April 19, 1949: Send In the Clowns

russianWith the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over the world, cold war adversaries were nonetheless able to find glimmers of humor. At the opening night of the Moscow Circus, noted Russian clown, Konsantin Berman, demonstrated who had the upper hand in the clown cold war, launching barb after barb in the direction of the United States.

Tossing a boomerang, he likened it to the U.S. Marshall Plan that was pumping economic recovery aid into Western Europe. “American aid to Europe,” he said, “Here is the dollar.” as the boomerang returned to his hand, delighting the audience. Producing a radio that bellowed out the sound of barking dogs, he announced: “That’s the Voice of America.”

Meanwhile American clowns were dumping buckets of water on each other and slipping on banana peels.

Speaking of Banana Peels

The Vagabond King a 1925 operetta by Rudolf Frimi was already an American success when it opened in London on April 19, 1927.  It’s success in England was probably assured given its theme of foibles of the French.  Its hero is a braggart, thief and rabble-rouser who attempts to steal an aristocratic lady from the king himself.  Not only that, he openly mocks the king, boasting about what he would do if he were king.  The angry king gives him royal powers for 24 hours — king for a day — during which he must solve all France’s problems or go to the gallows (the guillotine had not yet been invented).  He succeeds, wins the lady’s hand and lives happily ever after in exile — probably in England.  The operetta was the inspiration for a couple of movies and, of course, the popular radio and television program “Queen for a Day.”

 

Food is an important part of a balanced diet. ― Fran Lebowitz

 

April 1, 1903: The Tenor Nose

Fabrio Abruzzi was born in a village near Milan in 1883. The Abruzzi family was quite poor with Fabrio’s father cobbling together their existence as a shoemaker. Almost from the time Fabrio could walk, he was put to work pounding leather for his father. He was a nice boy (the villagers lovingly called him bambino brutto) and he was hard-working although his mind would wander and he frequently distracted himself by singing popular Italian folk songs.

As a child, he always had a pleasant singing voice and when, as a teenager, his voice changed, it became a magnificent tenor voice. Fate smiled on Fabrio. A LaScala impresario happened through the village and heard the young man sing as he pounded leather. He took Fabrio under his wings, coached him extensively and on April 1, 1903, scheduled his debut as the principal tenor in Puccini’s Euripedes et Copernica.

On the day of his performance, he prepared himself (as many leading singers of the day did) by forcing lumps of pancetta up each nostril of his nose to lubricate the nasal passages (he had a magnificent Roman nose). Unfortunately, the pancetta became wedged there and he was forced to go on stage with it still in place. Things looked bad. Fabrio did not sound like a magnificent tenor; his voice was stuffy and nasal. The audience was growing restless with the need to toss tomatoes (which Italians always brought with them to the opera). Fortunately, the famous aria ti amo mortadella comes early in the first act. It’s a robust piece and Fabrio gave it his all, thereby dislodging the pancetta and hurtling meaty projectiles through the air. One put a crack in the second violinist’s Stradavarius; the other slammed into the conductor’s forehead, causing him to lead the orchestra off into an unrestrained allegro punctuated by several tomatoes to the back of his head.

But Fabrio was a success. He went on to have a short but illustrious career and was known throughout Italy as voce bellissima brutte facce.

And of course April 1 is . . .

spaghetti238The first day of April marks the beginning of the annual spaghetti harvest in parts of Europe, those happy days when family farmers go forth into their groves and carefully hand pick the strands from their spaghetti trees. They don’t, of course. The spaghetti harvest was one of the great April Fools Day hoaxes, all the better for having been aired on the venerable BBC television network. A BBC cameraman dreamed up the story after remembering how teachers at his school in Austria had teased his classmates for being so stupid that if they were told that spaghetti grew on trees, they would believe it.

