At Columbia University, Great Books to Great Opera

Wednesday, April 10, 2013 - 10:34 AM

Columbia University Columbia University (Wally Gobetz/flickr)

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)


More in:

Comments [11]

Spec Reader from CT from Simsbury, CT

I read the Spec opera coverage and don't think it's that bad...what am I missing? If the problem with it is that it's generally favorable, I chalk that up to the high quality of the product one typically encounters at the Met. Do you think their coverage is gratuitously complimentary?

Apr. 11 2013 06:06 PM

I'm an "in betweener", David-have been for sometime. I do believe I have baby-booming company at the opera-but of course the future is with an educated and appreciative audience-of any age and kudos to Columbia for its contributions.

Thanks also Fred for always expanding my opera horizon, I don't know how Stefan Zucker escaped me all of these years, but clearly, he is the Ivy League Florence Foster Jenkins-although I prefer the voice of another Columbia attendee, the inimitable Paul Robeson.

Apr. 11 2013 03:19 PM
David from Flushing

I am not certain that having a audience of age 75 seniors and college students with nothing in between is a viable state of affairs.

Apr. 11 2013 01:13 PM
Current Student from Columbia

I'm inclined to say that Columbia's fascination with opera probably comes more from the Music Humanities class, which all College students are required to take, than the literature/philosophy courses. Being forced to read about, discuss, and see opera as an undergraduate is probably even less common for a college student than being forced to read the "great books." Plus, as much as I appreciate the idea that all Columbia students are superbly well-versed in the Classics, I think our knowledge is a bit more cursory than the article implies.

Apr. 11 2013 12:04 PM
Marianna from Manhattan

Nor should they overlook Hofstra. I know of one freshman this fall who is counting on maintaining his subscription at the Met Opera.

Apr. 11 2013 11:34 AM

The Columbia campus also has a footnote in operatic history as the site of at least two notable world premieres-- Paul Bunyan (Britten-Auden) and The Mother of Us All (Thomson-Stein).

Apr. 11 2013 10:13 AM

To be quite honest, I personally love reading the Spec's opera coverage. Sure, they're occasionally a bit superfluous, but one must acknowledge the clarity and care put into each review. It's quite obvious that they're very passionate about their work and that they enjoy and appreciate the opera.

Apr. 11 2013 12:45 AM
Fred Plotkin from downwind from Columbia


Jennifer, I think highly of Stepan's work when he is on and have called in to chat with him. I say in the article that the current group of hosts are quite good. But the novelties at Columbia are that they have had opera on the radio for many decades and that the student newspaper has an opera reporter, which is most unusual for a university paper. Stand, Columbia alma mater.

Apr. 10 2013 11:50 PM
Fred plotkin

Jennifer, I think highly if Stepan's work when he is on and have called in to chat with him. I say in the article that the current group if hosts are quite good. But the novelties at Columbia are that they have had opera in the radio for many decades and that the student newspaper has an opera reporter, which is most unusual for a university paper. Stand, Columbia alma mater

Apr. 10 2013 07:58 PM

I’m a little surprised you didn’t take into account Stepan Atamian at WKCR. I always read the Spec, which frankly has poorly written and sycophantic opera coverage, but Stepan’s maybe the most knowledgeable student I’ve ever heard ever talk about opera. I’ve heard him do SNO for years now, and his commentary is at a level that you just don’t hear on any other radio station today. He did a phenomenal show on Parsifal during Good Friday weekend where he made that really hard opera accessible to people such as myself who hate Wagner and know little German. He’s also about the friendliest person you could ever talk to, as he’s always willing to take my calls during his show. WQXR could learn a lesson from how he programs opera.

Apr. 10 2013 06:21 PM
Steven Feis from NYC

I'm writing as a former (2011) participant in the Met's Student Ambassador program, which is actually discussed in a Columbia Spectator article, I believe that the plurality of students (or certainly a very high showing) came from Columbia; if memory serves, there were also a couple people from NYU, myself and a Law student from Yale, and various others.

Apr. 10 2013 12:22 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

The WQXR e-newsletter. Show highlights, links to music news, on-demand concerts, events from The Greene Space and more.

Follow WQXR 







About Operavore


Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

Follow Operavore