10 Cool Rossini Facts

Rossini about 1850Gioachino Rossini is a name well-known in opera circles. Although the Italian composer did write many songs, chamber works, and piano pieces, his 39 operas are what propelled him to fame during his time and what keeps his name alive in concert programs around the world. He is the man behind The Barber of Seville and William Tell – both of which have parts that are often heard in movies, TV shows, and cartoons (the famous ending of the William Tell Overture is the Lone Ranger theme). In fact, we’re performing “Una voce poco fa” from The Barber of Seville at our concert on May 3 because it can be heard in such films as “Jumanji” (1995) and “Citizen Kane”.

Despite them being his claim to fame, however, there’s more to Rossini than his 39 operas. Here are just 10 other cool facts about Rossini that you can use to impress your opera-loving friends.

1. He was a leap-year baby. Rossini was born February 29, 1792. A few months before he died, he celebrated his 19th “actual” birthday.

2. He wrote the bulk of his operas in only 10 years. Rossini composed 30 of his 39 operas between 1812 and 1822. His last and one of his most famous operas, however, was written in 1829 – Guillaume Tell (William Tell).

3. He loved fine food. His biographers noted that when he was a child, Rossini worked as an altar boy just so he could drink the sacramental wine left over after mass. When we moved to Paris, he became close friends with a chef who dedicated recipes to Rossini and, in turn, the composer wrote piano pieces dedicated to entrees and desserts. He also once linked coffee and operas noting that the effect of caffeine on the body diminished quickly. He reportedly said, “Coffee is a matter of fifteen or twenty days: luckily the time to make an opera”. Learn more about coffee and classical music.

4. His operas are among the most performed in the world. Rossini is right up there along with Verdi, Mozart, and Puccini in terms of how often their operas are performed. Interestingly, although William Tell was one of the grandest operas of its time, it is rarely performed today (outside of the Overture). It was reported that in 2017/2018, there were only 32 productions of it in the world. Compare that to 889 of La Traviata and 760 of Carmen.

5. Although he was said to be rather jovial, he actually suffered from neurasthenia and depression. Neither condition was recognized at the time. Specifically after his semi-retirement at the age of 37 (semi because he retired from opera, but continued to write smaller pieces), he would experience long periods of deep depression and insomnia. He also became obese and began to have suicidal thoughts. It is said that the death of his mother also led him to resent the remaining living woman in his life – his second wife Olympe. After he returned to Paris in 1855, it is said his musical spirits were once again lifted.

6. After his death, his wealth was used to set up a home for retired opera singers. When Rossini passed away in 1868, his second wife, Olympe, inherited a large sum, which, when she passed, was used to establish a conservatory of music in Pesaro, Italy (his birthplace) and a home for retired opera singers in Paris.

7. He was a man of great wit who loved to entertain. Later in his life, Rossini was said to have been a witty conversationalist and he enjoyed entertaining friends (which goes hand in hand with his love for fine food). He was wealthy and in-demand socially. He also reportedly said or wrote some very interesting things. Here are just a handful of Rossini quotes:

  • Give me the laundress’ bill and I will set to music even that.
  • Monsieur Wagner has good moments, but awful quarters of an hour!
  • Wait until the evening before opening night. Nothing primes inspiration more than necessity, whether it be the presence of a copyist waiting for your work or the prodding of an impresario tearing his hair. In my time, all the impresarios in Italy were bald at thirty.

8. His tomb in Paris is empty. Rossini died in Paris and was buried at the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery (where you can find other notable names like Chopin, Molière, Jim Morrison, and Oscar Wilde). His tomb is absolutely impressive with huge wrought iron doors and a stone surround. However, it is also empty. At his wife Olympe’s request, his remains were relocated to the church of Sta Croce in Florence.

9. He wrote The Barber of Seville in less than three weeks. Rossini allegedly wrote his most famous opera in less than three weeks (he claimed 12 days). While it is well-loved today, it was unsuccessful when it premiered in Rome. This is, perhaps, because the audience preferred an earlier adaptation of the play it was based on – a version by another composer named Giovanni Paisiello. It is said that Paisiello himself provoked the audience to openly voice their dislike.

10. He was nicknamed “Monsieur Crescendo”. This wasn’t a term of endearment, however. His nickname came from his perceived overuse of crescendo for dramatic effect. “The Crescendo degenerated into a mere mannerism with Rossini, in whose works it is used with wearisome iteration,” reads the Crescendo entry of Grove’s dictionary of Music and Musicians.

Legends of The Abduction from the Seraglio

Abduction from the Seraglio
Mozart was just 26 years old when he was commissioned to write the opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail or The Abduction from the Seraglio and it was not only a huge success, but also a trendy work the likes of which hadn’t been seen before. Everything Turkish was all the rage and not only did Mozart set the opera in a Turkish harem, but he also flavored the music with unconventional instruments like cymbals, triangles, and big drums to evoke the Janissary bands of Turkey. The poet Goethe said that it “knocked everything else sideways.” But it was the words of the Emperor Joseph II (who commissioned the work) that are forever associated with the opera.

In the movie “Amadeus”, the Emperor said of the opera, “Too many notes. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.” While there are many aspects of the film that are at the very least, exaggerated, this quote is actually based somewhat in truth (although disputed). Reportedly, the Emperor complained to Mozart that the work was “too fine” for his ears, remarking that “there are too many notes” to which Mozart replied, “There are just as many notes as there should be.” The exchange was recorded in Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes, but some scholars doubt the authenticity of the story because the reference book contained the original German and the translation was dubious. Still, whether true or not, the legend has stuck with the work and certainly comes to mind when listening to even just the overture (which you can hear us perform on February 23!).

Another interesting legend around “Abduction” is the similarity between the story in the opera and Mozart’s personal life, almost like he purposely infused his own experiences into the work. At the time he was commissioned to compose it, Mozart was trying to take his life into his own hands. He had just moved to Vienna after being dismissed by his employer, the Archbishop of Salzburg Hieronymus Colloredo, a man he was said to have “hated to the point of madness”. He rented a room from the Weber family, and fell in love with the family’s daughter Constanze. Much like the the opera’s female protagonists who wish to be rescued from their harem, Mozart himself knew the feeling of being confined and wishing for freedom.

During this time, Mozart was also waging a battle via letters with his father. His father continued to try to exert influence over him while he attempted to convince his father to agree to his marriage with Constanze Weber. This is very much like the hero, Belmonte, who struggles against Pasha Selim to win freedom and the right love Konstanze. It’s also worth noting that the opera’s heroine bears the same name as the composer’s love interest (and future wife). Perhaps the composer was making a statement about his own life in writing “Abduction” or maybe he was just drawing on it for inspiration.

The Abduction from the Seraglio was a triumph from its opening night, becoming Mozart’s most popular and legendary work in his lifetime. It greatly raised Mozart’s standing with the public as a composer. The first two performances brought in a large sum and the work was repeatedly performed in Vienna throughout the rest of his life. It is firmly ensconced in the opera repertoire today and there are at least 52 complete recordings in circulation.

Be sure to hear us perform the Overture from The Abduction from the Seraglio on February 23 at 7:30 PM.

11 Amazing Facts About Porgy and Bess

Photo courtesy of The New York Times – http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/13/theater/reviews/audra-mcdonald-in-the-gershwins-porgy-and-bess-review.html

Porgy and Bess is one of George Gershwin’s best-known works (along with Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris). It is an English-language folk opera featuring a cast of African-American singers based on a play and a book named “Porgy”. When it debuted in 1935, it was a daring artistic choice given the racially charged theme, but despite some controversy, it gained popularity especially after the 1970’s and is now a frequently performed opera. Even if you’ve never seen it performed (or seen the movie adaptation), chances are you’ve heard some of its songs like “Summertime” which is frequently recorded separately.

There’s more to this American opera, though, than “Summertime”, “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin'”, and racial controversy. Here are 11 cool facts about Porgy and Bess to keep in mind the next time you see it or hear its amazing music (you can hear the Parker Symphony perform selections from Porgy and Bess on February 23).

“and Bess” was an afterthought: The opera was originally named “Porgy” throughout its creation. The “and Bess” portion was added to avoid confusion with the novel and play it was based on. The thought was also that the “and Bess” made it sound more operatic.

It was a box office flop: Porgy and Bess debuted on Broadway in 1935 (after its world premiere in Boston). Its original run included 125 performances which by opera standards is a huge success. However, for Broadway, that’s a theatrical failure.

Its performance resulted in an integrated audience: After the Broadway run, the opera went on tour to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and, finally, Washington DC. In Washington, the cast, led by lead actor Todd Duncan, staged a protest of segregation at the National Theater. The theater intended to offer a special “blacks only” performance, but Duncan and the cast said they would never perform in a theater that prevented them from purchasing a ticket because of race. Management gave into their demands and the result was the first integrated audience for a performance of any show at that venue.

It has faced racial controversy over the years: Duke Ellington was said to have objected to its depiction of African Americans, although he later said the opposite. Harry Belafonte turned down the role of Porgy in the film version and the role when to Sidney Poitier. It is thought, however, that Gershwin never meant to insult African Americans. On the contrary, he insisted that it could only be sung by a black cast, a tradition upheld by Ira Gershwin that has launched the careers of several prominent black opera singers. George Gershwin sought to write a true jazz opera and he felt that the Met staff singers couldn’t master the genre.

Robert McFerrin sang the role of Porgy: Bobby McFerrin’s father, Robert, sang the role of Porgy in the 1959 film version. His voice was dubbed over Sidney Poitier’s.

The libretto was co-written by a former insurance agent: The libretto (the text used in the opera) was written by both Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward. Heyward was the co-author of the original “Porgy” novel which he wrote with his wife while he was working as an insurance agent.

The setting is fictional, but the inspiration is real: Porgy and Bess is set in the fictional neighborhood of Catfish Row, South Carolina. However, the setting and the story were inspired by the James Island Gullah community in South Carolina. In fact, most of the characters speak in the Gullah dialect. George Gershwin moved to Folly Beach, an island near Charleston, South Carolina, to draw inspiration from the Gullah community while composing the score.

It has been on Broadway seven times: Despite its initial failure, Porgy and Bess has been produced on Broadway seven times to date – 1935, 1942, 1943, 1944, 1953, 1976, 1983, and 2012. The 2012 production had the longest run at 321 performances.

It was a “first” for La Scala: Porgy and Bess was the first opera by an American-born composer to be performed at the famous opera house in Milan. The performance took place in 1955 and Maya Angelou was among the cast.

It was referenced in Sesame Street: The opera has undeniably made its mark in American music and culture, so much so that it was referenced in an episode of Sesame Street’s 36th season. Hoots the Owl sang a parody version of “A Women Is A Sometime Thing” to Cookie Monster called “A Cookie Is A Sometime Food”.

“Summertime” may be more popular than you know: Not only is it a memorable aria, but it has also been covered over 33,000 times by groups and solo performers.

Join the Parker Symphony Orchestra on February 23, 2018 to hear selections from Porgy and Bess and more. Tickets for Gone Too Soon are on sale now.