This week we’re decoding with the man who wrote the code - Terence Blanchard, composer of Fire Shut Up in My Bones. Not only is it the work that reopened the Met after its 18-month pandemic shutdown, but it’s also the first opera by a Black composer ever to be performed there. Based on the 2014 memoir of the same name by New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, Fire Shut Up in My Bones is a coming-of-age story about his childhood in a tiny town in northwest Louisiana.
From a young age, Charles knew he was different, not like his brothers or the other boys. After being sexually assaulted by his older cousin, he was consumed by shame, and especially when he began to feel attraction toward boys as well as girls. The South was not the place to be questioning one’s sexual identity as a Black man in the 1970s and 80s. But in the aria “Peculiar Grace,” he puts his questions aside and looks forward to a brighter future. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the experience of feeling like an outsider, and the life-changing path toward self-acceptance.
Composer Terence Blanchard is a multiple Grammy-winning composer and jazz trumpeter. Fire Shut Up In My Bones is his second opera, and it premiered at Opera Theatre of St. Louis in 2019. He has scored countless films, and is known for his many collaborations with the film director Spike Lee, including most recently Da 5 Bloods and BlacKkKlansman. Each was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Score. He credits his father for his love of opera, and he has a particular fondness for Puccini’s La bohème.
Baritone Will Liverman is singing the role of Charles in the Met’s production of Fire Shut Up In My Bones. While he was sitting on his couch during the pandemic, wondering if he’d ever get to sing in front of an audience again, he was invited to send an audition tape and landed the role just a few days later. Will has collaborated with D.J. and artist K-Rico to create The Factotum, a contemporary adaptation of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville for the Lyric Opera of Chicago. He is an alumnus of the Ryan Opera Center at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Dr. E. Patrick Johnson is an artist, writer, and professor of Performance Studies and African American Studies at Northwestern, where he is also the Dean of the School of Communication. He is the author and editor of several award-winning books, including Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South. His research for the book included dozens of interviews with men who were born, raised, and still live in the South, and he later adapted it into a staged-reading, Pouring Tea, as well as a full-length play and a documentary. He has received multiple awards both for his scholarship and his stage work.
Psalm 137 depicts the ancient Hebrews, enslaved and weeping “by the rivers of Babylon,” as they remember their homeland, Jerusalem. Those words have inspired songwriters of reggae, Broadway, disco, folk and more, but one of the most memorable versions is featured in Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Nabucco.
The opera retells the story of the Babylonian captivity when Nebuchadnezzar (or Nabucco, in Italian) seizes Jerusalem, destroys the temple, and enslaves the Israelites in his kingdom. At the heart of the opera is “Va, pensiero,” also known as the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, in which the Israelites yearn for their lost home.
It’s this yearning for home by those exiled from their homeland, and of refugees trying to build a new identity in a new land, that has helped make Verdi’s first big hit resonate far beyond the opera house since its premiere. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the experience of refugees and immigrants, the significance of memory and community, and the power of 100 voices joined in song.
Donald Palumbo has been the chorus master at the Met Opera for 15 years. He can remember almost every time he has ever performed “Va, pensiero,” and usually ends up standing in the wings just to listen to it. He previously was the chorus master at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and has taught at Juilliard since 2016.
Professor Mark Burford is a musicologist at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. He specializes in 19th-century Austro-German music, and twentieth century African American music, and is the author of the award-winning book Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field. He previously taught at the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall, Columbia University, and City College of New York.
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg is the Scholar in Residence at the National Council of Jewish Women. She writes books about the messy business of trying to be a person in the world, and about how spirituality can transform that work. She is the author of seven books, including Nurture the Wow and Surprised by God. She’s been named one of the top 50 most influential women rabbis.
Roya Hakakian is an Iranian Jewish writer and the author of two volumes of poetry in Persian. Her family was exiled from Iran following the 1979 revolution, after which they lived as refugees in Europe for a year before immigrating to the United States. Her most recent book is A Beginner’s Guide to America: For the Immigrant and the Curious.
