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Dance Break: Opera's Three Catchiest Dance Tunes

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Today we are tripping the light fantastic with F. Paul Driscoll, Editor-in-Chief of Opera News magazine. He joins WQXR Host Midge Woolsey in the studio to share his three favorite opera dance scenes.

1. ‘The Dance of the Hours’ from La Gioconda

Italian composer Amilcare Ponchielli might be blown away to know this fact: that over a century after his death his legacy consists primarily of a piece of ballet music written as a simple divertissement for his opera La Gioconda. "'The Dance of the Hours' has nothing to do with any of the major characters," Driscoll explained. “It simply provides entertainment at a party.” Today, even the most non musical know the melody thanks to Disney’s "Fantasia" (1940) and Allan Sherman’s novelty song, "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh." “There was a time when you couldn’t go to a performance of the opera and watch that divertissement without people giggling around you because the tune was so immediately familiar,” said Driscoll.

Dance of the Hours:

2. Waltz from the 'Kermesse' Scene from Gounod’s Faust

Where opera is concerned, we are often asked to suspend disbelief. The Faust waltz is one of those moments. “The dance takes place in a medieval village long before the waltz was invented,” Driscoll reminded us. Yet most of the peasants who are gathered that day miraculously know how to count in three quarter time! “I adore the tune,” Driscoll continued. "And that particular dance is important because it is in the Kermesse that Marguerite and Faust come in contact with one another directly for the first time. He offers his arm to her and she refuses. The beginning of their relationship and her position in his life takes place during this wonderful dance.”

Waltz from the Kermesse Scene:

3. Les Indes galantes by Jean-Philippe Rameau

Les Indes galantes is an opéra-ballet. As was often the case in the early 18th century, “the piece was written with the idea that all of the performers would be able to sing, dance and participate in a very formal physical language,” Driscoll said. It was not something that approaches anything we think of as a conventional opera today. It was not something that was ‘popular entertainment’. Rather, it was written for the hermetically sealed world of the upper classes and the aristocracy.

In Rameau’s day “any place that wasn’t Versailles or Paris was referred to as the Indies,” Driscoll explained. “The Indies” could mean Africa, Asia, North or South America. Therefore each entrée or act was completely unrelated to the next. Les Indes Galantes has been revived brilliantly today by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants and recorded by them, as well as by the man responsible for this recording, Jordi Savall:

Les Indes galantes: