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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera
Your "Lyric Theatre" program with Keith Brown
Programming Selections for the Months of January and February 2001

Sunday January 7: My opera programming for the first year of the twenty first century begins with utter madness: Tokfursten (“The King of Fools,” 1996), the first opera of Swedish composer Carl Unander-Scharin.  The opera’s central character is a diagnosed schizophrenic who inhabits a Swedish mental hospital.  Scharin took his inspiration form an autobiographical novel The King of Fools by Elgard Johsson.  Could this be the “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” of operatic history?  Tokfursten was recorded in the studios of Swedish Radio, Stockholm in 1998.  A Caprice CD release.  

Sunday January 14: Would you believe Karlheinz Stockhausen, the famous German composer of electronic music, has also written operas?  You’ve already heard two of them.  Both are named after days in the week: Samstag ans Licht (“Saturday from Light,” 1984), which I broadcast on Sunday, January 6, 1991 and Montag aus Licht (“Monday from Light,” 1988), which was aired on Sunday, September 24 of last year.  These works are part of a gigantic planned heptology of performance events.  Now along comes Dienstag aus Licht (“Tuesday from Light,” 1988) that was first intended for an academic/civic celebration.  It was commissioned for the 600th anniversary of Cologne University.  The civic ceremony, with many dignitaries present, was inserted into the body of the performance.  Stockhausen called for nine trumpeters and trombonists, plus two synthesizers in the “Peace Greeting” to the assembled throng.  The rest of the opera is scored for three solo voices, synthesizers, ten solo instrumentalists, four dancer-mimes, choir, an orchestra of various acoustic instruments and tapes.  The music, libretto, choreography and staged action were all by Stockhausen.  He took as his subject the spiritual war between the archangel Michael and the fallen angel Lucifer.  Dienstag aus Licht had its official staged world premiere in the theater of the Leipzig Opera in 1993.  Larry Bilanski will be presenting this Stockhausen opera.  He’s the same guy who resented Montag aus Licht last fall. 

Sunday January 21: Kurt Weill regarded his three-act grand opera Die Burgschaft (“The Bond,” 1932) as the single most important lyric theatre work he ever composed.  Certainly Die Burgschaft is his longest score.  The music is less popular in style than The Three Penny Opera or Mahagonny, but is beautifully crafted overall and terribly poignant at certain points.  The story of “The Bond” is a parable or Passion play for the twentieth century.  It shows how colossal wealth and absolute power destroy the normal trusting business relationships people need to maintain in order to keep our modern civilization truly civilized.  Die Burgschaft was first staged at the dawn of the Third Reich in Germany and serves as a theatrical warning of the horrific barbarism that was to come.  Weill fled the country not long after the opera premiered.  Die Burgschaft was never revived because the full score was presumed lost.  The missing parts turned up in 1993, permitting it to be performed as it had first been heard in Berlin in 1932 at the 1999 Spoleto Festival USA.  This year EMI gave out the world premiere recording of Die Burgschaft on two CD’s in the “Classics” line.  Sung in the original German.


Sunday January 28: Could there be such a thing as a conspiracy to murder classical music composers?  That remote possibility in entertained in a most dramatic way in Rosa: The Death of a Composer (1994), the fruit of a collaboration between classical music composer Louis Andriessen and filmmaker Peter Greenaway, known to the public from Prospero’s Books and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.  The conspiracy assumes Austrian composer Anton Webern was the first victim.  (In truth, Webern was accidentally shot to death by Russian troops of occupation in post-WWII Austria.)  The other details of the conspiracy are quais-fictional.  There is indeed a Mexican abstract painter named Juan Manuel de la Rosa.  Andriessen and Greenaway stole his name and applied it to their film music composer Rosa, who is killed onstage in the proceedings of a theatrical spectacle that includes nudity and faked sexual intercourse – even intercourse with a horse!  The Netherlands Opera commissioned Rosa, the multimedia extravaganza.  What you might call the soundtrack of Rosa was recorded in Amsterdam in 1998 for Nonesuch Records. 

Sunday February 4: Luciano Berio’s Un Re in Ascolto (“A King Listens,” 1984) is an operatic reworking of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, augmented in Italo Calvino’s Italian language libretto by borrowings from the twentieth century poet W.H. Auden and one Friedrich Wilhelm Gotter, who wrote a German language libretto for an eighteenth century opera based on The Tempest.  Berio’s opera could easily be retitled “The Death of Prospero,” since the king by that name hears of one after another misfortunes befalling his kingdom, then dies alone, powerless and in despair.  The world premiere recording of Un Re in Ascolto was made live in performance at the 1984 Salzberg Festival.  Lorin Maazel conducts the Vienna Philharmonic.  The eminent German baritone Theo Adam is heard as Prospero. 

