On a desert island…in Toronto.

painting shipwreck Shakespeare's The Tempest

Romney’s painting for the shipwreck in The Tempest

There you are on a desert island, the place where what-if questions are always posited.  One is asked impossible hypotheticals, such as “If you were on a desert island, and you could only take one book, one DVD, one beverage, one appliance… which one would you take.”

Okay, here’s another impossible question, one I am sure you’ve never heard.  If you were cast ashore on that desert island, what opera would you decide to set on your island, and then enact on the island?

It’s an odd question, yes.  But curiously enough, lots of operas are set on the proverbial desert island.

Two operas immediately popped into my head, because of current events, namely the two comparatively recent adaptations of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  One premiered in 2004, with music composed by Thomas Adès, and a libretto by Meredith Oakes adapted from Shakespeare; this Tempest will premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in the 2012-13 season in a production to be directed by Robert Lepage.  The other, with a libretto adapted from Shakespeare by Mark Shulgassser, was composed by Lee Hoiby, the American compsoer who passed away this week; Schirmer say it was composed in 1985.  I wonder if Hoiby is reading this from some paradisal setting, possibly at peace, possibly disgruntled that the wrong setting is coming to the Met.

One of the earliest operas we know of, is Monteverdi’s setting of the Ariadne story, L’Arianna.  Curiously the opera about the mythological castaway is itself as lost as if it were a ship wrecked at sea.  I find this very poignant, particularly because one tiny little bit of it survives, like a little chunk of wreckage found floating in the vast ocean.  We have not lost Ariadne’s lament “Lasciatemi morire” (or “let me die”), one of the earliest pieces I learned to play on the piano.  I learned it because it’s in that Schirmer anthology of Italian arias that everyone gets, but also because it’s easy to play.  This tiny little composition –on a single page in the Schirmer book– is a powerful little drama.  Hear it for yourself:

….how odd, you may think that a man sings this.  But the circumstances are not so different than a popular Broadway song, or a tune from a Hollywood film.  Youtube has versions of this song by Jewel (yes that one: the pop singer), Paul Robeson, as well as several wonderful recordings sung by women.  I chose to use Corelli because it corresponds to my own early experience of the work.  I first played the accompaniment while my brother sang it.

Of course this is just a roundabout way of introducing my favourite desert island opera, namely Ariadne auf Naxos. With libretto by Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, and music by Richard Strauss –after Giacomo Puccini, possibly the most successful opera composer of the last century, — this is a very sophisticated take on the story.

Dale Ferguson's design

Dale Ferguson’s design for Zerbinetta on the beach

The Canadian Opera Company are opening a new production of the Strauss opera in the next few weeks, and I can’t wait.  The designs, posted on the COC’s blog, elicited these ruminations.  I shared them to Facebook, where friends and I had a bit of an exchange that led me here.

Upon seeing that Zerbinetta has three costumes, including one outfit she puts on when she realizes that she’ll be on an exotic island, James Fretz said “It is so important to have the perfect island wear. It can’t be stressed too much.”

I replied “Seriously, if you could pick one opera character to travel with, wouldn’t Zerbinetta be close to the top of the list?”  …Because of course her happy demeanor is the opposite of sad Ariadne.

And so for awhile we wondered about operatic travel-companions.  Some of them are pretty dreary:

  • don’t get in a boat with Peter Grimes
  • ditto for The Flying Dutchman
  • Aschenbach (Death in Venice) will talk your ear off
  • don’t open the door to Jack the Ripper (Lulu)
  • and it’s hard to imagine enjoying a glass of zinfandel sitting in an outdoor café with either Alberich or Mime
  • you’d enjoy tagging along after Don Giovanni however

Yes, the questions are nerdy to the extreme.  I guess i need a vacation and it doesn’t have to involve a desert island.  In the meantime, we don’t have to travel any further than the opera house, where we’ll encounter a strange juxtaposition of characters, some fun, some serious.  The premise for Ariadne auf Naxos reminds me of the crazy mashups of ideas you’d see in a sketch from Second City.

If you missed the Battle of the PBS Stars, Julia Child boxes with Mr Rogers (the clip above).  Odd as this may seem, the combination of one template (battle of the stars)  with another (recognizable PBS celebrities) creates something new and completely absurd.

Ariadne auf Naxos is much the same.  A rich man’s entertainment is to include two contrasting entertainments:

  • a comic scene of commedia dell’arte
  • a serious operatic scene

Imagine if suddenly, due to time constraints, they were forced to play simultaneously.  That’s the bizarre premise for Strauss’s opera, as comedy and tragedy share the stage together.

For instance, in this little excerpt Harlequin sings a simple song in an attempt to lift Ariadne’s spirits, accompanied not only by his commedia cohort but also by Echo, one of the mythological nymphs on the island.  It’s a strange mix, which is why i invoked SCTV.  While I’m not sure it always works (some operas, in comparison, seem indestructible), when it does work the blend of sublime and ridiculous is pure theatre magic.

Ariadne auf Naxos, at the Four Seasons Centre, April 30-May 29

The designs, posted on the COC’s blog, elicited these ruminations.  I shared them to Facebook, where friends Joseph Fretz, Donald Arthur and I had a bit of an exchange that led me here.
This entry was posted in Essays, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays. Bookmark the permalink.

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