Zijn er afleveringen die ontbreken?
The young Composer in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is one of opera’s great trouser roles -- a female singer playing the part of a young man. He is set to premiere his new opera at the home of the richest man in Vienna, only to learn moments before the performance that a bawdy comedy troupe will be performing at the same time.
As his plans collapse around him, the Composer falls in love with Zerbinetta, the leader of the commedia dell'arte troupe, and his whole world changes in a flash. In his aria “Sein wir wieder gut,” he sings about how he now sees everything with new eyes. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the transformational power of love, music and putting on a pair of pants.
Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is a multi Grammy Award-winner and a fierce advocate for the arts. She’s also kind of a hero, bringing her talents to classrooms, prisons, and refugee camps, and sharing the transformative power of music. She loves playing trouser roles, and finds singing the Composer in particular to be an experience of discovery and total joy.
Writer Paul Thomason is a die-hard Strauss fan and is writing a book about the composer. He sees Strauss as the great humanist among composers, because he presents his characters exactly as they are. He studied conducting and worked with maestros Thomas Schippers and Peter Maag. He has also appeared on the Met Opera’s intermission quizzes during their Saturday broadcasts.
Mo B. Dick is a founding father of the drag king movement. He started performing in drag in 1995 and founded Club Cassanova, the first weekly party dedicated to drag kings, and has made appearances in movies and television. He is also one of the cofounders of the website dragkinghistory.com, which archives the history of drag kings and crossdressers dating all the way back to the Tang dynasty.
People who go to see Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor spend the entire evening waiting for the famous Mad Scene, to hear the soprano’s incredible acrobatics, and to feel her intense emotional changes over the course of the lengthy showstopper. But the Mad Scene is more than a vocal showpiece: it’s a window into what it means to lose touch with reality and the ways women’s real-life challenges can go ignored or, even worse, pathologized as illness.
In the opera, Lucia has no control of her life; her brother betrays her and forces her to marry a man she doesn’t love. Alone and out of options, Lucia escapes in the only way she can: she murders her new husband and descends into madness. But how do we understand her crimes and hallucinations? And what can Lucia teach us about how we diagnose and treat mental health conditions today? Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests dive into the history of women and madness, as well as the story of a woman living with bipolar disorder today.
Soprano Natalie Dessay had a thriving career as a coloratura soprano before cashing in her opera chips and turning her talents to theater and jazz. When she sang the role of Lucia at the Met in 2011, she approached it a bit like a circus performer, adding physical challenges to match the vocal ones.
Dr. Mary Ann Smart is a professor of music at UC Berkeley. As a grad student, she wrote her dissertation on mad scenes in 19th century opera, and she has since authored multiple books, including Siren Songs: Representations of Gender and Sexuality in Opera. One of the things that she finds most poignant about Lucia’s Mad Scene is the fact that Donizetti spent the end of his life being treated for physical and mental illness.
Activist and writer Dr. Phyllis Chesler has written more than 20 books, including the seminal work, Women and Madness. Her work deals with freedom of speech and freedom of thought. Her recent books include Requiem for a Female Serial Killer, and her memoir An American Bride in Kabul. She believes writing is most definitely a form of madness.
Author and attorney Melody Moezzi wrote Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life in order to capture her experiences as an Iranian-American Muslim woman with bipolar disorder, and to help others with this condition feel less alone. She is an advocate for destigmatizing mental health conditions, and she believes that sometimes, what looks like madness can actually be a rational response to an irrational world.
Perhaps no opera better reflects the questions and contradictions at the heart of Russian history than Modest Mussorgsky’s historical epic Boris Godunov. Based on the play by Alexander Pushkin (considered by many to be one of Russia’s greatest writers), it’s a meditation on power and legitimacy, and a portrayal of a pivotal period in Russian history -- The Time of Troubles.
When Tsar Ivan the Terrible dies without an heir, Boris Godunov is elected tsar, casting doubt on his legitimacy. He rules well for a few years, but then all hell breaks loose, with a famine, a revolt, and a pretender claiming to be the real tsar.