Aired in 1957, the report showed a family in southern Switzerland as they gathered a bumper spaghetti harvest after a mild winter and the “virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil.” Footage of a traditional “Harvest Festival” was included along with a discussion of the breeding necessary to develop a strain that produced spaghetti of the perfect length.

Pasta was not a readily available product in England at the time, and Brits were primarily familiar with canned spaghetti in tomato sauce (think Franco-American).  An estimated eight million people watched the program, and hundreds phoned in the following day, some to question the authenticity of the story but many to ask for more information about how they could grow their own spaghetti trees. The BBC reportedly told them to “place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”

 

What fools these mortals be. — Seneca

March 18, 1902: Italian Tenors Are a Lire a Dozen

Tenor Enrico Caruso recorded ten arias for the Gramophone & Typewriter Company in Milan, Italy. He was paid 100 pounds sterling, and was not required to do any typing. These acoustic recordings, recorded in a hotel room on March 18, 1902, created a win-win situation for both Caruso and the Gramophone Company. The gramophone, and its flat circular discs, quickly became victorious in the recording competition, besting both Thomas Edison’s phonograph cylinders and eight-track tapes. The gramophone recordings became best-sellers, helping to spread the 29-year-old Caruso’s fame.

Caruso was signed by London’s Royal Opera House for a season of appearances in eight different operas ranging from Verdi’s Aida to Don Giovanni by Mozart. His successful debut at Covent Garden occurred just two months after his recording session. The following year, Caruso traveled to New York City to take up a contract with the Metropolitan Opera.

By 1920, Caruso had made nearly 300 recordings. His 1904 recording of “Vesti la giubba” from Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci was the first sound recording to sell a million copies. All of these recordings are available today on CD, as digital downloads, and in garages throughout the world on eight-track tapes.

 

Ivan Was Probably a Baritone

Ivan IV Vasileyevich, known to his friends as Ivan the Terrible, died in 1584 while engaged in a particularly wicked game of chess. He rose to prominence, and some might say infamy, as the Grand Prince of Moscow a position he held from 1533 to 1547, when he declared himself the first ever Tsar of All the Russias, a title he held until his death. He was succeeded by his son, Feodor the Not So Terrible.

Historians disagree on the exact nature of his enigmatic personality. He was described as intelligent and devout, yet paranoid and given to rages, episodic outbreaks of mental instability, and late-night tweet storms.

He was also know as Ivan the Fearsome but is not to be confused with Ivan the Gorilla.

 

March 14, 1885: Nanki-Poo and the Nattering Nabob

Gilbert and Sullivan’s most famous work The Mikado premiered in London in 1885. It almost didn’t happen. A year earlier, Arthur Sullivan, whining about his precarious health and a Mikadodesire to devote himself to more serious music, told W.S. Gilbert that he couldn’t bring himself to do another piece of the kind the two had previously written. Gilbert was surprised to hear of Sullivan’s qualms, having started work on a new opera in which people fell in love against their wills after taking a magic lozenge. Gilbert wrote Sullivan asking him to reconsider, but the composer replied that he was through with such operas. Gilbert, after much whining of his own, persuaded Sullivan by promising a plot in which no supernatural element occurs “. . . a consistent plot, free from anachronisms, constructed in perfect good faith and to the best of my ability.”

The Mikado was born. With a setting in Japan, an exotic locale far away from Britain, Gilbert was able to poke fun at British politics and institutions by disguising them as Japanese and, with Sullivan’s music, create one of the greatest comic operas, featuring such characters as Nanki-Poo, the wandering minstrel; Yum-Yum, Nanki-Poo’s love, Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner; and Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else.  This is the origin of the word poo-bah — a pretty important person, a high muckety-muck, nabob, honcho, Donald Trump.

 

November 29, 1924: Don’t Shoot the Soprano

Giacomo Puccini, who died on November 29, 1924, was a giant in Italian opera, unrivaled in orchestration and a sense of theater. Passion, sensuality, tenderness, pathos and despair infused such operas as Manon Lescaut, La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, and Turandot.

