Autumn in Opera

Wednesday, October 03, 2012 - 02:33 PM

Even without the leaves officially turning, fall is in the air. The breeze is clipped, hair no longer has its own zip code on account of frizz, and I find myself changing up the rotation of operas on my iPhone that I’ve listened to for most of the summer.

And though there are plenty of new releases, I often find myself gravitating towards some familiar works this time of year. Last winter, we explored the connection of operas and seasons a bit further in-depth on this blog, particularly with an eye towards operas that crop up around the holiday season. Hansel and Gretel has worked its way into the Christmas flurry, Parsifal (which will be seen in a new production at the Met this coming February and March) is a natural for spring.

Thematics aside, some works are inherently suited thanks to their musical DNA to certain times of year; they’re coded to seasons in a way similar to the oh-so-80s fad of having one’s “colors” done. Trendy as such a thing might have been, there’s a kernel of truth: My decidedly-winter closet, teeming with blacks, blues and greys, looks like it sports a permanent bruise when you open the doors.

And works like Lucia di Lammermoor, with its gloomy prelude, warm strings, crunchy coloratura and burnished vocal lines, is hard to conceive as anything but an autumn opera. True, the real-life source story for the work took place in August, but Donizetti’s tonal palette doesn’t stray too far from a conjured image of Scotland in the middle of October. Here's a bit of the opening:

As a synesthete, I often wonder if other people feel the same way about such things, given how individual and unique our relationships to opera can be. Is Rigoletto truly autumnal in tone, or do I associate it with the fall because I went to Mantua on the first truly cold weekend in September some years back, playing the Sutherland and MacNeil recording as Trenitalia propelled me across the Italian countryside? (There again, I also went to Lucca in the same long weekend, listening to La Rondine along the way but nevertheless associate that opera with late winter and early spring.)

On the other hand, the musical themes of autumn occasionally link with the content of an opera’s libretto. Perhaps it’s nostalgia for reading assignments that always signaled the beginning of a new semester, but I also find myself devouring operas based on literary tomes this time of year, such as Janacek’s From the House of the Dead, Verdi’s Otello, Wagner’s Tannhäuser, Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann (and, of course, Lucia). It’s also the time of year when Russian operas once again become more palatable against the dog days of summer, and perhaps it’s not totally serendipitous that I’ve always seen Boris Godunov between October and January.

Mozart has carved out an enviable niche for himself in the summer, but perhaps one of the most autumn-appropriate operas comes from his canon in Don Giovanni. There’s a crispness to the score, less voluptuous than, say, Così fan tutte or the Piano Concerto No. 21. Like Lucia, there’s an emphasis on the lower male voices, redolent of the sun going down at 6:00, and the female coloraturas speak more to leaves turning brown and gold than bright green. And with a graveyard scene and a bit of the supernatural, it goes down great with some Halloween candy and calvados-spiked apple cider.

Are there operas you associate with autumn? Share your choices in the comments below.

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Comments [3]

John

Finally! Someone that gets me! I've felt this "season to music" connection for quite some time and whenever I try to explain it to someone they look at me like I have four heads. I have to second Eugene Onegin as having an autumnal vibe to it. Also, I feel that when winter comes I start to dig out my Baroque operas and oratorios as they always seem to paint pictures of snow and grayish landscapes despite their librettos. Mozart's operas get me through spring and summer comfortably. They are upbeat and full of life like those two seasons.

But I must add some non operatic numbers that paint vivid pictures of autumn for me and those are the Scherzo from Dvorak's 9th and also much of Finzi's music- especially his 5 bagatelles, some of which paint a whole autumn scene including villages, fireplaces, and vivid colors.

I compose much music that is thoroughly inspired by the seasons, if you don't mind some of it can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/channel/UChpGucqlxV8GsvtG37N-oZQ?feature=CAQQwRs%3D

I love this idea of operas and music in general painting pictures of the seasons and am very glad to have found this article!

Oct. 05 2012 11:57 AM
Suzanne from New York

I think of "Il Tabarro" of Puccini as an autumnal opera . . . as Peter O'Malley says, more because of the melancholy nature of the principal character Michele than because of any required setting. I think much of Puccini's music reflected what the man himself may have been going through at the time--and when he composed "Il Tabarro" he was well into his 50s. I think he saw a lot of himself in Michele, a older man looking back with some sadness and regret on certain aspects of life (i.e., the waning of physical vigor, romantic disappointments). The yearning duet Michele has with his much-younger wife is beautiful and heartrending, I find.

Oct. 04 2012 03:43 PM
Peter O'Malley from Oakland, New Jersey

"Eugene Onegin" (especially in the Met production of the last 10 years or so, with its leaf-strewn stage at one point) is an autumnal opera, as is, to me at least, "La Rondine". I would also include "Rusalka" because of the, shall we say, autumnal melancholy of the story. Not so sure about "Tannhauser", though I would tend to agree about "Hoffmann", with the poet looking back at a later-in-life reflective moment on the loves of his youth. While "Pagliacci" seems redolent of summer, Nedda's moment of being transfixed by the flight of birds suggests autumn.

Oct. 04 2012 11:41 AM

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