you have with a piece of music.
So let's get started!
Why I chose THIS opera
I wanted to begin with Carmen for a few reasons. Carmen, written by Georges Bizet, is one of my absolute favorite operas. It has drama, intrigue, and, of course, beautiful music. In fact, you probably know about three or four of the tunes from this just from commercials or cartoons! As well, this is a really great starter opera. The story is exciting, the characters are real, the sets are usually beautiful, and the music is truly spectacular.
Why I chose THIS recording
As I wrote in "A Beginner's Guide to Singers Playlist," Maria Callas is someone that you simply have to know if you're interested in opera. She may not have the most beautiful voice, but boy, is she exciting. Opera, as an art form, was meant to be watched, not listened to, but if you're going to listen to Carmen, Callas will show you exactly what is happening with the way she sings, articulates her words, and spits out text. She is one of the few singers who acts with her voice, not just with her body, face, or eyebrows!
Carmen is one of the meatiest characters in all of opera. She knows what she wants, and fate is her god. It's fascinating to watch, listen to, and especially sing. Which is why Callas asked to record the role! Carmen is actually a part written for a lower female voice, a mezzo-soprano. Maria Callas is a soprano, but she wanted to sing the role, and she was famous enough that they let her record it!
The plot AND the excerpts
Now, every opera begins with an overture, and that is the first excerpt I chose to include. What's an overture? An overture is the opening piece of music that establishes the feel of the opera, as well as many of the themes that will appear throughout.
Carmen begins with an overture that is exciting - cymbals immediately wake you up and get your heart thumping! The opening theme is the same that returns to represent the toreador and bull-fighting. Because Carmen happens in Seville, there's a Spanish flourish to the music. Bizet is an incredible story teller, so he wants to begin the opera with something that will truly excite you.
The curtain rises on ACT I to reveal the stage bustling with activity. We're in a town square, and the soldiers are waiting for the changing of the guard. As they wait, a young woman appears onstage - her name is Micaëla and she is looking for one of the soldiers, a man named Don José. They know each other from the village that they grew up together in. He isn't there, and she departs.
Don José then appears onstage as the factory bell rings - it's time for the women who work in the cigarette factory to take their break. This brings us to excerpt two. The men like to watch the women on their break and the women like to flirt with them. I included this excerpt here because the orchestra so beautifully imitates the rising of smoke from a cigarette as the women take their smoking break. You'll get a chance to hear the men's chorus and then the women's. The men then decry - "But where is our little Carmen?" She's their favorite to ogle at and flirt with.
This then leads into the third excerpt and the most famous aria from the opera. Do you recognize it yet? This is known fondly as the Habanera, and it is Carmen's entrance aria. I included this in my "Beginner's Guide to Opera Playlist," so you can head over there to read the lyrics and the musical description of it. Essentially, Carmen encapsulates her theory of love in this way: "If you don't love me, I love you. And if I love you, beware!" She then throws a rose and marks out her next target: Don José.
As the women file back into the factory, Micaëla returns and gives José a letter from his mother. In it, his mother asks him to return home and marry Micaëla. As he decides to follow his mother's wishes, the cigarette factory suddenly empties as it turns out that Carmen has attacked one of the other girls. She is promptly arrested and José is given control of her.
We then come to excerpt four, where Carmen is under José's care. She begins to sing to herself and beguiles him into untying her hands with promises of nights of dancing and passion at Lillas Pastia's tavern when he frees her. She has fallen in love with him, and he has fallen under her spell. This is another incredibly famous aria, and as Carmen seduces José, you can hear his desperation. Her power is so strong, he is already beginning to slip. Another interesting thing about this excerpt is that she is singing in the world of the opera! Everything in opera is supposed to be understood as being spoken, but in this aria she's supposed to be singing in the world of the opera. Does that make sense? It's a little tricky to explain!
Carmen then pushes José to the ground and escapes, and he is arrested for dereliction of duty.
We now come to ACT II and excerpt five.
Two months have passed. The curtain rises to reveal Lillas Pastia's tavern that Carmen had mentioned. We hear Carmen and her two gypsy friends entertaining the soldiers and the patrons of the establishment. Each verse gets faster and faster and by the end, even the audience is breathless! Again, we see Carmen in her element: sexual, entertaining, and exciting.
