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.

A-B-C … Easy as One, Two, Three

On Oct. 16, 1758, Noah Webster, the “Father of American Scholarship and Education” was born. Lexicographers everywhere celebrate his contributions on his birthday, also known as “Dictionary Day.” As a young, rural Connecticut teacher, he used his own money to publish his first speller in 1783. Reissued throughout the 19th century, the 1829 “Blue Back […]

See it Now: Columbus’s Book of Privileges

On January 5, 1502, prior to his fourth and final voyage to America, Christopher Columbus gathered several judges and notaries in his home in Seville to authorize the authentic copies of his archival collection of original documents through which Queen Isabella of Castille and her husband, King Ferdinand of Aragon, had granted titles, revenues, powers […]

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 […]

Mathew Carey (1760-1839), Philadelphia Publisher and Provocateur

(The following is a guest post by Julie Miller, early American specialist in the Manuscript Division.) Through the winter and spring of 1825, the Philadelphia publisher Mathew Carey sat for the painter John Neagle. On Feb. 1 he recorded in his diary: “His portrait appears a flattering one. If true, I am a better looking […]

We the People

Today we celebrate the 227th anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution in Philadelphia, Penn., which was ratified at the Constitutional Convention on Sept. 17, 1787. The Library recently released a series of interactive eBooks for tablets, including a set on the Constitution, which can be downloaded for free on iBooks. The new Library […]

Celebrating Hispanic Heritage: Feliz Cumpleaños, Hispanic Division

(Today is the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month, which is celebrated annually Sept. 15-Oct. 15. This year, the Library’s Hispanic Division marks its 75th anniversary. The following is an article from the July-August 2014 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine .) Dating back to the middle ages, the Library’s Hispanic world collections are the largest in […]

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, […]

Out of the Ashes

(The following is an article written by Guy Lamolinara, communications officer for the Center for the Book, featured in the September-October 2012 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine. Aug. 24 was the 200th anniversary of the burning of the Capitol building and the Library.) The story of the phoenix that rises triumphantly from its […]

Abraham Lincoln’s “Blind Memorandum”

(The following is a guest post by Michelle Krowl, a historian in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division.) Could George B. McClellan have become the seventeenth President of the United States? It certainly appeared to be a possibility as Abraham Lincoln assessed the military and political landscape of the United States in the summer of […]