World of Opera

Sundays, 12:30- 4:00pm
Lisa Simeone

World of Opera with host Lisa Simeone brings listeners compelling performances from top American and international opera companies. World of Opera encompasses the seminal operas of centuries past as well as today's masterpieces.

World of Opera is a production of WDAV Classical Public Radio, a service of Davidson College.

Composer ID: 


  • Wednesday, September 24, 2014 10:37am

    Nina Stemme
    If someone mentioned a single, dramatic episode that has inspired music ranging from heavy metal, to Australian didgeridoo music, to a groundbreaking opera, what would you guess it would be? At least one answer would be the Dance of the Seven Veils, the legendary incident that highlights this week's opera -- Salome, by Richard Strauss.

    The tale has its roots in the bible, in the events surrounding the execution of John the Baptist. In the biblical version of the story, John has been imprisoned after denouncing the marriage of King Herod to Herodias, the wife of his dead brother. Herodias wanted John executed, but Herod refused. Then Salome, the daughter of Herodias by her first marriage, danced for Herod at his birthday celebration. He was so enthralled that he offered to give her anything she wanted. At her mother's urging, she asked for the head of John the Baptist. In the opera, as we'll hear, Salome needs no advice from mom -- or anyone else -- before making her fatal demand.

    Strauss completed Salome in 1905, and its premiere took place in Dresden in December of that same year. Strauss based the libretto on the German translation of a notoriously provocative play by Oscar Wilde -- and it wasn't long before the opera had a similar reputation.

    It was officially forbidden by censors in both Berlin and London. It was performed once at the Metropolitan in New York -- but J. Pierpoint Morgan's daughter found it offensive, so her father pressured the company and the opera was quickly withdrawn.

    In Vienna, Gustav Mahler called Salome "one of the greatest masterpieces of our time," and wanted to perform it at the Court Opera, where he was the director. But court officials refused, saying the piece "belongs to the realm of sexual pathology." Even at the first production in Dresden, the lead soprano declared herself a "respectable woman," and refused to perform the Dance of the Seven Veils.

    Yet all that controversy simply drew more attention to the opera. It was a hit at the premiere, and within two years had been performed in 50 different cities. The Kaiser of Germany once said, "I like this fellow Strauss, but Salome will do him a lot of damage." Strauss retorted that the "damage" had paid for his new house.

    On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Salome from one of the many cities where it was initially banned. It comes to us from the Royal Albert Hall and the 2014 Proms Concerts, in London. Soprano Nina Stemme sings the title role, in a performance led by conductor Donald Runnicles.

  • Friday, September 19, 2014 10:26am

    Castor & PolluxWe don't generally think of music as something that inflames angry mobs, and incites riotous behavior. Politics can cause riots, and so can the occasional European soccer match. But music?

    Still, there have been occasions when even classical music stirred such harsh emotions that rival factions threatened each other with violence.

    The most famous musical riot may have taken place in Paris, in 1913, at the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring. The composer's supporters and detractors clashed so wildly that the performance itself was drowned out. And that wasn't the first time contentious Parisian music lovers were driven to angry attacks and threats of retribution.

    In the early decades of the 18th century, French opera was dominated by a single composer, Jean-Baptiste Lully. His operas were theatrical extravaganzas but their stories were usually tame, involving the vagaries of love, mildly spiced by godly intervention and magical special effects.

    Then, in 1733, a relatively obscure, 50-year-old composer named Jean-Phillipe Rameau came along with a new breed of musical drama. Instead of appealing to the senses with magic and spectacle, Rameau's operas went straight for the heart. In cinematic terms, Lully's works might be compared to special effects blockbusters, or elaborate costume epics -- while Rameau's operas were more like intense, art-house psycho-dramas. Controversy ensued, with vehement confrontations between two, warring musical factions the conservative "Lullistes" and the cutting-edge "Rameauneurs." And the latter term was likely invoked by Lully's followers, at Rameau's expense; spelled slightly differently, the word "ramoneur" means "chimneysweep."

    Eventually, of course, even Rameau's music became routine, and while he certainly stirred up the pot, not all of his operas were hits. When he turned up at the Paris Opera with Castor and Pollux, in 1737, even his supporters felt he had done better work, and the drama didn't really hit its stride for another 17 years.

    By 1754, another musical battle had started. A visiting Italian opera troupe was all the rage in Paris, and patriotic French music lovers were looking for an antidote to the foreign invaders. By that time, Rameau was considered an old master. Perhaps sensing an opportunity, he a came up with new, more streamlined version of Castor and Pollux. It was an immediate success, and ever since then the opera has been considered one of his finest.

    On this edition of World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Rameau's Castor and Pollux from the Berlioz Opera House, at the Montpellier Festival in France. Tenor Colins Ainsworth and baritone Florian Sempey sing the title roles, in a production led by conductor Raphaël Pichon.

  • Friday, September 12, 2014 10:44am

    Verdi's OtelloAt first glance, it seems that Giuseppe Verdi's Shakespeare-based operas would have plenty of company in the world's theaters. After all, the influence of Shakespeare is widespread in just about every kind of entertainment imaginable.

    There are Shakespeare-inspired rock tunes such as "Romeo and Juliet," by Dire Straits, and Elvis Costello's "Mystery Dance." Symphonic works based on Shakespeare have been composed by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Dvorak, among others. His dramas have turned up in a wide range of movies, and there are even comic book editions of Shakespeare's plays.

    Astoundingly, though, Verdi's Shakespeare operas are musical oddities. While hundreds of operas have been based on Shakespeare's works, only a few might be called opera house staples. Charles Gounod's Romeo and Juliet is one, along with Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The other obvious candidates are all by Verdi: Macbeth, Falstaff and Otello.

