It’s the Plural of Opus

Every January I used to host a Super Bowl party. My mother, brothers, and a few friends (mostly lesbians) would be upstairs screaming at the television and having a riotous time; I’d be downstairs in the kitchen refreshing their drinks, making tacos and other party food. I told everyone I was listening to opera so they wouldn’t bother me.

I must now confess that was a lie. I don’t own any opera recordings. Well, I have The Threepenny Opera and Sweeney Todd, neither of which has any dialogue, so I guess it really depends on what your definition of “opera” is. I have been to only one true opera in my life — opening night at the Washington Opera’s production of La Bohème — and that was only because I won free tickets. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but the few operas I’ve watched on television have bored me, and I haven’t made it all the way through.

Which makes it all the odder that I would dedicate an entire day to opera music. I promise you, though, that these won’t be hard to listen to. In fact, they’re now such mainstream pieces that you’ll probably be bored to hear them again. But at least one of them will be a fun surprise.

La Wally is a four-act opera written by Alfredo Catalani in 1892. The opera is best known for its aria “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana,” sung when Wally decides to leave her home forever. It was featured prominently in Jean-Jacques Beineix’s film Diva.

The opera also features one of the most memorable operatic deaths: the heroine throws herself into a passing avalanche.

Louie the Opera Dog likes La Wally too. At least, I think he likes it:

“The Flower Duet” from Léo Delibes’s opera Lakmé is best known for its use in British Airways commercials and in such shows as The L Word, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, The Hunger, and (ahem) Lara Croft Tomb Raider.The story is set in the late nineteenth century British Raj in India, when many Hindus have been forced by the British to practice their religion in secret. Like many other French operas of the late 19th century, Lakmé captures the ambience of the East that was in vogue during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Its complex melodies are Delibes’ signature.

The famous part starts about 1:20 into the video.

“Nessun Dorma” is an aria from the final act of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot. (“Turandot” is a Persian word meaning “the daughter of Turan,” a region of Central Asia that used to be part of the Persian Empire.) The story of Turandot was taken from the Persian collection of stories called The Book of One Thousand and One Days, not to be confused with its sister work The Book of One Thousand and One Nights.

A mysterious and handsome prince appears in the kingdom. The emotionally distant Princess Turandot has proclaimed that everyone in her kingdom will go without sleep that night unless she learns the name of this unknown prince. He in turn challenges her that, if his name cannot be discovered by morning, the Princess will marry him. “Nessun Dorma,” which means “None Shall Sleep,” is a boast that their efforts to discover his name will be in vain.

It was the signature aria of the Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti and was sung at his final performance, the finale of the Opening Ceremony of the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics. The largest curtain ever built was opened to reveal him on the stage, wearing a black cape embroidered with silver Olympic rings. The aria ends with the victorious line, “At dawn, I shall win!” The tenor’s performance received the longest and loudest ovation of the evening.

Here’s Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma” in Paris in 1998:

Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers) is an 1863 opera in three acts by Georges Bizet. While not nearly as popular as his more famous Carmen, it contains a wealth of attractive music and has found some popularity despite its exotic libretto. The tenor-baritone duet “Au Fond du Temple Saint” is the most famous piece from the opera; in a poll in which Australians voted for “the one moment in opera they could not live without,” it was at the top of the list.

The scene is the coast of Ceylon. Zurga, the newly elected leader of the little world of Cingalese fishermen, has scarcely been inaugurated when Nadir, a long-lost friend of his youth, appears. After greeting one another with affection, the two men sing rapturously about falling in love at first sight with a beautiful priestess of Brahman as she was revealed to them for an instant in the dim, incense-clouded temple. For each it was an almost mystical experience.

Once again, the best part starts about 1:40 into the vid:

One last treat: the only Bugs Bunny short in the National Film Registry. It’s “What’s Opera, Doc?” — master animator Chuck Jones‘s tribute to Wagnerian opera in the context of a classic Bugs-Elmer conflict. In 1994, the piece was voted #1 of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of all time by 1000 members of the animation field.


~ by Craig R. Smith on 27 September 2007.

5 Responses to “It’s the Plural of Opus”

  1. OK, I admit it: I watched all of “What’s Opera, Doc?”.

    I find I can listen to individual opera pieces, but I’m not interested in listening to entire operas. However, I love GOING to the opera—something that my pocketbook really doesn’t permit often. It’s all so yummy and dysfunctional. But I have to be in the room. I don’t watch it on TV either.

    I have a friend (whom I saw last night for a showing of Paris, Je T’Aime) who used to have a dog who sang like that. I think to folks like Perry Como.

    I’m a sucker for the “Flower Duet” and “Nessun Dorma.”

  2. When I get a bit older I think I’ll turn into Inspector Morse (as played by the late great John Thaw). I’ll drink too much. I’ll do crossword puzzles. I’ll listen to opera. I’ll be grumpy in an endearing sort of way.

  3. When I get older I think I’ll throw myself into the path of a passing avalanche. It’s the kind of operatic yet humourous demise I long for. But please don’t play opera at my funeral…

  4. When I get older . . . whoops, too late.

  5. My favorite opera is the Pirates of Penzance. We watch it on DVD as often as we can. The one with Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt. I like to sing Mabel’s part.

    Does Jesus Christ Superstar count? If so, it’s a tie. I sing all the parts. Just for fun, of course. I’m sure I sing them all equally badly.

    My son and I listento opera more than most fathers and sons. Of course, if we listened to even one, that would be a true statement.

    We listen to the non-English ones most. I translate the songs into English for him. The are always about cows and horses and life on the farm, early milkings, methane and moo-cow love.

    Unless they are in French. Then all the parts sing about cheese.

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