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Pre-performance Opera Chats

Free, insightful and informative chats are presented by featured guest speakers, 45 minutes before every mainstage COC performance.

Time/Duration: 20-minute chats, 45 minutes prior to every opera performance.
Tickets: No ticket necessary, free when you attend an opera. Arrive early as seating is limited. 



Stephan Bonfield is Lecturer in music, science and general studies at Ambrose University where he teaches the music history core program and advanced music theory. He is also research associate in an auditory neuroscience lab at the University of Calgary. Stephan runs his own music history and theory studio and is a senior examiner in both disciplines at the Royal Conservatory of Music. He is the dance critic for the Calgary Herald; reviews the performing arts at the Banff Centre plus new music concerts in Calgary. He now covers the National Ballet of Canada for Musical Toronto and lectures on opera for the Canadian Opera Company, Edmonton Opera and Against the Grain Theatre. 

Dr. Hannah Chan-HartleyDr. Hannah Chan-Hartley is a musicologist, active in the public sphere as a writer, speaker, and researcher. She was recently Musicologist-in-Residence at the 2018 Verbier Festival in Switzerland and at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, where she was also Managing Editor of publications. She holds a Bachelor of Music Honours in violin performance from McGill University, a Master of Philosophy in musicology and performance from the University of Oxford, and a PhD in musicology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Hannah’s research interests include the social and cultural history of music and music institutions, focusing on the Europe–North America transatlantic context from the 19th century to the present day, as well as the performance and reception history of opera (notably, the works of Richard Wagner) and orchestral music, about which she has written and presented at major conferences. She is the creator of the award-winning Visual Listening Guides (—a new kind of graphic listening guide for symphonic music.


Margaret Cormier is a PhD candidate in musicology at McGill University, where she has been a teacher’s assistant and guest lecturer in music history. She holds a Bachelor of Music with Honors in Voice Performance (2013) and a Master of Arts in Musicology (2015) from Western University. Recently, she has presented her work on opera at professional conferences in Oxford, San Francisco, and Dublin. Her current research considers the role of staging and production in creating operatic meaning, and focuses on representations of sexual violence on the operatic stage. Her PhD dissertation is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

Wayne Gooding is a Toronto-based writer and former editor of the quarterly magazine, Opera Canada. In his earlier incarnation as a business journalist, he wrote for such publications as The Financial Post, Report on Business, Policy Options and served as editor of Canadian Business, Marketing Magazine and Financial Post Magazine. Over the past decade, he has increasingly focused on a lifelong interest in opera and music theatre. Besides Opera Canada, his byline has appeared in Playbill, Opera Now and The Wagner Journal, among other publications, and he has given lectures and presentations across Canada. For the COC, he also gives the Opera Talks series at the North York Central Library.

Kyle HutchinsonKyle Hutchinson is a Ph.D. Candidate in Music Theory at the University of Toronto. His research explores chromatic harmony in the music of Wagner and Richard Strauss. Other research interests include understanding the philosophic underpinnings of music analysis, and applying music theory to contemporary musical theatre. Kyle is also active and interested in music pedagogy, and in 2017 was one of twelve graduate students across U of T shortlisted for the university-wide award for outstanding Teaching Assistants, and has won a similar award from the Faculty of Music. Kyle has presented research at conferences across North America, and recently won the George Proctor Prize for best graduate student paper at the 2018 Canadian University Music Society Conference in Edmonton.

Pianist and composer Stéphane Mayer has quickly been establishing himself as one of Canada’s premier up and coming artists. As a recent graduate of the COC Ensemble Studio, Stéphane served as music staff on numerous notable productions such as Louis Riel, Cosi fan Tutte and Otello. As a champion of new music, Mr. Mayer also participated in the presentation of two world premieres: The Rocking Horse Winner (Tapestry Opera/Scottish Opera) and Ours (Opera on the Avalon). Last season, he collaborated with noted librettist Joel Ivany on an adaptation of Rossini’s La Cenerentola entitled WOW Factor, for which he provided original music. Mr. Mayer’s music has also been included in numerous recitals at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheater at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts as well as featured at The Future of Art Song Symposium at the University of Toronto. A graduate of McGill University’s Schulich School of Music, Stéphane has also worked as a vocal coach and accompanist at Western University. As a public speaker, Stéphane has acted as master of ceremonies and panelist for the COC, the Soho house and the Toronto Opera Club.

Afarin Mansouri is an award-winning composer whose works have been performed in Canada, the United States, England, Iran, and South America. She has collaborated with various organizations and Festivals such as Tapestry Opera, You Dance National Ballet of Canada, Tirgan Festival and Toronto Nuit Blanche. In 2018, her opera Forbidden gained national and international attention by Globe and Mail and BBC World. Opera Canada considered her music powerful, with gorgeous lyricism and the most memorable highlights of the opera, The Journey, Notes of Hope. As a soprano, Afarin has performed her own new music for Toronto Culture Days, Tirgan Festival and Iranian-Canadian Composers of Toronto’s program “The Thirtieth Act”. As an educator and researcher, Afarin has led many opera workshops in collaboration with organizations such as Canadian Opera Company and has presented her research on various national and international conferences while teaching undergrad courses in music at York University as teaching assistant. Currently, Afarin is a member of Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity committee at the Canadian Opera Company and preparing to defend and finish her PhD research on Canadian Children’s Opera at York University. She is also the selected composer-in-residence for Heliconian Club for the 2019-20 season.

Brian McMillan is the Director of the Music Library at Western University in London, Ontario. In addition to a Masters of Information Studies from the University of Toronto, he holds a bachelors and masters in voice performance from McGill University. He has sung professionally with several ensembles across Canada including the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, Aradia Ensemble, Quebec's Les Violons du roy, and the chorus of the Canadian Opera Company.

Sadie Menicanin is a PhD candidate in historical musicology at the University of Toronto. She received a Master of Arts in Historical Musicology from U of T in 2015, and completed her Bachelor of Music in Music History and Piano at McGill University in 2011. Broadly, Sadie's research embraces late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century opera, though her particular specialty is Austro-German modernism. Her dissertation research, which is supported by a Joseph-Armand Bombardier Doctoral Fellowship, explores the aesthetics and politics of gardens in Viennese music for the stage around World War I. An avid choral singer outside of her research pursuits, Sadie is currently a member of the Exultate Chamber Singers. Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, Aradia Ensemble, Quebec's Les Violons du roy, and the chorus of the Canadian Opera Company.


Puccini's Turandot

Written by Wayne Gooding

You can hear Wayne give this lecture before the performance on  Wednesday, October 23 at 6:45 p.m.

The backstory to Puccini’s Turandot begins in March 1920, when the composer lunched in Milan with writers Renato Simoni and Giuseppe Adami to discuss possible opera subjects. Puccini had been hunting for one since the premiere of his last stage work, the three one-act operas that make up Il trittico, at New York’s Metropolitan opera in November 1918. He had toyed with a few ideas, including a setting of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, but nothing was settled. Adami had written the libretti for Puccini’s La rondine, which premiered in Monte Carlo in 1917, and Il tabarro, (The Cloak) the first part of Il trittico; starting work on the Oliver Twist idea, he had enlisted the playwright and critic Simoni to help.

At the lunch, Simoni, who had written a successful comedy about Carlo Gozzi, broached the idea of using something by that 18th-century Venetian playwright, and then Puccini specifically raised Gozzi’s fable of Turandotte. It’s not clear how well Puccini knew it, but the story had already been set by other composers, including an 1867 opera by Antonio Bassini, one of Puccini’s teachers at the conservatory in Milan, and a more recent one-act treatment in 1917 by Puccini’s contemporary, Ferruccio Busoni. Simoni had a copy of the play in his library and offered to loan it to the composer. This was not of Gozzi’s original, however, but a German adaptation by Friedrich von Schiller translated back into Italian by Andrea Maffei, a friend and librettist of Giuseppe Verdi.

