Posts Tagged ‘opera’

Q&A With Opera Expert Fred Plotkin

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

Study Leader Fred Plotkin is an expert on music, food and wine, and everything related to Italy. Opera is his great love—he has worked for Milan’s La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera—and he’s passionate about sharing opera with others. Fred is the author of Opera 101, Classical Music 101, as well as six books on Italy, and can be heard regularly on NPR. Here, he sits down with us to talk about his first love. Click here for more information on Fred and traveling with him.

These Trulli were originally used as storehouses and were built without cement or mortar to avoid taxation. Today, people in Locorotondo, Italy, live in them.

Q: Fred, in your approach to Italy, you often seem to like the path less taken…

A. True. I certainly love the famous spots such as Rome, Florence, and Venice, and I return to them all the time. But they have in some ways become victims of their popularity so that they lack some of the authenticity they had some decades ago. But Italy is a nation that historically was composed of city-states that were little jewels unto themselves, with local food and wine, music, dialects, and traditions. To a great extent these still exist, so going to a small Italian city is to find a true Italian flavor that is harder to come by in the tourist capitals.

Q. For example…?

A. I could name places in all twenty regions. In the past, I have taken Smithsonian travelers to the Marche, the region with 76 jewel-box opera houses, two world-class opera festivals in Macerata and Pesaro (the latter dedicated to hometown boy Rossini) and we visited stunning art towns such as Urbino (birthplace of Raphael) and Ascoli Piceno. While there, we had a cooking class, explored the history and geography, and had time for gorgeous Adriatic beaches. It was much of the best of Italy in one small region that no one had been to.

Q. Where would you go next?

A. Many Smithsonian travelers have told me that they are very interested in southern Italy, which is to say the regions south of Rome. Some of them have been to Naples, Capri,  and Positano, but not much else. These are the regions where most North American Italians have their roots, yet they are not well-known and are very misunderstood. They have divine food, beautiful scenery, very welcoming people and almost no tourism compared to the famous places up north. So each visitor is treated as an honored guest. To me, the two most beautiful towns of many in the South are Martina Franca (in Puglia) and Ravello (in Campania). To me, Martina Franca looks like a set from a Zeffirelli opera production. Whitewashed buildings, churches dominating sunny piazzas, laundry flapping in the breeze, and a bustling passeggiata, the characteristic afternoon stroll that all Southern Italians partake of. Nearby are the famous trulli, ancient conical structures that are the homes people have occupied for centuries. It is the real Italy, but most people don’t know it. Martina Franca also is the home of the Festival della Valle d’Itria, an opera festival that is famous for presenting lesser-known operas by popular composers. We can only see La Bohéme or La Traviata so many times without craving something else, and this festival provides that.

Q. And Ravello?

A. Wait, there’s more to tell about Martina Franca! Nearby is Lecce, a gorgeous town known as the Florence of the South. There are good cooking schools there, and nearby, and I would have us take a class. Then, this area has an institution called the masseria, a sort of walled farm dating from the times when they were built so that invaders could not get in. These magnificent buildings exist to this day, many still serving as farm buildings, others as hotels. I like the ones that produce wine, and I would have a group visit one. And then there is Matera, in the neighboring region of Basilicata. There is no place like it anywhere else in the world. It is a city full of caves that people live in. It is beautiful and mysterious and so off the beaten path that you feel like you are arriving in uncharted terrain. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Q. … And Ravello?

A. Ravello is perched above the Amalfi Coast  in Campania. It is far from the hubbub, a supremely beautiful little jewel where Ibsen wrote Peer Gynt, Wagner wrote the second act of Parsifal, John and Jacqueline Kennedy  spent their honeymoon, and other notables such as Greta Garbo and Igor Stravinsky lived in quiet seclusion. I spent five summers there in the 1980s. My favorite restaurant in southern Italy is there, called Cumpa’ Cosimo. I have eaten there on every visit since 1973. The chef/owner is named Netta and she makes the gold standard of dishes that Americans think of as Italian food. But once you taste her ravioli, tomatoes and other products, you will understand what they really are supposed to taste like.

SJ: Is there music in Ravello?

FP: It has a wonderful festival of classical music in gorgeous gardens. This year, for the bicentennial of the birth of Robert Schumann, there will be a lot of his music played there. After stays in Martina Franca and Ravello, we will head to Rome to see a pull-out-all-the-stops production of Verdi’s Aïda at the Baths of Caracalla. I saw it on my first visit there, in 1973, but the festival was soon abandoned for many decades. It only recently returned so I can’t wait to see this great opera in that magical setting.  After this wonderful visit to the best of Southern Italy, many travelers might choose to stay on in Rome for a few days before heading home. I know I will, and will be glad to give tips and suggestions for what to do and where to eat while they are there. For me, that is a pleasure!

Packed yet? Click here  to reserve your spot on our Opera Lover’s Italy tour with Fred Plotkin.

What do you like best about Italy? The scenery, food, people, or music? Comment below.

Spoleto Festival USA

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

New York City, London, and Rome are all known for their cultural arts. You can see a ballet performance, stage show, or opera easily in any of these cities. But sometimes you don’t have to go that far to see a festival with world-class performances. The Spoleto Festival USA takes place in one of the most beautiful and historical cities in the United States—Charleston, South Carolina.

The festival was founded in 1977 by Pulitzer Prize-winning Italian-American composer Gian Carlo Menotti, Christopher Keene, and others who sought to create an American counterpart to the annual Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. Since its inception, the festival has presented more than 200 world and American premieres.

So why did they choose the southern city of Charleston for such an event?

Simply put, the city is full of amazing architecture—including theaters, churches, and other spaces that prove ideal for these kinds of live performances. At the same time, the Charleston offers an intimate and charming feel to the festival while still being cosmopolitan enough to attract supportive audiences from around the globe. The result is a successful world class festival celebrating decades of breathtaking performances.

If you’ve never been to Charleston, here’s a taste of “The Holy City.”

What’s your favorite thing about Charleston, South Carolina? Share below.

Learn about the Spoleto Festival’s 2010 performances, while enjoying the southern scenery.

When Vengeance Boils in Your Heart, Try Opera

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

“Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen,” or “Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart,” is one of the most difficult arias in the entire operatic repertoire. It’s popularly known as “The Queen of the Night Aria” in honor of the character in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute who sings it. At this point in the drama, the Queen demands that her daughter Pamina kill Sarastro, who is the Queen’s rival. She will curse and disown Pamina if she does not comply with this deadly request.

To perform the aria at all requires amazing vocal range, control, and agility. To sing it well requires skills nothing short of spectacular. Here, watch soprano Diana Damrau give the piece the performance it deserves (translation below). We hope you’re sitting down…

Translation in English

Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart!
Death and despair blaze around me!
If Sarastro does not feel death pains because of you,
Then you will be my daughter nevermore.
Disowned be forever,
Forsaken be forever,
Shattered be forever,
All the bonds of nature.
If not through you, Sarastro becomes pale (as death)!
Hear, gods of vengeance, hear the mother’s oath!

This summer, you can see The Magic Flute for yourself as part of our journey to the Santa Fe Opera. Hope you’re ready to face the Queen of the Night!

What’s your favorite song to sing? Please share!

Video: A Night at the Opera: Aida

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

Musicals are known for being cute, perky, and usually have jazz hands at some point in the performance. Then, there is opera, which has a completely different kind of fanatical fan base. Known for intense passion for the art, opera’s loyal followers are drawn to the huge stage sets, elaborate costumes,  and the drama of the performances on and off stage. It has been known that when certain performers call out sick, European fans have continued the time-honored tradition of booing for as long as two minutes. Imagine being the understudy performing that night after such a public display of disgust. Americans tend to be more polite, and tend to believe in a more conservative  interpretation of their opera. Either way, opera fans love the passion, love, death, suicide, and drama that these performances provide. Here is a video of the Triumphal March from Verdi’s Aida, which you can see on our Opera Lover’s Italy tour.

Afterwards, you might be inspired to go to Egypt next.

Are you a musical or an opera fan?

Love Italian food, wine and opera? Opera Lover’s Italy has them all.

Photo: Hoffman at the Met

Tuesday, September 1st, 2009
Hoffman takes a dangerous psychological journey through Offenbach's opera.

Hoffman takes a dangerous psychological journey through Offenbach’s opera. Photo: Micaela Rossato/Metropolitan Opera

Jacques Offenbach never saw the premiere of The Tales of Hoffman; he died just four months before its opening in 1881. Hoffman is one take on the life and love affairs of German writer E.T.A. Hoffman, each act telling a different story from the author’s life. The opera explores the destruction of three of Hoffman’s lovers, each of whom dies after Hoffman becomes entangled in their lives, and Hoffman’s ultimate rejection of earthly love for the love of poetry and his muse.

This year, Tony Award winner Bartlett Sher (South Pacific) directs a new Hoffman production. Music Director James Levine conducts Joseph Calleja the in title role. Anna Netrebko is Antonia and Alan Held sings the demonic four villains.

Get your opera fix with us this year — join us this December for Hoffman, Figaro, Il Trittico, and Elektra.