She then finds out that José has been released from prison and is coming to the tavern to see her. She is excited but is interrupted in her excitement by excerpt six and the appearance of the toreador! You've gotta know this one. I addressed this as well in my "Beginner's Guide to Opera Playlist," and the toreador is as much an entertainer as Carmen is. He immediately flirts with her but she brushes him off.
As the tavern empties, Carmen and her band of gypsies discuss a smuggling project, but she chooses not to join them and instead waits for José's arrival. They leave and José appears. Carmen gives him a private dance, but grows angry when he tells her he must return to the barracks as he's still a soldier. Accusing him of not loving her enough to join her and the gypsies, José protests. Excerpt seven begins with another famous theme from Carmen that sounds a lot like Aladdin, for those who catch it! It's the fate theme, and it usually means something bad is coming around the bend.
José shows Carmen the flower she threw at him the first day they met and how he has kept it with him since then. Unconvinced, Carmen still protests that he doesn't love her, but when one of José's superior officers comes into the tavern to flirt with Carmen, José fights him. The smugglers return and tie up the superior officer, and José realizes he must now desert and flee with Carmen and the gypsies into the mountains.
In ACT III, we see the smugglers working their way through the mountains. Carmen has lost interest in José - he is not a smuggler and never was one. She sits with two of her friends, and in excerpt eight they tell their fortunes through the cards. The two friends laugh jokingly at their fortunes - this one will marry a rich old man, the other will find a passionate lover. But Carmen - Carmen hears the fate theme and she turns over the cards to reveal that she and José will die!
As the stage clears, Micaëla enters, having asked a guide to bring her up into the mountains. She is there to find and bring home José. In excerpt nine, she prays to God that He protect her and give her strength to help her save José from the clutches of Carmen. Listen to how different her music sounds from all of Carmen's! It's not sensual - it has a profound seriousness and intensity in her belief in God. There's a repeating figure in the accompaniment as she bolsters her strength and takes comfort in the presence of God when no one else is around.
Micaëla then hides as she hears a gunshot ring out. José is on watch and heard someone coming up - it's the toreador, here to pursue Carmen. When José realizes this, they fight but are interrupted when the smugglers return to the stage. The toreador declares his love for Carmen, who shows interest, but leaves at the behest of the group and José. As he does, he invites all of the gypsies to his next bullfight.
All of a sudden, one of the smugglers discovers Micaëla. She tells José that his mother is dying, and he leaves with her, vowing that he will return.
And we've reached the final act! Act IV begins as everyone files in to see the toreador's bullfight! As the toreador enters, Carmen is upon his arm - they sing to each other of their love. As they're about to enter, Carmen sees José and chooses to stay outside. And this is the final excerpt - the entirety of their argument. José is still in love with her - he begs her to return to him. She responds that she would never. He says that she must, or he will kill her and she screams that she would rather die. Throwing a ring that he gave her in his face, she spits, "Tien!" which means, "There!" Listen for this in the recording - Callas' delivery is chilling. Truly. José stabs her and holds her in his arms, saying that he killed the one whom he adored.
And that's the end. It's an amazing opera.
And now you're equipped to go see it live or watch it here! Are you interested? Do you think you'll see it, if you can? Let me know down below!
*Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links, which means I may receive a commission if you click on a link and purchase something. Thank you for your support!
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Have you ever read the book "The Secret Garden?"
It's a really lovely story, more geared toward children, but nevertheless moving. Lucy Simon must have thought so too, because she put pen to paper and wrote the music for the musical adaptation. Lucy Simon is Carly Simon's sister and a fantastic songwriter. I've never seen the musical, but I listened to the recording all the time growing up - my sister and I would even put on a two-woman show and play all the characters and sing all the songs together. It was a blast.
The story, though, is not a light-hearted one for the most part. In this song, Lily's ghost, a woman who passed away years ago, sings to her still-living husband about her love for him and why she still feels guilty for having left him alone. As he is a hunchback, the fact that a woman as beautiful and charming as Lily could love him was unbelievable; when she died, he lost everything, including his confidence in himself.
Singing this is not easy; vocally, it isn't too difficult, but emotionally it's hard not to imagine speaking to my own husband if, God forbid, something were to happen to me. The reason this song is so affecting is because we don't often imagine the pain of the person who passed away, who sees the world from beyond and hopes that everyone is well. There's a reason that the play "Our Town" is so emotional - it's a similar situation.