Soon after that lunch, Puccini travelled to Rome and read the Turandot text Simoni gave him on the train. He was immediately attracted to a subject that promised an opera quite different from anything he had written to date. That it was a fable or fairytale rather than a naturalistic story of ordinary human passions and emotions intrigued him; the exotic Asian setting offered great scope for his harmonic and melodic coloring, gifts that had been central to his success; and he was fascinated by the tragic title character whose amorous passion, as he put it in a letter to Simoni, “has suffocated for such a long time under the ashes of her great pride.” He immediately pushed Adamo and Simoni to start on the libretto in earnest, so launching a theatrical enterprise that the composer did not live to complete and did not reach the stage until six years after its creators’ lunch in Milan.

The literary source of the opera is interesting. The immediate inspiration, as noted, was a 19th-century German version by Schiller, translated into Italian by Maffei, but the Turandot story has a longer history. The earliest clear telling is in a 12th-century text by a central Asian poet and philosopher named Nizami Ganjavi. In a work translated as Seven Beauties, there is a story about an icy princess who will only marry a man who successfully answers three riddles and must forfeit his life if he fails. The princess in this early version of Turandot is Slavic, not Chinese. The story appears again in an early 18th-century French text, Les Milles et Un Jours (A Thousand and One Days) by the French orientalist, François Petis de la Croix. Note the echo in de la Croix’s title of the famous Arabic collection of folk tales, One Thousand and One Nights. De la Croix claims to have acquired his material in travels around what we now call the Middle East, though he may have made up some of the tales. At any rate, Turandot and her riddles appear in the collection, this time set in Persia. This was the source for the Italian version by Carlo Gozzi, who adapted it in important ways. First, the action was moved to a legendary China; and second, he melded the cruel tale of love and death with a comic element that came out of Italy’s centuries-old tradition of Commedia dell’arte. This had started out as improvised street theatre, but evolved more formally into a theatre of stock characters, usually masked, and stock comic situations. You cannot underestimate the importance of Commedia dell’arte in theatre history. It’s the source of most 18th-century comic operas, for example, including Mozart’s, and you’ll encounter it again next year when the COC presents Rossini’s Barber of Seville.  

Gozzi created his version of Turandot with Commedia characters as a salvo in a war he fought with one of his Venetian contemporaries, the playwright Carlo Goldoni. Goldoni believed the Commedia tradition had grown stale and run its course, arguing in favor of a more naturalistic theatre that told the stories of ordinary people in real relationships in everyday situations. He found a ready audience for his work, and he became both successful and influential. Gozzi disagreed, however, arguing that the Commedia tradition was as vital as ever, and that he could write plays based on it that would fill theatres just as easily. To prove his point, he wrote a collection of fanciful fabula—fables or fairy tales—one of which, Turandotte, was first performed in Venice in 1762. The five-act work combined the existing Turandot riddle story but added Commedia characters as a clownish chorus that not only commented on the action of the play but also satirized the manners and foibles of its Venetian audience. Part of the comic shtick was that this unlikely quartet of Venetians had inexplicably dropped into the ancient Chinese emperor’s court.

After reading Schiller’s adaptation of the story as retranslated by Maffei, Puccini and his librettists went back to the original. The composer was adamant that he wanted Gozzi’s Commedia characters in his opera, too, and would use them for comic relief like the gravediggers in Shakespeare’s Hamlet or the Commedia troupe in Richard Strauss’s opera, Ariadne auf Naxos. The trio of characters in Puccini’s Turandot—the Chancellor, the General Purveyor and the Chief Cook—are clowns, but serve a serious narrative purpose in commenting on the action and, at a couple of key points, moving it forward.

As they worked on the project, Puccini and his librettists added another new element to the basic tale how the heroic young prince, Calaf, falls for the Princess Turandot at first sight and readily takes up thedeadly riddle challenge. Early in Act 1, in the crowds around the emperor’s palace, Calaf reconnects with his father, Timur, a deposed Tartar king now blind and cared for by a faithful young slave girl, Liù. As the plot unfolds, the gentle Liù will become a foil to the cruel Turandot, eventually committing suicide to avoid betraying Calaf. Puccini was instrumental in developing the character of Liù, who bears a marked resemblance in tone and demeanor to earlier heroines like Madama Butterfly and Mimì in La bohème: “Liù must sacrifice herself because of some sorrow,” he told his librettists, “but I don’t see how this can be developed unless we make her die under torture. And why not? Her death could be a means of softening the heart of the princess.”

Liù’s fate in fact echoes a tragic episode in Puccini’s own life. In 1909, the composer’s wife Elvira had viciously accused one of their servants, Doria Manfredi, of having an affair with her husband, and the devastated 19-year-old had committed suicide. Elvira almost went to jail after the Manfredi family proved the girl’s innocence and charged her accuser, and the affair only ended after Puccini settled with the family financially. The parallel relationships between Turandot and Liù, Elvira and Doria, are striking.

Work on Turandot progressed in fits and starts as the 1920s unfolded. Just as he had studied Japanese folk songs while composing Madama Butterfly, Puccini took a serious look at some hallmarks of traditional Chinese music, wanting to add some color to his score that, while not strictly authentic, would give it a recognizably exotic Asian tint. Real Chinese melodies are woven into the score, including a couple he heard on a music box of melodies purchased in China by a diplomat acquaintance. Here’s one of the popular tunes Puccini heard on the music box, a song dating back to the 18th century and translated as Jasmine Flower. And here from Act 1 is one of the many instances the melody figures in the opera, often associated with the title character. Puccini put an enormous amount of care into the composition of Turandot, certainly his most ambitious score. The huge chorus used both on and off stage is treated like a principal character, while in the pit, the orchestral writing is harmonically and rhythmically rich, complex and innovative. This is an opera of the 1920s, written after the catastrophe of World War I when there was great turmoil and unrest across Europe.  Mussolini and his fascists were rising to political power while Puccini was working on Turandot, and although post-war musical life had revived, its direction was as uncertain and fractured as economic and political affairs. Puccini was well aware of new trends in music and wanted to make his own statement in a Turandot score that took him into new musical territory. Here’s the short orchestral transition between the first two scenes of Act II; this is the work of a master orchestrator who is perfectly comfortable with dissonance, multiple tonalities and the jerky rhythms of the jazz age. 

He had some misgivings about himself, however, as he had had throughout his career. In March 1924, with most of the opera done, he wrote to Simoni: “I believe I have done good work; perhaps, though I have made a mistake, with all the new things people are trying today, following rough-sounding paths and discord, where sentiment—that sentiment that gives us joy and tears—has been abandoned. I have put my whole soul into this opera; we shall see whether my vibrations match those of the public.”

The pressure grew on Puccini through 1924, not least because La Scala opera house in Milan had publicly announced both the date and cast for the premiere in the spring of 1925. Puccini completed everything up to the death of Liù in Act III, but still lacked the conclusion of the piece, in which the icy Turandot was supposed to melt into Calaf’s arms. He went back and forth with Simoni and Adami to fashion a suitable text, but it came too late and was never set to music. A persistent throat problem that would be diagnosed as cancer took him to a specialist clinic in Brussels. The treatment looked promising initially, but then he suffered heart failure and died in the Belgian capital on November 29, 1924.

Turandot did not have its premiere until April 26, 1926, almost 18 months after the composer’s death. At the point where the body of Liù had been carried offstage, conductor Arturo Toscanini turned to the audience and announced that the performance would end with these final bars composed by Puccini. For the second and subsequent performances, the opera included a final duet that was reconstructed and written from Puccini’s own sketches by the Italian composer Franco Alfano. He in fact wrote two endings; Toscanini rejected the first as too long and helped edit Alfano’s work to the shorter ending that is usually performed, including in this COC production.

There has been much discussion about why, besides the circumstances of his health, Puccini found it so hard to come to terms with the ending of Turandot. One suggestion, for example, is that he was, despite his skills and experience, unable to breathe human life into Calaf and Turandot. It’s true that neither is a fully rounded character. Both are consumed throughout by a single idea—hers to avenge the rape of her ancestor, his to win Turandot’s love at whatever cost. The problem was how to get from their eloquently stated but stark and unhealthy obsessions to a warm, more-human loving relationship. Puccini knew he needed something extraordinary, just weeks before his death telling Adami that in the final duet: “Two beings almost out of this world become human because of love, and at the end, an orchestral peroration must make this love possess everyone onstage.”