    Verdi's career was not only amazingly successful, but also remarkably long. He lived from 1813 until 1901, and his operas spanned a period of nearly six decades. Still, there were bumps in the road. When Verdi was in his 60's, he seemed to lose enthusiasm. He wasn't thrilled with the music of his younger colleagues, and for more than 10 years he didn't write a single, new opera.

    Then two old friends approached him -- publisher Giulio Ricordi and librettist Arrigo Boito. It had been almost forty years since Verdi composed Macbeth. The two suggested he might turn to Shakespeare again, with a setting of Othello.

    Verdi took them up on it. Though he wrote only two more operas -- the profound tragedy Otello and the wistful comedy Falstaff -- both are rooted in Shakespeare, and they may just be the two finest Shakespeare-based operas ever composed.

    On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Otello from one a venue that lives up to its name, the 2000-year-old Théâtre Antique in Orange, France. The production features tenor Roberto Alagna and soprano Inva Mula as Otello and Desdemona, with a vivid performance by baritone Seng-Hyoun Ko as the villain Iago.

  • Friday, September 5, 2014 10:39am

    In Catalani's masterpiece, a link from Verdi, to Wagner, to PucciniCatalani's La Wally

    When Puccini composed La Boheme -- "The Bohemians" -- he was writing about more than just a handful of scruffy artists in an attic apartment. He was also exploring a sort of artistic ethos then influential in France -- a movement which also had a fascinating counterpart in Italy.

    The Italian version of the artists known as Bohemians in France were called the Scapigliatura, a term derived from a word meaning "the disheveled ones." Like the proverbial "struggling young artists" depicted in Puccini's opera, the Scapigliatura were progressives who resisted, and even resented, the status quo.

    They promoted the intermingling of the arts -- painting, literature, poetry and music -- and they chafed at traditional, Italian artistic conventions. As a result, they had a rebellious affinity, at least for a time, for the works of Richard Wagner, and sometimes even scoffed at the musical world of Verdi, thinking it old-fashioned.

    The Scapigliatura also leaned towards direct, highly-realistic forms of artistic expression -- a preference that had a profound influence on Italian opera, helping to inspire the verismo style we so often associate with Puccini. And while there were few if any successful operas written by "official" members of the Scapigliatura, there was one by a composer who clearly sympathized with the movement: La Wally, by Alfredo Catalani.

    Catalani was just 39 when he died in 1893, and he wrote only five operas. Yet his music does give us a fascinating look at the complicated artistic world in which he worked. While Italian opera was moving from the established world of Verdi to the intense realism of Puccini, it was also evolving away from the "set-piece" form of opera, that went all the way back to Baroque opera seriaLa Wallyreflects those tendencies both in its structure, and its musical style.

    La Wally was Catalani's final opera, and was first performed at La Scala, in Milan, early in 1892. That premiere was a success, but Catalani's fee for the opera was dependent on the number of future stagings, and after the premiere the opera was seldom performed. So for Catalani the opera never really paid off, and he died the following year.

    An interesting side note to Catalani's brief career is that while he wrote less than a half-dozen operas, he did work with two of the most distinguished librettists of his time. The libretto for La Wally was written by Luigi Illica, who also worked with Puccini on La Boheme, Tosca and Madame Butterfly. Catalain's first opera, La falce, used a libretto by Arrigo Boito, who later collaborated with Verdi on Otello and Falstaff. And as it happens, Boito was perhaps the most prominent member of Italy's Scapigliatura movement.

    Also, while you may think you haven't heard La Wally before, you most likely have heard at least part of it. The title character's beautiful Act One aria Ebben? Ne andrò lontana has one of the most familiar, and frequently-heard melodies in all of opera. And the aria also played a leading role in a well-known movie -- the 1981 film Diva -- which helped make a star of American soprano Wilhelminia Fernandez.

    On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us Catalani's La Wally from Switzerland's Grand Theater of Geneva. The production features soprano Barbara Frittoli in the title role, with conductor Evelino Pidò leading the Suisse Romande Orchestra.



  • Thursday, August 28, 2014 3:18pm

    Rheingold-150There were a few famous 19th-century musicians who were seemingly in competition for the title of "most long-winded composer." When it comes to orchestral music, for example, it's a tossup between Gustav Mahler and Anton Bruckner, who both wrote single symphonies lasting well over an hour.

    With opera, though, there's one composer who has the field all to himself: Richard Wagner. His operas Die Meistersinger and Parsifal are both among the longest of all time. But those two are pipsqueaks when compared to his epic, The Ring of the Nibelungen -- a cycle lasting some 15 hours in all.

    It's true that Wagner's Ring is actually four dramas, not just one. But together, they tell a single, continuous story -- in a form Wagner called "music drama." That one story takes four, full evenings to perform.
    Still, the individual works of the Ring do stand quite nicely on their own, and the opening drama, Das Rheingold, is actually one of the most concise operas Wagner ever composed. At a little less than two and a half hours, it's easily the shortest drama in the cycle -- and it can seem even shorter than it really is. Das Rheingold is a 140-minute spectacle that flies by in a flash, introducing vivid new worlds where gods, giants and dwarves all vie for ultimate power. But while the story is surely compelling, the whole thing does take place in just one act -- with no intermissions. So, if you plan on listening to it all in one go, you might think about packing a lunch.

    On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents the drama straight from the source -- in a production from Wagner's own theater, and the 2014 Bayreuth Festival, in Germany. The stars are baritone Wolfgang Koch as the god Wotan, and bass-baritone Oleg Bryjak as the Nibelung Alberich, whose vengeful anger sets the entire story of the Ring in motion, in a production led by conductor Kirill Petrenko.