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In spite of an impressive list of instrumental compositions—a symphony, a symphonic poem, two piano concerti, a violin concerto, a double-bass concerto, a Triple Concerto featuring three groups of three soloists, and a ballet, works written over a period of four decades, it is Gian Carlo Menotti’s operas that have endured. Not surprisingly, there are also very few symphonic or chamber works by Verdi and Puccini that have an established place in the world musical repertoire. For the Italianate musical mind, language–specifically drama–was the greatest stimulation for creativity. The same is said of the giovane scuola, (young school) of Italian opera composers who followed Verdi at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Virtually all of this “school” (Puccini, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Cilea and several others) were based at the Milan Conservatory and adhered to the operatic style known as “verismo”—drama based in everyday reality.

Menotti’s The Medium: A Perspective

By Robert Lyall, New Orleans Opera Artistic Director

Menotti (1911-2007) was born in Italy and initiated his musical studies at the Milan Conservatory at age 12, but a few years later Menotti’s mother chose to move to America to revitalize their family’s failing coffee business. At the recommendation of Arturo Toscanini, she enrolled her then 17-year old son in Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. There he joined future American luminaries like Leonard Bernstein and Samuel Barber. Menotti, like Richard Wagner, wrote the texts for all of his 28 operas. Only 3 early works Amelia Goes to the Ball, The Island God (withdrawn) and The Last Savage were written in Italian. All others were written in English and he frequently referred to himself as an “American composer.”

Menotti’s early celebrity was heightened by the evolution of television, radio, and film in the United States. Television emerged as an experiment in a General Electric factory in Schenectady, New York in 1928. Later in 1928, G.E. opened a second facility in New York City, today known as WNBC. The rapid development of television in America following the end of World War II in 1945 and the coincidence of the fine arts being a part of early television and radio programming hugely increased public awareness of early Menotti works. This was especially true after he was commissioned by Columbia University to write an opera The Medium that might be broadcast through these newly-influential outlets of art and entertainment. Media-savvy Menotti’s Columbia University premiere in May 1946 was followed by a Broadway premiere in May 1947 and a live television production in December 1948 on the celebrated NBC drama series Studio One. Even Australian television filmed it in 1960. These early media successes established Menotti as an international celebrity and helped launch American opera on a new and exciting course.

Menotti has the distinction of being the first composer commissioned to write an opera for radio The Old Maid and the Thief which premiered in April 1939, as well as the first to be commissioned to write an opera for television Amahl and the Night Visitors, which premiered on Christmas eve in 1951. He also founded the celebrated arts “Festival of Two Worlds” (Festival Due Monde) based both in Italy (1958) and Charleston, South Carolina (1977).  With prestigious premieres in the world’s great opera houses and awards throughout his lifetime– for example, Pulitzer Prizes for two of his Broadway operas, The Consul (1950) and The Saint of Bleecker Street (1954)—Menotti also achieved this singular distinction: since its premiere on Christmas eve of 1951, Menotti’s Christmas ‘miracle,’ Amahl and the Night Visitors has reached a wider audience than any other work in operatic history.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that The Medium, Menotti’s 1946 hour-long melodrama, was inspired by a séance that he had attended. Thus, he gives us a very detailed portrayal of the real experience, that of couples and individuals desperate to connect with deceased relatives, especially their young children. As the audience, we are invited to experience the ritual of conjuring that is so very real to these individuals. From the point of view of “dramatic irony,” early in the opera we are made very aware that this is all a fraud on the part of Madame Flora. But it is fascinating to see the emotional depths to which individuals in a séance pursue the fantasy of actually communicating with deceased loved ones. During the course of her séance, Madame Flora herself has a bizarre encounter with the supernatural that completely shocks her and alters her prophecies and truthfulness in this fascinating psycho-drama with its interesting twists and turns.

From the New Orleans Opera’s 2007 production of The Medium.

 In 1951, Menotti composed and directed a musically expanded version of The Medium with the filmmaker, Alexander Hammid, that resembles “film noir,” a theatrical and film style of the 40s and 50s having roots in German Expressionistic cinematography and theater. Interestingly, classic “film noir” were often referred to as “melodramas,” a term we strongly associate with opera and musical theater. Film noir characters generally represented the cynical attitudes and sensual motivations derived from “crime fiction”—a distinct theatrical style that emerged from the Great Depression. As it was once excellently described, it is “a black and white visual palette creating a “chiaroscuro” of varying shades of gray.”