Another suggestion is that he was uncomfortable with happy endings. Indeed, almost all Puccini operas end very unhappily—often to the point of death—for one or more of the principals. The problem of the happy ending is compounded insofar as it immediately follows the more characteristically tragic and moving suicide of Liù. Turandot is unusual in that it has two heroines of opposite temperament. Puccini’s issue was how to transform the inhumane Turandot into the empathetic and compassionate Liù musically. Critics recognized the dilemma right away. Writing about the Milan premiere, Alfred Kalish praised the “typically warm-hearted and luscious Puccini tunes” for Calaf and Liù, but then added that: “The reason why nothing in the part of Turandot herself has inspired Puccini with emotionally coloured music is really much to his honour. Melodies in the melting mood would have been totally at variance with the character of the icily cold and cruel Princess.” It is useless to speculate, Kalish also wrote, “how Puccini himself, with his gift of ecstatic fervour, might perhaps have written a duet which would have softened the unpleasant impression left by the death of the young slave.”

Puccini set his opera explicitly “A Pekino, al tempo della favola”—“In Beijing in fabled times.” Representations of China in legendary or fabled times may be naturalistic, but by definition are never realistic. With Turandot, the naturalism reflected the exotic fantasies of its creators, from Gozzi down to Puccini, Adami and Simoni. This COC production by Robert Wilson avoids both naturalism and realism and presents the story directly in the American director and visual artist’s signature abstract style.  There is no scenery, very few props, and no imposed concept to frame the story. Wilson does not talk about mounting or directing his productions, but about showing or making them, which is more the language of a visual artist. He serves as his own lighting director and choreographer, creating colorful and complex forms and spaces on stage in which the action unfolds, the characters more often than not in direct eye contact with the audience. This is also a theatre of tiny rather than grand gestures, even when Wilson is working with a large-scale work like Turandot. “A good actor,” he has said, “can command an audience by moving one finger.” At root, the abstract scenes Wilson creates seek to present the music and text as purely and directly as possible so that audience members are free to form their own ideas about the story. The result is undoubtedly spare and artificial compared to, say, the fake chinoiserie of the Metropolitan Opera’s larger-than-life Franco Zeffirelli production, which is part of the Met’s Live in HD program this fall, but Wilson’s approach is designed to strip the opera to its emotional and musical core without any distractions.

In 2018/19, there were 80 productions of Turandot around the world, enough to rank it the 11th most-produced opera, but still a distant fourth in the Puccini canon, well behind the 148 productions of La bohème, 136 of Madama Butterfly and 131 of Tosca. It’s a more difficult work to stage, of course, comparable to something like Verdi’s Aida in its scale, exotic setting and even details of plot and character. Verdi’s Aida and Amneris are also competing heroines, but the resolution of the emotional and psychological conflicts in their opera is final in a way that those in Turandot are not. Puccini was widely hailed as the successor of Verdi, and, straddling the 19th and 20th centuries, stands as the most modern exponent of an operatic lineage that stretches back continuously over four centuries to Jacobo Peri and Claudio Monteverdi. Considering what came before—from Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi to name the most eminent—and how little has come after, it’s ironic that Puccini left his final operatic statement incomplete, because it is also, in the words of one commmentary, “the last monument in the last golden century of one of the world’s great traditions of music theater.”

Ladies and gentlemen, enjoy this evening’s performance of Puccini’s Turandot.


Puccini: A Biography, Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, Northeastern University Press, 2002

Puccini’s Turandot: The End of the Great Tradition, William Ashbrook and Harold Powers, Princeton University Press, 1991

Puccini: His International Art, Michele Girardi (trans. Laura Basini), University of Chicago Press, 2000

Puccini’s Version of the Duet and Final Scene of Turandot, Janet Maguire, The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 74, No. 3 (1990)

Gozzi's Turandot: A Tragicomic Fairy Tale, David Nicholson, Theatre Journal, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Dec. 1979)

Puccini’s Turandot, Alfred Kalish (review of premiere), Musical Times, Vol. 67, No. 1000 (Jun. 1926)

Scandalous Secret of the Opera Master, Niall Morris, Irish Independent, Jan. 2, 2017

(accessed online:


Dvořák’s Rusalka

Written by Margaret Cormier

You can hear Margaret give this lecture before the performances on  Friday, October 18 at Tuesday, October 22 at 6:45 p.m. and on Saturday, October 26 at 3:45 p.m.

premiered on March 31, 1901 at the National Theatre in Prague. It was Antonín Dvořák’s tenth opera, but it has been the only one to see real success abroad. Dvořák’s reception history poses an interesting problem: prior to the 1990s, international opera companies were worried that Dvořák’s operas were too Czech, and would not be of interest to a wider audience. However, within the Czech Republic, Dvořák was often criticized during life for not performing Czech Nationalism sufficiently or correctly. And yet today, Dvořák’s international popularity far surpasses that of any other Czech composer. In this chat, we will look at Rusalka, one of Dvořák’s most popular and beloved works, and unpack its relationship with Czech nationalism, to see how Dvořák’s Czech musical identity reveals itself through this opera.

Until 1918, the Czech lands were under the control of the Hapsburgs, and were thus seen seen as merely rural satellites of Vienna by their neighbours both within the empire and without. This prejudice has gone on to inform much of the historical commentary written about Dvořák throughout the twentieth century, likely due in part to the German and Austrian pedigree of musicology as a discipline. The article on Dvořák in the current edition of the New Grove Encyclopedia of Music and Musicians—the most authoritative music history encyclopedia we have—still opens with the sentence: “Dvořák was born into the unsophisticated cultural and social background of a Czech family”.[i]Austro-German stereotypes about the Czechs have not all been so explicitly negative, but they all hinge on this alleged lack of sophistication and culture. For instance, one musicologist wrote in 1941 that Dvořák was a “child of nature,” “gifted with all the metaphysical depth of his [Slavic] race.”[ii]

In much of the history of discourse around Dvořák, we can recognize two incompatible myths: the first says that Dvořák valiantly overcame his unsophisticated upbringing in rural Bohemia, and against all odds rose to international recognition thanks to his God-given genius; the second is the myth of the incorruptible Bohemian spirit that, despite Dvořák’s efforts to work in a learned, European style, drew him forever back to a “natural” simplicity of music that was his Czech birthright. Beneath these stereotypes lies a core disagreement in the reception of Dvořák’s music: is he great in spite of his Czech heritage, or because of it?

The development of a distinctly Czech style of opera began in the nineteenth century. Previous to this century, Italian and French opera had been hegemonic in Europe and North America, but the revolutionary fervor of the nineteenth century, and the rise of nationalism across the country, inspired a desire for music and art that spoke to a national sensibility. German opera became a major force in the middle of the nineteenth century, with Wagner as its crown jewel, leaving even Italian composers—who until this time had led the way—scrambling to conceive of a national style for the modern world. Composers in Russia, Poland, Hungary, and Bohemia followed Germany’s example and worked tirelessly to define styles distinctly their own.

The first Czech opera is generally considered to be František Škroup’s The Tinker, which premiered in Prague in 1826. While The Tinker was certainly heavily influenced by popular French and Italian operatic styles, it is based on an original Czech libretto, and Škroup’s music was shaped by contemporary tastes represented in Prague’s theatres. This early attempt paved the way for the towering figure of Bedřich Smetana, who would define the nationalist Czech style for opera. Smetana’s operas, written between the 1860s and 1890s in Prague, are filled with musical inflections from Czech folk music, and the rhythms of Czech dances. His most famous opera, The Bartered Bride, still generally serves as the archetype for Czech nationalist opera, with the popular character of its music, and its charming, uncomplicated plot depicting Bohemian village life. The Czech national style established by Smetana provided the background against which Dvořák’s work was judged during his lifetime. Indeed, questions about what it means to be Czech, in the primarily western-European world of opera and classical music, have coloured our continued discourses about Dvořák and his contributions to the music historical canon.

