Opera Onstage, Drama Offstage

Today marks the anniversary of the opening of the original Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, on Oct. 22, 1883.  This is the hall, no longer in existence, where Enrico Caruso performed Vesti La Giubba” in “Pagliacci”; where Geraldine Farrar sang Un Bel Di,” in “Madame Butterfly.”  Thanks to radio broadcasts, it was the center of attention for opera-lovers coast to coast on Saturday afternoons from 1931 until the opening of the Met’s current hall in Lincoln Center in September of 1966. The broadcasts continue, and since 2006 people at various movie theaters around the country can also see select Met productions televised live in high definition, for about the price of a standee spot at the live show.

By now we’re used to the storyline (usually comic) in which what’s going on offstage is even more dramatic than what’s happening onstage (Marx Brothers, “A Night at the Opera”) – even though operas have been known to end with heroines flinging themselves off parapets (“Tosca”), the Old Believers immolating themselves (“Khovanshchina”), or the dissolute, unrepentant title character being dragged into Hell (“Don Giovanni”).

Looking up through one of the curving staircases at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo by Adriel Bettelheim

Looking up through one of the curving staircases at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo by Adriel Bettelheim

Yet sometimes, the drama-about-the-drama is not a commedia. This season, the Met has had to respond to a controversy over its offering of living American composer John Adams’ 1991 opera “The Death of Klinghoffer,” which, opponents allege, glorifies terrorism and anti-Semitism.   Adams, who spoke at the Library in 2010 and had a residency here in 2013, takes his opera storylines from recent history; the Klinghoffer story harks back to an actual incident that took place on a cruise ship boarded by terrorists in 1985. Adams’ other well-known operas are “Nixon in China,” about the former president’s visit to Mao Zedong in 1972, and “Dr. Atomic,” a dramatization of what was going on in the mind of scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer during a critical period in the Manhattan Project to develop the atom bomb.

Only time will tell where “Klinghoffer” will be, in the pantheon of opera, in another 50 years, or 100, or 200.  It opened to protests, but also to applause, at the Met on Monday.

Also on the Met’s schedule this year is a production of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” an opera based on a story by Beaumarchais banned in many courts during Mozart’s lifetime because it featured a serving-man outwitting his noble overlord.

And the Met, in a few weeks, will open Dmitri Shostakovich’s infrequently seen “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” which in 1936 was said to be so despised by Stalin that Shostakovich’s musical career within the U.S.S.R. took a crushing blow, led by an editorial in “Pravda,” that required years to recover from. That opera is almost better known as a censorship target than on its own merits.

The Library of Congress holds one of the world’s foremost collections of opera-related manuscripts, sheet music, photographs and stage designs.  In addition to the sampling of these treasures brought forward in last year’s exhibition A Night at the Opera,” the Library offers many streaming recordings by famous early stars of opera on its National Jukebox website (here’s the Barcarolle from “Tales of Hoffman.)

And speaking of the Marx Brothers – we’ve got Groucho’s papers, including the script for “A Night At the Opera.”  That 1935 classic is also a 1993 entry in the Library’s National Film Registry.

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