At Columbia University, Great Books to Great Opera

Email a Friend

While there are universities with famous opera departments, such as Indiana, Michigan, Yale and USC, I can think of few schools where opera has such a large and passionate following in the student body as it is at Columbia. I was a graduate student in journalism there in 1979-1980 but, for reasons I will suggest below, the bedrock of interest in opera at Columbia is strongest among its undergraduates and at its sister school, Barnard. There are, I believe, many reasons for this, some dating back two centuries.

Lorenzo da Ponte (1749-1838) was famous as Mozart’s librettist for Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte. In his late years, he became Columbia’s first professor of Italian language and literature. His precious collection of books were given to the university when he died. In my time, they were in a gorgeous neo-Renaissance building on Amsterdam Avenue called the Casa Italiana. It is now called the Italian Academy.

Undergrads at Columbia and Barnard have mingled with music students and performers for more than a century. The Juilliard School, founded in 1905, became a neighbor of Columbia and Barnard in 1910 and remained there until moving to Lincoln Center in 1969. Juilliard’s president from 1926 to 1937 was John Erskine, a distinguished Columbia professor. The Manhattan School of Music, founded in 1917, has been on Claremont Avenue since the 1950s. 

The great American composer Richard Rodgers, who wrote 43 musicals and more than 900 songs, studied at Columbia, as did his two most important lyricists, Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II. Elliott Carter (1908-2012), the superb American composer, taught music at Columbia. 

The campus is full of performing arts spaces, perhaps none more famous than the Miller theater. Founded in 1988, it is one of the most important presenters of new music in New York City. George Steel, the current head of the New York City Opera, had a long and successful tenure there and it was the place where he established his reputation.

CUPAL (Columbia University Performing Arts League) is an active organization on campus which, the other day, presented a program called Opera Untapped. The Columbia Spectator, the daily student newspaper, has a dedicated opera writer, Chris Browner.

High Times in Morningside Heights

Columbia has one of the oldest traditions in America of opera on radio. In New York, only WQXR has been at it longer. Opera lovers with long memories recall Stefan Zucker, the self-anointed “World’s Highest Tenor,” who ruled the roost for many years on The Opera Fanatic, a Saturday night radio program on Columbia’s student station WKCR, which is at 89.9 FM. 

Zucker often played his own performances of bel canto rarities, sung in a voice pleasing to some, though other people recoiled at the sound, which I once heard described as “the unrequited lamentations of a cat in heat.” He claimed that the Guinness Book of World Records gave him the designation of the “World’s Highest Tenor.” Come to your own conclusions, watching a video that also includes Rosina Wolf, widely reported to be Zucker’s mother:

When Zucker spoke he would draw in huge amounts of air with audible aspiration and then might opine on the absence of great singers in opera houses (this during the era when Sutherland, Pavarotti, Horne, Price and others were in their prime) in a speaking voice that was neither here nor there. Zucker’s controversial pronouncements drew a devoted listenership, not only among fans but also many singers. Quite a few appeared on his program, most famously the Italian tenor Franco Corelli.

Zucker’s welcome at WKCR was worn out by the mid-1990s, in part because he made a lot of enemies but also because he was occupying air waves that really should have been used by Columbia students. Since then, a rotating series of opera-loving matriculants have appeared on Saturday nights, playing excellent old versions of operas, often on LPs with their audible crackles and the occasional repetition when the needle gets caught in the groove of the record, only adding to the homespun charm of the listening experience.

Since Zucker’s departure, listeners have often been exasperated at the almost comical mispronunciations by the presenters, though the current group are much more adept at languages than their predecessors. 

Extra-Curricular Activities

I encounter more Columbia students at performances at the Met and elsewhere than I do students from other New York-area universities. The idea for this article came when I was seated next to a Columbia history student at Handel’s Giulio Cesare and then, the next evening, attended Faust with a recent Columbia graduate. 

During a lull in the performance of Gounod’s opera, it occurred to me that both of these bright young people have something in common with most Columbia undergraduates that would be of use to all operagoers: they were educated with the university’s “core curriculum,” a series of classes that include many of the so-called “great books.” 

While other institutions of higher learning might encourage reading everything from the Greeks to the important fiction and philosophy of the 20th century, at Columbia this is compulsory. Columbia alumni I meet have a much broader foundation of literature and ideas than the average graduate of other American universities. 

During the intermission of Faust, my friend said that, while he enjoys Goethe’s telling of the Faust legend that was the source material for the opera, he found the earlier version by Christopher Marlowe much more compelling. His particular love is 19th century French literature, meaning that he would have a deeper connection to Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, La Bohéme and Tosca, all of which were based on French sources of the 18th and 19th centuries. Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande was based on a late 19th century play by the Belgian Maurice Maeterlinck. Then there are Verdi operas such as Ernani and Rigoletto (both drawn from Victor Hugo) and La Traviata (an adaptation of “La Dame aux Camelias” by Alexandre Dumas fils). Hugo’s “Angelo, Tyrant of Padua” was the inspiration for Ponchielli’s La Gioconda and his “Les Miserables” inspired....well, you know.

I am sure the fellow attending Giulio Cesare (right) would know of descriptions of Julius Cæsar from Cicero, Sallust, Lucan, Plutarch and Suetonius among ancient sources, not to mention the famous play by Shakespeare. There is also Edward Gibbon who, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, wrote “Though it is not, most assuredly, the intention of Lucan to exalt the character of Cæsar, yet the idea he gives of that hero, in the tenth book of the Pharsalia, where he describes him, at the same time making love to Cleopatra, sustaining a siege against the power of Egypt, and conversing with the sages of the country, is, in reality, the noblest panegyric.”

I thought to ask the student his thoughts but recalled Gibbon’s observation that, “Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius.” So I decided instead to ponder what the Columbia core curriculum might do for opera. The friend who joined me for Faust said that, while he is hardly conservative or traditional in his taste, he worried that anyone who attended the Met’s new “Las Vegas” Rigoletto but did not know the Victor Hugo source (Le Roi s’amuse) or Francesco Piave’s libretto for Verdi would miss most of the power, nuance and impact of the opera that premiered in 1851.

The broader point is that anyone steeped in literature has a distinct advantage at the opera, and in life, compared to someone who does not. "Great Books," a concept which must be broad enough to encompass writings that are not only by the proverbial Dead White Men, have as much to teach us about who we are as does opera itself. I find that when I know the work of literature that inspired an opera, whether by Euripides, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Racine, Corneille or Schiller, I get much more out of that opera.

Columbia is on to something. Its graduates all encounter the core curriculum, even though most of them do not pursue careers in the arts. I think that opera companies, especially those in New York, would be wise to cultivate Columbia students for future audiences. Especially appealing are the undergrads who go on to study law, medicine, engineering or business at Columbia or NYU. Not only will they eventually have the funds to buy tickets, but will be excellent candidates for board membership

We J-School graduates might never have the money to join a board, but we are a passionate and fact-checking bunch. If the singers, musicians and authors of the great books don’t turn you on to opera, you can ask this reporter. Have a question on anything operatic? Call 1-347-878-1059 and perhaps I might answer it on air on a coming Saturday during WQXR's Operavore radio show. Phone lines are open all the time to record your question.

Photo: Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra in Handel's 'Giulio Cesare' (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)