This Sunday: Opera Up Close

Opera Up Close: The Cosi fan Tutte Preview
Sunday, March 1, 4-6 p.m., MMoCA Lecture Hall
General Admission: $20

Join General Director Allan Naplan as he explores Cosi fan Tutte in an entertaining multimedia presentation. Gain insight to the Madison Opera production and the history and music of Mozart, and enjoy the special segment “From Ten Chimneys to the Met,” a look at Wisconsin native Alfred Lunt’s historic production of Cosi at the Met.

The Real Mozart, Part 2

Expanding on an earlier post, here are more excerpts from Mozart’s letters:

To his Father, Leopold Mozart, April 1784
Herr Richter, a clavier-player, is making a tour on his way back to Holland, his native country…There is a great deal of execution in his playing, but, as you will hear, it is too broad, too laboured, and without a trace of taste or feeling. Otherwise, he is the best fellow in the world and without a trace of pride. He fixed his eyes on my fingers while I played to him, then said suddenly, “My God; I work at it till I sweat and yet get no success–while you, my friend, simply play at it!” “Yes,” said I, “but I too had to work in order that I might be exempt from work now.”

To his Wife, Constance Weber, Apri 1789
Dearest little wife, if only I had a letter from you! If I were to tell you all the things I do with your dear portrait you would often laugh, I think! For instance, when I take it out of its case, I say, “Good morrow, Stanzerl! Good day, little rogue!–pussy-wussy! saucy one!–good for nothing!–dainty morsel!” And when I put it back I slip it in little by little saying all the time, “Nu-nu-nu-nu!” with just the peculiar emphasis this very meaningful word demands, and then, just at the last, quickly, “Good night, little pet–sleep sound!”

To his Friend, Michael Puchberg, June 1790
I am here to conduct my opera [Cosi fan Tutte]. My wife is getting a little better. She already feels some slight relief, but she will have to take the baths sixty times–and go away again in the autumn. God grant it may do her good!–Dearest friend, if you can help with the present pressing expenses, oh do so! I am staying in Baden for the sake of economy, and only go into town when absolutely necessary. I have just been obliged to part with my quartets (that difficult work!) for a mere song, so as to get ready money.–I am now working at some clavier sonatas for the same reason. Adjeu. Send me what you can most easily spare.

To his wife, October 1791
I am just returned from the opera [The Magic Flute]. It was quite as full as ever. The duetto, “Man and Wife,” etc., and the glockenspiel in Act I were encored as usual–the boy terzett in Act II in addition. But it is the evident quiet approbation which best pleases me! It is apparent that this opera is rising rapidly and steadily in estimation.

Here we learn what Mozart looked for in a clavier player, and what distinguished his own playing in the eyes of his peers: his effortlessness. We see a completely goofy and yet tender note to his wife Constance, a common mixture in his comedies. At the time Cosi fan Tutte was premiered, we learn that his wife was ill and money was tight, which forced him to beg from friends and most depressingly forced him to put down meaningful work in order to write “mere songs” for fast money. Lastly, we hear of the triumphant reception The Magic Flute was receiving, and that it was the audience’s silence (something uncommon in that era) that he most valued as a sign of success.

Mozart was always cocky, but one senses that with The Magic Flute he was beginning to take his gifts more seriously, to realize the consequences and possibilities of his greatness. But it was just two months after he wrote of that opera’s “steady rising in estimation” that he died at age 35:

Mozart died on 5 December, 1791. There was not money enough for fitting obsequies. He was buried in the “common grave.” Few friends followed the coffin, and even these turned back half-way on account of the bad weather. It is now impossible to identify with any certainty the spot where rest his mortal remains. (Hans Mersmann)

A memorial stands today in St. Marx Cemetery in Vienna, where Mozart was buried. I was in Vienna four years ago and went on a small pilgrimage of sorts to St. Marx. It was a freezing, blustery, cloudy day, and I had gotten off at the wrong tram stop so found myself walking well over a mile in search of the cemetery. There were practically no signs, no shops selling Mozart souvenirs or anything else to indicate the historic location amongst the columns of modest apartment buildings in the neighborhood. And the cemetery itself–overgrown and dead in winter–was empty, with no other tourists in sight. In essence, despite the new monument to Mozart at St. Marx, it felt rather insignificant, casual, an afterthought, like the paupers’ grave it was on the rainy day Mozart was buried.

