Hogarth’s Progress

 

A Harlot's Progress, scene 1, by William Hogarth, 1731

A Harlot’s Progress, scene 1, by William Hogarth, 1731

At tomorrow’s installment of the New York Comics & Picture-Story Symposium, Abigail Zitin of Rutgers will talk about William Hogarth in a presentation titled “Narrative Art and Visual Pleasure”.  Hogarth’s narrative painting cycles mark him as a proto-cartoonist, with two popular sets of 6 paintings each popularized through more affordable print cycles in their days.  The original, A Harlot’s Progress cycle from 1731, was followed up in 1733 by The Rake’s Progress cycle. (The original paintings of the latter are at the Soane Museum in London; the Harlot paintings were lost to a fire and only survive in the print format.)

After seeing the original pieces in an exhibit in Chicago, composer Igor Stravinsky adapted the story into 1951’s Rake’s Progress opera a neo-classical satire and a modern classic.  The 1975 Glyndebourne Opera production by English artist David Hockney is a classic in its own right too…  As a demonstration of how intrinsically linked this production has become to the opera, this video from Glyndebourne is as much about the production’s creation by Hockney and director John Cox as it is about the music and opera itself:

More recently, the earlier The Harlot’s Progress was adapted into an opera in six scenes (mirroring the original cycle of six paintings) by 34-year old English composer Iain Bell, premiering just last year at Theater an der Wien in Vienna with German soprano Diana Damrau creating the title role.  Unlike Stravinsky’s more comical take, Bell apparently had an unremittingly bleak vision for his Hogarth opera, but it seems to have been pretty well received

Is it any wonder an artist who pioneered narrative paintings would be an inspiration to modern composers?  Only a shame Hogarth didn’t create more cycles to be adapted!

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Opéra-Cosmétique

I’m starting a new job today at a beauty company in New York so I thought I’d celebrate with the one opera I can think of about a beauty magnate:  Queenie Pie by Duke Ellington!

That’s right, legendary jazz band leader and composer Duke Ellington had a brief foray into opera when he received a commissioned by New York’s public television station WNET for an hour-long opera in 1962.  He used this commission to finally see to fruition a long-standing interest in opera, including the idea to create a musical about Madame C.J. Walker, an African-American woman who became a self-made millionaire with her beauty and hair products marketed to African-American women.

Madame C.J. Walker

Madame C.J. Walker

Queenie Pie is definitely not biographical though, apparently going a very different route with a title character only loosely inspired by Walker.  It’s too bad since Walker sounds like a fascinating figure; the first child of her parents to be born free after the Emancipation Proclamation becoming America’s most successful female entrepreneur, with plenty of twists, turns, and reinventions along the way.  (See also the official Walker website)

Unfortunately, only bits and pieces of Ellington’s score were completed when he died in 1974, and because of the collaborative nature of his compositional practice as a band leader, it’s hard to complete the picture without him…  It’s been attempted on a few occasions for different productions, most recently at Long Beach Opera earlier this year.  The LA Times review gives lots of  details about the make-up of this most recent performance, and this NPR story goes more into depth with one of the most recent people to take on the challenge of reconstructing the score, musician Marc T. Bolin.

Anyway, wish me luck with my new job!

On the (Makropulos) Case

The Makropulos Case at Bavarian State Opera

The Makropulos Case at Bavarian State Opera

Because of a time difference miscalculation on my part, you now actually have 30 minutes before today’s livestream from Bavarian State Opera in Munich, Germany, begins!  Very easy, just head on over to BSO TV to see the full opera online!