In Dvořák’s work, we see a clear progression from modern Germanic styles influenced heavily by Wagner, to an adoption of a simpler, more accessible style imbued with themes from Slavic folklore—he himself referred to these later operas as “national rather than Wagnerian.” And yet in his lifetime, local critics accused Dvořák of not supporting the cause of Czech nationalism, and maligned his operas for being insufficiently Czech. As much as Dvořák saw his project as a nationalist one, his particular brand of Czech nationalism did not quite fit the model created by Smetana. For one thing, Dvořák never shook a fascination with telling stories about the aristocracy and the court, whereas Smetana’s national opera was focused firmly on the peasants in whom he thought the true Czech spirit resided. Dvořák also tended not to choose events from Czech history as foundations for his operas, as was the style in Czech nationalist opera at the time. And perhaps most damningly, he was openly disinterested in politics, and his silence in the national conversation about the nature of Czech opera was not well received by his critics. But despite bad reviews on the topic of his Czechness at home, Dvořák’s personal brand of Czech national music led to a flourishing international career. Brahms took notice of the young composer at this point, and connected him with a German publisher, and later, the National Conservatory of Music in America brought Dvořák to New York for several years in the 1890s to teach American composers how they might develop their own national style of music.

So, embracing Czech nationalism certainly proved to be in the best interest of Dvořák’s career, but I believe his national style was motivated by his personal feelings at least as much as his business savvy. He wrote in a letter to his German publisher, “Still what have we to do with politics—let us be happy that we can give our service in the cause of beautiful art! And nations which possess and represent art will, we hope, never perish, no matter how small they are! Forgive me but I wanted to tell you that an artist also has a native land in which he must have faith and a warm heart.” We can see from this statement a deep love for homeland that motivated Dvořák’s composition, and the distaste for politics that led to his particular brand of nationalism bring underappreciated at home.

The libretto for Rusalka was written by the Czech poet, Jaroslav Kvapil. Kvapil’s text for Rusalka is an amalgamation of a number of European fairytale mythologies about mermaids. His story combines French myths about the Melusine, the German fairytales Undine by Fouqué and Die versunkene Glocke by Hauptmann, and the Danish story of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen. In addition to its pan-European sources, Kvapil injected his libretto with the local flavor of Czech fairytales inspired by Karel Jaromír Erben and Božena Nĕmcová. Specifically, the three main non-human characters are all lifted directly from the Czech fairytale tradition. First there is Vodník the Water Sprite, who is traditionally an unfriendly character in myth, infamous for drowning passers-by, but in Rusalka he acts more as a father figure. Ježibaba, also called Baba Yaga, is also typically an antagonist in Slavic mythology, though from time to time she provides guidance to lost souls. In Rusalka, we see both of these faces of Ježibaba. Finally, there is Rusalka. The rusalki are female water creatures in Slavic mythology, known for enticing men with their songs and dances, only for the men to ultimately die in their arms. Rusalki, like mermaids, belong to a large family of female or feminine-coded water creatures that inhabit European folklore and generally exist to lure unsuspecting men to their doom.

Kvapil’s rusalka, named simply Rusalka, is tragically in love with a human man, and gives up her voice so that she might transform into a human and win his love. The heart of Kvapil’s story is in his representation an individual alienated from society. Rusalka’s attempt to integrate into the human world allegorizes the struggle of anyone who has ever felt like an outsider. Her sudden, enchanted voicelessness leaves her unable to connect with the people she desired to be with so dearly.

Dvořák fleshes out Kvapil’s text with the rich tapestry of his score, comprising some of the most beloved music he ever wrote. Central to Dvořák’s musical structure is the dichotomy between the music of the world of nature, and that of the world of humans. The first and third acts bookend the opera with settings in nature, and to bring the dark wood and the moonlit stream to life, Dvořák employs unusual harmonies and highly evocative orchestral colours. The way he blends the sounds of different instruments of the orchestra creates a rich palette of sounds to create this world. Here is an excerpt from the first scene, in which we are introduced to the forest setting and its inhabitants. The orchestra paints the scene for us: the strings winding their way down a long chromatic scale like water trickling over rocks or leave fluttering down from trees. The three wood nymphs enter singing in close harmonies and a homophonic texture—this means that they all sing the same text at the same time, as if with one voice. The characters in Rusalka rarely sing at the same time like this—Dvořák generally prefers to have them take turns, to better imitate human speech—but the wood nymphs are not bound by human speech patterns, and by singing together in this way, their voices take on a more distinctly musical purpose. Listen for how the different families of instruments in the orchestra and the voices of the nymphs all add interesting, colourful sounds to the whole. And when the nymphs stop singing, an offstage chorus supplies the echo of the nymph’s song, which also helps to give dimension to the physical space of the wood around us.


Dvořák scores the human world, by contrast, with more traditional orchestral sounds and forms. This excerpt from the beginning of the second act introduces us to two of the Prince’s castle staff—a scene of domestic, human life. The music here is metrically very straight and measured. As opposed to the nature music, which called on all of the instrument families in the orchestra to spin its rich acoustic world, the human’s music recalls an older tradition, relying heavily on the strings for its character, with the horns relegated to ornamental hunting calls in the opening. 

            The two worlds of this opera are musically distinct, but there are parallels to be found between the world of nature and the world of humans that Rusalka traverses. This production by David McVicar is built around these parallel worlds. There is a lot to be gained by paying close attention to the second-act ballet. The corps de ballet performs a version of the events of Act I that distresses Rusalka terribly in its uncanny cheerfulness. Then keep an eye out for how McVicar mirrors this ballet with the Wood Nymphs in Act III. The world of nature is fodder for entertainment in the world of humans, but it goes both ways in this production. 

Another really interesting metric for thinking about the music and characters of this opera is class. Both within the world of nature and within the world of humans, we see and hear clear differences in the representation of the different characters based on their position in the class hierarchy. Musically, I think one of the best things to listen for in this respect is declamation in the vocal lines. Characters of high class, especially Rusalka in the natural world and the Prince in the human world, have beautiful, melodic lines to sing, and the rhythms with which they declaim their text are precise and subtle, matching the natural stress of the Czech language. By contrast, the low class characters, especially Ježibaba in the natural world and the Gamekeeper and Turnspit in the human world, tend to sing less interesting melodies and square rhythms that are not so sensitive to the language. Here is an excerpt from Act I, in which Rusalka and Ježibaba are conversing before Ježibaba casts her spell. Rusalka sings first and Ježibaba responds. Listen for the lyric delicacy of Rusalka’s line, in contrast with Ježibaba’s heavy, lumbering approach to both rhythm and melody. The orchestra reinforces this contrast: while Rusalka sings, we hear the flute and oboe play a motif associated with Rusalka’s character, which winds delicately around her vocal line; when Ježibaba sings, the strings pulse along underfoot with heavy rhythmic regularity.

In the theatre, you can pay attention to how class plays out musically in the human world. Listen for how these and other musical techniques flag the Gamekeeper and Turnspit as low class, and the Prince and Princess as high class. These differences are further emphasized onstage in David McVicar’s production. His design makes the gap between the lives of the high and low classes in this opera visible as well as audible.

Although Rusalka breaks many of the rules of Czech nationalist opera, as they were distilled from Smetana’s oeuvre, Dvořák’s orientation toward a Czech musical identity comes through clearly. Although this opera does not set an event from Czech history, its multiple European sources for the story are bound together and made special to a Czech audience through the use of stock characters from Czech fairytales. Dvořák explores the lives of the aristocracy in Rusalka, which was generally frowned upon, but he does so within the context of a musical system that illuminates class across the social spectrum. Finally, the tension Dvořák sets up between the worlds of nature and humankind speaks to one of the most lasting messages of Rusalka. When Rusalka mourns to Ježibaba that she was betrayed among the humans, Ježibaba tells her, “Humans are humans, cast out by the elements, long ago torn from the roots of the earth.” Throughout his life, Dvořák famously espoused his love and respect for nature on numerous occasions. He saw nature as an expression of the divine. This deep connection to nature recalls that myths about the Czech people as essentially natural, simple, and of the earth, and perhaps Rusalka’s popularity has been helped along by this outdated notion of Czechness. But this beautiful musical realization of nature’s power in the world did not simply spring from Dvořák’s soul, Czech or not. Dvořák masterfully crafted an operatic idiom for Rusalka that balances the evocative sounds of his orchestra with lovely, clear melodic lines for his singers. Tonight, McVicar’s production gives us a slightly different picture of nature. His is a nature touched with the eerie darkness of fairytales. And it is a nature that does not seem to be immune from human environmental evils. This particular tension between the worlds of nature and of humans is one well known to us today, and McVicar gives us a way to follow some of our own anxieties about nature and our relationship to it through Dvořák and Kvapil’s story. Despite the incredible tragedy of Rusalka’s experience in this opera at the hands of humanity, Dvořák’s final orchestral postlude returns to the music of nature with a sense of balance, and conciliation. Whatever happens in our lives, he seems to tell us, nature goes on, and in that knowledge there is peace.


[i] Klaus Döge, “Dvořák, Antonín (Leopold). Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Accessed 20 September 2019.

[ii] John Holland, “Beyond the Silver Moon: Exploring the Lost Tradition of Dvořák’s Operas Through a Study of Myth, Music, and Nationalism.” PhD diss., York University, 2018.



Beveridge, David R. “A Rare Meeting of Minds in Kvapil’s and Dvořák’s Rusalka: The Background, the Artistic Result, and Response by the World of Opera.” In Czech Music around 1900, edited by Lenka Krupková and Jirí Kopecky, 61-80. Studies in Czech Music no. 6. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell & Brewer, 2017.

Clapham, John. “The Operas of Antonín Dvořák.” Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association 84th session (1957-58): 55-69.

Döge, Klaus. “Dvořák, Antonín (Leopold). Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Accessed 20 September 2019.

Holland, John. “Beyond the Silver Moon: Exploring the Lost Tradition of Dvořák’s Operas Through a Study of Myth, Music, and Nationalism.” PhD diss., York University, 2018.

Hollander, H. “Dvořák the Czech.” Music & Letters 22, no. 4 (1941): 313-17.

Parker, Roger. “§ V. The 19th Century.” In “Opera (i).” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Accessed 20 September 2019.

Seaman, Gerald. “The Rise of Slavonic Opera.” New Zealand Slavonic Journal 2 (1978): 1-16.

Smaczny, Jan. “Dvořák: The Operas.” In Dvořák and His World, edited by Michael Beckerman, 104-33. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.



ROSSINI'S The Barber of Seville

Written by Wayne Gooding

You can hear Wayne give this lecture before the performance on  January 19, 22, 25 February 4 and 7.

On December 26, 1815, the impresario of the Teatro Argentina, then one of Rome’s grandest theatres, drew up a contract for a new opera.

“Signor Duca Sforza Cesarini, manager of the above-named theatre, engages Signor maestro Gioachino Rossini for the next carnival season of the year 1816; and the said Rossini promises and binds himself to compose, and produce on the stage, the second comic drama to be represented in the said season at the theatre indicated, and to the libretto which shall be given to him by the said manager, whether this libretto is old or new. The maestro Rossini engages to deliver his score in the middle of the month of January, and to adapt it to the voices of the singers …”

The contract also made Rossini responsible for vocal and orchestral rehearsals, and for conducting the first three performances from the keyboard. The premiere was set for February 5, 1816, just five weeks after the commission.

In the event, the premiere was February 20, and the new opera was The Barber of Seville. Two hundred years on, the opera figures consistently among the five most-performed operas every year, it’s the most-performed comic opera every year, and it’s the only Rossini opera performed continuously since its creation. This COC staging is one of 106 productions in more than 90 cities around the world this season. By way of introduction to the production, staged by the Barcelona-based Els Comediants theatre troupe, I want to explore the opera’s origins and some of the ways Rossini brought it to musical life. As we shall see, the zany and colorful production highlights some key features of early 19th-century comic opera.

Rossini’s contract made him responsible for composing, rehearsing and staging his opera, which was standard practice in professional opera at the time. The composer was just 23, but he already had 16 operas to his credit, eight composed over the two years leading up to the Barber of Seville premiere. He made his living travelling around Italy as a composer for hire, perhaps a natural career choice for someone born into a musical family with a father who was a professional trumpet and horn player and a mother who sang on stage, and for someone who was something of a child prodigy who started composing in his early teens. By 1816, Rossini had written operas for theatres in Rome, Venice, Bologna, Ferrara, Milan and Naples. The Teatro Argentina contract, in fact, was dated for the same day as the premiere of his latest opera, Torvaldo and Dorliska, at another theatre in Rome.

It’s not clear who came up with the idea of setting Barber of Seville as an opera. We know Cesarini turned down one proposal before he approached Cesare Sterbini to help. Sterbini was already in the city as the librettist for Rossini’s latest, though his text was not well received. One critic complained “that the content of the unpleasant and uninteresting libretto [of Torvaldo and Dorliska] did not wake Homer from his sleep.” Nonetheless, Rossini was happy to work with Sterbini again, and sometime in the final days of 1815 somebody, perhaps Rossini himself, proposed an opera based on a French play, The Barber of Seville, the first part of a trilogy that also includes The Marriage of Figaro and The Guilty Mother.

When Pierre August Caron Beaumarchais launched his Figaro trilogy in 1775, it was intended in part as a satirical reflection on the lifestyle and foibles of the pre-Revolutionary French aristocracy. Indeed, King Louis XVI had banned performances of Marriage of Figaro because he felt it cut too close to aristocratic bones. Forty years later, however, after the French Revolution and the turmoil of the Napoleonic era, the satire was less pertinent, though the basic plotlines had lost none of their appeal. In his preface to Barber, Beaumarchais sums up its essentials: “An old man is in love with his ward, and proposes to marry her; a young man succeeds in forestalling him, and the same day makes her his wife under the very nose and in the house of the guardian. That is the subject of The Barber of Seville, capable of being made with equal success into a tragedy, a comedy, a drama, an opera etc.”

Beaumarchais initially wrote Barber as an opera libretto, but after Paris’s Théâtre Italien turned him down, he reworked it as a play for the Comédie Française. His trilogy, however, quickly found its way to the opera stage. Mozart turned Marriage of Figaro into a successful opera in 1786, while Italian composer Giovanni Paisiello enjoyed great success with his Barber of Seville, first staged in 1782 for the Imperial Russian Court in St. Petersburg and then revised in 1787 for Naples. Paisiello’s was one of half a dozen Barber operas that started to appear the year after Beaumarchais premiered his play, but by 1815 it was the best known.

There are varying accounts of how long Rossini took to compose his Barber. Eight weeks passed between the contract signing and the premiere; but the composer was tied up at the end of December with Torvaldo and Dorliska, it took Sterbini a few weeks to fashion the libretto, and Cesarini had to clear everything with the censorship office. Rossini couldn’t have started on the music until after the beginning of January 1816, and then had to direct rehearsals as he composed. The consensus is that rather than the 13 days Rossini sometimes boasted, Barber was composed over about three weeks—still a remarkable feat even after Rossini cut corners by lifting a few themes from his own earlier works and those of other composers.

When Barber premiered on February 20th, it bore the title, Almaviva, named for the young nobleman sung by the lead tenor. In choosing this, Rossini tried to defuse any charge he was being disrespectful to the 75-year-old Paisiello, who, with more than 80 operas to his credit, was still very popular: In a preface to his libretto, Rossini wrote: “Beaumarchais’ comedy, entitled The Barber of Seville, or the Useless Precaution, is presented at Rome in the form of a comic drama under the title of Almaviva, or the Useless Precaution in order that the public may be fully convinced of the sentiments of respect and veneration by which the author of the music of this drama is animated with regard to the celebrated Paisiello.”

In the event, Rossini’s deference counted for nothing because Paisiello supporters, bent on disrupting Rossini’s premiere, had bought tickets in the elegant 700-seat theatre. As a result, the Barber premiere turned into one the most riotous first nights in opera history.

Rossini had been given a Spanish-style, hazel-colored coat with gold buttons to wear as he conducted, and its gaudiness triggered the first big outburst of jeering from the hostile audience. When the music got underway, it unfolded like a comedy of errors. Star Spanish tenor Manuel Garcia, making his Rome debut as Count Almaviva, had persuaded Rossini to let him add authentic local colour by providing the song and guitar accompaniment for one of the serenades he sings to the heroine, Rosina, early in Act I. But Garcia forgot to tune his guitar, and when he hurriedly did this onstage broke a string; everything came to a noisy halt while he fixed the problem. When Rosina, sung by Italian contralto Geltrude Righetti-Giorgi first appeared on the balcony after hearing the Count, the audience expected her to launch into a big entrance aria, but Rossini, for dramatic reasons, delays this. Audience members complained loudly. The noise in the act was so bad that when Italian bass-baritone Luigi Zamboni launched into Figaro’s entrance aria, the famous “Largo al factotum,” he could barely be heard. Then Zenobio Vitarelli, singing Don Basilio, tripped on an open stage trapdoor as he entered and almost broke his nose. He delivered “La Calunnia,” his showpiece aria about slander and rumor, with a handkerchief to his nose to stem the bleeding. The audience, ignoring his real distress, jeered. At the end of Act I, a cat wandered onstage, and when Figaro and Almaviva tried to shoo it off got caught in Rosina’s dress. By the end of Act I, Righetti-Giorgi wrote, there was “laughter, catcalls and piercing whistles, with no respite … It would be impossible to describe the abuse showered on Rossini, who remained impassive at the keyboard, as if to say: “Apollo, pardon these people, who know not what they do.”

Act 2 fared little better, with pro-Rossini and anti-Rossini forces almost coming to blows. “As I sat at the keyboard,” the composer later told Richard Wagner, “I had to protect myself from an audience that was completely out of control. I really thought they were going to assassinate me.”

Rossini slipped out of the theatre quietly after the performance. The singers decided to go to his lodging to cheer him up, though it was a wasted journey. Apparently, he had gone to bed and fallen asleep as if nothing had happened. Although contractually obliged to conduct the second performance, Rossini called in sick and only learned later that the audience had enthusiastically applauded the work, as did the audience for the third performance, which he did conduct. In hindsight, it seems that the reaction on opening night was engineered by Paisiello’s supporters and not really about the quality of Rossini’s opera. More than 200 years later, of course, Rossini’s Barber is an essential part of the opera repertoire, while Paisiello’s is largely forgotten.

Numerous reasons explain why Rossini’s piece has stayed at the operatic forefront. It’s fast-paced from beginning to end; it’s peopled by musically engaging characters; it seems to unfold through one beautiful melody after another; the music for voices and orchestra is colourful and varied; and the comedy plays out as much in the music as in the action. It is, in short, arguably the supreme example of—to use Italian opera jargon—a bel canto opera buffa.

Opera buffa was by definition comic opera, geared to a popular audience and portraying everyday people in everyday life, albeit not necessarily in realistic everyday situations. The genre was separate from Opera Seria—Serious Opera—which usually dealt with mythical or historical subjects and set more dramatic, often tragic, storylines. Opera buffa had started out with simple one-act pieces that played in the intermissions of serious operas, but by Rossini’s time the two genres had developed along parallel tracks.

Rossini composed both kinds, as a contemporary caricature shows with him balancing characters. On the left is his tragic Otello, which he wrote immediately after Barber, in the middle and on the right are the Rosina and Figaro from his comic Barber.

As for bel canto, this translates simply as “beautiful singing,” and early 19th-century operas, both serious and comic, that bear the label are mainly about the singing. Rossini developed the art and craft of bel canto style, the masterful vocal writing—for five major roles, three secondary and a chorus— is a principal reason for Barber’s success. In practice, bel canto style encompasses many elements. It can be very florid, with lots of ornamentation and vocal effects, or it can feature long, smoothly flowing melodic lines that the singer is expected to spin out in gorgeous, even tone. One of Almaviva’s serenades to Rosina in Act 1 is a perfect example. Never mind the words, just listen to the graceful melodic line.

Count Almaviva: "Se il mio nome super". 

Such elegant vocal writing, though typical, contrasts sharply with the madcap comedy that mainly characterizes the stage action and the music of bel canto opera buffa. These operas are not subtle; the humor is broad and physical, at times resorting to musical slapstick. The characters, though funny and appealing, are hardly developed, and often come across more as types than real people.

The Els Comediants production at the COC visually and dramatically plays up the direct link between Rossini’s Barber and the Italian Commedia dell’arte tradition that dates back to Renaissance times. Commedia dell’arte—which literally means “professional theatre”—put a premium on improvisation at first, but over time developed conventional plots and stock characters, including masters, servants, crotchety old men and young lovers. Barber has one of the traditional Commedia plotlines—a love triangle that pits generations against each other—and its principal characters are based, via Beaumarchais, on Commedia stock figures.

Arlecchino, Harlequin, for example, often figures as a clever and resourceful servant in the Commedia tradition, and in Barber becomes Figaro. Pantalone is one of the principal crotchety old men in the Commedia tradition, usually the loser in every situation, and the Dottore, often portrayed as a bumbling schemer, is another stock figure.

In Barber, these two become Dr Bartolo and Don Basilio. These older male characters, usually sung by low voices are the comic butts in opera buffa, and their music is characterized by a fast-paced patter. Here’s an example in which Dr. Bartolo threatens his ward, Rosina, with imprisonment. 

Doctor Bartolo: "A un dottor della mia sorta"

The Els Comediants production highlights the opera’s Commedia origins in it broad, physical humor, the introduction of circus-like acrobatic elements and mime, and the almost-cartoonish sets and costumes. There’s nothing subtle about the fantastical production, which is wholly in keeping with the Commedia tradition, Beaumarchais’ plotline and Rossini’s music.

This image is from the Act 1 Finale, which depends on a distinctive feature of Rossini’s musical style—the so-called Rossini Crescendo. He didn’t invent it, but he perfected the device of constructing a musical number out of short repeated melodic phrases that get louder and faster as the number progresses. There are dozens of examples in Barber, starting with the overture, but perhaps the Act I finale is the best example. Here’s the opening. Listen for the way the parts are intricately woven together, to the cross rhythms and to the clever way Rossini builds both speed and volume.

Ensemble Act 1 Finale: "Mi par dessert cola testa"

Since he used the device in both comic and serious works, little wonder people came to refer to Rossini as Signor Crescendo. Whatever his work may lack in subtlety is surely trumped by an inventiveness and craftsmanship that, note by note, milks every last drop of humour or sentiment from the words he set. Rossini’s operas have been dismissed as facile or trivial, as when Richard Wagner judged him an “immensely talented maker of artificial flowers” created using velvet and silk and painted with deceptive colours. Others, however, recognized his achievement. “I confess,” wrote Giuseppe Verdi, “that I cannot help believing The Barber of Seville, for abundance of ideas, for comic verve, and for truth of declamation, the most beautiful opera buffa in existence.” And if one suspects Verdi of bias in favour of a fellow Italian, let’s leave the last word to a German. When they met in Vienna in 1822, Beethoven greeted him: “Ah, Rossini, you are the composer of The Barber of Seville? I congratulate you; it is an excellent opera buffa; I read it with pleasure, and it delights me. It will be played as long as Italian opera exists. Never try to do anything but opera buffa; wanting to succeed in another genre would be trying to force your destiny.” As opera history unfolded, Rossini was more successful as a composer of serious opera than the German master predicted, but when it comes to The Barber of Seville, Beethoven’s view that it would be played as long as Italian opera exists has proved absolutely right.

All production photos by Michael Cooper.



Written by Sadie Menicanin

You can hear Sadie give this lecture before the performance on Sunday, February 16.

Good afternoon, and welcome to the pre-performance chat for the COC’s new production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. My name is Sadie Menicanin -- currently I’m completing my PhD in historical musicology at the University of Toronto, and I’m thrilled to be here today to share some insights with you about this magical opera. Widely praised for its musical beauty, Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel has been a staple of the European and North American opera repertories since its premiere in 1893. The opera is traditionally associated with the Christmas season, an association that dates back to its earliest iteration as a festive production for the composer’s family. In today’s talk, I won’t be providing a musical “play-by-play” of Hansel and Gretel, but will instead focus your attention on the wider historical context for this work, addressing some of the currents in opera that arose after the death of Richard Wagner in 1883, and highlighting Hansel & Gretel’s unique position within this unstable opera landscape. While initially it may be tempting to see Hansel und Gretel’s gingerbread house, witch, and child characters as quaint, the fairy-tale and folk-like elements of this opera should by no means be taken as relegating it to the realm of children’s entertainment. Actually, fairy-tale based plots were a major trend in German-language opera in the late 19th century, and besides being popular were also critically acclaimed. Indeed, fairy-tale operas were among the forefront of operatic fashion in Germany and Austria at this time, emerging as an alternative to other contemporary European trends that leaned more towards realism. Realist works from this time did without mythic, heroic, or historic themes; instead they feature plots that center on melodramatic interpersonal conflicts between lower-class characters in grittier settings. At first glance, Hansel and Gretel is not realistic in the same way as a contemporary work like Puccini’s La bohème, an opera whose plot and music romanticized the struggles of everyday life. Nevertheless, Hansel and Gretel does contain thematic elements that are relevant to our current 21st-century moment, which are brought to the forefront in Joel Ivany’s new production for the COC.

Richard Wagner’s Shadow

            In order to fully appreciate the context of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, we must first begin with Richard Wagner. Wagner was—and in many respects still is—the cornerstone of the German operatic repertory in the nineteenth century. Wagner was a direct influence on Humperdinck, who personally knew the older composer and who wrote his operas in the years following Wagner’s death. After its premiere, Humperdinck’s Hansel & Gretel was considered by many critics to possess clear Wagnerian musical characteristics, features that elevated this work in their eyes. In this portion of the talk I’ll provide some background information on Wagner and his operas in order to give you a clearer picture of this composer’s influence on Humperdinck and his compositional style. Understanding Wagner will help you to be aware of why critics praised Humperdinck’s musical language for being so sophisticated, and even labelled his Hänsel and Gretel as an heir to Wagner’s operatic legacy.

Born in the same year as Giuseppe Verdi, 1813, Wagner strategically incorporated musical and narrative elements used by his predecessors and contemporaries in the pursuit of his ideal “total work of art.” Wagner’s polarizing writings, self-aggrandizing attitude, innovative approach to harmony and orchestration, and construction of his own opera house in Bayreuth, Germany, made him an extraordinarily famous (or infamous) figure in nineteenth-century Europe.

Many of Wagner’s operas, for which he wrote his own librettos (or texts), are based in myth and legend. His 4-opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelungs plays on many familiar tropes that we might associate with Western high fantasy like “Lord of the Rings,” featuring gods & goddesses, water maidens, a bird who can magically speak, and a sleeping maiden being woken up by a hero’s kiss. But within the plots of these music dramas, Wagner was keen to incorporate aspects of philosophical thought and Germanic heritage. Rather than simply depict light-hearted fairy tales or fables, he wanted to weave a musical and narrative tapestry of what appeared to be ancient myth, that would elevate both the German operatic tradition and, hopefully, the German citizens. Nevertheless, at times Wagner still incorporated aspects of fairy-tale, perhaps the most fairy-tale-like opera of his Ring cycle being number 3: Siegfried. Over the course of this opera, the petulant young hero Siegfried must learn fear, a task that leads him on a journey to find himself—and to defeat a dragon guarding treasure!—a timeless fairy-tale narrative if there ever was one.

Music historian Carl Dahlhaus has described the main difference between myth and fairy tale as grounded in how these two types of narrative relate to time: on the one hand, he suggests, myth is located in a particular historical moment, however far removed into the past; on the other hand, the fairy tale exists somehow outside of time. In Dahlhaus’s words, fairy tales are “never and nowhere or always and everywhere,” which may, perhaps, be part of the reason why fairy tales are able to maintain such a strong hold on our contemporary imaginations, and why they can be adapted very effectively to more modern contexts. But more on that later.

In his mythic and other operas, Wagner contributed a number of musical innovations. His “unending melody” – the illusion of a smooth, constantly transforming musical progression in the orchestra and voices that was modeled on methods from Beethoven’s symphonies – was a particularly distinct feature of his operas, and a technique that contributed to the perception their “epic” and serious quality. This technique, in some ways related to “through-composition,” contrasted the formally segmented “number operas” written by composers like Bizet – the composer of Carmen – or Verdi. Especially popular in France and Italy, number operas were built upon song-like arias which had distinct verses or sections and more easily “hummable” melodies. Wagner’s operas are less easily “hummable” and don’t even include traditional arias. In addition to using a more symphonic, through-composed approach, Wagner pioneered what came to be known as “leitmotifs.” Short, recurring, and transforming musical themes that are embedded into the orchestral tapestry, leitmotifs provide additional information about the plot or characters’ motivations, and are associated with particular symbols, characters, or entities in an opera.

After Wagner’s death German-speaking composers were left to wrestle with these tremendous musical shoes that needed to be filled; the shoes were especially large, given the fact that Wagner’s personal innovations for opera had been cemented as a benchmark for the entire German operatic tradition, and since Wagner’s own larger-than-life personality had meant that, regardless of one’s personal feelings towards him or his music, his work was virtually impossible to ignore. What could someone like Humperdinck do, faced with such a legacy? In many cases composers still aimed to incorporate some Wagnerian musical techniques like through-composition or the leitmotif. But the key to avoiding the heavy burden of Wagner’s operatic legacy was to depart from his mythological opera paradigm altogether, and to compose works in other genres that had their own unique stylistic needs. Some turned to comedy, some turned to romantic stories, and others, like Humperdinck, turned to fairy tale.

Humperdinck and Wagner

Engelbert Humperdinck has been described as a “Wagner-phile,” being an admirer of the older composer’s works, attending performances and even arranging excerpts of Wagner’s operas for smaller chamber ensembles in his early career. In 1878, a 24-year old Humperdinck first heard Wagner’s complete Ring cycle over a period of a few days at the Munich Court Opera, an experience which evidently made a distinct impression on the young composer. From memory, Humperdinck was able to record into his diary musical fragments that had been especially notable to him. Wagner’s Siegfried, the Ring opera that was most fairy-tale-like, clearly stood out to Humperdinck, based on his diary entry after a performance on the 21st of November, 1878. He wrote:

“This Siegfried music is deeply significant, moving, unparalleled!”[1]

[“Tiefbedeutsam, ergreifend, einzig dastehend ist diese Siegfried-Musik!”]

Humperdinck also thought that the “Forest Murmurs” sequence from this opera was particularly noteworthy; this is a striking musical moment in Act II of Siegfried in which the natural environment around the hero, who is momentarily lost in reverie, comes to life with a magical energy. Listen for the trees murmuring coupled with the song of the woodbird in this excerpt: Play an excerpt from Forest Murmurs. Years later in Act II of Hansel & Gretel, Humperdinck used a similarly rich orchestral approach in composing the shifting atmospheres of the forest environment, and illustrating the appearance of a cuckoo. Though here the children sing in a playful tone, one can hear the clear similarities in the two composers’ treatments of the orchestra. Listen for the strings that seem to illustrate the trees rustling in the breeze, similar to the excerpt from Siegfried: Play excerpt.

Eventually, Humperdinck would have the opportunity to know not just Richard Wagner’s music but the composer himself, meeting the Master in Naples in the year 1880. They established a working relationship, and Humperdinck had the honour of assisting Wagner in Bayreuth for a roughly 18-month period over the course of 1881 to 1882, helping with the rehearsals and preparation for Wagner’s magnum opus – the medieval sacred epic Parsifal. Humperdinck was charged with copying out the score for Parsifal, and, while Wagner was in Italy during the winter months, was also responsible for training a boys’ chorus for the opera. He eventually became a music tutor to Wagner’s son, Siegfried. Wagner seems to have believed strongly in Humperdinck’s capabilities. Writing to his parents in 1882 during the preparatory weeks prior to the premiere of Parsifal, Engelbert excitedly disclosed:

“The Master now thinks very highly of me, since I’ve become an almost indispensable support for him at his age with my thorough knowledge of the score.”[2]

[“Der Meister halt jetzt große Stücke auf mich, indem ich bei meiner gründlichen Kenntnis der Partitur ihm in seinem Alter eine fast unentbehrliche Stütze geworden bin.”]

While Hansel and Gretel, Humperdinck’s first opera, would not premiere for another 11 years after his time in Bayreuth with “the Master,” one can imagine that these behind-the-scenes experiences as an assistant to Wagner had a particularly strong influence on Humperdinck’s development as an opera composer.