The way that Lucy Simon writes this song is brilliant because she begins with almost nothing happening underneath Lily's melody; it isn't until she addresses her husband directly, saying that she feels his pain and can't ask him to move on but that he has to do it himself, that the full orchestra comes in to support her voice. That's exactly when Lily would need the support of the orchestra. Then, as she asks for his forgiveness, the vocal line gets higher, which sounds more like she's pleading with him. She wants him to move on.
What do you think of this song? Have you heard of this musical? Let me know in the comments!
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So you've just started listening to opera. You began with the beginner's guide to opera playlist, and now you want to know WHO you're listening to.
I've got you covered.
Here's a list of some of the biggest names in opera, and each of them are held up as an example to young opera singers for their own unique reason. Let's get started!
1. Maria Callas - You can't really talk about opera without talking about Maria Callas, at least in my opinion. She is known as one of the great actresses of her time, and she has earned that reputation. In opera, there's a style of staging we jokingly call "Park and Bark," where a singer will just plant herself onstage and not move till the end of her aria. Maria Callas would NEVER have done that. She cared too much about the story and her character. You can hear it in her singing. Although she wasn't known for the beauty of her voice (in fact, many people openly said it was an ugly sound), the expressiveness in her singing is incredible. As an audience member, you're on the edge of your seat listening to her. She was also fascinating as a person: opera was her life, and she knew it. She was dramatic, unpredictable, and mesmerizing.
2. Joan Sutherland - On the other end of the spectrum we have Joan Sutherland. Sutherland's voice is simply beautiful - it's really hard to argue with that, even as a subjective statement. But she was the epitome of "Park and Bark" - for her, opera was about the voice, and it pretty much ended with that. She was incredibly consistent. As a singer, she is commendable for her technique - she sings flawlessly and knew exactly how to use her voice. As an actress...well, that's a different story. Listen to how easily her voice seems to move - it seems as if she really had no struggles at all, and making opera singing sound easy is a true feat.
3. Janet Baker - Janet Baker is an English mezzo-soprano (a lower voice than soprano) who was also known as a singing-actress. What I love about her, though, is the color of her voice. I chose a song for this playlist rather than an aria so you could truly hear her voice - it's strong but soft, colorful but piercing.
4. Samuel Ramey - I love Sam Ramey! The first time I saw him in a performance was in the Met's production of Don Giovanni. My father had bought the DVD recording and showed it to us when I was about twelve, and I think I just about fell in love with him after hearing his beautiful bass voice. He is charming, fun, and his voice is stunning. Because Don Giovanni can be sung by a bass (the lowest male voice type) or a bass-baritone (second lowest), hearing it sung by a bass is really exciting because the voice sounds rounder as it gets into the lower ranges.
5. Bryn Terfel - Another bass! One of the things that humans find exciting is seeing the absolute limits that the human body can reach, so hearing the extremes of the human voice can be breathtaking. We often get distracted by the highest notes, but hearing the lowest notes in a bass' range is as, if not more, shiver-inducing. Bryn Terfel is one of those basses whose voices is intoxicating. If you like musical theater, he also performed the role of Sweeney Todd! I chose his rendition of Shenandoah for this playlist because, one, I love this song, and two, his version is one of my favorites. He has such a soulful voice and I love the way he spans the notes.
6. Luciano Pavarotti - If you haven't heard of Pavarotti, get ready! Pavarotti is probably the most famous opera singer of all time, and for good reason. His voice shimmers and he sings with precision, fluidity, and beauty. In a way, he's very much Joan Sutherland's equivalent - he would "Park and Bark." In spite of that, though, he really is the epitome of an operatic tenor.
7. Anna Netrebko - Anna Netrebko has been at the top of her field for about fifteen years now, and as her voice has changed, she's confidently moved from role to role. When she burst onto the scene, she was stunningly beautiful and could portray the part of the ingenue with finesse. It's interesting to see how she has navigated different operas as her voice has gotten heavier. My favorite recordings of her, though, would have to be when she was young and singing coloratura roles (music where there are a lot of notes that move very quickly).
8. Elīna Garanča - Another present-day singer, Garanča is an incredibly talented mezzo-soprano. She has flawless technique which allows her to sing with ease, and she's exciting to watch onstage as well. She is a truly well-rounded opera singer, and she's gorgeous to boot.