As his country’s problems compound, Boris confronts his feelings of powerlessness in the monologue, “Dostig ja vïsshei vlasti.” Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the nature of power, the question of legitimacy, and how an opera can shine a light on a nation’s past as well as its present.
Bass René Pape (A.K.A. “The Black Diamond Bass”) has been singing the role of Boris Godunov for 15 years. Like many of the kings and rulers he’s played on stage, he sees Boris as someone who has all of the power but none of the joy. In addition to his velvety voice, Pape is also known for his collection of rubber ducks, and even has one in his own image, the PapeDuck.
Dr. Simon Morrison is a professor of music history at Princeton, specializing in Russian and Soviet music. He fell in love with Russian music when he was an undergraduate and wrote his dissertation on the life and work of Sergei Prokofiev. His most recent book is Bolshoi Confidential, a history of the Bolshoi Ballet, and he is currently writing a book on the history of the city of Moscow, which finds him studying 11th century documents written on birchbark.
Dr. Shoshana Keller is a professor of Russian, Soviet, Eurasian, and modern Middle Eastern history at Hamilton College. She first became interested in Russia after getting to know the music of Shostakovich and Stravinsky while playing French horn as a kid, and she was fascinated by pictures of Russian onion domes in a social studies class. She loved the Russian language too, but found the grammar devilishly difficult and immersed herself in its history. She has written multiple books, and is working on an experimental mapping project of the nations in Kazakhstan
One of opera’s great heroines is based on one of history’s extraordinary women. The 19th century French courtesan Marie Duplessis was elegant, successful, famous, and gone before her time, dying of tuberculosis at the age of 23. One of her lovers, Alexandre Dumas fils, was so inspired by her that he wrote a novel and a play about her life called The Lady of the Camellias, which in turn inspired Giuseppe Verdi to compose La Traviata.
Verdi immortalized Marie Duplessis in the character of Violetta Valéry, giving us a woman both at the height of her vitality and success, and on her deathbed. Alone, and having loved and lost a man named Alfredo, she sings “Addio del passato.” This aria is a farewell to the past and a plea to God for forgiveness. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the brief, vibrant life of Marie Duplessis and how Verdi captured her plaintive farewell in music.
As a child, soprano Lisette Oropesa saw her mother perform the role of Violetta on stage and was heartbroken by the end! Still, she found the courage to eventually take on this great heroine herself. Lisette has enjoyed learning about the strength, smarts, and tenacity of the real-life Marie Duplessis.
Writer Fred Plotkin is the author of Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera. He has worked in opera since 1972, doing everything but singing, and has written six books on Italian cuisine. Verdi is his hero because he represents all the greatness an artist can achieve both artistically and as a human being.
Writer and journalist Liesl Schillinger translated Alexandre Dumas fils’ novel, La Dame aux Camélias, and discovered in Marie Duplessis an extraordinary, generous, and shockingly modern woman. In Dumas fils, she discovered a man who was critical of the constraints and double-standards that constrained women during the 1800s.
Actor and director John Turturro is known for his roles in over 60 feature films, but perhaps less well-known as a Verdi fan. He sometimes includes operatic music in his films, and he’s even tried his hand at directing Verdi’s Rigoletto. Growing up, he remembers fondly how his dad and uncles would gather around a record player to compare and critique different singers’ performances of a single aria.
What makes us human? As artificial intelligence becomes more advanced, technology is becoming even more integrated into the fabric of daily life, and better able to simulate real human interactions. But what really separates humans from machines is our ability to love, to dream, and to believe in an illusion.
In Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, the poet Hoffmann thinks he’s finally found love, and he’s so head-over-heels that he doesn’t realize something’s off -- Olympia, the woman of his dreams, isn’t a woman at all. She’s a wind-up doll. But like all of us humans, he can’t help but view his beloved through rose-colored glasses.