Tosca was one of Puccini’s greatest operas, but it seems to have taken on a bit of a curse, like that Scottish play whose title shall not be uttered in the theater. More things have evidently gone awry in Tosca than in any other opera.tosca  A few vivid examples:

Exit Stage Left . . . Exit Damnit: In Act II of a performance of Tosca featuring Maria Callas in the title role, Tosca stabs her tormentor Scarpia, and then leaves the stage. After doing the deed, Callas who suffered from myopia but couldn’t wear contact lenses wandered the stage, unable to find her way out. Baritone Tito Gobbi, our Scarpia, while lying dead, tried to discreetly point out the exit, but started laughing so much that both his laughing and his pointing were obvious to the audience. The next morning, newspapers raved about his memorable portrayal of Scarpia’s death.

They Shoot Divas, Don’t They?: In another performance, a firing squad is called upon to execute Tosca’s lover Mario in the final act. The players were instructed to enter and shoot the person they found onstage, and then to exit with the principals. But when the players got onstage, they discovered two people and didn’t know which one to shoot. They aimed at one then the other as both principals said not to shoot them. They finally chose Tosca, but when they shot her, Mario keeled over dead. They stood there, further bewildered; they had been told to exit with the principals but neither of the principals were exiting. Mario remained lifeless while Tosca tried to shoo them away. Finally, when Tosca jumped to her death from the castle parapet, they seized the opportunity to exit with at least one principal, and they jumped after her, adding immeasurably to the tragedy.

Follow the Bouncing Diva: Tosca’s leap to her death  from the parapet of the Castel Sant’Angelo is the dramatic conclusion to the opera. Various methods have been employed to keep the jumping soprano safe; usually a mattress does the trick. In a Lyric Opera of Chicago performance,  stage hands replaced the usual mattress with a trampoline to provide added safety for a British soprano. They also added some unintended encores as Tosca bounced back into view several times.

 

One thing kids like is to be tricked. For instance, I was going to take my little nephew to Disneyland, but instead I drove him to an old burned-out warehouse. ‘Oh, no,’ I said, ‘Disneyland burned down.’ He cried and cried, but I think that deep down he thought it was a pretty good joke. I started to drive over to the real Disneyland, but it was getting pretty late. — Jack Handey

 

November 2, 1887: Ode to a Nightingale

Wild and crazy entrepreneur, P.T. Barnum was known for bringing audiences such high-brow entertainers as Tom Thumb, the Feejee

Jenny Lind (50-kronorssedel)
Jenny Lind (50-kronorssedel)

Mermaid, and Zip the Pinhead. As he said, “Nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the taste of the American public.” and “There’s a sucker born every minute.” But Barnum went all respectable in 1850 when he booked one of the most celebrated singers in Europe, the Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind, for a series of 150 American performances. Without even hearing her sing, Barnum contracted to pay her an amazing $1,000 per performance.

Born Johanna Maria Lind in 1820, Jenny became famous in Sweden and throughout Europe during the 1840s. She was still  pretty much unknown in the United States, but that was about to change as Barnum put his promotional prowess to work. “A visit from such a woman who regards her artistic powers as a gift from Heaven and who helps the afflicted and distressed will be a blessing to America. It is her intrinsic worth of heart and delicacy of mind that produces Jenny’s vocal potency.”

Barnum’s relentless publicity made her a celebrity before she even arrived. As a result of what the press called Lind Mania, her initial appearances were in such demand that Barnum auctioned tickets. Her tour was such a rousing success that, after just a handful of performances, she renegotiated her contract with Barnum, with him willingly giving her a percentage of ticket sales in addition to her original payment per performance. He still cleared close to a half million dollars himself.

For her part, Jenny found Barnum’s over-the-top commercial promotion of her distasteful, and they parted ways in 1851, though still on friendly terms. She continued touring in the U.S. until May 1852. By the time she left for home, she had reached super-stardom here, and her performances had established opera as a lasting form of entertainment in the U.S.