The Fairy-Tale Opera and / Contemporary European Trends

              In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, a taste for greater realism in general was sweeping the opera houses of Europe. Verdi’s La Traviata of 1853 and Bizet’s Carmen, which premiered in 1875, might be considered forerunners that pointed towards this movement. A similar trend towards greater realism, sometimes called “naturalism”—with true to life, less traditionally noble subject matter—was also taking place in the visual arts and literature in Europe around the same time; one might think of the work of the painters Jean-Francois Millet and Gustave Courbet who depicted the labour of anonymous peasants.

               “Verismo” or “realist” Italian operas had taken Europe by storm in the early 1890s. Two famous examples of verismo operas – which many of you may already be familiar with – include Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana (which premiered in 1890) and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (premiered 1892). These works were extraordinarily popular: at Vienna’s court opera house alone, Mascagni’s Cavalleria was performed 217 times between 1891 and 1900! However, a widespread bourgeois German perspective on verismo located this genre at a lower aesthetic level. Many German detractors perceived verismo operas’ plotlines as having a scandalous ‘low-brow’ quality—verismo plots were often domestic tragedies involving adultery and violent revenge, and took place in the context of peasant communities. Clearly, though, given the popularity of these works, their more titillating aspects were attractive to many European audiences, but they were off-putting for some long-time Wagner devotees accustomed to more “elevated” metaphysical and mythic tragedies or historical dramas. To make matters worse, the Italian genre of verismo was so popular that it was overshadowing contemporary German compositions, encroaching upon the high status of German opera on its own turf.

              The Austro-German trend towards fairy tale opera like Hansel & Gretel in the 1890s and the early 1900s could be viewed as a response to both the explosion of verismo as well as to the legacy of Wagner. The genre occupied a welcome musical and dramatic middle ground between high- and low-brow tastes, and could also be tied into German heritage. Given their magical subject matter, fairy tale stories also allowed room for a composer’s creativity to shine.

              I should also briefly note that Czech-speaking composers like Janacek and Dvorak (composer of Rusalka) as well as Russians including Rimsky-Korsakov, composed in the genre of fairy tale; in their cases this impulse was not so much connected to escaping the Wagnerian legacy but rather had more to do with establishing a national opera style that drew upon and elevated traditional “folk” elements from their underrepresented nations.

            Humperdinck’s Hansel & Gretel was a safe departure in tone from the earnest and philosophical music dramas of Wagner. The work features a successful combination of elements that at first glance might seem inconsistent: Humperdinck draws on folksongs – simple, accessible song forms – and inserts them effectively into a musical context that emulates the sense of flow and continuous thematic development of Wagner’s through-composed “unending melody.” Humperdinck is able to adhere the accessible segments of folk songs to a larger, unified structure, maintaining the simpler songs’ melodic appeal, while still producing a through-composed opera rather than one interspersed with unrelated, individual song numbers. Following in Wagner’s footsteps, Humperdinck is also a master of generating atmosphere using different orchestral instruments and timbres; he is further able to link different moods and scenes using recurring motifs, a technique for which Wagner was famous.  

            But Humperdinck did not begin his work on Hansel & Gretel with high operatic aspirations. Rather, an early iteration of the work was initially composed after a request from his sister, Adelheid Wette; she was in need of music that would be singable by children to be used in her adaptation of the original Grimm Brothers fairytale, which she had created for her own children and intended for family performance. Adelheid’s libretto softens the edges of the Grimm brothers’ rather dark original: for example, the Grimm character of the stepmother—who possesses more wicked intentions towards the children—is adapted by Adelheid to be simply the children’s mother. There are also more pronounced religious overtones in Adelheid’s and Engelbert’s adaptation. In Act II, the children pray for protection before going to sleep; Humperdinck’s beautiful setting of this moment in the understated, hymn-like “Evening Prayer” has become perhaps the most famous musical excerpt from the opera. After their prayer, a host of angels gathers to protect the sleeping children in a dream pantomime sequence, in which Humperdinck contrapuntally develops themes introduced in the previous hymn-like benediction and showcases his emulation of Wagner in his symphonic treatment of the orchestra and seamless development of themes. Listen to the variety of ways that Humperdinck accompanies a simple, repeated theme with different instrumental combinations, creating a sense of direction and climax: Play an excerpt of Dream Pantomime. Once again, in this passage we can hear how Humperdinck manipulates timbre and orchestration to develop relatively simple melodic material into a symphony-like passage, a technique similar to Wagner’s symphonic treatment of the orchestra in his operas.

              Humperdinck set the stage for other composers to follow Wagner with fairy tale, and in the years after Hansel & Gretel’s premiere, more fairy tale operas followed – Viennese composer Karl Goldmark’s The Cricket on the Hearth of 1896 and Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Es war einmal (e.g. “Once upon a time”) from 1900 are two examples of roughly contemporary works. Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel was lauded by the famous composer-conductors Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, and particularly well-received by none other than Siegfried Wagner, Richard’s son. In 1894, Siegfried declared that Humperdinck’s work was “the most important opera since Parsifal,” a statement that provoked a cheeky response from the Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick. Hanslick wrote dryly: “The best in a full twelve years? An irritating pronouncement, and the worst of it is – that it is true.” Famous for his sharp opinions, Eduard Hanslick seemed frustrated with the state of opera in Germany and Austria between Wagner’s death and Humperdinck’s Hansel & Gretel. Nonetheless, Hanslick did acknowledge that Hansel & Gretel appeased Austro-German audiences’ desires for new narrative themes combined with musical markers of “Wagnerism,” which were highlighted thanks to the opera’s atmospheric instrumentation and thematic richness, despite the simplicity and accessibility of its subject matter and melodies. The anxiety surrounding the Wagnerian operatic legacy seems to have been mitigated, at least for a short time.

Hansel und Gretel: A Fairy Tale for Today

            If I was to ask you to close your eyes and to freely come up with images that the words “Hansel and Gretel” remind you of, I’m sure many of you would picture some similar things: the setting, perhaps in a deep, dark, mossy forest; a witch clothed in black with a pointy nose and claw-like fingers; a gingerbread house with a slanted roof decorated with countless gum drops stuck onto white icing. Longstanding as these classic images might be, they are ultimately just one way of visually interpreting the story. If we agree with Carl Dahlhaus’s statement that fairy tales are essentially “never and nowhere or always and everywhere,” then what is stopping us from understanding Hansel and Gretel as a fairy tale whose lessons we can apply to our own lives today?

            The COC’s new production directed by Joel Ivany—which you’ll have the pleasure of seeing and hearing today—transports this story to 21st-century Toronto. If you look closely, you’ll even see The Four Seasons Centre, where we are today, in the orchestral prelude. The production draws our attention to real-life themes that lie just beneath the surface of the original story, including issues of income inequality and social status that we see play out around us in 2020 Toronto, and the timeless joys of childlike wonder and imagination.

            Speaking on the concept behind the new production, Ivany states: “No matter where we come from, what we all share is that at one point we were all children who used our imaginations to make sense of the world, to play, and to problem solve. At a certain point, we would all grow up and slowly stop pretending, imagining, and creating as much as we used to. But our hope is that this production can spark the imagination in all of us to bring us back to a time that was full of story, adventure, and risk.”

            I sincerely hope that you enjoy today’s production! Thank you for your attention.


[1] Engelbert Humperdinck, diary entry from Thursday, 21 November 1878, in Engelbert Humperdinck: in seinen persönlichen Beziehungen zu Richard Wagner, Cosima Wagner, Siegfried Wagner, dargestellt am Briefwechsel und anderen Aufzeichnungen, ed. Eva Humperdinck and M. Evamaris (Koblenz: Görres Verlag, 1996), 19-20.

[2] Engelbert Humperdinck, letter to his parents dated 4 July 1882, Engelbert Humperdinck: in seinen persönlichen Beziehungen zu Richard Wagner, Cosima Wagner, Siegfried Wagner, dargestellt am Briefwechsel und anderen Aufzeichnungen, ed. Eva Humperdinck and M. Evamaris (Koblenz: Görres Verlag, 1996), 63.



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