Today’s opera is maybe sort of Halloween appropriate?  It is a noir opera after all…

The Makropolous Case by Leoš Janáček based on the play of the same name by fellow Czech, pioneering science fiction author Karel Čapek, was premiered in 1926 in Brno, Czech Republic.  It’s about a mysterious woman who seems to have been around much longer than she looks, and it’s ultimately revealed that she’s been keeping herself alive for centuries with a magic potion, one she needs to find the recipe for before her age catches up to her and she dies.  Verrry moody and mysterious…

This is a European production though, so fair warning, they will probably find a way to show lots of weird sex stuff…

Mozart once, Martinů bis

My 2014/15 opera season officially started last week when I came into some tickets for productions at the Met and Gotham Chamber Opera.  I saw the Metropolitan Opera‘s season-opening new production of Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro as well as Gotham Chamber Opera‘s season-opener, a double bill by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů.

Le Nozze di Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera, 2014

Photo by Ken Howard for the Metropolitan Opera Archives

I’m usually pretty conservative about when a new production is necessary… If it ain’t broke, why fix it?  But that aside, I did quite like this production.  Maybe the set doesn’t translate to photos that well, but it’s, like, a set of hollow, deco/moorish-style towers on a rotating base?  And I thought they did some neat things suggesting hectic movement between chambers as it rotated, so ok, I’m down with it.

All around, a good performance and cast (you can never go too wrong at the Met!).  What caught my attention though was something Richard Eyre said in the director’s notes about how Le Nozze is a rare instance of an opera with sex as subject matter.

Which sort of brings us to the Martinů double bill at Gotham Chamber Opera!  Unexpected repertory, great young performers, and delightfully funky productions, as we’ve come to expect from GCO by now…

Martinu's Alexandre Bis performed by Gotham Chamber Opera

Photo by Richard Termine for Gotham Chamber Opera

Bohuslav Martinů, born in 1890 in what is now the Czech Republic, left for Paris in 1923 where he became a bit more experimental, taking inspiration from jazz and Stravinsky.  His operas of this time are often absurd, if not outright surreal, including 1937’s Alexandre Bis, the opening opera in GCO’s double bill.

Martinu in Paris, 1937

Martinů in Paris, 1937, from the Bohuslav Martinů Institute database

The story of Alexandre Bis (literally “Alexander Twice”) was itself inspired by Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte with a husband disguising himself to test his wife’s fidelity.  She recognizes him immediately, but is aroused by the makeover and/or roleplay, and thus begins a sexual awakening.

Surrealist Paris must have been a sexually revolutionary place, since I’d consider Francis Poulenc’s Les Mamelles des Tirésias a kindred spirit to Alexandre Bis…  In this opera, more about gender than sex per se, a woman gets rid of her breasts to become a man, leaving her husband to have children by himself.  Consider also that Alban Berg’s darker (and more Teutonic) Lulu premiered the year Martinů completed Alexandre Bis.

Of course, Mozart beat all these Johnny come Lately’s to the punch with his 1786 opera about philandering aristocrats.  But not even Mozart was the first to put sex front and center in his operas.  That distinction might just go to  Francesco Cavalli who started writing operas in the 1640s.  Consider La Calisto, in which Jupiter seduces a chaste nymph by disguising himself as the goddess Diana.

At any rate, I guess this was all just an excuse to talk about sexy operas!  What can I say, I like to create thematic groupings of operas…  Ultimately, it was a great opening week for the 2014/15 season, covering the most classic of classics alongside the most obscure thing you could think of and I just love having that range here in New York…

Here’s a compilation video from a 2009 performance of Alexandre Bis by the Czech Theater Biel Solothurn as part of some kind of televised opera competition apparently?  Man, Europe is classy.

To Know to Know to Love Her So

A saint is one to be for two when three and you make five and two and cover.  Source

Four Saints in Three Acts premiere performance with sets by Florine Stettheimer

Four Saints in Three Acts premiere performance with sets by Florine Stettheimer

The other night I had a chance to speak to Gertrude Stein at a party at Pablo Picasso’s home (I’ll explain…), and I regret not asking her about her collaboration with American composer Virgil Thomson, for whom she wrote two opera librettos in the last two decades of her life.  They were classic Stein, meaning they didn’t make any logical “sense”, but as the introduction to the 1947 CBS radio broadcast of their first collaboration, Four Saints in Three Acts, says…

Gertrude Stein’s words made no sense to anyone. …  Afterwards however, people went away with an embarrassed feeling that the thing made more sense than they thought.  They began to see that the authors wanted them to understand not illogical words, but a fine symbolism of the gaiety and strength of spiritual and consecrated lives.  Source

Four Saints in Three Acts premiered in Connecticut in 1934 and went on to Broadway later that same year.  The thought that a modernist, non-linear opera ran on Broadway is confounding enough, but to add to that, the opera was also performed by an all-black cast.

