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.

Library in the News: September 2014 Edition

On Sept. 10, the Library opened the exhibition “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom.” Covering the opening were outlets including the National Newspapers Publishing Association, the Examiner and regional outlets from New York to Alabama. “A few things set this exhibition apart from the multitude of this year’s commemorations,” wrote […]

Conservation Corner: A Persian Manuscript

(The following is a guest post written by Yasmeen Khan, senior book conservator in the Conservation Division.) Conservation staff recently treated I recently examined a rare Persian manuscript in preparation for display in the Library of Congress exhibition, “A Thousand Years of the Persian Book.” The bound 103-leaf manuscript, dated 1583 and attributed to Central Asia, […]

Library in the News: August 2014 Edition

In August, the Library of Congress was busy with exhibitions and expositions, opening “American Ballet Theatre: Touring the Globe for 75 Years” on Aug. 14 and hosting the 14th annual National Book Festival on Aug. 30. “At the company’s heart was ballet theater, a physical way of creating a new world onstage,” wrote Sarah Kaufman […]

Civil Rights Act Exhibition Features Historical Documentary Footage

Considered the most significant piece of civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. It banned discrimination in public accommodations, such as hotels, restaurants, theaters and retail stores. It outlawed segregation in public education. It banned discrimination in employment, and it […]

Pic of the Week: En Pointe

Last week, the Library of Congress opened the exhibition “American Ballet Theatre: Touring the Globe for 75 Years,” which highlights the dance company’s distinguished history and its collection here at the Library. Shortly after the opening, ABT alum Sue Knapp-Steen (1969-1974) stopped by to view the exhibition and reminisce on her time as a professional dancer […]

Rare Map on Display at Library Scored Some “Firsts”

(The following is a guest post by Wendi A. Maloney, writer-editor in the U.S. Copyright Office.) Engraver Abel Buell “came out of nowhere,” at least in terms of cartography, when he printed a United States map in 1784. “He’d never done a map before,” says Edward Redmond of the Library’s Geography and Map Division. Nonetheless, […]

The Power of One: Roy Wilkins and the Civil Rights Movement

(The following is a story written by Mark Hartsell, editor of the Library’s staff newsletter, The Gazette, for the May-June 2014 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine. The Library exhibition, “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: The Long Struggle for Freedom,” opens June 19 in the Thomas Jefferson Building.) Civil Rights activist Roy Wilkins […]

Library in the News: April 2014 Edition

The Library made several major announcements in April, including new additions to the National Recording Registry. The addition of the 25 new recordings to the National Recording Registry brings the list to a total of 400 sound recordings. Among the new selections were Jeff Buckley’s haunting single “Hallelujah” from his one and only studio album; […]