9. Renee Fleming - Fleming is the most famous soprano of our time. I actually sang for her in a masterclass about two years ago, which was really cool! She sang the national anthem at the Superbowl a few years ago, sang on the soundtrack of Lord of the Rings, and has starred on Broadway as well as at the Met. As she's gotten older, she's taken a few more liberties with her singing that I personally don't really like, (sliding around the note instead of being precise), but in her prime, her voice was stunning.
10. Plácido Domingo - Plácido Domingo was the third of the three tenors, and although he has less fame in the wider world than Pavarotti, Domingo is probably the most famous tenor-turned-baritone in the operatic world. (He became a baritone as he aged, and he's still performing at the age of 78.). As Pavarotti is to Sutherland, Domingo is to Callas - he is known for his acting and embodying his characters as he sings with power on the stage. I chose one of his most famous roles for this playlist - the opera I Pagliacci (The Clowns) is a wonderful vehicle for any great tenor.
Did know you know any of these singers? Who did I leave off the list? Let me know in the comments!
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Does a sleepwalking opera sound crazy to you?
It did to me when I first heard about it! La sonnambula, or The Sleepwalker, by Vincenzo Bellini, begins with the celebration of the engagement of Amina and Elvino. Over the course of the opera, Amina wanders into another man's room while she is sleepwalking and falls asleep on his couch. Believing her unfaithful, Elvino breaks the engagement, not believing that she is a sleepwalker. Not until she is walking precariously across the unstable mill bridge asleep does Elvino realize his error, and the two are reunited (...as soon as she wakes up).
This is an opera written in the bel canto style, which means beautiful singing. The accompaniment is simple and allows for the singer to embellish the written melody in any way he/she wants to. The text is usually repetitive and gives the singer room to imbue a different subtext to the same words. It's really freeing, as a singer, to have so much flexibility in your interpretation of an aria!
This aria is sung by Amina while she is crossing the bridge, right at the end of the opera. Asleep, she is mourning the loss of Elvino's love. It's interesting that Amina is actually sleeping while she sings this. It made me wonder how I, as an actress, could show her distress while also conveying her sleeping state. When taken out of context and sung as a stand-alone aria, I don't think it makes sense to sing this in a dream-like way - rather, embrace the sentiment and the words and actually mourn the loss of love.
So how can we relate to this? This seems like such an absurd plotline, but in fact, it's not. Many times in relationships, there is turbulence based on misunderstanding. Elvino doesn't know the whole story, and to be fair, neither does Amina! Amina doesn't know that she sleepwalks, so she can't really correct Elvino's mistake.
Amina is in pain because her fiance broke up with her and it's all over a misunderstanding. I think putting the emotions in a more modern context makes it easier for us to understand and relate to. And that's all that's happening here. Think about how human she is: even in her darkest moment, she looks at the flowers she holds in her hands and distracts herself for a moment with the idea that she could revive them. Then she immediately remembers that she can't revive Elvino's love for her.
I mean, it doesn't get more relatable than that.
Do you like this aria? Have you heard it before? Let me know in the comments!
Opera. A word that conjures up different images for different people and encompasses a whole lot in just a few syllables.
But here's the thing about opera. If you haven't been raised on it, you don't know where to start. And if you start in the wrong place, it's easy to become deterred forever. A simple example: if the average person listens to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, he'll probably run screaming for the hills. Or at least fall asleep. The opera is approximately four hours long, and even though there are some beautiful moments, it's helpful to understand some structures of music theory to really appreciate the opera as a whole. (Although, to be honest, I'm not a Wagner fan for many reasons, not the least of which was his horrible anti-Semitism.)
So I've put together a Beginner's Guide to Opera. I think opera is so incredible, and with a helping hand, it can be a lot of fun to learn about and to enjoy. But first, let me answer a few questions regarding opera.
Why do your voices shake so much? Opera is one of the few art forms where we don't use microphones. In 2,500-seat houses, we have to sing resonantly enough to be heard at the very back of the auditorium with a full orchestra behind us and no amplification. One of the things that allows our voices to carry is something called vibrato. Vibrato is the shaking sound you hear, and it's what allows a singer's larynx to move with flexibility as well as helps the voice carry resonantly. In addition, vibrato is something that sounds much better in person - recordings don't ever do voices justice.