In “Les oiseaux dans la charmille,” Olympia sings one of the great arias for a coloratura soprano, and it’s music that’s so difficult it seems like only a machine could sing it. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests find the human angle to this doll’s song, exploring the pitfalls and illusions of love in the time of A.I.
Soprano Erin Morley started singing “Les oiseaux dans la charmille” in her very first voice lesson at the Eastman School of Music. Since then, she’s been searching for just the right balance of human and robot as she sings up into the stratosphere.
Conductor Johannes Debus is the music director for the Canadian Opera Company. He loves the kaleidoscopic range of styles in The Tales of Hoffmann, and how Offenbach seems to explore all aspects of humanity with great sympathy.
Machine-learning research Caroline Sinders looks at technology and society through the lens of design and human rights. She is currently a researcher at the Berggruen Institute, and an artist in residence at Ars Electronica, and previously was a design researcher at IBM Watson.
Dr. Robert Epstein is a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology. He established the first-ever annual Turing Test and is a pro at distinguishing artificial intelligence from human intelligence. But even he is susceptible to wearing rose-colored glasses -- just like Hoffmann, and just like the rest of us.
Note: This episode includes descriptions of childhood sexual assault.
The drive for revenge can be all-consuming, especially when you or someone you love has been wronged. Outcast and distraught, the title character in Richard Strauss’s Elektra is obsessed with avenging the murder of her father. And because the story is based on a Greek myth, and Greek myths are full of dysfunctional families, this means that Elektra is hellbent on killing her own mother.
We get our first taste of the darkness inside Elektra’s mind, and the trauma at the heart of her rage, in the monologue, “Allein! Weh, ganz allein.” It's a sort of primal scream accompanied by a huge orchestra, and Elektra plans her revenge in all its gory, graphic glory. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the depths of trauma and the heights of vengeance, both for Elektra and for a man whose own drive for revenge brought him to those very same extremes of elation and despair.
Soprano Nina Stemme thinks there’s some truth to the story that Strauss once told an orchestra to play so loudly that they would drown out the soprano singing Elektra, and she should know -- she’s one of today’s leading interpreters of the role! She invested a lot of herself in shaping this character, and it's one that takes all of her physical and emotional energy to perform.
William Berger is an author and radio commentator. Equal parts opera buff and metalhead, he brings his love of intense storytelling to his work at The Metropolitan Opera, and to his exploration of Elektra. While it's a story of violence and revenge, Berger thinks the real journey is the one of psychological discovery and deep Freudian conflicts bubbling to the surface.
David Holthouse is a writer and documentary filmmaker who spent three years of his life consumed by the desire for revenge. He meticulously plotted to murder the man who raped him when he was seven years old. He tells his story of childhood sexual assault in his first-person essay “Stalking the Bogeyman,” and follows up on his story in “Outing the Bogeyman.”
It’s not easy to talk about death. We associate dying with so much suffering and loss. But for many people, the end of life is full of peaceful remembrance of the moments and relationships that have meant the most. For the leading man in Puccini’s Tosca, that’s the sweetness and beauty of his beloved.
Caught up in the messy politics of his time, Mario Cavaradossi has been arrested, interrogated, and tortured. And then, he’s sentenced to death. “E lucevan le stelle” finds Cavaradossi in his prison cell one hour before his execution. He knows his life is over, and what does he do? He gets lost in a daydream about a passionate night spent with Tosca. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the memories and dreams that give us meaning at the end of our lives.
Joseph Calleja, A.K.A. The Maltese Tenor, sees a lot of himself in Cavaradossi - they’re both men of intensity and passion. He says that if the spectrum of human emotion were a harp, Puccini knew exactly the right string to pluck at just the right moment to convey the emotion the character is feeling.
Carolyn Abbate teaches music at Harvard University and writes about opera, including the book A History of Opera. One of the memories that she holds most dear is of an afternoon spent in a meadow with her son when he was young.
