Three Letter Arias: Why Opera Still Loves Hand-Written Letters

Wednesday, November 07, 2012 - 01:27 PM

George Goodwin Kilburne - Penning a letter

In an age of texting, Twitter and e-mail, the hand-written letter can seem like a relic of ancient times.

But on the opera stage, it is alive and well. "The idea of having an object which has been held in someone else’s hand shows their handwriting, shows the color of the ink, shows the fold and how many times it’s been opened and reopened and reread," said F. Paul Driscoll, editor-in-chief of Opera News. "I think that has an emotional impact that the clinical screen doesn’t really have.”

In this edition of Opera in Brief, Driscoll names three of his favorite letter arias in opera and why hand-written letters still matter.

1. “Letter Aria” from The Ballad of Baby Doe by Douglas Moore

Elizabeth McCourt – aka Baby Doe – writes a letter to her mother. In the beginning, she shares the news of the disillusion of her marriage to Harvey. We get her loneliness, her despair and the idea that she has nobody to talk to about this except her mother.

The opera is based on the true story of the young and beautiful Baby Doe Tabor whose marriage to Horace Tabor, a wealthy pioneer in 1880’s Colorado caused a major scandal. Many people think that Beverly Sills created the role. She did not. But it was a role that she was identified with throughout her life.

Beverly Sills singing “Letter Aria”:

2. “O mon cher amant” from La Périchole by Jacques Offenbach

This is an opera/operetta that most people don’t know and that’s unfortunate. It’s about a girl and a boy – Périchole and Piquillo. Périchole catches the eye of the Viceroy of Peru and receives an offer to be a lady in waiting in his palace. Before she goes, she writes a letter of farewell to Piquillo.

The wonderful American soprano Patrice Munsel did a production of La Périchole at the Met in the 1950’s. This recording was made around that time.

Patrice Munsel singing “O mon cher amant”

3. “Puskai pogibnu ya” from Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky

This is the ultimate letter aria/scene. Onegin enters the home of Madame Larina and her two daughters Tatyana and Olga. Tatyana who is the shy, bookish sister falls madly in love with Onegin. At night – alone in her room – she pours her entire heart out on paper. It’s a tour de force for any soprano who takes on the role and the tent pole of the entire opera.

Ana Netrebko will be singing a new production of Eugene Onegin at the Metropolitan Opera next season.

Ana Netrebko singing “Puskai pogibnu ya”

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Comments [4]

Carol Tyler from Bellingham, WA

I'm gonna sit right down and write myself a letter!!! Or maybe draw some "love letters in the sand." Your column taps into the orality-literacy dimension of communication, which seems here to be doubly highlighted when text is capably read and emotionally sung. While not operatic, Webber's "Song and Dance" employes the mechanism of the solo character -- Emma -- both communicating with her mother and internally dialoging by way of musically orating letters to Mum as she writes them. Thoughtful article, thanks!

Nov. 26 2012 04:34 PM
Robert St.Onge from Cochiti Lake,NM

I agree with all three selections,but for me it's the Letter Duet in 'Le Nozze di Figaro'. When you have two sopranos whose voices are in sync,this can be sheer aural bliss.

Nov. 08 2012 03:07 PM
Raisa Shikhman from Staten Island

I think Tatyana's letter scene is probably the most challenging musically and dramatically. Renee Fleming was superb in it. But I agree with Les about Charlotte's aria -- it was my diploma piece as a piano accompanist in 1977 in Moscow, and I still remember how deeply I was affected by its passion, grief, and melancholy.

Nov. 08 2012 02:34 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

I'd put Werther's letters to Charlotte (In "Werther") that she reads in the Third Act "Ah, cest lettres" at the top of my list of favorites of nostalgia and melancholy. And Germont's letter to Violetta in Act III of "La Traviata" telling of her sacrifice and of Alfredo's return is melodrama in the best sense. Tt's spoken over two first violins, one second, two violas and two 'cellos pianissimo. Here's another of many opportunities for a great Violetta to excel.

Nov. 08 2012 08:48 AM

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