Jenny Lind died on November 2, 1887.

Inspiration for 11/2/16

bush

October 22, 1883: When the Fat Lady Sang

In April of 1880, a group of 22 men met at New York’s Delmonico’s restaurant. These were men of considerable wealth – Morgans, Vanderbilts, Roosevelts – nineteenth century industrialists, bankers, operaand builders.  Nevertheless, they were men excluded from the inner circles of the One Percent, because they were not “old money”: they were the nouveau riche, “brazen new money.” They met that April with the goal of upsetting the Big Apple cart.

The Academy of Music opera house was the opera venue in New York City; subscribers to its limited number of private boxes represented the highest stratum in New York society.  And it was a place where the old money families had circled the upper crust wagons. Tired of being excluded, the insurrectionists at Delmonico’s determined to build a new opera house that would outshine the old Academy in every way. The new theater would include three tiers of private boxes in which New York’s powerful new industrial families could flaunt their wealth and reinforce their social prominence. Their vision became reality on October 22, 1883, when the Metropolitan Opera opened for business with a production of Gounod’s Faust.

The Academy of Music’s opera season folded just three years after the Met opened.  The building became a vaudeville house.

One hundred and thirty years later, The Metropolitan Opera is the largest classical music organization in North America, presenting more than two dozen operas each year in a season which lasts from late September through May. The operas are presented in a rotating repertory schedule with four different works staged each week. Several operas are presented in new productions each season, while the balance are revivals of productions from previous seasons — in all, over 200 performances in a season.

And today’s audiences are a blend of old money, new money and no money at all.

Inspirational Quote for 10/22/16

jmartin

 

August 31, 1928: Look Out for Lotte Lenya

THREE_PENNY_OPERAWith music by Kurt Weill and words by Bertolt Brecht, Die Dreigoschenoper premiered in Berlin in 1928. By 1933, when Brecht and Weill were forced to leave Germany, the musical comedy which offers a socialist view of a capitalist world had been translated into 18 languages and performed more than 10,000 times. We of course are more familiar with the English title, The Threepenny Opera.

And we’re mostly familiar with the opening song which has been sung by practically everyone, most notably, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald in a grammy-winning performance, and Bobby Darin who made it the top song of 1959 – “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer” (“The Ballad of Mack the Knife”). The song was added just before the premiere, when the actor playing Macheath threatened to quit if his character did not receive an introduction.

At the beginning of the play, we meet Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, a London entrepreneur who runs the city’s begging operation, training the beggars and taking a nice chunk of their earnings. He is the perfect capitalist, a man who today would work for Goldman Sachs.

But Peachum has problems: his grown daughter Polly did not return home the previous night, and Peachum fears she has been misbehaving, and worse still, misbehaving with the ne’er-do-well Macheath.  Peachum does what any worried father would do – he determines to thwart this budding relationship by taking away her cell phone and having her paramour hanged.

Fade to Macheath who is preparing to marry Polly once his gang has stolen her trousseau. After the gang has stolen some food and a table, and they all enjoy a wedding banquet. Polly entertains with a charming little song about a maid who becomes a pirate queen and executes her former bosses and customers. The Chief of Police, Tiger Brown, joins the party. It seems he had served with Macheath during the wars and had, over the years, exerted his influence to keep Macheath out of jail. He and Macheath sing. Polly returns home and lays the fact that she has married Macheath on her parents who are not amused. She sings a charming little song advising them to go fuck themselves, bringing the first act to a conclusion.