Sunday February 11: By the time George Frideric Handel had written Serse or “Xerxes” (1738), Italian opera was no longer fashionable in London.  Serse was among the very last operas he ever wrote.  There after, he devoted himself to composing oratorios in English language.  Having written so many of them over the decades, it seems the composer no longer took the operatic art form very seriously anymore.  Serse is a typical late baroque opera seria, but it looks forward to the opera buffa style of the later eighteenth century.  Handel scholar Winton Dean says Serse is the most Mozartean of all Handel’s Italian language lyric stage works.  The da capo aria, for instance, have been scaled back to allow for swifter-paced comic action.   The libretto Handel worked from was downright ridiculous.  At the outset of the opera the hero is in love with a tree!  This Sunday will be the third time I have broadcast Serse.  In the early 80’s I aired an old Westminster LP recording of this strangely comic work.  Then on Sunday, March 13 1988 came a “period instruments” interpretation on CBS Masterworks LP’s: Jean-Claude Malgiore conducting the French ensemble La Grand Ecurie et la Chambre du Roy.  That 1979 recording has been reissued on three Sony Classical compact discs, which you hear today. 

Sunday, February 18: Composer Peter Eotvos was born in Hungary in 1944, but has lived most of his life in West Germany and the Netherlands.  As a musical artist his outlook is utterly international.  Three Sisters (1998) is his first full-scale operatic essay.  Based on Anton Chekhov’s play by that name in four acts, Three Sisters the opera was compacted into three long staged “sequences, “ each one focusing on the viewpoint of a different character in the original drama.  Chronological time in the opera has been abandoned, but curiously that serves to clarify the action.  The opera’s former German language libretto was translated back into Russian for its premiere production by Opera of Lyon.  Even more curious, the “sisters” in that production were all male singers – countertenors who lent a gender-bending quality to what was seen on stage and heard in the ethereal sound of their falsetto voices.  The music of Eotvos’ Three Sisters is as eclectic as can be.  The world premiere recording of the opera for Deutsche Gramophon includes a long additional track on the second of two CD’s in which the composer himself explains some of the clever allusions and borrowings contained in his score.  Eotvos co-conducted the recorded performance with Kent Nagano.  Of this DG release reviewer Robert Kirzinger, writing for Fanfare magazine (May/June 2000 issue) says, “Three Sisters is a terrific addition to the repertoire and to the CD catalog.” 

Sunday February 25: This coming Wednesday the 28th will be Ash Wednesday, the start of the penitential season of Lent in the traditional Christian liturgical year.  In the coming month of March I will therefore be featuring primarily religious works: oratorios, settings of the Roman Catholic Mass, etc.  We begin the five-week Lenten period slightly in advance this Sunday with two modern oratorios that derive their musical style in part from the music of Greek Orthodoxy.  Sir John Tavener’s Fall and Resurrection is a suitably grandiose work for the start of the new Christian millennium.  It was recorded for Chandos live in its world premiere performance at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, January 4, 2000.  Tavener has long been fascinated with the mysticism of the Eastern Church.  He has incorporated a Byzantine chant into the orchestral introduction of his oratorio.  Fall and Resurrection meditates upon Adam and Eve’s catastrophic loss of Paradise, but it predicts the salvation of humankind in the Incarnation of the Logos, which is personified in Jesus Christ.  Tavener’s instrumentation calls for a ram’s horn, Tibetan temple bowls and two kaval’s, i.e. Wooden flutes used in Albania, Bulgaria and Turkey.  Richard Hickox directs the City of London Sinfonia, the St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir, the BBC Singers and four vocal soloists.

       Mikis Theodorakis (b.1925) is best known to the world at large by the music he wrote for the 1964 film Zorba the Greek.  In 1960 he completed an oratorio called Axion Esti or “Praise Be,” to a text by his fellow countryman and contemporary Odysseas Elytis.  Similar to Tavener’s Fall and Resurrection, Axion Esti begins with a mediation upon the Judeo-Christian creation myth set forth in the Book of Genesis, passes on to the writer’s reflections on the plight of the Greek nation in World War II, then compared the Passion of Christ with the people’s sufferings in the war and finally reconciles a whole world of sensation, painful and pleasurable alike, in a song praising both Creation and Nothingness.  The instrumentation in this work has parts for buzuki, a type of Greek lute, and sanduri, a Greek dulcimer.  The text of Axion Esti was translated into German and retitled Lobgepriesen sei for the Berlin Classics recording of the oratorio, made in Leipzig in 1982 with the composer conducting.  A 1998 BC compact disc release.

       More than in past two-month periods of programming, for the midwinter stretch I drew upon the private collection of Rob Meehan, former classics deejay here at WWUH and a specialist in twentieth century alternative music.  I must thank him publicly for the loan for broadcast of his recording of Stockhausen’s Dienstag aus Licht, Andriessen’s Rosa, Berio’s Un Re in Ascolto and Eotvos’ Three Sisters.  Weill’s Die Burgschaft comes from my own collection.  The recordings of Unander-Scharins’ opera Tokfursten and the oratorios by Tavener and Teodorakis are new acquisitions for our station’s ever-growing library of classical music on disc.  Handel’s Serse I have borrowed from the music library of the Hartt School of Music, with the kind permission of head librarian Lind Blottner.  The Hartt School is one of the two fine arts colleges that are part of the University of Hartford.  Last of all, I must thank my fellow WWUH staff member Larry Bilanski for making it possible for me to take a midwinter Sunday off.

Copyright©WWUH: January/February Program Guide, 2001

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