Why is everything so dramatic? - The same reason that we watch movie and TV shows where dramatic things happen all the time! Opera takes every day life and magnifies it so that we can see the most extreme of emotions play out in front of us.
Why are operas so long? - Because opera uses music as its language to convey emotions, drama, and suspense, things take longer to build. As well, each aria (song) gives the character time to process their emotions in almost what would be real time, and gives the audience the opportunity to process those emotions along with the character.
Follow me on Spotify to find this playlist here, and you'll be able to follow along with me as I discuss each piece and why I chose it. Don't be surprised if you've heard many of these arias before - they've become standard in commericals, movies, and TV shows!
1. Nessun dorma! - You've heard this aria before, but you've probably never thought twice about it. It's a stunning piece written by Puccini for his last opera, Turandot. In the opera, Turandot, a princess who has challenged any man who wishes to marry her to answer three riddles correctly or risk being beheaded, has met her match in Calaf, a prince of a fallen dynasty who has answered her riddles correctly. Calaf has fallen in love with Turandot, but she doesn't ever want to be married, and so Calaf has presented her with a response: if she can discover his name before dawn, then she can kill him. "Nessun dorma" is the song he sings that night, certain she will not discover his name and that he will have victory. Here are the lyrics:
None shall sleep! None shall sleep!
Not even you, oh Princess,
in your cold bedroom,
watching the stars
that tremble with love and with hope!
But my secret is hidden within me;
no one will know my name!
No, no! On your mouth
I will say it when the light shines!
Vanish, o night!
Fade, you stars!
Fade, you stars!
At dawn, I will win!
I will win! I will win!
Luciano Pavarotti made this aria famous because he sings it so effortlessly, and let me tell you folks, this aria is not easy. Listen to the rising of the violins at the beginning, rising in hope. But everything is calm and steady in the accompaniment at the beginning reflecting the night sky and the calmness that Calaf himself feels that he will win Turandot's heart and hand. It isn't until we get to the second verse that the accompaniment takes on a new tone and doubles the melody with more colors. The anticipation builds until the last moment: I will win!
2. Sull'aria - If you've seen the Shawshank Redemption you've heard this one before! This is a duet from the opera The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I sang an aria from this a few week's ago, and you can see that video here. This duet is one of the most beautiful pieces ever written, but the subject matter is more than just a discussion of beauty.
In the story, the Countess' husband has been pursuing her maid, Susanna. In order to catch her husband out and plot against him, the Countess has devised a plan: she'll have Susanna write the Count a letter, telling him to meet her in the forest that night. Instead, the Countess will be waiting there in disguise. The duet is the Countess dictating what Susanna should write in her letter. Here's the translation:
On the breeze
What a gentle little zephir
This evening will sigh
Under the pines in the little grove.
And the rest he’ll understand
Certainly, certainly he’ll understand.
(h/t Lyrics Translate)
When the notes of a chord are played in succession, that's called an arpeggio, and Mozart writes arpeggios for the orchestra to make it sound like a soft breeze. You can also catch the interplay between Susanna and the Countess, as Susanna catches the Countess' drift and they plot and laugh together. But the music itself is so captivating, it's like accidentally picking your favorite flavor out of a chocolate box: an unexpected and delicious little morsel in the middle of The Marriage of Figaro.
3. Brindisi from La Traviata - Another absolute classic is the opening from La Traviata, an opera by Giuseppi Verdi. This is the beginning of a tragedy, if you can believe it, given the lightheartedness of this first scene! Verdi introduces us to the two main characters and their views on life in the first ten minutes of the opera - Violetta, who lives only for now, and Alfredo, who wants more. Of course, within a few moments and throughout the opera, it becomes clear that living this material life is, in fact, meaningless and the only true happiness could be found in a serious, loving relationship. But Verdi's brindisi is famous because it is so tuneful and truly captures the intoxication of a lively party filled with libations. And from the beginning, the audience knows the chemistry between its two main characters.
