The Opera Ladies

By Gwen Hoffnagle

This hour-long radio program aired Sunday, March 6th, 1988, as part of “Women Aloud,” a full weekend of women’s programming produced by women on KRCL in Salt Lake City, Utah.

(For the sake of readability, I was quite generous with commas, and with conjunctions – even at the beginning of sentences. The script has a personal tone for the same reason. Please take this into account as you evaluate the writing.)

BACKGROUND MUSIC:           Introductory music from Carmen

COMMENTATOR:       Curtain up! Light the lights! And we’re ready for the opera ladies. This afternoon these ladies will help us escort our listeners through a bit of operatic history. We’ll be hearing several different musical styles and a variety of female characterizations, and we’ll explore just how diverse the opera ladies can be. They’ll take us to far off lands and times, create dimensions for us through their music, and perhaps, by the time we’re through, they will have tickled your fancy and inspired you to look into spending more time with the opera ladies.

So much of opera has to do with history. The contributions of women to the world of opera go back to the days when eunuchs first stepped down from the musical stage. These men were actually castrated in their youth and trained to sing female roles, because ladies were simply not allowed on stage. Thankfully, for both sexes, castration went out of style. From the time of the first roles written specifically for female singers, the opera ladies have risen to the many challenges of the musical stage. Along with this achievement came the honor of being true ladies, and they created their roles with a range of characteristics as wide as the span between Lady Godiva and Lady Chatterley. 

Though today we may consider the term lady to be passé, one wonders if the characters today’s women opera singers become when the spotlights shine and the curtain opens, really can, or even should, shed their built-in history of ladyship. Without the influence of all the opera ladies who have gone before, the characters on stage might lose the special life that those ladies continue to breathe into them.

BACKGROUND MUSIC:           Introduction to Porgy and Bess

COMMENTATOR:       Even an opera that premiered as recently as 1935 can give us the feeling that a woman can be a lady without sacrificing her womanly strengths, and that a woman can be a lady even though she may be poor, black, and unable to see beyond the tenement world she lives in. From such a world George Gershwin inspired motherhood to rise and find its age-old purpose in a song beloved by women of all backgrounds. In a simple but haunting lullaby from his opera Porgy and Bess, Clara offers her nursing baby all she has of optimism and hope in the face of despair. Add to the mournful tune and the words of a bittersweet dream, the ironic setting of a Carolinian waterfront tenement which has been carved out of the ruins of a mansion of the old south, and you have all the elements of a scene that women relate to in a special way. And the character is every inch a lady.

MUSIC:            “Summertime,” from Porgy and Bess

COMMENTATOR:       We heard Leontyne Price under the direction of Skitch Henderson, with the RCA Victor Chorus and Orchestra, from an RCA recording.

Now that we’ve started at the chronological end of our journey, let’s go back to the beginning. Opera had more than a century to develop before Mozart hit the scene with his first contribution in 1781. But it was he who expanded the dynamics of the art to their fullest and set the stage for almost all the directions in which opera would venture as an art form from then on. His last opera, Die Zauberflöte, or The Magic Flute, is a masterful combination of all his various talents, both musical and dramatic. His ability to mix comic plots with dramatically serious music found a perfect home with this fairytale text. The story is symbolic, paralleling a real-life political controversy of the time surrounding the Masonic lodges of Austria and the mysterious origins in Egyptian mythology of the Freemasons’ rites and rituals. All the hoopla really accomplished was to further the Masons’ publicity efforts. But at that time in Vienna, armed forces had even been employed by the Empress Maria Theresa to break up the lodge gatherings.  

Into the role of the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute, Mozart wrote characteristics that identify her with Maria Theresa. The story takes place in the fantasy realm of the Queen of the Night, who is vexed over the kidnapping of her daughter, Pamina, by the queen’s adversary in sorcery. Pamina has been seen to represent the Austrian people who were being lured into Masonic lodges, which the empress thought was contrary to their best interests. The queen is a vengeful queen, as was the empress in real life, and her musical fireworks reflect perfectly her impatience to have revenge. The part was specifically written for Ms. Josefa Hofer, who, by her sheer ability to perform the nightmare Mozart had written for her, set an important precedent for all coloratura sopranos to come. These high-pitched antics were also the perfect expression of the queen’s passionate but shallow nature. In her aria from Act II, she desperately implores Pamina to kill the queen's sinister rival, or she will break all ties with her.

MUSIC:            “Queen of the Night,” from The Magic Flute

COMMENTATOR:       From a Phillips recording we heard the Dresden State Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis. Luciana Serra sang the role of the Queen of the Night.

BACKGROUND MUSIC:           Brunnhilde’s battle cry from Die Walküre

COMMENTATOR:       We’ve been listening to possibly the most famous lines in opera. It’s Birgit Nillson as Brunnhilde, the Viking-helmeted Valkyrie warrior, singing her battle cry from the second opera of Richard Wagner’s epic four-day festival play called Das Ring des Nibelungen, or The Ring of the Nibelung.

There is an incredible amount of information available with which to prepare oneself for listening to an opera by Wagner. More has been written in analysis of his music than that of any other composer, and without some amount of study, it can be difficult just to follow his story lines, even with a translation. But if you have a few hours to spare on a lazy afternoon and would like to invest them in a truly rewarding experience, I recommend checking out from the library a recording of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. Be sure it has a booklet with it; the little booklet is indispensable. It should have background information, a synopsis of the story, an explanation of the musical themes in the opera, and the libretto, or text, translated into English. Stage directions are usually provided in the libretto so you can picture the action taking place as you follow along. 

The most Wagnerian of Wagnerian sopranos, Kirsten Flagstad, warned singers of Wagner to be sure to wear comfortable shoes, and I would also recommend that you get really comfy, be sure you won’t be interrupted, relax, and read the libretto as you listen to the opera. Tristan and Isolde is an intimate and personal adventure into the strengths and weaknesses of the human spirit. I promise that you will have a unique personal experience, even if you vow never to listen to another Wagner opera again.

Wagner’s scores provide us with some of the most thrilling and moving music ever written for the stage, and women who have the required vocal range and technique can have a field day with the downright drippy romanticism of the vocal lines. Listen as we play the very end of Tristan and Isolde. There’s really no need to read the translation; the closing scene is the penultimate musical expression of this tale of tragic passion, in which Isolde’s prayer to be united with Tristan in a state of legendary love-death is answered. At the conclusion of her aria, sung over the body of her loved-one, Isolde dies from grief. The sophisticated sonorities can’t hide the simple beauty of Isolde’s last earthly tribute to her Tristan, who is waiting for her to join him in immortality.

MUSIC:            “Verklarung,” from Tristan and Isolde

COMMENTATOR:       Well, that was long, but I think it was worth it! Margaret Price sang Isolde’s final aria, known as “Transfiguration,” from a Deutsche Gramaphon recording with the Dresden State Orchestra under the direction of Carlos Kleiber. Tristan and Isolde premiered in 1865.

BACKGROUND MUSIC:           Opening chorus of bridesmaids from Ruddigore

COMMENTATOR:       The Gilbert and Sullivan operetti of the latter 1800s are a combination of dialogue and song in which the convoluted plots and moral messages are perhaps only second in importance to the sheer delight and merriment we experience in managing to follow the action to the end. Many of us grew up singing little phrases from the Pirates of Penzance, H.M.S. Pinafore, or The Mikado, and indeed, these operetti are a perfect vehicle by which to introduce children, or anyone else for that matter, to the world of opera.

Picture this: a fishing village in Cornwall, England, which engages a bevy of professional bridesmaids to be on duty from 10:00 to 4:00 each day, standing by in the event that someone should like to be married. (Already, Mr. Gilbert is poking fun at the exaggerated importance placed on the institution of marriage, seeing as the townspeople would not want to pass up the opportunity of a betrothal just for lack of bridesmaids.) They are currently on hand outside the cottage of Ms. Rose Maybud, wishing that her modesty would moderate itself long enough for her to profess her love for Robin Oakapple, the shy and unassuming farmer whom she loves from afar. Later, Rose and Robin’s engagement will be shattered by the revelation of his true identity as Sir Murgatroyd, unhappy heir to the curse of the house of Ruddigore. But meanwhile, the bridesmaids are impatiently awaiting some sign of resolve from Rose. So let’s hear her tell us, while she reverently refers to her guidebook on etiquette, why she has so far found herself unable to profess her love for Robin. From the London recording of the D’oyly Carte Opera Company, conducted by Isidore Godfrey, here is Jean Hindmarsh singing Rose Maybud’s ballad from Act I of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore.

MUSIC:            Rose Maybud’s balled, from Act I of Ruddigore

BACKGROUND MUSIC:           Introduction to Macbeth

COMMENTATOR:       And now for the antithesis of bridesmaids, let’s hear from some witches. We’ll back up just a bit to an opera from about 1850. In Giuseppe Verdi’s version of Macbeth, the evil and ambitious Lady Macbeth steals the show from her spineless husband. But she’s practically upstaged by a hovel of witches. They throw the whole of eleventh century Scottish tutelage out of whack through their sorcery and influence on the fate of the Macbeths. Goaded into action by their falsely attractive predictions, Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth manage to kill off several nobles in line to the throne of Scotland. But by the time Macbeth is at last crowned, his queen is dead as well. They’re a sorry pair if ever there was one, and Verdi has created such wondrously evil witches that it’s more fun to be on their side than on the Macbeths’. Verdi also proves that making music for the meanies is as good a showcase for his talents as writing breathtaking ballads. Listen to this marvelous translation of the dirge they sing just prior to evoking the apparitions who will haunt Macbeth during Act III:

            Come! Round the cauldron go in haste

            Mix we, in a circle, potent brews

            Sisters, to work! The water steams already

            Hissing, bubbling!

            Thou poisonous toad that Wolbane dost suck

            Thou briar, thou root, at twilight torn up

            Go, bubble and cook in the devil’s pot

            Thou tongue of viper, thou wool of bat

            Thou blood of monkey, thou tooth of dog

            Go, boil and bubble in the hellish slime

            Boil! Boil! and you, spirits

            Black and white, red and blue,

            White and black

            You who know well how to mix

            Stir the hellish brew!

MUSIC:            “Witches’ Incantation,” from Macbeth

COMMENTATOR:       We heard the Chorus of the Saint Cecilia Academy of Rome under the direction of Thomas Shippers, from a London recording.

BACKGROUND MUSIC:           “Habanera,” from Carmen

COMMENTATOR:       Here’s an opera lady who’s anything but a lady! This is the “Habanera” from Carmen, Georges Bizet’s lively and popular French opera about a brazen Spanish gypsy rebel who never ceases to fascinate opera-goers. One reason for this is the broad variety of interpretations the role has enjoyed since its premiere in 1875 at a theatre that housed what we might equate with musicals today. Carmen quickly became the highlight of a career for many a grand opera lady. The most notable Carmen was Emma Calve, who was successful by relying on her acting abilities rather than on having the strong, chesty voice now associated with the role. She was practically born to create a lasting interpretation of Carmen. She was the daughter of a French provincial farmer, but was raised in Spain, where she was fascinated by the language and lifestyle of the Spanish gypsies. Let’s hear Victoria de los Angeles with the Orchestra of the French National Radio Station, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, singing the “Seguidilla,” with which she captures the heart of Don Jose, the soldier whose unhappy fate it is to fall in love with Carmen.

MUSIC:            “Seguidilla,” from Carmen

COMMENTATOR:       Emma Calve stretched the provinciality of Carmen to its utmost. Shaw, a leading opera critic of the time, described it this way:

            "There is no suggestion of any fine quality about her, not a spark of honesty, courage, or even the sort of honor supposed to prevail among thieves… To see Calve’s Carmen changing from a live creature into a reeling, staggering, flopping, disorganized thing, and finally, tumble down a mere heap of carrion, is to get much the same sensation as might be given by the reality of a brutal murder… It was the desecration of a great talent. I felt furious with Calve."

I dare say she probably got just the reaction she wanted, and not only did she elicit an emotional response from Mr. Shaw, but through what she claimed to be three thousand performances, she inspired other great Carmens. Singers such as Maria Jeritza and Geraldine Farrar took her destruction of the conventions of operatic decorum one step further and played Carmen as though she were a silent movie vamp. Ms. Farrar was once so carried away with her performance that she bit Enrico Caruso, and then socked him one, right on stage! Then there were the post-war idealistic and feminine Carmens, passionately valuing independence of spirit above personal security. 