In Act Two, Polly warns Macheath that her father is gunning for British bear and that he must leave London. He agrees and leaves his gang in Polly’s hands. On his way out of town, Macheath stops at his favorite brothel, where he sees his ex-lover, Jenny. They sing a charming little song (“Pimp’s Ballad”) about their days together, but (the plot having thickened) Jenny has been bribed by Mrs Peachum to turn him in. Despite Brown’s apologies, he’s powerless and must drag Macheath away to jail. Macheath sings a charming little song about his life being over.   Another girlfriend, Lucy (Brown’s daughter) and Polly arrive at the same time from stage right and stage left, respectively.  A nasty argument ensues and together they sing a charming little duet about scratching each other’s eyes out. After Polly leaves, Lucy engineers Macheath’s escape, bringing the act to a tidy conclusion.

In Act Three, Jenny selfishly demands her money for the betrayal of Macheath, which Mrs Peachum refuses to pay.  Jenny nevertheless reveals that Macheath is at Suky Tawdry’s house, and he is once again arrested. Back in jail and scheduled to be executed, Macheath desperately tries to raise the bribe money to get out again, even as the gallows are being erected.  But no one comes to his aid, and Macheath prepares to die.  He laments his fate in a charming little song.  But what’s this? A deus ex machina enters stage left. Peachum announces that in this opera mercy will prevail over justice, and in a parody of a happy ending, a messenger from the Queen arrives to pardon Macheath and grant him a title, a castle and a pension. The play then ends with a plea that wrongdoing not be punished too harshly as life is harsh enough.

October 22, 1883: When the Fat Lady Sang

In April of 1880, a group of 22 men met at New York’s Delmonico’s restaurant. These were men of considerable wealth – Morgans, Vanderbilts, Roosevelts – nineteenth century industrialists, bankers, operaand builders.  Nevertheless, they were men excluded from the inner circles of the One Percent, because they were not “old money”: they were the nouveau riche, “brazen new money.” They met that April with the goal of upsetting the Big Apple cart.

The Academy of Music opera house was the opera venue in New York City; subscribers to its limited number of private boxes represented the highest stratum in New York society.  And it was a place where the old money families had circled the upper crust wagons. Tired of being excluded, the insurrectionists at Delmonico’s determined to build a new opera house that would outshine the old Academy in every way. The new theater would include three tiers of private boxes in which New York’s powerful new industrial families could flaunt their wealth and reinforce their social prominence. Their vision became reality on October 22, 1883, when the Metropolitan Opera opened for business with a production of Gounod’s Faust.

The Academy of Music’s opera season folded just three years after the Met opened.  The building became a vaudeville house.

One hundred and thirty years later, The Metropolitan Opera is the largest classical music organization in North America, presenting more than two dozen operas each year in a season which lasts from late September through May. The operas are presented in a rotating repertory schedule with four different works staged each week. Several operas are presented in new productions each season, while the balance are revivals of productions from previous seasons — in all, over 200 performances in a season.

And today’s audiences are a blend of old money, new money and no money at all.

 

September 2, 1969: A Hole in the Wall

One_Armed_BanditCustomers lined up outside Chemical Bank in Rockville Center, New York, on September 2, 1969, to try their luck at the new one-armed bandit that was generously dispensing cash. They quickly realized that this was not a traditional slot machine finally making its way into New York. It was much more dependable at handing out its goodies than the gambling machine that had preceded it by a good 80 years. The new device was called an automated teller machine (ATM) or banking machine or cash machine. (In Britain, they call it a hole in the wall.) This new contraption did have one drawback; it required customers to have money in the bank in order to withdraw it.

lockhornsA similar device had appeared in London a couple of years earlier, the brainchild of an inventor who, while soaking in the tub imagined a vending machine that dispensed cash instead of chocolate bars.

Today there are well over a million ATMs located in holes in the wall practically everywhere. In some places, they’re conveniently right alongside one-armed bandits.

 

Folks can’t carry around money in their pocket. They’ve got to go to an ATM machine, and they’ve got to pay a few dollars to get their own dollars out of the machine. Who ever thought you’d pay cash to get cash? That’s where we’ve gotten to.  — