A New Concept in the Teaching of Opera

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A traditional course in opera, whether for music or non-music students, is generally based on the standard repertoire of Italian, French, and German works. Such a course tends to focus on the musical score at the expense of the complete story and the poetry of individual lines, and the result is not uniformly happy. In the concept described here, the course begins instead with an original literary work, proceeds to the libretto drawn from it, and culminates in a study of its musical form as an opera. Thus the students read literary works not normally included in English and Foreign Language undergraduate curricula, are exposed to operas based on these literary works, and are able to compare them, observing how each of them—novel, play, or opera—obeys artistic laws unique to its type.

North Central College (where I offered these courses) holds to a yearly schedule called 3 × 3, that is, three terms, three courses per term; each term lasts ten-and-a-half weeks. Classes generally meet four times a week for 50 minutes. Each topic, i.e., group of works, took up a third of the term. Given the frequency of class meetings and the intensity of the discussions, a time period limited to three-and-a-half weeks permitted the students to get involved in the works without tiring of them. The courses were designed to appeal to the general student who seeks more than a safe way to satisfy the fine arts requirement.

I have put the accompanying outline into courses twice, with works first from nineteenth-century France, then from twentieth-century America. A general outline was common to both courses. First a reading of the original work established the sequence of episodes and fixed firmly in mind the people involved—their names, their occupations, their various inter-relationships, and their roles in plot development.

During the discussion of the literary works, it seemed prudent for me, the musician-teacher, to be only "first among equals," not an expert. But when the class turned to the opera itself, I became the leader. Discussion ranged from the classification of voice types and the role of the orchestra to music's illustrative power and the dramatic significance of recurring motives—all six of the operas offered examples of "leading motives" or major repeats—and musical depiction of character. For example, the audience recognizes the kind of person Carmen is, or Camille, or Manon, or Baby Doe, from her music when she first appears. Further subtleties were studied as the assurance of the class grew: in The Ballad of Baby Doe, for example, the saloon music, heard first in Act I, reappears in a distorted form as a sign of Horace Tabor's life gone sour, in Act II, Scene 5.

Each course began with the opera that contained familiar music—Carmen, then Porgy and Bess—to reassure the timid. The students were urged to sing melodies from the American group in class; Gershwin was no problem, Moore and Blitzstein were. Such an attempt to put music in the students' throats may not have completely persuaded them of the basic tunefulness of this kind of song, but the experience did etch the music more precisely in their minds.

 

THE FRENCH GROUP

Each of the French novels begins with a narrator who somehow gets involved with the principals and who later records the young man's account of his disastrous love affair. The main story is usually set down entirely from the hero's point of view. The closing portion in Camille, extracted from her diary, is exceptional, giving the account of her final days in her own words. In the opera, the point of view of necessity shifts: the heroine is allowed to speak for herself in arias; her thoughts and feelings are no longer always filtered through the hero's mind.

Merimée in his novel Carmen produced a much more involved story than the one told in the opera. The unfolding of a story progressed at an entirely different pace once it was staged. When students read the novel, they were asked to examine thoroughly that wealth of episodes in order to understand better why certain ones were retained in the opera.

Merimée's Carmen makes an impression gradually, first seen through the narrator's eyes in his little encounter with her when she steals his watch, then later through Don Jose's eyes as, in prison, following the stabbing of Carmen, he tells his story to the narrator and describes their first meeting when he is on guard duty at the tobacco factory in Seville. Here Carmen is seen through Don Jose's eyes:

She wore a red skirt, very short, which displayed her white silk stockings, with more than one hole in them, and tiny shoes of red morocco, tied with flame-coloured ribbon. She threw back her mantilla in order to show her shoulders and a great bunch of cassia-flowers that she wore in her chemise. She had also a cassia-flower in the corner of her mouth, and she came prancing along like a thoroughbred filly from the stud of Cordova. In my country, a woman in such a costume would have made everyone cross himself. At Seville, everyone paid her some gallant compliment on her figure. She answered them all with side glances, her hand on her hip, as bold as the true gipsy that she was.1

The libretto for Bizet's opera, which covers the main story only, starts off with text for three colorful and festive numbers: the soldiers lounge around, wasting time; Micaela asks after Don Jose (which tells the audience to keep an eye on him); there is the changing of the guard. Suddenly the clamor of the noon bell is heard, the soldiers can enjoy some cigarette-girl watching.

Bizet used music to do much of what Merimée's description accomplished (as quoted above). The men notice that Carmen is missing and ask about her (recitative for 8 measures, modulation from E major to F minor). Entrance of Carmen, fortissimo: "prancing" music—a powerful 6 with an augmented second in the 16th-note upbeat figure. "La voila!", then the men ask when will she love them. The amount of music provided here gives the audience time to adjust to Carmen, to applaud, look her over, notice how she moves, be impressed by her animal magnetism (if the singer has any). The next fourteen measures are marked quasi recitativo, and now Carmen's voice confirms what the eye has seen, particularly in the upward reach (a major sixth) of the phrase on the words "Peut-être jamais!" (stated, then repeated softly a third lower, starting the modulation to D minor for the Habanera). The singer, the stage director, the costume designer, all are responsible for making visible the physical description provided by Merimée. But it is Bizet's music that most surely pulls the audience into the scene, setting up the desired response. Such a passage sheds light on how composers think, of what the composer must do in order to convey certain kinds of information or get from one place to another in the dramatic scheme.

Merimée's Carmen is a first-rate story, relying for much of its appeal on exotic elements: Spain, bull fighting, gypsy smugglers who live outside the law. Prevost's Manon Lescaut, a much longer work, offers far more character development. Still, it too is rich in episodes, a skillfully calculated series that marks the gradual decline in the fortunes of the Chevalier des Grieux: his elopement, his abandonment of the religious life, his gambling, his imprisonment, and finally his voluntary exile to the New World, all of this with and because of Manon. (The difference in the legal punishment meted out to the two members of this thieving pair offers exceptionally fine matter for discussion.) The pruning done for the libretto kept to the main line of the story for six episodes.

For the sake of comparison one class day was devoted to Puccini's Manon Lescaut so that students would know of the other Manon. The libretto for Puccini's opera further reduces the story, leaving only four episodes, these strongly focused on Manon herself. But I personally find the work rather coarse in comparison to Massenet's setting, and it departs so far from the spirit of the original as to offer, to my mind at least, no significant basis for comparison.

A comparison of the meeting of Manon and Des Grieux, in novel and opera, is fruitful.

In the novel Des Grieux is seen walking around with Tiberge (they are both students, the term is over, Des Grieux is on his way home). The coach stops to let off passengers. There is Manon, accompanied by an elderly family servant. Love at first sight.

In the opera the cast is much larger. Reasons for this: first, to get more people on stage so that excitement can be generated, the excitement that goes with the life of pleasure that appeals so strongly to Manon; second, by bringing forward characters that appear much later in the story, it is possible to get them on stage and recognized, to have them make their mark. This is especially important for Guillot, the man who is responsible ultimately for sending Manon into exile. It helps at this point to show him angry over the way Manon abuses his offer of a carriage; the foundation for his extreme hostility later on is laid.

At the very start of the story then, De Bretigny and Guillot are discovered amusing themselves; Guillot's three mistresses giggle and laugh and look pretty so that Manon can see them and envy them. She's on the way to the convent, they are having a wonderful time and are much admired; no wonder the contrast is so sharp to her young mind. (Tiberge is entirely absent from the opera. In the novel he complements Des Grieux's better nature, just as Lescaut represents the pull of his darker side. But this is too complicated psychologically for an opera!)

The last of the three operas in the French group, La Traviata, quite closely follows the play that Dumas fashioned from his own novel. That the shift from one medium to another was accomplished by the same mind that produced the original work added another facet to the question "Why those particular changes?"

