Strange Romance

Written February 2015 trying to lure people to The Met Opera Live in HD broadcast. Opera goers will pack the house for something they may have seen and/or heard dozens of times; getting them to attend less familiar but brilliant works can be tough.

These are rather bold and extraordinary programming choices for Valentine’s Day: Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta features a blind princess who doesn’t know she’s a princess and isn’t aware that everyone around her can see; she just has a feeling that she might be missing out on something! Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle concerns a mysterious polygamist, lots of locked doors, and a current wife who suspects her husband is a serial killer! But all may not be what it seems, in spite of the blood. Whoa! Not your usual romantic date material. However, each of these operas is magnificent in quite different ways.

Iolanta was Tchaikovsky’s final opera. Reluctant to begin the work, the composer felt he had written himself out. Posterity has proved him wrong, however. Though not often performed, the work always dazzles. Iolanta is full of rich, gorgeous music. Evocative and romantic, its fairy tale quality suggests Tchaikovsky’s great ballet scores. Indeed, at the 1892 premier, the work was resented with The Nutcracker, the artist’s final ballet. There is an arranged marriage, an interloping suitor, and a death sentence for a transgressor. Of course, love wins out. Interesting to note is the Muslim hero of the piece, Ibn-Hakia, who engineers the cure of the heroine’s blindness. If all you know of Tchaikovsky is his ballets, symphonies, or the 1812 Overture, you owe it to yourself to experience his operas. They are truly his best works, where his gifts were fully realized.

Bluebeard’s Castle amazes and confounds. The composer’s only opera is heavy with psycho-sexual symbolism and marks a profound shift in 20th century opera. After nearly 100 years, it remains edge-of-the-seat compelling, one of the most dramatically riveting of all operas. With only two main characters, Bartók creates and sustains an almost unbearable tension. You think you know where this is going, but it doesn’t go there. It goes, well, to an even stranger place. Bartók’s sound palette is absolutely original, his harmonic system idiosyncratic. Polytonal rather than atonal, the music’s combination of consonance and dissonance achieves what all of opera pretends to do: it moves you.

Don’t miss either of these rarities.

John Deaderick is a local theater instructor, director, actor, and the author of Make Sweet the Minds of Men: Early Opera and Tragic Catharsis, available at


Love You to Death!

September 28, 2016  Preview of Met Live in HD Broadcast

Love and death: what would tragic opera be without them? Wagner’s masterpiece boldly explores the obsessive fatalism of erotic love. And there is nothing subtle about it; Tristan und Isolde’s exquisite and famous Liebestod music epitomizes these twin themes so prevalent in opera. Transcendent, moving, masterful; these are the adjectives often used to describe Tristan und Isolde. The work deserves them.

Since early in his career, the opera world has been divided into the pro- and anti- Wagner camps. It is Tristan und Isolde, however that marks the radical departure from traditional operatic format. Now Wagner creates a new dimension, the music drama. His of the leitmotiv, a motif or melodic fragment associated with character or theme, intensifies, as does his chromaticism, his fluid relationship to a tonal center. No longer are there set pieces, arias and ensembles that stand alone, but rather there is a continuous flow of endlessly evolving melody and harmonic shifts. The orchestral sound is huge, evocative, overwhelming. 60s girl group Phil Spector didn’t invent the wall of sound, Wagner did.

We have a war between rival Celtic kingdoms. Tristan, the nephew of King Marke of Cornwall, captains a ship taking the Irish princess Isolde to wed Marke. A rather complicated back story, not uncommon in opera libretti, involves, among other things, a broken bit of sword buried in Tristan’s head! For this and other reasons, including being shipped off to marry a man she’s never met, Isolde is angry. Very angry, so angry in fact that she orders her servant Brangaene to make a poisoned potion to kill both herself and Tristan. Brangaene, however, cooks up a love potion instead, with the expected result. And that’s just the first act!

The current Met production features soprano Nina Stemme as Isolde in a performance the NY Times reviewer called “outstanding,” adding that her vocal delivery ranged “from steely rawness to melting warmth.”  The production has a modern look; the lovers travel not by medieval barque but by modern battleship. You may have seen the incredible Ms Stemme in last season’s Elektra; if so, you will surely want to be present for this. Should be extraordinary.

John Deaderick is a local theatre artist and the author of Make Sweet the Minds of Men: Early Opera and Tragic Catharsis, available at

When Your Comeuppance Comes Calling

October 11, 2016  Preview of Met Live in HD Broadcast

Mozart’s masterpiece Don Giovanni, one of the most enduring staples of the operatic stage, premiered in Prague in 1787. Don Giovanni combines romance, comedy, drama, horror; and of course, Mozart’s exquisite writing for the voice set to an exceptional libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte. The tale is an old one; indeed, everyone knows what a Don Juan is. The story of the legendary libertine has been told and retold numerous times in numberless guises.

Its origin in print is most likely a seventeenth-century Spanish play by Tirso de Molina entitled The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest. In it, Don Juan, a despicable rogue and heartless libertine, takes great pleasure in seducing women (usually virgins) and killing their men with his expert sword play. Eventually, Don Juan meets his comeuppance, encountering in a graveyard a statue of Don Gonzalo, the dead father of a girl he has seduced and ruined, Doña Ana de Ulloa. Mockingly, the unrepentant sinner invites the statue to dine with him; surprisingly, the statue happily accepts the invitation. The “Stone Guest” of the title arrives for dinner at Don Juan’s house and in turn invites Don Juan to dine with him in the graveyard. Don Juan accepts and goes to the gravesite, where the statue grasps Don Juan’s hand and drags him down to Hell.

This essentially is the story as related by Da Ponte, with much additional sexual intrigue as well as some comic relief. Saturday’s broadcast features a traditional design. Simon Keenlyside stars as the appealing rakehell who forges his own doom. That he meets his retribution in the end provides a degree of satisfaction, although it may be that one is sad to see the entertaining rascal go, dragged down to hell by the weight of his sins.

Opera is the summation of all the theatrical arts; the word itself means “works,” as in the various arts that meld together to create the unified whole: music, poetry, costuming, setting, lighting, and on and on. A tale told in music, with high style and great virtuosity: what’s not to love?

John Deaderick is a theatre artist and the author of Make Sweet the Minds of Men: Early Opera and Tragic Catharsis, available at