The musical language of The Medium clearly reflects its Italian origins with stylistic elements closely related to Puccini ‘s grand melodic rhetoric. But, Menotti’s most immediate connection to any emerging “American operatic idiom” was developed through his work with Samuel Barber for whom he wrote two libretti (Vanessa and A Hand of Bridge) as well as revising Barber’s Anthony and Cleopatra for its 1966 Metropolitan Opera premiere.

In spite of his frequent earlier comments about being an “American composer,” in his last years Gian Carlo Menotti simply said, “I’ve always been an Italian composer.”

Marie Laveau (1801-1881)

A fun parallel with The Medium’s Madame Flora is New Orleans’ very own Madame Flora: a Medium, Soothsayer, Conjurer, Fortune-Teller, and to many, a Voodoo Princess with supernatural powers able to communicate with dark forces beyond the world of the living.

Our local conjurer’s powers included healing the sick, overseeing spiritual rites, and practicing an array of ways to communicate with the occult. But, Marie Laveau achieved huge celebrity during her lifetime and enjoyed the passionate support of thousands of New Orleans followers who truly believed in her supernatural powers. Even well after her death she was an object of veneration and pilgrimages to her tomb (Plot 347 in St. Louis Cemetery #1) were frequent, colorful, and included a ritual practiced until very recent times. If you wanted Marie Laveau to grant your wish, you must draw an X on her tomb, turn around three times, knock on the tomb and yell out your wish. If it was granted, you must come back to the tomb, circle your X, and leave Marie Laveau a gift.

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Judging for the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions during a pandemic.

By: Clare Burovac, New Orleans Opera General Director

I have been judging for the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions (MONC) for almost ten years.  It’s always a wonderful experience:  fly to the host city, meet the amazing volunteers who organize and fund-raise for the competition, listen to approximately 30 young opera singers competing for prize money, and, my favorite part, providing feedback to all of the singers about their audition: what they did well, how they can improve, and what impression they made during their performance. 

This season is a year like no other in the arts, and the MONC auditions are no different!  I salute Melissa Wegner and her team at the Metropolitan Opera who were determined to continue the program in whatever way they could, and this year, that meant doing it all virtually.  I had the honor of judging the Florida District level competition on Sunday, January 17, 2021, from the comfort of my home office.  The MONC competition used a company named Kiswe, a cloud-based video company that creates real-time live streams, for this year’s auditions.  All judges participated in a Zoom tutorial in the fall in order to acquaint us with the technology and make sure that we were equipped to participate, both in terms of hardware, internet connections, and audio capability. Then on the morning of January 17, my fellow judges and I met up in the virtual audition room to make sure that we were ready to go and get last minute instructions from MONC. 

I cannot emphasize enough how smoothly the process went!  We had a MONC staff member running the technology, muting and unmuting us whenever necessary.  For those of you who have been participating in Zoom calls over the last month, you know how valuable that was!  The volunteers from the great team in the Florida District brought the singers into the “green room” just before their audition time, and then welcomed them into the “audition room” when it was their turn to perform.  Singers in the Florida District were auditioning from every corner of the United States, including one from Baton Rouge, and we even had one singer who was auditioning from Amsterdam.  Following the deliberations, the MONC staff was able to live-stream the announcement of the winners to social media for all to see.  Feedback was also available – all the singers and judges met on Zoom so that we could provide praise and constructive criticism to the auditionees. 

Although I look forward to hearing live auditions in person again, I was amazed at how successful these auditions were, and I certainly don’t feel like the process was compromised by the technology at all.  Bravi tutti to all of the singers who took the leap of trusting the process to audition for us in this virtual format, and congratulations to the MONC team for the terrific organizational job they did.  (But please don’t tell them that I was judging the auditions in my fuzzy slippers.) 

For more information about the Metropolitan National Council Auditions, visit https://www.metopera.org/about/auditions/national-council-auditions/, or for more specific information regarding MONC in New Orleans, visit http://amicimonc.org/