The class liked the music to the opera Carmen the best of the three, but of the novels, Camille was preferred. Eva LaGallienne's recording of the play was heard in class; the beauty of her voice stimulated an appropriately damp response to Dumas's nineteenth-century sentimentality.2

Very much worth discussing are the three versions of the confrontation scene (in La Traviata where Alfredo throws money at Violetta's feet): in the novel the insult is private and more devastatingly cruel; in the play the curtain comes down as soon as the gesture is made; in the opera the principals and chorus sing for some time, lamenting Alfredo's act and reproaching him.

During the final class, discussion expanded to include consideration of Carmen, Camille, and Manon as Eve figures, creatures ever-fascinating yet ever-dangerous to the men who loved them. The class was briefly introduced to still another bewitching lady, Melisande, and to a parallel series of operas featuring woman not as Eve but as Mary, a redemption-through-love figure: Fidelio, then the German Romantic operas, e.g., Der Freischütz, The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser (with both Elizabeth and Venus), and finally the Ring operas which culminate in Brunnhilde's Immolation Scene. It is thought-provoking to realize that by Wagner's time the concept of woman and redemptive love had been secularized (and confused) to the point that a pagan goddess was assigned a Christ-as-Victim role in the ritual sacrifice.

 

THE AMERICAN GROUP

The sources for the American operas were not so demanding; there were far fewer pages to read, and since the materials were closer to the students in time and place, there was less need for cultural adjustment; and language was much less of a problem. Though the course began with the familiar opera, Porgy and Bess, the word "familiar" must be applied to the music only, since most of the students did not know the story.

As the people on Catfish Row were traced from the novel to the play to the opera, they seemed to shrink. What started out as a tragic love story became increasingly more ordinary. Porgy in particular lost stature; Bess became less complex. The opera Sportin' Life is not so mean but he is still a pimp and a pusher, hard facts to keep in mind when a man sings a song as winning as "It Ain't Necessarily So." Serena is the one person who looms larger in the opera when, after Robinson's death, she laments "My Man's Gone Now."

A brief account of the several endings can show the degree to which profound change is acceptable to the originator of the story. At the novel's end Porgy does not pursue Bess; his spirit dies and he turns into an old man before the reader's eyes. In the play, Porgy's setting out after Bess is a pathetic gesture that would have been unworthy of the proud hero of the novel. Yet the novel's Porgy and the play's Porgy are both by DuBose Heyward. Heyward also participated in the preparation of the libretto. Once music is added, however, it is the composer who must take charge. As in the play, so in the opera: Porgy starts out to follow Bess to New York, but the music contradicts reality by implying a happy ending. Eventually this false gaiety jars, but thanks to Gershwin, Porgy's "Oh Lawd, I'm On My Way" lifts the heart and almost persuades the audience that there is room for hope.

It was necessary to rely on popular historical material for The Ballad of Baby Doe; there are no literary sources. This presented an entirely different challenge: the students had to work with an original which dealt with real people, historical figures (after all, a U.S. President sings, Chester A. Arthur, tenor), but which lacked artistic dimensions.

The texts were booklets by Caroline Bancroft: Silver Queen: The Fabulous Story of Baby Doe Tabor; Augusta Tabor: Her Side of the Scandal; and Tabor's Matchless Mine and Lusty Leadville.3 Caroline Bancroft's decision to tell Baby Doe's story in the first person was a handicap to the course; the words she put into Baby Doe's mouth often sounded uncomfortably smug and self-satisfied. The students had trouble remembering that what Baby Doe seemed to be saying came from Bancroft's head and was not primary source material. The dynamics of the triangle formed by Baby Doe, Horace, and Augusta invited consideration of the ties that bind people together. Once those ties had been considered, the class backed up for another look at Porgy, Bess, and Crown.

Discussion of The Ballad of Baby Doe coincided with the televised performance of the opera from Lincoln Center (spring of 1976); the performance was video-taped which gave the students a chance repeatedly to soak up the characterizations with their eyes—actually to see what was happening, not just hear it. Augusta Tabor, in the opera, is a complicated figure, thanks to Latouche's words and Moore's music. The students were fortunate to see Frances Bible in that role, on television, with the closeness that the moving picture camera provides.

For Regina the class read not only The Little Foxes but also Another Part of the Forest in order to get a complete look at the Hubbards of Alabama. During the months the course was offered, Lillian Hellman was news; Scoundrel Time had just come out and reviews were everywhere.

Regina is not so obviously tuneful and is musically more sophisticated than the first two operas studied. Regina as the central character deserved the closest scrutiny: How does Blitzstein reveal Regina to us in her music and in the additional words he has given her? Do you find Regina much changed from the person you met in The Little Foxes? These questions would show if the students could describe for themselves how Blitzstein, as librettist, put words in Regina's mouth, opening up her mind to the audience in arias as she reflects on her disappointments and frustrations.

Regina, thanks to the original play, has eight principal characters most of whom are strongly limned in music. Horace Giddens, Regina's adversary, is a bass, which gives his utterance dignity. Innocent Zan opens her heart in a pretty ballad; flighty, tipsy Birdie, who loves music, gets the hardest arias to sing; the black servant Addie offers comfort in modified blues; silly Leo sings a silly song with silly syllables—"deedle, doodle"—to show he's feeling good.

The old recording of Regina on Columbia is especially fine, graced as it is by superb singing actors. For those who can afford it, it would be illuminating also to include the filmed version of The Little Foxes, where the drama is not divided into acts and where the camera's "eye" moves freely about, organizing images in a commentary of its own.

On our campus, both of the courses described in this article fall in the category of "Current Interdisciplinary Studies." According to the North Central College catalogue

this title provides for ad hoc courses to address important immediate issues which cut across traditional boundaries among the liberal arts. . . . They are temporary by design, formed to respond to new issues as they emerge.

The French group qualified because of the declared connection between the course and Women's Studies on campus. The course description carried these words under the heading, Unusual Features: "to deal with Carmen, Camille, and Manon as persons (that is, witness them brought to life in literature, then recreated in opera), and by so doing, to arrive at a deeper understanding of how woman is idealized in art." The operas in the American group were timely to the degree that anything American was deemed timely in the bicentennial year of 1976.

 

THE FRENCH GROUP

1. Carmen  
  Original Work: a novel, Carmen, by Prosper Merimée
  Opera: Carmen Libretto: Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halèvy
Composer: Georges Bizet
     
2. Manon  
  Original Work: a novel, Les aventures du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, by Antoine Prevost
  Opera: Manon Libretto: Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille
Composer: Jules Massenet
     
3. Camille  
  Original Work: a novel, La Dame aux Camelias, by Alexander Dumas fils
a play, Camille, by Alexander Dumas fils
  Opera: La Traviata Libretto: Francesco Maria Piave
Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
     



THE AMERICAN GROUP

1. Porgy  
  Original Work: a novel, Porgy, by DuBose Heyward
a play, Porgy, by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward
  Opera: Porgy and Bess Libretto: DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin
Composer: George Gershwin
     
2. Baby Doe  
  Original Work: Bancroft Booklets about Colorado
  Opera: The Ballad of Baby Doe Libretto: John Latouche
Composer: Douglas Moore
     
3. The Little Foxes  
  Original Work: a play, The Little Foxes, by Lillian Hellman
  Opera: Regina Libretto: Marc Blitzstein
Composer: Marc Blitzstein
     




1Antoine Prevost, Manon Lescaut (trans. D.C. Moylan) and Prosper Merimée, Carmen (trans. Edmund H. Garrett) Everyman's Library 834, London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1966, p. 180.

2LaGallienne's adaptation of the play is recorded on Caedmon TC 1175, McGraw-Hill Record Library.

3These can be obtained from the Johnson Publishing Company, 839 Pearl Street, Boulder, Colorado 80302.

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