The reality is that Mozart likely had his best years ahead of him. He lived, loved, and worked passionately during his short life to all of our benefit, but it had not yet brought him the creative freedom of a steady, well-paying post. In an appeal for financial assistance that his wife wrote to Emperor Leopold II six days after his passing, she says, “The picture becomes all the more pathetic in that he was taken from the world at the very moment when his prospects for the future were brightening upon all sides.” We are only left to wonder what could have been, grateful for what we have.


Letters of Mozart. Edited by Hans Mersmann. Translated by M. M. Bozman. Dorset Press, New York: 1986.

Getting Cosi in rehearsal

John Bellemer (Ferrando), Mary Mackenzie (Despina), Joshua Hopkins (Guglielmo), Laura Vlasak Nolen (Dorabella) and Jessica Jones (Fiordiligi) in rehearsal

Pardon the bad pun in the post title, it was bound to happen! The artists for Cosi fan Tutte arrived on Sunday and have been rehearsing since Monday. I swung by rehearsal today and took a few pictures; check out the slideshow below.

The cast was having a lot of fun. Cosi requires a certain silliness to pull off, and everyone seems to be enthusiastically on board. Today they were working on Act I, scene iii, during which Guglielmo and Ferrando (in disguise as Albanians) threaten to poison themselves if they are not given the chance to win over the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella. Some dramatic issues discussed this morning were: Does Despina, who is now leading this plan of seduction, know who Guglielmo and Ferrando are beneath the disguises? Do the sisters suspect anything? What’s the hierarchy in this web of deceit? (It was concluded there are at least three levels of deceit at this point in the opera, by the way). It’s all very entertaining, mostly because it is really only the audience that sits at the top of this hierarchy, we are the only ones who know what’s truly going on, as much as Don Alfonso likes to think he’s in control.

A visit to the UW Voice and Swallow Clinic

On Friday afternoon, I brought the Madison Opera High School Apprentices to the UW Voice and Swallow Clinic, a great resource for singers in the community. Our guide was Sarah Melton, a speech pathologist at the clinic, and she talked to the apprentices about healthy practices for young singers. It was also a bit of an anatomy lesson, a chance to see and learn exactly what muscles are used to produce those vibrations we sometimes call arias. The grand finale was for each of the apprentices to get “scoped,” a procedure that involves a scary looking (but harmless) camera taking live video of one’s vocal folds flapping back and forth, rendered in slow motion by, of all things, a mini strobe light. You can click the first link above to browse the Voice Clinic’s page for singers. Go here for information on “Explore the Voice,” a free, day-long seminar on vocal health sponsored by the Voice Clinic and Madison Opera on May 16. Much more on that later, but for now enjoy these pictures from Friday.

Speech pathologist Sarah Melton with scope in hand; brave apprentice in back. The scope rests on the tongue while peering down at the vocal folds.

Watching a re-play of the scope results. The vocal folds slowly come into focus as the camera gets to the back of the mouth, an exciting moment that was generally met with “oohs” and “ahhs.” Google “vocal folds” at your own risk!

Anyone else see the resemblance?

What a night!

Madison, Wisconsin was treated to a truly special performance last night. Simply put, Danielle de Niese was awesome. She displayed a huge arsenal of vocal nuance, brought passion to every note, charmed the audience, and looked stunning throughout. But two other things stood out to me that say much more than the vocal fireworks, glitz and glam: her programming choices were smart and challenging, and she so clearly is a very generous and gracious person, treating us to two encores and signing autographs and taking photos well after her final bow.

The Madison Opera High School Apprentices
were thrilled to meet Danielle.

The star with her Madison Opera bodyguards.