4. Toreador Song - This is one of two arias I picked from Carmen, an opera by Georges Bizet that contains so much incredible music it's difficult to narrow it down for this list. Carmen, a gypsy who can seduce basically anyone but cares for no one longer than a moment, has ensnared Don Jose. But the toreador song occurs in the middle of the opera and introduces us to Carmen's second love interest, a bullfighter. This is the entrance of a conqueror, a man who has returned victorious from a bullfight and is pulsing with pride and masculine energy and is looking for love. Here's a portion of the translation:
The arena is full, from top to bottom;
The spectators are losing their minds,
The spectators began a big fracas!
Apostrophes, cries, and uproar grow to a furor!
Because it is a celebration of courage!
It is the celebration of people with heart!
Let’s go, en guard! Let’s go! Let’s go! Ah!
Toreador, en guard! Toreador, Toreador!
And dream away, yes, dream in combat,
That a black eye is watching you,
And that love awaits you,
Toreador, love awaits you!
This is like the entrance song for a UFC fighter or a boxer! This is the Rocky theme, just back in 1875! He's getting his audience hyped up and also doing a little seduction of his own! One of my favorite things Bizet does in this aria is that each time the text builds up to "Toreador!" it pulls back to reflect what's happening in his mind during the bullfight - and inside his mind it's quiet even as the audience screams and yells.
5. O mio babbino caro - Another one you probably know! This aria cracks me up. The music is incredibly tender and beautiful, which is what the composer, Giacomo Puccini (who also composed Turandot) wanted to convey, but with a wink in his eye. Lauretta, the young woman singing this, is telling her father that she'll throw herself into the Arno river if he doesn't let her marry her boyfriend. She's playing Daddy's Little Girl and Puccini pulled one over on the whole world, because everyone takes this out of context and is entirely convinced by the emotionally charged music! Of course, the piece is beautiful and Lauretta is sincere in her words - but it is funny to think of this aria in context.
6. Habanera - Another classic from the incredible opera, Carmen. This is Carmen's introduction to the audience and boy, does she know how to make an entrance. It is interesting to note that she and the toreador are similar in many ways, including the way they are introduced by Bizet. Carmen enters with a rose and a song meant to entice all the men surrounding the cigarette factory, where she works. She then sings:
Love is a rebellious bird
That none can tame,
And it is well in vain that one calls it,
If it suits it to refuse.
Nothing to be done, threat or prayer;
The one talks well, the other is silent,
And it's the other that I prefer;
He said nothing, but he pleases me.
Love! Love! Love! Love!
Love is a gypsy child,
It has never, never known the law;
If you don't love me, I love you;
If I love you, do stand on guard!
If you don't love me,
If you don't love me, I love you
But if I love you,
if I love you, do stand on guard!
The bird you hoped to catch
Beat its wings and flew away.
Love is far, you can wait for it;
You no longer await it, there it is.
All around you, swift, swift,
It comes, goes, then it returns.
You think to hold it fast, it flees you,
You think to flee it, it holds you!
Love! Love! Love! Love!
(h/t Lyrics Translate)
In this description of herself, we immediately learn who she is and who she has targeted as her next victim: Don Jose. She goes on to throw her rose at him, marking him as her prey. The sensual nature of the habanera is completely reflected in the text-setting.
7. Largo al factotum - Ever heard someone sing "Figaro, Figaro, Fiiiiiigaaaaarooooo!" and think, that's opera? This is the aria that's from! The Barber of Seville is a wonderful romantic comedy by Gioachino Rossini. We have two lovers, a count in disguise as a starving artist, and a young woman who has little freedom. Figaro, the barber himself, is the aide to the two lovers, making their pining love a reality. This aria is another entrance aria, like Carmen's or the toreador's, and it defines Figaro in an instant. Here's some of the translation:
All after me, all inquire for me,
Both young and old, mistress and maid:
"My wig here!" – "My beard here!"
"Here, bleed me!!" – "Quick, the note!"
Figaro! Figaro! Figaro! etc.
Oh, what a crowding! Oh, what a fury!
One at a time, please, for charity's sake!
"Hey, Figaro!" – I'm here.
Figaro here, Figaro there,
Figaro up, Figaro down.
Figaro is everywhere and everyone wants him! He is a pro at what he does and he's proud of his work. He's full of himself and is absolutely hilarious!
In the aria itself, there are a few things to notice. It begins with the Figaro offstage - that's why he sounds distant in the recording. Because this is a comedic opera, you'll notice that he sings about a million words a minute, and that's called patter: it's something that audiences thought was hilarious at the time. It has translated into modern musicals as well. Lastly, one of the things that I love about this aria is when Figaro imitates people calling him all over the city - keep an ear out for it!
