Opera Behind the Scenes Lecture Highlights

Something in this address seems familiarMy jazzy friend branched out to opera this month.  She invited me to attend a lecture in the ‘At Ease with Opera‘ series sponsored by the Kansas City Lyric Opera Guild.  I accepted her invitation, even though it meant driving back on a Monday evening to within sight (a couple of blocks) of where I had just spent eight or nine hours at work.

Monday, August 27 at 7:00 p.m. University of Kansas film professor John Tibbetts, a longtime classical music and opera enthusiast, will present “Backstage at the Opera: Opera at the Movies.” Tibbetts has made a study of operas as portrayed in film, and backstage scenes and opera intrigues as presented in movies. His presentation will feature excerpts from several such films, with commentary and discussion.

I attended a different lecture presented by the same man earlier in the year, prior to the release of John Carter, on Edgar Rice Burroughs.  I did learn something new about him at his “Backstage at the Opera” lecture, specifically that he was previously a radio announcer on a former radio station (KXTR) in Kansas City.  He also mentioned, somewhat in passing, one of his books entitled Composers in the Movies, where he “surveys different styles and periods from the Hollywood of the 1920s and 1930s to the international cinema of today, exploring the role that film biographies play in our understanding of history and culture.”  I couldn’t find a copy available at a local public library, but both KU and UMKC have copies listed as available via WorldCat, which I could probably request via InterLibrary Loan.  Not sure I’ll take this research that far at this point.

Tibbetts provided a few examples of operas popping up in films, including:

  • Risë Stevens singing an aria from Carmen in the Bing Crosby classic Going My Way (1944).  Much to my surprise, Stevens is still alive!  And she was born on June 11, 1913, making her 99 years old and still ticking.  “For over two decades (until 1961) Stevens was the Met’s leading mezzo-soprano and the only mezzo to command the top billing (and commensurate fees) normally awarded only to star sopranos and tenors.”  There must be something to June babies and mezzo sopranos.
  • During the cemetery scene in Driving Miss Daisy, the soundtrack plays a popular aria, “Song to the Moon,” from Dvorak’s Rusalka, a Czech opera.
  • A key moment in the Shawshank Redemption features the “Letter Duet” from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.

Tibbetts next played several excerpts from movies that featured backstage moments for various operas.

He began with several clips from The Life of Verdi, a twelve hour mini-series which originally aired in 1982.  These scenes portrayed the power of Verdi’s compositions and how they were used in support of il Risorgimento (Italian Unification).  Often the subtext of the opera emphasized the nationalist desire to get rid of their Austrian oppressors.  The opera Atilla sparked the flame of national pride and caused a near revolution to start in Milan.

Tibbetts also showed us the sarcastic side of Verdi as he rebuts the censors changes to his Masked Ball libretto.  And finally the obsession of Verdi later in life not only as a composer but as a director of his operas while rehearsing Otello.

Tibbetts put Verdi to rest and took us forward to the 20th century, the 1930s, and the fabulous baritone Lawrence Tibbett (no relation).  He played two clips from the 1935 film Metropolitan (20th Century Fox’s first production following the merger of 20th Century Pictures and Fox Film Corp).  The first, a scene featuring the song “On the Road to Mandalay” and the second of “De Glory Road,” a song Tibbett made his own during his legendary career.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CSzXoVWjEbo?rel=0]



Tibbetts’ grand finale to his “Backstage at the Opera” came from the movie Topsy Turvy, which he highly recommended both as a film and as a glimpse into all that goes into the making of a stage production.  A period piece set at the original premiere of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado in 1885.  He selected scenes 27, 30  and 37 from the DVD.  Those three scenes intrigued me and prompted quite a few laughs.  I may be adding this DVD to my Netflix queue in the near future.

Not surprisingly, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City will end it’s 2012-13 season with the side-splitting comedic masterpiece Mikado next April.

He concluded his lecture with a plug for the October 15th installment called “What’s Opera, Doc?”

Monday, October 15 at 7:00 p.m. ~ “What’s Opera, Doc?” by Dr. Charles Gibbs, a local opera fan. Those of a certain age remember the classic 1950s opera take-off Warner Brothers cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny and similar characters. If you remember the cartoons you will enjoy this program, and if the cartoons are new to you then you are in for a real treat. Dr. Gibbs will show the cartoons, with introductions and commentary. See if you can spot all of the opera tunes and references!

