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The “Essential” Opera

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There are so many things about the upcoming Library of Congress exhibition, “A Night at the Opera,” that I feel personally connected to. Several of the operas highlighted in the 50-item display are like a program of operas I have sung in my last few seasons as part of The Washington Chorus.

Set design for Puccini’s “Turandot” by Galileo Chini. Music Division.

Each season, we usually do a program of “essential” compositions by a composer. And, in the past, we’ve highlighted the works of Giacomo Puccini and Richard Wagner – both maestros featured in the exhibition, which opens next Thursday.

On display for the first time in the exhibition is a colorful set design by Italian Art Nouveau artist Galileo Chini (1873-1956), created for the very first production of Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot” at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1926. I had the opportunity to sing this opera when the chorus included selections from all three acts as part of our “Essential Puccini” concert. The legend of a bloodthirsty princess whose icy, vengeful heart softens as she comes to know true love was brought to life with musical grandeur, with the chorus keeping pretty busy throughout, as Puccini wrote much for an accompanying ensemble.

“A Night at the Opera” also will commemorate Wagner’s bicentennial He was born in 1813. He’s actually one of my favorite composers, so being able to sing some of his works has been a particular treat. The exhibition features a holograph manuscript (in the composer’s own handwriting) score of his “Siegfried Tod,” from which the scheme for his four-opera cycle, “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” developed. Handwritten on the manuscript leaf amongst the music notes is “Walküren” or “Valkyries.” I actually had the opportunity to view this manuscript a couple of years ago and then sang selection’s from Wagner’s Ring Cycle, including “Ride of the Valkyries,” for another Washington Chorus program, the “Essential Wagner,” last season. So, you could say, things came full circle for me.

This original Wagner manuscript leaf shows an early sketch for his four-opera cycle “Der Ring des Nibelungen.” Photo by Abby Brack Lewis.

I just really love full, formidable and somewhat overwhelming music, and both of these operas have it in spades. And, the thing about both of them, too, is that even if you don’t know much about these operas or the genre itself, you’ve likely heard and are familiar with some of the music. That should make checking out the upcoming exhibition even better.

“A Night at the Opera” opens Thursday, Aug. 15, in the Performing Arts Reading Room. You can read more about it here.




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