It's not easy to talk about death. We associate dying with so much suffering and loss. But for many people, the end of life is full of peaceful remembrance of the moments and relationships that have meant the most. For the leading man in Puccini's Tosca, that's the sweetness and beauty of his beloved. Caught up in the messy politics of his time, Mario Cavaradossi has been arrested, interrogated, and tortured. And then, he's sentenced to death. "E lucevan le stelle" finds Cavaradossi in his prison cell one hour before his execution. He knows his life is over, and what does he do? He gets lost in a daydream about a passionate night spent with Tosca. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the memories and dreams that give us meaning at the end of our lives. Joseph Calleja, A.K.A. The Maltese Tenor, sees a lot of himself in Cavaradossi - they're both men of intensity and passion. He says that if the spectrum of human emotion were a harp, Puccini knew exactly the right string to pluck at just the right moment to convey the emotion the character is feeling. Carolyn Abbate teaches music at Harvard University and writes about opera, including the book A History of Opera. One of the memories that she holds most dear is of an afternoon spent in a meadow with her son when he was young. Dr. Christopher Kerr is the CEO and Chief Medical Officer at Buffalo Hospice and Palliative Care. Chris recently wrote a book called Death is But a Dream: Finding Hope and Meaning at LIfe's End, about the dreams and visions that many people experience at the end of their lives. This work was later turned into a film, which became the basis of a Netflix production and a PBS World documentary.
In order to be a Roman Emperor, you had to be entirely cold-blooded. It was a violent world of infighting, ruthless slander, and take-no-prisoners politics — a world where rulers would kill a million people and enslave a million more just to flex their power. This was the Game of Thrones setting that George Frideric Handel chose for Agrippina. The opera's name comes from Empress Agrippina the Younger, a woman of ambition and influence, and this episode focuses on someone who inadvertently stands in her way: the hapless Ottone. He doesn't realize that becoming the heir to the throne has put a target on his back, and that Agrippina is aiming to take him down. Eventually she turns everyone against Ottone, leaving him in total despair. Having lost his friends, his future, and the love of his life, Ottone asks "Why me?" in the aria "Voi che udite il mio lamento." Host Rhiannon Giddens and three guests take you on a tour of the cutthroat politics of ancient Rome, a world of murder and mayhem that still has something to teach us today. Countertenor Iestyn Davies likes singing the role of Ottone because as the only honest character in the opera, he's an audience favorite. This was the last role he sang at the Met right before the lockdown, and he knows that his future performances will be deepened by his experience of the pandemic. Handel expert Dr. Alison DeSimone is an assistant professor of musicology at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, where she teaches courses in music of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. She loves how Handel gets to the emotional depths of all of his characters, making them feel like real people. She recently published a book called The Power of Pastiche about music and culture in 18th-century England. Historian Dr. Emma Southon is a recovering academic, writer, podcast host, and scholar of the ancient world. She's amused that ancient Romans are presented as paragons of civilization and culture even though their murder and mudslinging is anything but civilized. She wrote her first book, a biography of Agrippina, because she felt the Empress deserved her own book and no one else was stepping up to write it.
Almost three hundred years ago, the English artist William Hogarth created a series of paintings called A Rake's Progress, which tell the tragic story of a man whose life spirals out of control after inheriting an unexpected fortune. He leaves behind a fiancée, and it is her story of devotion that reverberates through Igor Stravinsky's opera The Rake's Progress and the aria "No Word from Tom." In this episode, you'll visit with Hogarth's paintings, hear how Stravinsky captured the undying loyalty of the forgotten lover and get an inside look at how unexpected fortune and fame upended the family of Vivian Liberto and Johnny Cash. Yes, that Johnny Cash. And, yes, in this podcast about Igor Stravinsky. And here's the best part: the incomparable Dawn Upshaw will sing it for you from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. The Guests: Soprano Dawn Upshaw has performed The Rake's Progress many times and says that some of her happiest moments on an opera stage were when she was singing the role of the devoted fiancée, Anne Trulove. Tara Cash is the youngest daughter of Johnny Cash and his first wife, Vivian Liberto. When she was growing up, everyone always wanted to hear about her father's life. Now, she welcomes the opportunity to share her mother's side of the story. Joanna Tinworth is Curator (Collections) at Sir John Soane's Museum in London, where the original paintings, A Rake's Progress by William Hogarth, have resided for over 200 years. Hogarth's paintings are among the museum's most popular exhibits. Michael Bragg is the Music Planning Associate and Librarian at San Francisco Opera. He gives lectures and talks about opera around the Bay area, and he loves Stravinsky because of the composer's unique approach to blending old and new styles of music. Below is the first painting in Hogarth's series A Rake's Progress, entitled "The Heir." You can see the complete set of paintings here, courtesy of Sir John Soane's Museum. William Hogarth, "The Heir," from "A Rake's Progress" series, the inspiration for Stravinsky's opera. (Photo: Sir John Soane's Museum, London)
Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro: Count On a Reckoning
Maybe you've heard this one before: a powerful man abuses his privilege and wealth to exploit the women in his life. When confronted with the fact that they're not his playthings, he throws a fit and blames everyone but himself. Sound like your daily news alert? It's Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, but somehow the world of feudal Spain in the 1700s is still distressingly familiar today. The aria "Hai già vinta la causa" traces the emotions of the aristocratic and imperious Count Almaviva when he realizes that his wife and servants have been plotting his comeuppance. Filled with rage that they won't bend to his will, the Count offers up one of the great temper tantrums in opera history. And don't be surprised if the Count's anger gives you flashbacks to headline news from the very recent past. The Guests: Bass-baritone Gerald Finley spent the first decade of his career playing the wily factotum Figaro, and now he sings the controlling Count Almaviva in opera houses around the world. He loves throwing himself into the fire and fury in this aria, but also holds tight to the belief that the Count is truly repentant in the end. Professor Sharon Marcus teaches English and comparative literature at Columbia University. When it came to music, her mother insisted that she grow up listening to classical. She first met the Count in The Marriage of Figaro when she was still in grade school. Laura Bassett is a freelance journalist and an opinion columnist for MSNBC. She originally wanted to be an academic. but the 2008 presidential election convinced her that she needed to be writing stories about the national conversations we're having today. She's written extensively about abuses of power in politics and the instances of sexual harassment that have dominated headlines in recent years.
Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro: Count On a Reckoning
Rossini's Barber of Seville: On a Wig and a Prayer
Chances are, you know the overture to The Barber of Seville (maybe from Bugs Bunny?!) but Gioachino Rossini's most famous opera is more than a comedic romp. Embedded in the topsy-turvy tale of young love and silly disguises, there is a story of forced marriage and a woman's determination to live a life of her choosing. We meet the heroine Rosina for the first time in the aria "Una voce poco fa," in which she declares that while she may seem sweet and innocent, she is really not someone to be messed with. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the courage it takes to live life on your own terms and the way this almost absurd story pulled from a centuries-old novel still resonates today. You'll hear how one guest has her own escape-from-a-forced-marriage story that uncannily matches Rosina's.The Guests: Soprano Pretty Yende first sang the role of Rosina in Norway in 2014, and it's since become one of her favorite roles. She loves playing Rosina because the character is fun, witty, and unlike so many operatic heroines, she gets to hit all the high notes and live happily ever after. Conductor James Conlon is Music Director of the Los Angeles Opera. He first heard The Barber of Seville when he was 11 years old and fell in love on the spot. Later that summer, he made his debut as director, producer, and Count Almaviva in his friend's garage, with a very appreciative audience lined up in the driveway. Activist Jasvinder Sanghera is a survivor of forced marriage. She has spent the last four decades advocating for women, children, and men silenced by domestic abuse and forced marriages, and founded the award-winning charity Karma Nirvana in 1993.
Rossini's Barber of Seville: On a Wig and a Prayer
They say you can't go home again, and Giuseppe Verdi's Aida knows it all too well. Captured from her homeland of Ethiopia and enslaved in Egypt, she falls in love with an Egyptian warrior. Aida is torn between her love for this man and her love for her home and, because it's opera, she ultimately chooses the tenor. In "O Patria Mia," Aida stands on the banks of the Nile and says goodbye to Ethiopia. In this episode, host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore what home means, and what it means to leave it behind. The Guests Soprano Latonia Moore has sung the role of Aida more than a hundred times. She made her Met debut in the role with a day and a half's notice, and it launched her international career. As a Black soprano, she feels like she has joined the club of great singers who have taken on the role. Naomi André is a professor of Afro-American and African Studies and Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Michigan. She wrote her dissertation on Verdi's operas and was blown away the first time she saw Aida at the Met. She thinks it's amazing that a story about ancient Egypt still resonates today, and she still finds something new in the work every time she sees it. Poet and visual artist Mahtem Shiferraw is from Ethiopia and Eritrea, but now lives in Los Angeles. Coming to the U.S. as an adult, she had to completely rebuild her sense of identity and belonging, and her understanding of home. Growing up in Ethiopia, she went to an Italian school and acted in a non-opera production of Aida.
