Little Bits of History


Posted in History by patriciahysell on February 24, 2013
Claudio Monteverdi

Claudio Monteverdi

February 24, 1607: L’Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi premieres. The production was also called La Favola d’Orfeo or The Legend of Orpheus and is considered to be one of the earliest works recognized as an opera. Monteverdi wrote the music and Alessandro Striggio wrote the text to be presented at the annual carnival of Mantua. The opera was published in Paris in 1609 and had a modern debut in 1904. During its 400th anniversary year, the opera was performed around the world. The 5 act production tells the tale of the Greek myth of Orpheus and starred Giovanni Gualberto Magli in the 1607 production.

Monteverdi was born in Northern Italy in 1567. He was trained by Marc’Antonia Ingegnari, a singing master, at the Cathedral of Cremona. He wrote his first music for publication in 1582. His first works were motets and madrigals. He is credited with moving music away from the Renaissance Era and into the Baroque Period. He was famous in his own time and became wealthy from his music. He composed nine books of madrigals, perfecting the form. He composed at least 18 operas but only 3 survive in their entirety. He also wrote other types of music sparingly. He died at the age of 76.

Opera itself is a mix of music and theater. Nobles in Florence, Italy attempted to recreate the ancient Greek theater with some added music to the dramatic performances at the end of the 16th century. They went from reciting the play with background music to actually singing the play. They were not attempting to create anything new. Then came Monteverdi. He expanded the idea and added the aria, the high point of an opera where the performer can show off technique as well as giving emotional depth to the story.

Opera was the popular music of the era with the aria being the chart-topping hit song. The form spread across Europe. But even as it spread, it was considered to be the art form of Italy and many early operas were written in Italian. Soon special venues were built – the great opera houses. Christoph Gluck, a German in Vienna, changed the face of opera in 1762 – emphasizing the drama of the piece and tightening the performance. Eventually there were Italian, German, French, Spanish, and Russian operas. The form continues to develop with modern composers.

“I don’t mind what language an opera is sung in so long as it is a language I don’t understand.” – Sir Edward Appleton

“Opera is when a guy gets stabbed in the back and, instead of bleeding, he sings.” – Ed Gardner

“People are wrong when they say that the opera isn’t what it used to be. It is what it used to be. That’s what’s wrong with it.” – Noel Coward

“When an opera star sings her head off, she usually improves her appearance.” – Victor Borge

This article first appeared at in 2010. Editor’s update: Opera houses are theatrical buildings consstructed with the special needs of operas in mind. They contain the stage and seating area along with backstage areas for the cast and crew. They also have an orchestra pit for the musicians. Many of these buildings were separate spaces, but they can also be part of a larger performing arts center. The first opera house was built in Venice, Italy. It was called the Teatro San Cassiano and opened in 1637. They are generally larger than other venues with seating for more than 1,000. Some of the larger houses built in the 1800s had seating for 1,500 to 3,000. The Metropolitan Opera in New York City seats 3,800. The structure is also created with performances in mind and sounds are moved more easily due to the method of building the stage area.

Also on this day: Smile – In 1938, DuPont created a nylon-bristle toothbrush.
Murder, She Wrote – In 1981, Jean Harris was convicted of murder.
Religious Persecution – In 303, the new sect, Christians, were the subject of a Roman edict.


Posted in History by patriciahysell on February 17, 2012

Giacomo Puccini

February 17, 1904: Madame Butterfly, an opera by Giacomo Puccini, premieres at La Scala in Milan. Puccini was born in Tuscany to a family with generations of musicians. He became a church organist and choir master. He and his brother walked 18.5 miles to see Verdi’s Aida performed in Pisa. Puccini was so impressed, he decided to become an opera composer. At age 21 he received financial help and was able to study at the Milan Conservatory with Amilcare Ponchielli and Antonio Bazzini.

While still at the Conservatory, Puccini wrote a Messa or Catholic Mass for his native Lucca church. While most famous for his operas – he wrote ten – he also composed orchestral pieces, chamber music, songs for voice and piano, and the aforementioned sacred music. His style has been seen as lacking “seriousness.” His work was popular without pretension. He used arias to advantage but strung them together with a more continuous flow. He also broke with tradition and his operas were not all placed solely in Italy.

Madame Butterfly was based on two previous works – short story “Madame Butterfly” (1898) by John Luther Long and novel Madame Chrysanthème (1887) by Pierre Loti. Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa penned the Italian libretto. The two-act opera opened at La Scala – one of the world’s most famous opera houses. The lead roles were presented by soprano Rosina Storchio, tenor Giovanni Zenatello, and baritone Giuseppe De Luca – all famous at the time. The opera was poorly received, in part due to rushed work and not enough rehearsal time.

Puccini reworked the opera and split it into three acts. The opera opened a second time on May 28, 1904 and became a huge success. Puccini also wrote Lâ Bohème (opened in 1896) and Tosca (opened 1900). Madame Butterfly, set in Nagasaki, Japan, is the tale of a young woman betrayed by the man she loves. Madame Butterfly is presented around the world and is the most performed opera in the US. Many recordings and adaptations have been produced in the more than 100 years since Cio-Cio San first took the stage.

Of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive. – Moliere

The opera is like a husband with a foreign title – expensive to support, hard to understand and therefore a supreme social challenge. – Cleveland Amory

Opera in English is, in the main, about as sensible as baseball in Italian. – Henry Louis Mencken

Going to the opera, like getting drunk, is a sin that carries its own punishment with it. – Hannah Moore

Also on this day:

H L Hunley – In 1864, the first successful sinking of a ship by a submarine.
Newsweek – In 1933, Newsweek was first published.
Miles Standish – In 1621, Miles Standish was appointed first commander of Plymouth colony.