Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Opera

Music History Monday: The Grandmother of them all: the Teatro alla Scala

We mark the opening on August 3, 1778 – 242 years today – of the grandmother of all opera houses, the Teatro alla Scala, or simply “La Scala.” The inaugural performance was the premiere of Antonio Salieri’s opera Europa Riconosciuta, or “Europe Rewarded”.  I trust we’re all aware that something being touted as “baseball season” has begun. Ordinarily, the return of professional baseball in the first week of April is a cause for celebration in my house, a seasonal marker as sure as the turning of the leaves in the fall and the true coming of spring, when the camellias bloom in mid-January (I know: if I didn’t live here I’d hate California too). But baseball in the time of COVID is, frankly, absurd; with more and more players being tested positive (today it was an unspecified number of St. Louis Cardinals), it seems to me that it’s only a matter of time before this truncated season is shut down for good. (I’m writing this on Friday, July 31; for all I know, by Monday, August 3 the “season” will already be over.) This sorry state of affairs calls for a necessary dose of nostalgic escapism. A particular badge of […]

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Music History Monday: Lotte Lehmann

On August 26, 1976 – 43 years ago today – the German-born soprano, opera star, lieder singer, movie actress, internationally renowned teacher, music historian and author, published poet, painter and illustrator Lotte Lehmann died in Santa Barbara, California at the age of 88.

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Music History Monday: A Child (and a Man!) of the Theater

On this day in 1767 – 252 years ago today – Wolfgang Mozart’s first opera, entitled Apollo and Hyacinthus received its premiere in Mozart’s hometown of Salzburg. The composer was 11 years old. In a letter written to his father in October of 1777, the 21-year-old Mozart expressed his passion for opera and the opera theater in no uncertain terms: “I have only to hear an opera discussed, I have only to sit in a theater, hear the orchestra tuning their instruments – oh, I am quite beside myself at once.”  I would suggest that it is difficult for us, today, to fathom the full meaning of Mozart’s comment because, in our electronic, mass media-dominated videocracy, we have no single cultural equivalent to the opera house of Mozart’s time. For people living in late eighteenth century Europe, the opera house was a combination theater; Super Bowl half-time show; major league ballpark; rock concert; carnival mid-way; high-end fashion show; IMAX-style movie palace; theme park; special effects extravaganza: in sum, a total-sensory-immersion facility. The opera theater was for Mozart a virtual “virtual reality,” where things could happen, be seen, and be heard that very simply could not happen, could not be seen […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes – Rossini: The Barber of Seville

Oft’ have I moaned and groaned about the licensing contracts signed by The Teaching Company/Great Courses and various recording companies, contracts that precluded me from identifying the performers heard on the musical excerpts in my courses. Yes indeed, this is entirely counter-intuitive; one would think that the record companies would want me to name-names, the better to sell those albums being excerpted in the courses. But like quantum mechanics, the actions of these companies remain unfathomable; weird business.  Because I wasn’t allowed to name performers, I would estimate that roughly 50% of the mail I’ve received over the years in response to my courses has been about the recordings I’ve used: folks want to know who played this, who sang that. In many cases I don’t know at all, because in the early years I was often sent recordings for audition on cassettes with no indication as to the identity of the performers. For example, to this day, I haven’t a clue as to any of the performers on the recordings I chose for my Symphonies of Beethoven course, recorded in 1995. Every now and then – by begging, scraping, whining, banging on tables, and giving noogies – I managed […]

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Music History Monday: Don Giovanni

On October 29, 1787 – 221 years ago today – Wolfgang Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni received its world premiere in the Bohemian capital of Prague. That premiere was – and remains – Mozart’s single most triumphant first performance.  In 1777, the 21 year-old Mozart wrote his father: “I have only to hear an opera discussed, I have only to sit in a theater, hear the orchestra tuning their instruments – oh, I am quite beside myself at once.”  The opera house in Mozart’s day was something more than it is today. It was a combination theater; Super Bowl half-time show; Rock concert; carnival mid-way; high-end fashion show; high-tech IMAX-style movie palace; theme park; and a special effects extravaganza: in sum, a total-sensory-immersion facility. In a pre-electronic age, the opera theater was the ultimate virtual reality, where things could happen and be seen and be heard that very simply could not happen, be seen or heard anywhere else. Opera lighting and stage machinery represented cutting-edge technology in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and the production crews at major opera houses in Paris, London, Hamburg, Dresden, Rome, Venice, Naples, Prague, and Vienna were the Industrial Light and Magic, the Pixar of […]