Dr. Christopher Kerr is the CEO and Chief Medical Officer at Buffalo Hospice and Palliative Care. Chris recently wrote a book called Death is But a Dream: Finding Hope and Meaning at LIfe’s End, about the dreams and visions that many people experience at the end of their lives. This work was later turned into a film, which became the basis of a Netflix production and a PBS World documentary.
In order to be a Roman Emperor, you had to be entirely cold-blooded. It was a violent world of infighting, ruthless slander, and take-no-prisoners politics -- a world where rulers would kill a million people and enslave a million more just to flex their power. This was the Game of Thrones setting that George Frideric Handel chose for Agrippina. The opera's name comes from Empress Agrippina the Younger, a woman of ambition and influence, and this episode focuses on someone who inadvertently stands in her way: the hapless Ottone. He doesn’t realize that becoming the heir to the throne has put a target on his back, and that Agrippina is aiming to take him down. Eventually she turns everyone against Ottone, leaving him in total despair.
Having lost his friends, his future, and the love of his life, Ottone asks “Why me?” in the aria “Voi che udite il mio lamento.” Host Rhiannon Giddens and three guests take you on a tour of the cutthroat politics of ancient Rome, a world of murder and mayhem that still has something to teach us today.
Countertenor Iestyn Davies likes singing the role of Ottone because as the only honest character in the opera, he’s an audience favorite. This was the last role he sang at the Met right before the lockdown, and he knows that his future performances will be deepened by his experience of the pandemic.
Handel expert Dr. Alison DeSimone is an assistant professor of musicology at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, where she teaches courses in music of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. She loves how Handel gets to the emotional depths of all of his characters, making them feel like real people. She recently published a book called The Power of Pastiche about music and culture in 18th-century England.
Historian Dr. Emma Southon is a recovering academic, writer, podcast host, and scholar of the ancient world. She's amused that ancient Romans are presented as paragons of civilization and culture even though their murder and mudslinging is anything but civilized. She wrote her first book, a biography of Agrippina, because she felt the Empress deserved her own book and no one else was stepping up to write it.
Almost three hundred years ago, the English artist William Hogarth created a series of paintings called A Rake’s Progress, which tell the tragic story of a man whose life spirals out of control after inheriting an unexpected fortune. He leaves behind a fiancée, and it is her story of devotion that reverberates through Igor Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress and the aria “No Word from Tom.”
In this episode, you’ll visit with Hogarth’s paintings, hear how Stravinsky captured the undying loyalty of the forgotten lover and get an inside look at how unexpected fortune and fame upended the family of Vivian Liberto and Johnny Cash. Yes, that Johnny Cash. And, yes, in this podcast about Igor Stravinsky.
And here’s the best part: the incomparable Dawn Upshaw will sing it for you from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.
Soprano Dawn Upshaw has performed The Rake’s Progress many times and says that some of her happiest moments on an opera stage were when she was singing the role of the devoted fiancée, Anne Trulove.
Tara Cash is the youngest daughter of Johnny Cash and his first wife, Vivian Liberto. When she was growing up, everyone always wanted to hear about her father’s life. Now, she welcomes the opportunity to share her mother’s side of the story.
Joanna Tinworth is Curator (Collections) at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, where the original paintings, A Rake’s Progress by William Hogarth, have resided for over 200 years. Hogarth’s paintings are among the museum’s most popular exhibits.
Michael Bragg is the Music Planning Associate and Librarian at San Francisco Opera. He gives lectures and talks about opera around the Bay area, and he loves Stravinsky because of the composer’s unique approach to blending old and new styles of music.
Below is the first painting in Hogarth's series A Rake's Progress, entitled "The Heir." You can see the complete set of paintings here, courtesy of Sir John Soane's Museum.William Hogarth, "The Heir," from "A Rake's Progress" series, the inspiration for Stravinsky's opera.(Photo: Sir John Soane's Museum, London)
Maybe you’ve heard this one before: a powerful man abuses his privilege and wealth to exploit the women in his life. When confronted with the fact that they’re not his playthings, he throws a fit and blames everyone but himself. Sound like your daily news alert? It’s Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, but somehow the world of feudal Spain in the 1700s is still distressingly familiar today.
