Hello, we are Friday, October 22, 2021, the day of the week where I take up quotes intended to be uplifting or educational. Today’s lines come from two famous American authors of the 19th century, and on the same subject: the grand opera.
The news of this morning’s missive is that the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City first opened on this date in 1883. The encounter, as the opera company quickly became known (and still is), was then located at 1423 Broadway, between 39th and 40th streets. The opera performed that evening was “Faust” by Charles Gounod. He is an aging scholar who trades with Satan. The devil gives him everything he asks for: knowledge, power, youth, love. The price is high, of course: his immortal soul.
Although written in German, the opera was sung in Italian, which 19th century music lovers expected. The Great Hall operated until 1966, when the Met moved to Lincoln Center. The last performance at the old Met was Puccini’s venerable “La Bohème”. (Here is Singing pavarotti a familiar air of this work. And here is the evocative duet “La Bohème” that most Americans know – even if they don’t know where it is – sung by Nicole Car and Michel Fabien at the Royal Opera.)
The first opera I ever saw was the San Francisco Opera production of “Carmen”. Like the movie “The Princess Bride”, Bizet’s work is perfect for children and adults. There is everything: knife fights, bullfights, love triangles and, above all, memorable music. Tchaikovsky saw “Carmen” performed in Paris in 1875, with the original cast, and declared it “a masterpiece in every sense of the word”. When it was performed later in Vienna, Wagner, Brahms and Otto von Bismarck praised it.
Written by a Frenchman and performed for the first time in Paris, the opera takes place in Spain and is often sung in Italian. In her 1920 novel, “The Age of Innocence,” Edith Wharton had fun with this sort of thing: “An unalterable and unchallenged law of the musical world,” she writes, “demanded that the German text of operas French sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for better understanding of English speaking audiences. “
It’s a funny line – and the first of our two quotes this morning – but the night I saw “Carmen” in San Francisco, it was sung in English, and I was hooked. Perhaps my parents learned their lesson too much: the next opera they took me to was “Boris Godunov”. It is a long and heavy work, set in Russia, and sung in Russian, and I was only 12 years old. I won’t lie: I dozed off during parts of “Boris”. (That said, I was wide-eyed, like any boy, when the Russians stuffed the “False Dmitry” into a cannon and sent it back to Poland.)
Where we see our first operas and who sang them is an essential part of the experience. Great Nicolai Gedda sung in “Boris” when I was there. And the adorned San Francisco War Memorial would be awesome for anyone of any age to see it for the first time.
Dedicated to the American war dead of World War I, this is where the Charter of the United Nations was drafted in 1945 and has staged thousands of operas since it opened in 1932. When I was there , a boy was pointed out to me as being present when Enrico Caruso sang at the old opera house the day before it was destroyed, along with most of the city, by the earthquake of 1906. It certainly was possible: Caruso had sung the role of Don José in “Carmen” for the first time at the Met two months earlier, a performance so exceptional that Californians loudly clamored for the great Italian tenor – and the New York Metropolitan Opera – – to perform “Carmen”. The Met obliged. On the night of April 17, 1906, in a new doomed opera house that took up an entire block of Mission Street, Don Jose and Carmen and the handsome matador Escamillo performed and sang their equally doomed entanglement. Can you imagine having been there?
“A pretty aria in an opera is prettier there than it would be elsewhere, I suppose, just as an honest politician shines brighter than he would elsewhere.” This is Mark Twain and this is our quote of the week.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Join him on Twitter @CarlCannon.