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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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Opera 101 Overtures: Let’s start at the very beginning…

The overture to The Barber of Seville is one of the most recognizable pieces of music in the world. But what is an overture? Read on for a brief introduction with musical examples!

MicheleMariotti

When you come to the new production of Rossini's The Barber of Seville here at Lyric, the very first notes that you will hear from conductor Michele Mariotti (pictured above) and the Lyric Opera Orchestra are some of the most famous in classical music:

 

(Sir Georg Solti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the overture to Rossini's The Barber of Seville)

Rossini's overture to The Barber of Seville is instantly recognizable to almost anyone who has watched a movie or TV show at some point in their life. (Read more about Rossini and pop culture here).

But what exactly is an overture? Here's a very brief introduction to this musical form.

The overture is simply an instrumental piece that plays before the start of the opera or one of its acts. In opera's early days, many overtures were considered incidental music that played before the audience was even seated. 

This was still the case during Mozart's era. Some of his most famous overtures, The Marriage of Figaro (1786) and Don Giovanni  (1787), might not have even been heard by the audience, who instead were most likely milling around chatting and eating before the official start of the opera.

 

(Herbert von Karajan leads the Vienna Philharmonic in the overture to Mozart's Don Giovanni)

However, this practice quickly changed. Starting in the early 1800s, as Beethoven and Rossini were rising to prominence, the overture became and an essential part of the opera and something to be appreciated by an attentive audience. Beethoven only wrote one opera, Fidelio (first premiered in 1805), but he actually composed four different versions of the overture until he finally had one that he deemed suitable.

 

(Leonard Bernstein leads the Bavarian Broadcast Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3)

Unlike Beethoven, Rossini wrote with astonishing speed, sometimes writing complete operas within a matter of weeks and frequently borrowing from himself to write his crowd-pleasing overtures. In fact, the famous tunes in The Barber of Seville's overture aren't heard in the rest of the opera. Rossini simply borrowed some melodies from two previous compositions: Aureliano in Palmira and Elizabeth, Queen of England.

Later in the 19th century, opera masters Wagner and Verdi truly elevated the overture to something magnificent,  writing atmospheric introductions that also explicitly included the melodies that you were about to hear. Prime examples of this are Wagner's The Flying Dutchman and Verdi's La Forza del Destino, both of which basically have the same function as today's movie previews.  

 

(Sir Georg Solti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Wagner's overture to The Flying Dutchman)

 

(Riccardo Muti leads the Vienna Philharmonic in Verdi's overture to La Forza del Destino)

As the Romantic era wore on, some composers started using the term overture to indicate any standalone orchestral piece. Probably the most famous of these is Tchaikovsky's blockbuster 1812 Overture, written to commemorate Russia's defeat of Napoleon's Grande Armée, which calls for a battery of percussion including cannons.

 

(Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra perform at the BBC Proms)

In the 20th century, overtures continued to be an integral part of musical theater works, with notable examples such as the overtures to Leonard Bernstein's Candide and Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma! becoming famous in their own right.

 

(Overture to Oklahoma!  from the soundtrack to the 1955 film adaptation)

Photo credit: Andrew Cioffi/Lyric Opera of Chicago

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

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