The aria “Hai già vinta la causa” traces the emotions of the aristocratic and imperious Count Almaviva when he realizes that his wife and servants have been plotting his comeuppance. Filled with rage that they won’t bend to his will, the Count offers up one of the great temper tantrums in opera history. And don’t be surprised if the Count’s anger gives you flashbacks to headline news from the very recent past.
Bass-baritone Gerald Finley spent the first decade of his career playing the wily factotum Figaro, and now he sings the controlling Count Almaviva in opera houses around the world. He loves throwing himself into the fire and fury in this aria, but also holds tight to the belief that the Count is truly repentant in the end.
Professor Sharon Marcus teaches English and comparative literature at Columbia University. When it came to music, her mother insisted that she grow up listening to classical. She first met the Count in The Marriage of Figaro when she was still in grade school.
Laura Bassett is a freelance journalist and an opinion columnist for MSNBC. She originally wanted to be an academic. but the 2008 presidential election convinced her that she needed to be writing stories about the national conversations we're having today. She's written extensively about abuses of power in politics and the instances of sexual harassment that have dominated headlines in recent years.
Chances are, you know the overture to The Barber of Seville (maybe from Bugs Bunny?!) but Gioachino Rossini’s most famous opera is more than a comedic romp. Embedded in the topsy-turvy tale of young love and silly disguises, there is a story of forced marriage and a woman’s determination to live a life of her choosing.
We meet the heroine Rosina for the first time in the aria “Una voce poco fa,” in which she declares that while she may seem sweet and innocent, she is really not someone to be messed with. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the courage it takes to live life on your own terms and the way this almost absurd story pulled from a centuries-old novel still resonates today. You’ll hear how one guest has her own escape-from-a-forced-marriage story that uncannily matches Rosina’s.
Soprano Pretty Yende first sang the role of Rosina in Norway in 2014, and it’s since become one of her favorite roles. She loves playing Rosina because the character is fun, witty, and unlike so many operatic heroines, she gets to hit all the high notes and live happily ever after.
Conductor James Conlon is Music Director of the Los Angeles Opera. He first heard The Barber of Seville when he was 11 years old and fell in love on the spot. Later that summer, he made his debut as director, producer, and Count Almaviva in his friend’s garage, with a very appreciative audience lined up in the driveway.
Activist Jasvinder Sanghera is a survivor of forced marriage. She has spent the last four decades advocating for women, children, and men silenced by domestic abuse and forced marriages, and founded the award-winning charity Karma Nirvana in 1993.
They say you can’t go home again, and Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida knows it all too well. Captured from her homeland of Ethiopia and enslaved in Egypt, she falls in love with an Egyptian warrior. Aida is torn between her love for this man and her love for her home and, because it’s opera, she ultimately chooses the tenor.
In “O Patria Mia,” Aida stands on the banks of the Nile and says goodbye to Ethiopia. In this episode, host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore what home means, and what it means to leave it behind.
Soprano Latonia Moore has sung the role of Aida more than a hundred times. She made her Met debut in the role with a day and a half’s notice, and it launched her international career. As a Black soprano, she feels like she has joined the club of great singers who have taken on the role.
Naomi André is a professor of Afro-American and African Studies and Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Michigan. She wrote her dissertation on Verdi’s operas and was blown away the first time she saw Aida at the Met. She thinks it’s amazing that a story about ancient Egypt still resonates today, and she still finds something new in the work every time she sees it.
Poet and visual artist Mahtem Shiferraw is from Ethiopia and Eritrea, but now lives in Los Angeles. Coming to the U.S. as an adult, she had to completely rebuild her sense of identity and belonging, and her understanding of home. Growing up in Ethiopia, she went to an Italian school and acted in a non-opera production of Aida.
Sometimes, the only thing that gets us through the darkest moments is knowing that the sun will rise again on a new day. Puccini's final opera, Turandot, is about courage in the face of adversity, and love triumphing over fear. In other words, it is exactly what the world needs right now.