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Jan Woloniecki: Opera Fanatic of the Decade

We ponder – for a bit – the nature of hobbies: those avocational pursuits that run the gamut from harmless amusement to life-dominating passions. I will confess up front that I am a collector, and so I’ve got a certain insight into this hobby-thing that a non-collector/non-hobbyist will not have. My first wife, bless her, was a non-collector, which is, I think, one of the primary reasons why she numbers as having been my “first” wife. She couldn’t understand my “materialistic” desire – neigh, my passion – for acquisition. Indeed, she saw no distinction between collecting, accumulating, and hoarding. (FYI, according to yours truly, “accumulating” is the act of merely acquiring objects without theme, rhyme, or reason. Hoarding is the indiscriminate accumulation of objects, to the degree that the hoard itself – the stockpile, the mass – is the point of the assemblage rather than the particular objects within the assemblage. “Collecting” is a very different sort of thing. Collecting is the selective acquisition of like objects, chosen, researched, and arranged in such a way as to describe some sort of narrative.) To my mind, collecting is an attempt to give structure and shape to the chaos that surrounds us; […]

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Music History Monday: Firsts!

There are “firsts” and then there are firsts. The first person to eat sliced bread? No big deal.  But the first person to eat an artichoke (which is, let’s be honest, a giant freaking thorn)? That took guts; that’s a first. The first person to moonwalk? (That would be the bandleader Cab Calloway, who invented the move in the mid 1930s and called it “the Buzz.”) Admirable, but really not a particularly big deal.  The first person to walk on the moon (Neil Armstrong; July 20, 1969)? One of the most epic firsts in the history of humankind. Let’s discuss another of the most epic firsts in all of human history: the first person to compose a complete opera.  That event occurred in the city of Florence in 1600, and that person was the singer, actor, organist and composer Jacopo Peri, who was born in Rome on August 20, 1561, 457 years ago today. Happy birthday, Maestro! Admittedly, there were numerous other composers of theatrical music active in Florence at the time, and the names Giulio Caccini and Emilio de’ Cavalieri have also been bandied about as possible “originators” of opera.  But Peri must receive the credit because of his […]

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Music History Monday: A Decidedly Politically-Incorrect Rant

As events in music history go, July 9 is definitely on the lighter side. (Although, for me – personally – it is an important day, and I would use this opportunity to wish the happiest of birthdays to my beautiful daughter Rachel Amy, who was born in Berkeley, California 32 years ago today!) But back to musical business. We will indeed recognize the birth on July 9, 1879 – 139 years ago today – of the Italian composer, musicologist, and violinist Ottorino Respighi in Bologna, the city of lunch meat and red sauce fame. Respighi’s fame as a composer rests on four works: his three orchestral tone poems Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome, and Roman Festivals; and the eighth of his nine operas, a work entitled La fiamma (meaning “The Flame”), which received its premiere on January 23, 1934 in Rome. Fancy that: an Italian composer writing opera! In fact, there’s nothing more natural in the world. Opera was invented in Italy for the same reason that surfing was invented in Hawaii: Hawaii is surrounded by warm ocean water and perfect waves and Italians are surround by the musical warmth and beauty of the Italian language: that seemingly perfect […]

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Music History Monday: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Enlightened Opera

240 years ago today – on July 2, 1778 – the Swiss-born philosopher, novelist, educator, music theorist and critic, and composer Jean-Jacques Rousseau died at age 66 in the township of Ermenonville, roughly 25 miles north-east of Paris. Rousseau was one of the greatest and most significant thinkers ever born to our species. According to Will and Ariel Durant, writing in their book Rousseau and Revolution, Rousseau: “transformed education, elevated the morals of France[!], inspired the Romantic movement and the French Revolution, influenced the philosophy of Kant and Schopenhauer, the plays of Schiller, the novels of Goethe, the poems of Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley, the socialism of Marx, the ethics of Tolstoy, and, altogether, had more effect upon posterity than any other writer or thinker of that eighteenth century in which writers were more influential than they had ever been before.” Rousseau also helped to redefine the role and substance of opera at a time when opera – like movies and television today – was not just a form of entertainment but both a reflection and a driver of the political and social values of its time. A little background Opera was invented in Florence Italy around 1600 as a […]

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