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!

Music to My Ears

I am thankful for my sense to hearing, and specifically music, which will be the focus of the fifteenth day of my ‘Thirty Days of Thankfulness.’

At age five, I started taking piano lessons from a close neighbor (close being a relative term out in the wilds of northwestern Leavenworth County).  Reading music came to me just about as easily as reading words.  Oddly (because I love mathematics), my only long-standing issue is my (un)willingness to count out a song in my head so that I get the rhythm and tempo correct.  I didn’t spend much time in a band environment (only played flute for two years before middle school), so I rely heavily upon a percussionist if I play and/or sing in a praise band.  And my audio memory of how a song should sound.  Yes, I’m lazy.  Probably why I’m not a professional musician.

As I’ve mentioned before, my husband is a hundred times, or more likely, a thousand times better musician than I will ever be.  He has impeccable timing and near perfect pitch.  He has the patience and technical skills to practice a piece to perfection.

Rachelle posing as a diva a couple of years ago

My daughter inherited most if not all of her musical ability and talent from him (I can still play piano better than her, but she knows more music theory than I’ll ever understand).

Rachelle started singing about the same time she learned to talk.  She surpassed my measly vocal abilities way back in early high school.  Along the way, she learned how to play violin, guitar, saxophone and piano.  However, her voice is her most finely honed instrument.  As she approaches her final semester as an under graduate at UNT’s College of Music, I look forward to attending her senior recital, which will include all of the following songs Rachelle recently recorded for her graduate school auditions (click on the song title link, then click on the play button):

The Nurse’s Song by Benjamin Britten
Rachelle Moss, Mezzo Soprano
Violetta Zharkova, Piano

Smanie implacabili from Cosi fan tutte by Mozart
Rachelle Moss, Mezzo Soprano
Violetta Zharkova, piano

Ah scostati!
Paventa il tristo effeto
d’un disperato affeto!
Chiudi quelle finestre
Odio la luce, odio l’aria, che spiro

Odio me stessa!
Chi schernisce il mio duol,
Chi mi consola?
Deh fuggi, per pietà, fuggi,
Lasciami sola.

Smanie implacabili, che m’agitate
Dentro quest’anima più non cessate,
Finchè l’angoscia mi fa morir.
Esempio misero d’amor funesto,
Darò all’Eumenidi se viva resto
Col suno orrible de’ miei sospir.

English Translation:

Ah, move away!
Fear the sad effect
of a desperate affection!
Shut those windows,
I hate the light, I hate the air that I breathe

I hate myself!
Who mocks my pain,
Who will console me?
Oh, leave, for pity’s sake, leave,
Leave me alone.

Implacable restlessness, that disturbs me
Inside this soul, doesn’t cease,
Until it makes me die.
A miserable example of fateful love
I will give to the Furies, if I live,
With the horrible sound of my sighs.


Auf dem Kirchhofe by Johannes Brahms
Rachelle Moss, Mezzo Soprano
Violetta Zharkova, Piano

Auf dem Kirchhofe

Der Tag ging regenschwer und sturmbewegt,
Ich war an manch vergessenem Grab gewesen,
Verwittert Stein und Kreuz, die Kränze alt,
Die Namen überwachsen, kaum zu lesen.

Der Tag ging sturmbewegt und regenschwer,
Auf allen Gräbern fror das Wort: Gewesen.
Wie sturmestot die Särge schlummerten,
Auf allen Gräbern taute still: Genesen.

English Translation:

In the churchyard

The day was heavy with rain and disturbed by storms;
I was walking among many forgotten graves,
with weathered stones and crosses, the wreaths old,
the names washed away, hardly to be read.

The day was disturbed by storms and heavy with rain;
on every grave froze the words “we were.”
The coffins slumbered calmly like the eye of a storm,
and on every grave melted quietly the words: “we were healed.”

Les Berceaux by Gabriel Faure
Rachelle Moss, Mezzo Soprano
Violetta Zharkova, Piano

Les berceaux

Le long du Quai, les grands vaisseaux,
Que la houle incline en silence,
Ne prennent pas garde aux berceaux,
Que la main des femmes balance.

Mais viendra le jour des adieux,
Car il faut que les femmes pleurent,
Et que les hommes curieux
Tentent les horizons qui leurrent!

Et ce jour-là les grands vaisseaux,
Fuyant le port qui diminue,
Sentent leur masse retenue
Par l’âme des lointains berceaux.

English Translation:


Along the quay, the great ships,
that ride the swell in silence,
take no notice of the cradles.
that the hands of the women rock.

But the day of farewells will come,
when the women must weep,
and curious men are tempted
towards the horizons that lure them!

And that day the great ships,
sailing away from the diminishing port,
feel their bulk held back
by the spirits of the distant cradles.