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Opera 101: One-Hit Wonders

Despite his best efforts, Dvořák is primarily known for his symphonic works and not his operas. Not everyone can be Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, or Puccini—here are just a few examples of some other very familiar operatic one-hit wonders from surprising sources.

Most people know Dvořák as a great symphonic composer—his New World Symphony is one of the most recognizable pieces in classical music, and he wrote a wealth of other famous symphonic pieces and notable chamber works.  Here is Herbert von Karajan leading the Vienna Philharmonic in the complete New World Symphony:

 

And though Rusalka  contains a very famous aria, the "Song to the Moon" (pictured  in Lyric's new production below), not many people are even aware that Dvořák wrote one opera—let alone ten.  As Sir Andrew Davis notes in our video preview, Dvořák actually worked quite hard on composing operas and hoped that his operatic contributions would be his legacy. Though it is now firmly in the international repertoire, Rusalka didn't have its Metropolitan Opera premiere until 1993 and Lyric's current production is the Chicago premiere.

Rusalka

Dvořák is a member of a small club, composers who have had only one significant operatic hit. No matter how much fame they achieved, or didn't achieve, in other genres, they were only able to produce one great opera that has entered the standard performing repertoire today.

Not everyone can be Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, or Puccini—here are just a few examples of some very familiar operatic one-hit wonders from surprising sources.

Bizet - Carmen

Carmen

A classic story of passion, jealousy, and betrayal coupled with the eminently hummable tunes that run throughout have turned Carmen into one of the most popular operas of all time. Though Bizet wrote several previous operas, including The Pearl Fishers, none of his other operas has achieved the fame of Carmen. Premiered in Paris in March 1875, the opera was a failure that played to half-empty houses, and Bizet died suddenly near the end of its run without any inkling of the popularity that was just on the horizon. Subsequent revivals in Vienna (1875), London (1878), and New York (1879) cemented its reputation. 

Here is just one of the famous songs from the opera, "Votre toast," also known as the Toreador Song, performed at the Metropolitan Opera in 2010:

                     

Beethoven - Fidelio 

Beethoven worked for years on his only completed opera, a true labor of love that took him nearly ten years to complete. Telling the story of a wife (Leonore) who poses as a boy (Fidelio) to try to rescue her wrongfully imprisoned husband, the opera was first performed in Vienna in 1805 as an utter failure. Beethoven would continue to tinker with the score over the next several years. The overture went through four different versions, and over 300 pages of sketches exist for the entire work. It was at one point condensed to two acts before being restored to three. Finally in 1814, the work premiered to great success and has been regularly performed ever since.

Here is the "Mir, ist so wunderbar" quartet from the Theater an der Wien's 2013 production:

 

Gershwin - Porgy and Bess 

Porgy

By 1935, when Porgy and Bess premiered, George and Ira Gershwin had cemented their place in the Great American Songbook with countless hits like "I've Got Rhythm" and "Someone to Watch Over Me."  George Gershwin had written a short one-act jazz opera in 1922, Blue Monday, that was—you guessed it—a flop! However, that did not kill his desire to write what he called "an American folk opera," so he teamed up with his brother Ira and DuBose Heyward (author of the novel Porgy) to tell the story of the colorful characters Catfish Row, including the hero Porgy and his true love Bess. Once again, Gershwin appeared to have failed, so he moved to Hollywood to compose for films and died two years later.  However, a Houston Grand Opera production in 1976 brought this work back into the spotlight it rightly deserves.

Here's a look at the acclaimed Francesca Zambello production starring Eric Owens from Washington National Opera that is part of Lyric's 2014-15 season:

 

Leoncavallo - Pagliacci 

Pagliacci

Containing one of the most famous tenor arias ever written, "Vesti la giubba," Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci is an enduring masterwork to this day. Premiered in 1892 as the composer's first produced opera, Pagliacci was an instant success with the public (unlike some of our other one-hit wonders). Frequently performed with Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, the piece that actually inspired Leoncavallo to write this work, it's a gritty tale of members of an acting troupe caught up in a love triangle that leads to murder.  Despite many efforts, Leoncavallo was never able to recapture the magic of his first hit. He even wrote his own La bohème, which was vastly outshone by Puccini's opera from the same source material.

Here is the piece's famous aria, "Vesti la giubba," performed by the great Luciano Pavarotti in one of his signature roles:

 

Humperdinck - Hansel and Gretel  

Hansel_and_Gretel

A Christmastime favorite since its premiere in December 1893 (conducted by none other than Richard Strauss!), Hansel and Gretel is based on the classic fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. German composer Englebert Humperdinck wrote the music and his sister Adelheid Wette wrote the libretto—fitting for an opera about a brother and sister. It is just one of several stage works he would compose, but it has far eclipsed anything else he ever did.  The famous "evening prayer" scene is one of the most recognizable operatic tunes.

Here are highlights from Lyric's recent acclaimed production from the 2012-13 season.

 

And here's the prayer scene from Act Two from the Welsh National Opera's 1998 production:

 

Delibes - Lakmé 

Set in India and capitalizing on the craze of all things Eastern at the time, Lakmé was an incredibly popular opera by Leo Delibes, who is also famous for the ballet Copéllia. Premiered in 1883, the opera was for many years known for its soprano showcase, the "Bell Aria" in Act Two. However, in recent years-thanks to its ubiquity in movies and TV commercials-"The Flower Duet" has become this opera's signature showpiece.

 Here are Joan Sutherland and Huguette Tourangeau performing the famous duet:

 

Photo credits (from the top):

  • Ana María Martínez stars in the company premiere Rusalka at Lyric Opera of Chicago, photo by Todd Rosenberg.
  • Nadia Krasteva and Brandon Jovanovich star in Carmen at Lyric Opera of Chicago in March 2011, photo by Dan Rest.
  • A scene from Lyric's 2008 production of Porgy and Bess, photo by Dan Rest.
  • Ana María Martínez and Vladimir Galouzine star in Pagliacci at Lyric in 2009, photo by Dan Rest.
  • Elizabeth De Shong, Jill Grove, and Maria Kanyova star in Hansel and Gretel at Lyric in December 2012, photo by Dan Rest.

(Except for the official Hansel and Gretel highlights, Lyric Opera of Chicago does not own copyrights to any of the above videos.) 

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From Vodník to Wotan: Eric Owens Talks Opera, Comedy, and…Frogs?

A Chicago favorite, Eric Owens is currently starring at Lyric in Dvořák's dark fairy tale Rusalka (on stage through March 16). He found time to answer a few questions about Rusalka, Wotan, and what he likes to do when he's not on stage!

Eric_Owens_Vodnik

An international star and Chicago favorite, Eric Owens is currently starring at Lyric in Dvořák's dark fairy tale Rusalka (on stage through March 16). He'll be a very familiar face over the next few seasons. He's back as Porgy in Porgy and Bess in 2014-15 and makes his role debut as Wotan in Lyric's new Ring cycle starting in 2016-17. Beyond his work on stage, Owens has just committed to be one of two inaugural Lyric Unlimited Community Ambassadors (along with Rusalka co-star Ana María Martínez). He found time to answer a few questions about Rusalka, Wotan, and what he likes to do when he's not on stage!

This is your role debut as Vodník in Rusalka—what has been the most fun part of the role and the most challenging?

The most fun thing is I get to be this frog-like water creature, which is just kooky and awesome.

The most challenging thing is singing in Czech.  It's a language that's so incredibly new. In school we take French, Italian and German and in opera are introduced to Russian just because of the repertoire. It's been wonderful, but it's quite a challenge, especially when there are syllables with absolutely no vowels and you're supposed to figure that out.

How about those webbed feet? Do you enjoy working with elaborate costumes and prosthetics? 

It's great! Months ago, they took a mold of my arms and my feet, so they fit perfectly. They are not a hindrance whatsoever. It makes the character come to life for you and you know exactly what you need to be doing. I've been looking at geckos and salamanders and stuff—I'm not joking—to see how they move!

In some ways, this seems like a Rusalka dream cast - can you give a bit of insight into the rehearsal process with such an amazing group of singers?

When I saw the cast list I thought, "This is going to be great." You have these people who give on stage, and they are not afraid to give the piece its due and whatever the director comes up with. It's a group of good people, fun people who take the work seriously, but don't take themselves seriously. And that's a great combination. 

What do you find most exciting about David McVicar's vision for this work?

He makes it very human, and even though it's a fairy tale and even though my character—all night long—talks about how terrible those humans are, Vodník and Rusalka are embodying very human characteristics and qualities and idiosyncrasies. He brings quite a bit of earthiness to it. It's something to sink your teeth into.

It's funny, this is the first time that I've worked with David even though we've known each other for about 15 years. We've been talking about working together ever since then and finally we are. It's been great; I'm so thrilled. I hope the occasion presents itself where I can work with him again. 

Can you share one moment in Rusalka that Chicago audiences should definitely watch for?

I wish I could see it! I know it's gorgeous, because when we were rehearsing without the lighting, I think I was talking with J'nai  [Bridges, a current member of Lyric's Ryan Opera Center ] and I said, "That looks amazing under the work lights, so once the lighting designer gets a hold of it, it's going to be stunning." And from what people tell me, it is!  

Can you give us any insight into any other Ring preparations you might be doing as you're starting to think about what will certainly be an epic journey with your role debut as Wotan?

I'll tell you one thing, when I was doing Alberich [ed. note, Owens portrayed the dwarf Alberich, another character in the Ring cycle, at the Metropolitan Opera to great acclaim], I noted to myself that Alberich and Wotan are—in some ways—two sides of the same coin. These beings that are frustrated, and there's something missing from their lives and they are out looking for it on the outside, both of them. Just look at all the philandering Wotan does. When I'm approaching that, I try to remember, "What's this guy searching for?" Here he is, basically the Bill Gates-Warren Buffett version of things, and he's unhappy as hell. What is he really searching for and what is he not finding in the comfort of all these many females?

