Opera's Voyage Into Columbus's Choppy Waters

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I have always had a passion for oceans and seas, those great bodies of water whose undulating waves are music to my ears and in whose depths are hidden all kinds of mysteries and wonders. Operas with nautical elements, such as Tristan und Isolde, Der Fliegende Höllander, Oberon, Idomeneo, Billy Budd and, above all, Peter Grimes, hold a special fascination for me. I love how composers evoke the salty, briny flavor of life at sea. I hope to see Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick that premiered at Dallas Opera in 2010.

As often as possible, I try to be on or near the sea. I’ve just come back from being a speaker on a cruise ship, something I have done for decades. As one passenger quipped, “I bet you were a speaker on the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.” This refers, of course, to the controversial Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), whose exploits have all the makings of an opera. I have seen two such works and am aware of more.

Columbus has been a presence in all of our lives, and not just on Columbus Day. New Yorkers all pass through Columbus Circle, especially if headed to Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center. This intersection is one of three on this stretch of Broadway that honors outstanding Italians. There is a statue of Dante Alighieri in the small park opposite Lincoln Center. The triangular park on 73rd Street is Verdi Square, with a wonderful statue that presents the great man and characters from some of his operas (today is Verdi's 198th birthday).

In my life, Christopher Columbus has been an ongoing presence. I live on Columbus Avenue, studied at Columbia University, and drink coffee grown in Colombia. I spend a great deal of time in and around Genoa, the proud maritime city where Columbus was born. I have been fascinated by, and lecture about, the so-called Columbian Exchange. This term suggests the cultural, agricultural, culinary, religious, medical and economic changes wrought by what Columbus transported on his four voyages to and from the so-called “New World.” I contend that few, if any, figures have had greater impact on the way we live now than Columbus.

As with all larger-than-life personages -- Cleopatra, Jesus Christ, Queen Elizabeth I, Shakespeare, Wagner, Lincoln -- the life and work of Columbus have been tailored to fit the agendas of biographers, hagiographers and propagandists. Like him or not, Columbus is one of the foremost figures in world history and, as such, more complex than even opera can do justice to.

There is only one “Columbus” opera, Philip Glass’s The Voyage (libretto by David Henry Hwang), I know that is successful in bringing out the fear and excitement that come in venturing into the unknown, whether it is across an ocean, into outer space, or to the unfathomable reaches of the human mind. It is also a work suitable to those members of the opera audience who reflexively recoil at the prospect of listening to Glass’s music.

Columbus and Queen Isabella occupy a small but essential segment of the opera, which also features a character suggesting the scientist Stephen Hawking who, though severely disabled, voyages far and freely in his mind. Columbus makes an observation that is the key to the opera: through exploration, “the sum of human ignorance might dwindle just a bit.” The Voyage premiered at the Metropolitan Opera on October 12, 1992, the quincentenary of the date Columbus and his ships landed on an island in the Caribbean now called Hispaniola.

With the Nobel prizes in the sciences and the death of Steve Jobs in the past week, the themes of courageous exploration and original thinking are as relevant as ever. I would love to see a revival of The Voyage, which got a superb production by David Pountney and Robert Israel and starred Timothy Noble and Tatiana Troyanos, both excellent as Columbus and Isabella. Thomas Hampson and Christine Goerke would be ideal in those roles now.

Columbus, Grand Opera Hero

For the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s first sailing, Genoa’s Teatro Carlo Felice launched a competition for a new libretto to be set to music. The winner was Luigi Illica, who wrote the words for La Bohéme, Tosca and Madama Butterfly with Giuseppe Giacosa. Verdi, who spent much time in Genoa, read the libretto and recommended the composer Alberto Franchetti (1860-1942; pictured right). Though an Italian, Franchetti was more drawn to the grand operas of Meyerbeer and Wagner.

Cristoforo Colombo premiered on October 6, 1892. The story involves intrigues and passions in the Spanish court. Some of the courtiers are against the voyage, one which Queen Isabella (soprano) insists on. Columbus (baritone) has rivals for her favor. He sails with his three ships, the Pinta being the one featured in the opera. Landing in the New World, he reads a declaration claiming for Spain possession of the riches he will find. He says he does this for Isabella, is informed that she has died while he was away and has a sort of mad scene in which he mourns Isabella, expresses nostalgia and longing for Genoa (no doubt to gratify the opening night audience) and then says that he feels he will die--and, of course, he does. The compression of his four voyages into one in the opera does little to hew to historical fact, but Cristoforo Colombo has a glorious role for baritone.

Following its premiere, the opera played at La Scala in a cut version (one act was eliminated) that had some currency internationally and was conducted by Toscanini in South America. It was performed in Philadelphia in 1913 and then largely vanished. In 1991, it was done in Frankfurt with Renato Bruson and I was fortunate to hear it. 

More Columbiana

Leonardo Balada (born in Barcelona in 1933 and now based in Pittsburgh) wrote two works, Christopher Columbus (1986) and The Death of Columbus (1996). The former was presented in Barcelona in 1992 with tenor José Carreras as Columbus and Montserrat Caballé as Isabella. A recording was made but I have not yet heard it.

In 1976, Christopher Columbus, a pastiche -- more operetta than opera because of its witty script and extensive spoken dialogue -- had its premiere in Belfast and then played in London and across the U.S. It was drawn from a work of the same name by Jacques Offenbach that was a popular boulevard comedy in Paris. It does not describe the Columbus of exploration but, rather, as a ladies’ man who felt he had to marry each “conquest.” One of these was Queen Isabella who, of course, was not available for marriage, creating a quandary for Columbus. Here is a brief extract:

Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Gomes (1836-1896) wrote an Inno al Nuovo Mondo (Hymn to the New World), inspired by Columbus. Gomes was the first “New World” composer to gain success at La Scala with his 1870 opera, Il Guarany, which still gets an occasional performance in Italy and elsewhere.

In May 1930, Time magazine ran an article describing an opera, Christophe Colomb, with music by Darius Milhaud and libretto by the poet Paul Claudel, that premiered at the Berlin Staatsoper. I find it interesting that film was included as part of the production. One still does not see film and video used often in opera but, back then, film was just finding its voice and style as the natural outgrowth of opera in terms of large-scale storytelling. Christophe Colomb did not get great reviews, which means nothing except that it did not please the critics who attended. Having listened to 75 minutes of music from a 1952 performance in English, I think this opera is ready for a new hearing.

The first work I ever heard of regarding Columbus is one I have never seen performed, though not for lack of trying. Cristoforo Colombo (La Scoperta d’America) is by none other than Gaetano Donizetti, who wrote it in 1845. The English title would be Christopher Columbus (The Discovery of America). The composer called it a scenic cantata for baritone and orchestra. Some great ensemble could strike a blow for civilization by unearthing it and giving it a committed performance. Perhaps Simon Keenlyside or Gerald Finley would be interested in being Columbus?