Sometimes, the only thing that gets us through the darkest moments is knowing that the sun will rise again on a new day. Puccini's final opera, Turandot, is about courage in the face of adversity, and love triumphing over fear. In other words, it is exactly what the world needs right now. The aria "Nessun dorma" is Prince Calaf's declaration of love and resounding victory cry. In this episode, host Rhiannon Giddens and three guests explore what makes this aria so popular even beyond the opera house, and how it became an anthem of resilience and hope during the COVID-19 pandemic. This episode features Italian tenor Franco Corelli in a Metropolitan Opera performance from the Before Times (a.k.a. 1966). The Guests: Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin is the Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera, Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal. He loves conducting Puccini's biggest, most majestic opera, but his favorite moments are the intimate arias like "Nessun dorma." Writer Anne Midgette is the former classical music critic for The Washington Post. She first heard the aria on a Book of the Month Club cassette tape in college, and thinks the secret sauce for "Nessun Dorma" is in its climactic underdog declaration of "Vincerò" — "I will win." Dr. Michael Cho is a pulmonary and critical care physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, and has been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. He's also a violist, and has been playing with the Longwood Symphony Orchestra for more than 15 years. Recently, he joined the National Virtual Medical Orchestra, a group that formed during COVID to give people in the medical field a chance to play together. Watch their performance of "Nessun Dorma" below. In April of 2020, 700 children across Europe sang a virtual performance of "Nessun dorma" as a message of hope and solidarity, from Europa InCanto. You can meet two of the stars in this episode, and watch their performance below.
The third season of the critically-acclaimed podcast is more expansive than the previous two, with a total of 18 new episodes released bi-weekly, starting March 10, 2021. Just like a full season at the opera house, the podcast season will cover a staggering range of music, artists, and voices — from early works by Handel all the way to the contemporary work of American composer and jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard. We'll cover fan favorites by Verdi and Puccini, as well as lesser-known gems by Stravinsky and Mussorgsky. Hosted by MacArthur Fellow and Grammy award-winning musician Rhiannon Giddens, and featuring master artists and other guests representing diverse voices and perspectives, the podcast connects opera to the experiences at the center of our humanity and the issues at the center of our lives. NBD. Aria Code is produced by WQXR in partnership with The Metropolitan Opera.
Rossini's La Cenerentola: Opera's Cinderella Story
Gioachino Rossini's operatic version of the Cinderella story may not have any enchanted mice or pumpkins, but there's plenty of magic in the music. Cinderella (or La Cenerentola, in Italian) has silently suffered the abuse of her stepfather and stepsisters, but in true fairy tale fashion, her fate changes for the better and all is made right by the triumph of goodness over evil. In the opera's joyous finale "Nacqui all'affanno... Non più mesta," Cenerentola looks ahead to a future with no more sadness. In this episode, Rhiannon Giddens and guests explore this universal tale and how it still resonates today. Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato sings the aria onstage at the Metropolitan Opera. The Guests Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato loves the strength and sincerity of this great Rossini heroine. She has performed the title role in La Cenerentola at leading opera houses around the world and believes in its absolute celebration of human goodness. Writer Fred Plotkin loves opera – all of it! – and he shares this love in his book Opera 101: A Guide to Learning and Loving Opera. He has a special connection to Rossini's music, which he feels is all about the heartbeat. Maria Tatar is a research professor at Harvard University in the fields of folkore and mythology. She vividly remembers when her sister used to read fairy tales to her as a child, and believes that we have the right and responsibility to keep retelling these stories in a way that's meaningful to us today. Mezzo-soprano Alma Salcedo's mother tells her she's been singing since she was nine months old. Her personal Cinderella story began in Venezuela and has brought her to Spain, where she has fought to keep her dreams of being a singer alive.
Rossini's La Cenerentola: Opera's Cinderella Story
Love is intoxicating, but dating can be hard. In Jacques Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann, a love-obsessed poet tells fantastical stories of romance gone very, very wrong. Based on the works of 19th-century Gothic horror writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, the opera is a journey through desire and loss – a journey that just might make you feel better about your own dating disasters! In the aria "Ô Dieu! de quelle ivresse," the poet-protagonist Hoffmann professes his passionate love to the courtesan Giulietta. In this episode, Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the intoxicating power of romance, and the magically mysterious world created by both E.T.A. Hoffmann and Offenbach. Tenor Matthew Polenzani sings the aria onstage at the Metropolitan Opera. The Guests Tenor Matthew Polenzani has just wrapped up his 22nd season at the Metropolitan Opera, which is one of many places he's performed the role of Hoffmann. As a happily married man, he can't quite relate to the poet's unending heartbreak, but he does believe that all artists should have a touch of crazy in them. Veronica Chambers is a writer and editor for The New York Times. In 2006, her essay "Loved and Lost? It's O.K., Especially if You Win" was published in the Modern Love column, detailing her long list of doomed romances. But, like Hoffmann, she kept her heart wide open to the possibility of love. Stage director Beth Greenberg directed The Tales of Hoffmann for New York City Opera back in 1996. She counts Jacques Offenbach among the greatest composers, in part because of his extraordinary sense of satire. She likes to think of him as "the Mel Brooks of the Champs-Élysées." Francesca Brittan is an Associate Professor of Music at Case Western Reserve University. Her work focuses on 19th- and 20th-century music, and her 2017 book Music and Fantasy in the Age of Berlioz details her fascination with the fantasy genre in literature and in music. She loves exploring the secret worlds imagined by E.T.A. Hoffmann and writers like him.