In Pursuit of Liberty and Lincoln

I receive a electronic newsletter from the Kansas City Public Library, usually on Sunday afternoons, alerting me to any special events hosted or sponsored by the Library in the coming week.  All three signature events tugged my interest, starting with a lecture Tuesday evening from a religious scholar on the King James Bible ‘From Ancient Texts to Literary Masterpiece.’  Wednesday’s ‘Meet the Past’ planned to interview William Rockhill Nelson, founder of the Kansas City StarBut Thursday’s ‘Hail to the Chiefs’ event appeared to be the crown jewel of the week, featuring Mark E. Neely, Jr., Pulitzer Prize winning author of numerous books on Lincoln and the Civil War, including last year’s Lincoln and the Triumph of the Nation: Constitutional Conflict in the American Civil War, examining charges that Lincoln played ‘fast and loose’ with Constitution during his presidency.

I decided to attempt to attend the lecture, which meant moving Heaven and Earth (or so it seemed to me).  At least the lecture would be held in the same building where I work, a small consolation for the hoops I soon jumped through and vehicles I juggled into position.  First, I asked my backup vanpool driver if she could drive the van on Thursday.  She could.  Second, I asked my husband to drive one of our cars to my backup driver’s house on Wednesday afternoon to leave it there for me to drive on Thursday morning.  He did and rode home with the rest of my vanpool riders Wednesday.  Now, I could drive the van on the first leg of the commute Thursday, hand it off to my backup driver, and take my car to work (for the first time in months), so I could stay late for the lecture.

All of the above went off without a hitch.  My workday flew by and I left the building briefly to run an errand and grab a quick bite for dinner.  I returned to the building in time to catch some of my coworkers and managers leaving for the day.  They were all shocked to see me still at work, so I cheerily explained my plans to attend the lecture in an hour.

The Library opened the doors to the Truman Forum about ten or fifteen minutes before six o’clock.  I did not realize a reception had been planned, whereby fruits, vegetables and wine would be served.  I bypassed the reception and headed straight to the auditorium, as I could tell from the number of people waiting, a good seat would be hard to find and hold on to.  I also wanted to save two seats for friends of mine who were also attending the event.

I found suitable seats in the fourth row and settled in for the short wait.  I reviewed my email and RSS feeds via my Nook Color and continued reading one of the books I’m currently plodding through.  My friends arrived with twenty minutes to spare so we chatted and got caught up on family and things.   The hum of conversation around us kept to a dull roar despite the place being packed with people, including the overflow areas to the left and behind us.

The person tasked with introducing Mr. Neely couldn’t resist the siren’s call of his soap box (and a microphone) and began a brief tirade (for which he apologized prior to his actual introduction of the speaker) on an editorial published the day before in the Kansas City Star (I believe it’s this one:  Protect Public Money in KC’s Development Deals).  His call to arms for the civic minded audience urged us to protest the City Government ‘stealing’ tax dollars from libraries, community colleges, mental health organizations, etc. and giving that money to wealthy corporations as incentives to build (develop) luxury hotels in the Country Club Plaza or Crown Center.  Not being a citizen of Kansas City, nor having a vote or a say in what it does or does not do with its tax money, I did not know how helpful or fruitful any protesting I might do would be.  I can see his point, as I don’t care for the practice of providing tax incentives to large corporations in the dubious hope that they will produce a boon in the local economy or provide more jobs (which will most likely be outsourced to the Asian continent as soon as the incentives expire).  And on that sour note, with much applause and cheering from the audience, the introduction continued and Mr. Neely ascended the stairs to the podium.

I enjoyed Mr. Neely’s talk and took several pages of notes (if you really want to give yourself a headache, try and decipher my scribblings here).  I have not read any of Mr. Neely’s books, but I may in the future.  He began with a dissection of the Corning letter.  He fascinated me with contextual tales of the ‘true’ use the Writ of Habeas Corpus was put to during the Civil War, specifically several cases across one hundred days during the Summer of 1863.

Mr. Neely rated and graded several Presidents (only dead ones) on his civil liberties scorecard, using three questions as criteria:  1) Was the internal security system proportionate to threat?  2) Once the system was in place, was it used for other purposes, particularly against vulnerable people (minorities, dissenters, non-citizens)? and 3) When the threat ends, is the system sunsetted?  He gave John Adams a D, Woodrow Wilson a C- and FDR a D.  Lincoln, he left to us, asking ‘What grade would you give him?’

The Question and Answer session began at 7:30 p.m.  The audience asked great questions and the event began to wrap up shortly before 8:00 p.m.

I spent a great evening with friends and learned several things I didn’t know before.  I also have a better understanding of the movie I watched just a few days ago, The Conspirator, and the legal landscape during and after the Civil War.