Mooning Over Opera

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This article is being written under the glow of a blue moon. Of course, the moon is not blue, as the title of the song and the 1953 film would have it, but the term is simply a means to describe the second full moon in a month. It happens rarely enough that it is worth celebrating.

I am sure I am not alone in having paused, on the day that Neil Armstrong died, just a little longer to look up at the moon. Did he really set foot there on July 20, 1969? Somehow, in retrospect, it seems more remarkable now given that technology—which we so take for granted now—was so rudimentary then. How fitting that he was laid to rest on the day of a blue moon.

In the days since Armstrong died, as the moon has continued to wax, I have been thinking about the moon and opera. When I was performance manager at the Met, there was an undeniable increase in problems on days of the full moon, even more so with operas that notoriously presented logistical challenges such as Les Contes d’Hoffmann and Der Rosenkavalier. I would like to think that the notion of things being different under the full moon is just superstition but I have witnessed enough occurrences every thirty days or so to know that it is otherwise.

The moon is the source of the words “lunacy” and “lunatic.” It is not for nothing that the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor is often staged with a full moon, as it was by Mary Zimmerman at the Metropolitan Opera. 

A lot of opera characters sing about the moon and, occasionally, to the moon. Many of them seem to be in works by Puccini. While we train our binoculars on Madama Butterfly, she is looking through a periscope to find her beloved Pinkerton on a ship in Nagasaki harbor. If she would point it higher, she might see the moon that shines through the entire sleepless night as she waits anxiously during the evocative humming chorus.

In the first act of Tosca, the title character mentions the full moon as an expression of love:

“È luna piena, "It is the full moon
e il notturno effluvio floreal, and the night’s fragrance of flowers
inebria il cor! – Non sei contento?” inebriates the heart--Are you not happy?”

In Turandot, the Prince of Persia, the latest failed contestant for the hand of the title character, is to be put to death as the moon emerges. The bloodthirsty citizens of Beijing demand that moon rise, singing “Perchè tarda la luna?” (“Why is the moon late?”) and suddenly fall silent when it appears. They then implore Turandot to spare him, but she does not.

In the first act of La Bohéme, the Bohemians ply their landlord Benoit with wine to try to get him to forget about the rent. He brags of being a connoisseur of women of all shapes and sizes:

Non dico una balena, “well, not a whale exactly
o un mappamondo, or a map of the world
o un viso tondo da luna piena, or a face like a full moon,
ma magra, proprio magra, no e poi no!” but not thin, really thin. No and then no!

Perhaps Puccini, a renowned lover of many women (to his wife’s chagrin) and adept portraitist of them in his operas, subscribed to the ancient notion that the moon represented the feminine side of creativity.

The moon is present in Mozart as well, in less romantic ways. In Die Zauberflöte, the moon is associated with the darker forces represented by the Queen of the Night (when, of course, the moon is out) and Monostatos. Sarasatro, the adversary of the Queen, is often represented by the sun and its broader connotation of enlightenment. In Don Giovanni, when the Don and Leporello first hear the sepulchral tones of the ghost of the Commendatore, they are in a moonlit cemetery.

Anne Truelove in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress seeks help from the moon (and its light) in finding Tom Rakewell. Part of the lyrics say:

“… Guide me, O moon, chastely when I depart,
And warmly be the same
He watches without grief or shame;
It can not be thou art
A colder moon upon a colder heart …”

Vincenzo Bellini, whose operas including the lunacy of mad scenes and goddesses such as Norma who hold their sacred rites in the moonlight, is most associated with the moon through his song Vaga la luna che inargenti here sung by Cecilia Bartoli about the quicksilver changes of mood in love being like the mutability of the phases of the moon.

The moon is a title character in Haydn’s Il Mondo della Luna, based on a play by Carlo Goldoni. The story was used previously by other composers, including Baldassare Galuppi. Haydn set it in 1777 for the wedding of Count Nikolaus Esterházy, the younger son of his patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, to the Countess Maria Anna Wissenwolf. It  contains a complicated and charming plot involving a fake astronomer and some love interests, plus lots of moonlight. Suffice it to say that all ends happily.

In an inspired piece of stagecraft, Gotham Chamber Opera presented Il Mondo della Luna at the Hayden Planetarium of New York’s Museum of Natural History. Not surprisingly, it contained excellent lighting design. Here is a rare performance of the complete opera, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt:

Part one:


Part two:

I can hear you practically shouting by now, What about “The Song to the Moon” from Dvorak’s Rusalka, in which she asks the moon to tell the prince of her love for him? It is the musical highlight of this beautiful opera and has become a very popular piece for singers in recital. Here is a splendid version with Frederica von Stade on a video created with photography of the moon.

Did I leave out any lunar operatic selection that you love? Please post them on this page. The sky’s the limit.