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You can never get enough “Summertime”

Lyric's production of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess might not open until November 17, but July is the perfect time to enjoy the opera's opening aria "Summertime," which has become one of the most beloved songs in American music. Here are just a few of our favorite covers that showcase its versatility from a sampling of diverse artists. 

Lyric's production of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess  might not open until November 17, but July is the perfect time to enjoy the opera's opening aria "Summertime," which has become one of the most beloved songs in American music. Its popularity has grown far beyond the operatic world—it's been covered more than 25,000 times (according to the New York Times) by artists of all genres.

Billie Holiday released the first hit cover in 1936, one year after the opera opened. This started a trend of artists making their mark on this great song.  Here are just a few of our favorites that showcase its versatility from a sampling of diverse artists.  

Miles Davis and arranger Gil Evans created one of the most iconic versions on his 1959 album Porgy and Bess, which featured several selections from the opera.

 


The Ramsey Lewis Trio also did a more up-tempo jazz version in 1961. (You can see Ramsey Lewis here at Lyric at our 60th Anniversary Concert on November 1!)

 


R& B singer Billy Stewart arranged the song to accommodate his distinctive scat singing style in 1966.

 


Beninoise singer Angélique Kidjo completely transformed the song into a choral chant backed with percussion on her 2009 best-of collection.

 


British invasion favorites The Zombies, best known for "She's Not There" and "Time of the Season," covered the song in 1965.

 


Soul singer Sam Cooke recorded a cover as the B-side to his single "You Send Me," released in 1957.

 

 
The Doors covered the song in a way that only they can. It feels like it could morph into "Break on Through" at any moment. This live version is from a 1970 concert in Boston.

 


"Summertime" goes surf in this cover by The Ventures (an instrumental band known for "Hawaii Five-O") from 1963.

 

 
Sting covers the song live in concert with the Dutch Orchestra of the 21st Century in this clip from 1990.

 


Turkish pianist Fazil Say performs a solo piano version as an encore after a performance with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony in January 2013:

 


And finally, this is perhaps our favorite for the sheer novelty: Clara Rockmore covers the song on theremin with her sister on piano! (A theremin is an early electronic instrument, patented in 1928, that has been used by everyone from Shostakovich to Led Zeppelin.)

 

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

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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