The aria “Nessun dorma” is Prince Calaf’s declaration of love and resounding victory cry. In this episode, host Rhiannon Giddens and three guests explore what makes this aria so popular even beyond the opera house, and how it became an anthem of resilience and hope during the COVID-19 pandemic. This episode features Italian tenor Franco Corelli in a Metropolitan Opera performance from the Before Times (a.k.a. 1966).
Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin is the Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera, Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal. He loves conducting Puccini’s biggest, most majestic opera, but his favorite moments are the intimate arias like “Nessun dorma.”
Writer Anne Midgette is the former classical music critic for The Washington Post. She first heard the aria on a Book of the Month Club cassette tape in college, and thinks the secret sauce for “Nessun Dorma” is in its climactic underdog declaration of “Vincerò” -- “I will win.”
Dr. Michael Cho is a pulmonary and critical care physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and has been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s also a violist, and has been playing with the Longwood Symphony Orchestra for more than 15 years. Recently, he joined the National Virtual Medical Orchestra, a group that formed during COVID to give people in the medical field a chance to play together. Watch their performance of "Nessun Dorma" below.
In April of 2020, 700 children across Europe sang a virtual performance of "Nessun dorma" as a message of hope and solidarity, from Europa InCanto. You can meet two of the stars in this episode, and watch their performance below.
The third season of the critically-acclaimed podcast is more expansive than the previous two, with a total of 18 new episodes released bi-weekly, starting March 10, 2021.
Just like a full season at the opera house, the podcast season will cover a staggering range of music, artists, and voices -- from early works by Handel all the way to the contemporary work of American composer and jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard. We'll cover fan favorites by Verdi and Puccini, as well as lesser-known gems by Stravinsky and Mussorgsky.
Hosted by MacArthur Fellow and Grammy award-winning musician Rhiannon Giddens, and featuring master artists and other guests representing diverse voices and perspectives, the podcast connects opera to the experiences at the center of our humanity and the issues at the center of our lives. NBD.
Aria Code is produced by WQXR in partnership with The Metropolitan Opera.
Gioachino Rossini’s operatic version of the Cinderella story may not have any enchanted mice or pumpkins, but there’s plenty of magic in the music. Cinderella (or La Cenerentola, in Italian) has silently suffered the abuse of her stepfather and stepsisters, but in true fairy tale fashion, her fate changes for the better and all is made right by the triumph of goodness over evil.
In the opera’s joyous finale “Nacqui all’affanno… Non più mesta,” Cenerentola looks ahead to a future with no more sadness. In this episode, Rhiannon Giddens and guests explore this universal tale and how it still resonates today. Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato sings the aria onstage at the Metropolitan Opera.
Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato loves the strength and sincerity of this great Rossini heroine. She has performed the title role in La Cenerentola at leading opera houses around the world and believes in its absolute celebration of human goodness.
Writer Fred Plotkin loves opera – all of it! – and he shares this love in his book Opera 101: A Guide to Learning and Loving Opera. He has a special connection to Rossini’s music, which he feels is all about the heartbeat.
Maria Tatar is a research professor at Harvard University in the fields of folkore and mythology. She vividly remembers when her sister used to read fairy tales to her as a child, and believes that we have the right and responsibility to keep retelling these stories in a way that’s meaningful to us today.
Mezzo-soprano Alma Salcedo’s mother tells her she’s been singing since she was nine months old. Her personal Cinderella story began in Venezuela and has brought her to Spain, where she has fought to keep her dreams of being a singer alive.
Love is intoxicating, but dating can be hard. In Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, a love-obsessed poet tells fantastical stories of romance gone very, very wrong. Based on the works of 19th-century Gothic horror writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, the opera is a journey through desire and loss – a journey that just might make you feel better about your own dating disasters!
In the aria “Ô Dieu! de quelle ivresse,” the poet-protagonist Hoffmann professes his passionate love to the courtesan Giulietta. In this episode, Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the intoxicating power of romance, and the magically mysterious world created by both E.T.A. Hoffmann and Offenbach. Tenor Matthew Polenzani sings the aria onstage at the Metropolitan Opera.