To survive the close scrutiny of Carmen-lovers and critics, performing the role requires an easy-going but convincing sensuality, a confident acting style, proficiency in folk dancing, and a powerful voice with a velvety, and at times gutsy, middle range. It has become a highly specialized role, and the audience is as likely to hate you as to love you, for being too much a temptress, or too much a lady. This is the result of a legacy begun in the nineteenth century by women who didn’t have to wonder if it were possible to achieve the kinds of things men in their profession were achieving; they knew it could be done, and they did it.

MUSIC:            “Gypsy Song,” from Carmen

BACKGROUND MUSIC:           Introductory music to “Sensa Momma,” from Suor Angelica

COMMENTATOR:       At the turn of the 20th century, Giacomo Puccini was writing such operatic gems as La Boheme, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly. Then, in 1918, he presented his Il Trittico, an evening of three separate one act operas in differing styles, the second of which was Suor Angelica, or Sister Angelica, which provided the sentimental interval between the other two faster-paced operas. It is special in that the cast is entirely female. What do you expect, one might ask, from an opera that takes place in a nunnery? But more than just a story about a nun, it is about human bonds that transcend those between a man and a woman because they cannot be destroyed. These bonds are Sister Angelica’s love for her God and her love for her young son, from whom she has been separated for seven years since being banished to a cloistered existence.

“Sensa Momma” is the aria that has survived through many decades during which Suor Angelica received very few performances. Its survival has won the opera renewed attention, enabling it to be revived in the repertoire of several major opera companies during the 1980s. 

Sister Angelica has just learned that her son took ill and died two years ago. The aria is translated this way:

            Without a mother, my baby, you died

            Your lips, without my kisses, grew pale and cold

            And you closed, my baby, your beautiful eyes

            Not being able to caress me, you folded your little hands in a cross

            And you died without knowing how much your mother loved you

            Now that you are an angel in heaven, you can see your mother

            You can come down from the sky and I feel you fluttering about me

            You are here, you are here; you kiss me and caress me

            Oh, tell me, when shall I see you in heaven?

            When shall I kiss you?

            Oh, sweet end to all my sorrows, when can I join you in heaven?

            When shall I die, oh when shall I die?

            Tell your mother, pretty baby, with a tiny twinkle of a star

            Speak to me, speak to me, my love

MUSIC:            “Sensa Momma,” from Suor Angelica

COMMENTATOR:       Renatta Scotto sang “Sensa Momma” for us from a Columbia recording conducted by Lorin Maazel with The New Philharmonia Orchestra. And now on to Richard Strauss…

MUSIC:            Sophi and Octavian’s love duet, from Der Rosenkavalier

COMMENTATOR:       I just couldn’t cheat you out of a love duet today. Yes, we just heard Teresa Stich-Randall and Christa Ludwig singing a love duet from Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, from an Angel recording with Herbert Von Karajan and The Philharmonia Orchestra. You say you didn’t know they permitted such things on stage in 1911? Well, the truth of the matter is that one of these ladies was singing the role of a young man; young enough that Mr. Strauss wanted to orchestrate the role with a female voice to give us a very special kind of characterization. So-called trouser roles are not uncommon in opera, and are, perhaps, a tribute not only to the versatility of the female voice, but to the broad emotional range that women can perceive and perfect. Composers, through the years, have readily embraced the unique contributions, such as the trouser roles, that the opera ladies have been only too eager to make. Strangely enough, the importance of machismo in male roles can be seen to have increased over the years, while even the snootiest of prima donnas has been willing and eager to don men’s clothing and sing a trouser role now and then, adding a unique dimension to the phenomenon which is opera.

BACKGROUND MUSIC:           Last verse and chorus to “Climbing Over Rocky Mountains” from The Pirates of Penzance

COMMENTATOR:       Thank you for joining the opera ladies this afternoon. There are lifetimes of opera to read, listen to, and enjoy, and it’s been our pleasure to introduce you to our little sampling. Most of the credit, of course, goes to the opera ladies.