I can't wait to see how this all unfolds, to go on this journey again with the Ring cycle but with a different character being my focus. And, of course, to actually be in Die Walküre is something! In the two Ring cycle productions I've done, I've never seen Die Walküre so to see what's going on in that world and to inhabit it as a performer is something I look forward to. 

In terms of pre-operatic careers, it's well-known that you used to play the oboe. If you had to imagine an alternative, non-musical career for yourself, what would it be?

I still am an oboe player. I'm a recovering oboe player!

Stand-up comedy. We went over to Second City the other night, and it was awesome. I would love to do something like that, that kind of comedy-based theater troupe would be amazing. Those guys are brilliant! Brilliant!

What do you like to do or see in Chicago when you have some time off from rehearsals and performing?

Now that the rehearsal period is over, I'm going to check out some blues clubs and hopefully the weather will warm up a bit. I'll probably go to some CSO concerts and maybe go to another Second City show, but blues definitely—this is the place! 

Photo credit: Todd Rosenberg Photography/Lyric Opera of Chicago

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Dvořák in the Windy City

Dvořák's hauntingly beautiful fairy tale Rusalka is onstage at Lyric now in its Chicago premiere. But did you know that the famed Czech composer, perhaps best known for his New World Symphony, had a Chicago connection?

Dvorak_Chicago

Dvořák's hauntingly beautiful fairy tale Rusalka is onstage at Lyric now in its Chicago premiere. But did you know that the famed Czech composer, perhaps best known for his New World Symphony, had a Chicago connection?

Chicago burned to the ground in 1871 and a little more than two decades later, Chicagoans invited the world to party in the reconstructed city (forever after referred to as "The Second City" since the first one had burned). The steel-frame skyscraper had made its debut here in 1884 (Home Insurance Building) and by 1893 Chicago was indeed the City of the Century, with tall buildings, wide boulevards, and a population that embraced all forms of human progress. Chicagoans were rightfully proud of their rapid ashes-to-modernity trek and they threw a party to be remembered - the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.   

On August 12 of that year, Antonín Dvořák conducted a "Bohemian Day" concert at the fair. It was one of the Exposition's many "Honor Day" celebrations. The idea was for different ethnic groups to showcase their arts and culture, and one of the most prominent of Chicago's many ethnic populations was the Czechs (or Bohemians, as they referred to themselves then).    

Dvořák had left his professorship at the Prague Conservatory in 1892 and moved to the U.S. to become the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York City. His annual salary there was $15,000, which was 25 times what he made in Prague. He was also promised summers off and his teaching duties had him instructing only the most talented of the conservatory's students.  

In 1893 he and his family had taken a train from New York west to the Czech-speaking town of Spillville, Iowa, where they spent the summer. Some of Dvořák's cousins had emigrated there. On their way to Spillville, the Dvořáks stopped in Chicago for a day at the fair. They returned in August for more than a week when Dvořák rehearsed and performed his Eighth Symphony with the Exposition Orchestra - the Chicago Orchestra (the name later changed to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), which was augmented to 114 players. The concert was a phenomenal success with one of the most famous living musicians of the European classical tradition conducting his own works right here in the Windy City.  

Dvořák loved America but was deeply homesick. In 1895 he and his family left New York and returned to their homeland. Dvořák resumed his professorship at the Prague Conservatory and spent the remaining years of his life writing operas and chamber music. He finished composing Rusalka, the most frequently performed of his many stage works, in 1900. It did not receive its premiere at New York's Metropolitan Opera until 1993.

Dvořák died of a stroke in 1904 but his presence can still be felt in Chicago. In 1907 the city created Dvořák Park at 1119 West Cullerton, and a public elementary school (now the Dvořák Technology Academy) was later named in his honor.

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Opera on Ice!

This year's Olympics have featured some gorgeous figure skating routines set to some of the most famous classical music ever written. Here are a few skating routines, some recent and some gems from the past, that showcase the inherent drama of opera.

Opera_on_Ice

The Sochi Olympics have featured some gorgeous skating routines set to some of the most famous classical music ever written. Here are a few skating routines, some recent and some gems from the past, that showcase how well the drama and passion of opera translates to the ice.  

Michelle Kwan brought the crowd to its feet with a dramatic interpretation of Puccini's Tosca at the 2004 U.S. National Championships.

 

Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the reigning couple of ice dancing, waltzed to selections from Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus in 2011. 

 

Katarina Witt was the winner of the "Battle of the Carmens," when both she and American Debi Thomas skated to music from Bizet's Carmen at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary.

 

Canadian Patrick Chan, the silver medalist in Sochi, used music from Puccini's La Bohème for his long program last season.

 

Ekaterina Goordeeva and Sergei Gringkov, one of pairs skating's greatest couples on and off the ice, brought the overture from Rossini's The Barber of Seville to life in this program from 1989.

 

Kristi Yamaguchi channeled Cio-Cio San with this routine set to music from Puccini's Madama Butterfly from 1994.

          


Photo credits: Associated Press

(Lyric Opera of Chicago does not own copyrights to any of the above videos.)

 

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