8. The Barcarolle - This is stunning. I mean, absolutely stunning. A barcarolle is a traditional Venetian song sung by gondoliers, but this duet from the Tales of Hoffman by Jacques Offenbach has become known by that name. The duet opens the third act of the opera and is sung by Hoffman's, the main character, third love interest, the courtesan Giulietta, and his muse, Niklausse. The music is seductive and sensual, and is somewhat sinister as we transition into the final story of the opera:
Lovely night, oh, night of love
Smile upon our joys!
Night much sweeter than the day
Oh beautiful night of love!
Time flies by, and carries away
Our tender caresses for ever!
Time flies far from this happy oasis
And does not return
Embrace us with your caresses!
Give us your kisses!
(h/t Lyrics Translate)
Imagine the skies of Venice as you're floating in a gondola while you listen to this, and I think you'll understand what Offenbach was trying to convey. Since Giulietta is ultimately going to betray Hoffman, there is a calmness in the regular rhythm of the accompaniment that seems meant to calm, as if to lull Hoffman into a false sense of safety.
9. Pur ti miro - This is an aria from one of the first operas ever written! The Coronation of Poppea, or L'incoronazione di Poppea, by Claudio Monteverdi, was premiered in 1642 and it was the first opera to be based on history rather than myth. It tells the story of Emperor Nero and his affair with Poppea even as he was married to Octavia. It's amazing to hear the difference between the earliest operas and what we would consider standards in the operatic repertoire as of now. Many of the instruments we think of now as being integral to an orchestra hadn't been invented yet, or were in very different forms than we see now. That's why the accompaniment is so limited!
This is the last duet in the opera, after Nero and Poppea have finally rid themselves of everyone in their way and Poppea is crowned empress. The story is oddly immoral, as the "winners" of the piece have destroyed everything in their way in order to be with one another. The clashing of certain intervals in the voices (which is called dissonance) is utilized here, even in a love duet, to show the underlying evil of the two characters who have pursued their lust and love.
Another thing to note is that even though it sounds like two women are singing, one of those voices is actually a man. One of the voice types in opera is called countertenor, which is a man who is trained to sing in his falsetto. Originally in the operatic world we had castrati, men who were castrated as young boys to retain the beauty of their young voices. Of course, this practice was ended a little over a hundred years ago but had tapered off long before that. Now, we have countertenors who are simply men who can access that part of their voices with training.
10. Vissi d'arte - Another Puccini opera and aria? You bet! This aria is from the opera Tosca which is absolutely incredible. It is one of the most dramatic operas ever composed. Puccini was so concerned with the construction of this opera as a dramatic piece that he almost cut this aria from the opera because he thought it slowed down the action. Thank goodness he didn't, since it's one of the most beautiful arias ever composed!
In the opera, Tosca, an operatic diva, has been put in a terrifying position. Her lover is being tortured by the evil Scarpia, and Scarpia has told her that he will release her love if she sleeps with him. She turns to God and sings:
I lived for art, I lived for love,
I never harmed a living soul!
With a discreet hand
I relieved all misfortunes I encountered.
Always with sincere faith
rose to the holy tabernacles.
Always with sincere faith
I decorated the altars with flowers.
In this hour of grief,
why, why, Lord,
why do you reward me thus?
I donated jewels to the Madonna's mantle,
and offered songs to the stars and to heaven,
which thus did shine with more beauty.
In this hour of grief,
why, why, Lord,
ah, why do you reward me thus?
These words are so powerful in the moment of her despair, and Puccini sets them beautifully. It's all a cry of grief, of pain. It starts off with disbelief, slowly as she processes the information, and then suddenly, a cry to God. All of a sudden, the orchestra takes on the melody. I love that the orchestra is doing something totally different than what she's singing - there's no support in it, but everything is in the same vein of pain.
The singer in this recording is Maria Callas, who you also heard sing the Habanera. She was one of the most famous opera singers who ever lived, and for good reason. She was an incredible actress and known for making operatic characters feel real. She also happened to be beautiful. Listen for the way she uses the words to express her meaning.
What did you think of this playlist? Are there any arias I left out that you think I should put in my next one? Let me know in the comments!
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