At any rate, you can judge the opera for yourself thanks to a digitized 1947 CBS Radio broadcast, conducted by Thomson a year after Stein’s death.  Reading the libretto may not make sense, but hearing it sung, it certainly has a good rhythm to it…

Set design for 27 at Opera Theater of Saint Louis by Allen Moyer

Set design for 27 at Opera Theater of Saint Louis by Allen Moyer

From writer of librettos, to the subject of a libretto herself, Gertrude Stein‘s 27 Rue de Fleurs Paris apartment, the site of her celebrated salon, is the setting and namesake of the forthcoming opera 27, by Ricky Ian Gordon, another American composer, to be given its premiere by the Opera Theater of Saint Louis this summer.  Here’s an article in Opera News in anticipation of this premiere.

And most importantly!

If you want to meet Gertrude Stein in person, then don’t miss the last few performances of A Serious Banquet, a Cubist dinner party featuring such luminaries as Stein, Picasso, Braque, and Rousseau among others, hosted by This is Not a Theater Company.  The Rave reviews are in, the company is legendary, and dinner is included!  What’s not to love!

Two Boys Live Stream

(Not the porny kind!)

Tonight is the stateside premiere of Nico Muhly‘s Two Boys, commissioned by the Met Opera and given a workshop world premiere at English National Opera.  Tonight’s performance will be live streamed on the Met’s site at 8pm.  Here’s the NYT review of the premiere.

Two Boys at ENO poster

Poster from ENO’s Two Boys premiere

There’s a neat behind-the-scenes article about the development of the piece since ENO.  It also mentions some of the outside-the-box promotion the Met’s been doing (TV spots during Catfish seem appropriate), including an “Ask me Anything” session with Muhly on Reddit!  Strangely engrossing…   He elaborated on some of the questions on his own site too.

PS: “Two Boys One Cup” was definitely a Google autofill suggestion today…

EDITED TO ADD:  Britten‘s final opera, Death in Venice, is streaming until Friday on BBC Radio 3, which I mention here because of Muhly’s self-proclaimed love of Britten’s operas and the centrality of a boy character to each.  Maybe by listening to the two you can play spot-the-influence; I heard some gamelan-like touches are appear in both…

Also, here’s a video from the Met with the most music and footage from the actual opera as I’ve yet seen…  To put some visuals to the disembodied music you’ll hear tonight…

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C80eJCaNedY&w=350&h=300]

Britten to Zandonai

This Sunday and Monday you can treat yourself to a double feature of operas from the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Glyndebourne opera festival in England.

Francesca da Rimini at The Met, 2013

Copyright Metropolitan Opera, Photo by Marty Sohl

First up, Sunday at noon in New York, PBS is airing the Metropolitan Opera‘s performance of Riccardo Zandonai‘s Francesca da Rimini (check your local listings).  The Met gave the opera’s American premiere in 1916, but it’s gotten pretty intermittent revivals since then; this performance is a revival of a 1984 production.

Then on Monday, via the internet, you can see Glyndebourne‘s 2010  production of Benjamin Britten‘s Billy Budd (lots of B–alliteration), fitting for his centennial year.  They just say that the webcast will be at “lunchtime”…  Greenwich Mean Time, I presume…

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sSVW47iCv70&w=350&h=300]

Luckily, all the webcasts of this summer’s Glyndebourne performances are still available online, so you can catch up with some Rameau, Strauss, or Donizetti after you’re done with Monday’s Britten.