Tenor Matthew Polenzani has just wrapped up his 22nd season at the Metropolitan Opera, which is one of many places he’s performed the role of Hoffmann. As a happily married man, he can’t quite relate to the poet’s unending heartbreak, but he does believe that all artists should have a touch of crazy in them.
Veronica Chambers is a writer and editor for The New York Times. In 2006, her essay “Loved and Lost? It’s O.K., Especially if You Win” was published in the Modern Love column, detailing her long list of doomed romances. But, like Hoffmann, she kept her heart wide open to the possibility of love.
Stage director Beth Greenberg directed The Tales of Hoffmann for New York City Opera back in 1996. She counts Jacques Offenbach among the greatest composers, in part because of his extraordinary sense of satire. She likes to think of him as “the Mel Brooks of the Champs-Élysées.”
Francesca Brittan is an Associate Professor of Music at Case Western Reserve University. Her work focuses on 19th- and 20th-century music, and her 2017 book Music and Fantasy in the Age of Berlioz details her fascination with the fantasy genre in literature and in music. She loves exploring the secret worlds imagined by E.T.A. Hoffmann and writers like him.
The pain and fear of trauma can have a dramatic effect on your desire for love and intimacy.
This is true for Puccini’s Turandot, the titular ice princess who cuts off her feelings… and the heads of her suitors. In her first aria, “In questa reggia,” Turandot explains that she will avenge the rape and murder of her ancestress from thousands of years ago, and that she is determined never to be possessed by any man.
In this episode, host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the truth at the heart of this aria: that time doesn’t heal all wounds, and that some are played out and recreated with every generation. At the end of the show, Christine Goerke sings “In questa reggia” from the Metropolitan Opera stage.
Soprano Christine Goerke loves the challenge of playing characters that seem unsympathetic, uncovering their complexity and somehow winning over the audience by the end of the opera. This is one of the many things that draws her to Turandot.
Actor Anna Chlumsky became an opera fanatic after working on the Broadway show Living on Love with co-star Renée Fleming. Turandot is a particular family favorite, and the former “Veep” star enjoys watching Puccini’s grand spectacle over breakfast with her daughters.
Will Berger is the author of Puccini Without Excuses, a funny and informative guide to one of opera’s greatest composers. Berger is equal parts opera buff and metalhead, bringing his love of intense storytelling to his work as a writer and media commentator for The Metropolitan Opera.
The most famous American opera opens with one of the most famous American songs: “Summertime.” The Gershwins’ haunting lullaby from Porgy and Bess is a simple tune with a complex story.
In this episode, host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore not just the lyrics and music, but how Porgy and Bess came into being and the way it draws on the culture of the Gullah Geechee, descendants of formerly enslaved people living in and around South Carolina. Decoding two arias – "Summertime" and "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'" – the show finds uncomfortable contradictions as well as uncanny parallels between the real lives of the Gullah people and the characters onstage.
Soprano Golda Schultz debuted as Clara at the Met earlier this year, her first time singing in the U.S. with a cast full of people of color. She believes that when telling stories from underrepresented groups, they must be told from places of joy and not only areas of pain.
Naomi André knows better than most about the complicated racial history of Porgy and Bess. Still, the University of Michigan professor and author of Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement believes the show can be timely, relevant and moving.
Victoria Smalls is a Gullah woman who grew up on St. Helena Island off Charleston, South Carolina. She works as the Director of Art, History, and Culture at the Penn Center in South Carolina, an institution dedicated to promoting and preserving African American history and culture. She's also a federal commissioner for the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.
Bass-baritone Eric Owens was initially reluctant to start singing Porgy, since so many African American singers have a hard time breaking out of that role. But even while reckoning with some of the controversial aspects of the Gershwins' opera, he has now sung the role for a decade and believes it is some of the most beautiful music written in the 20th century.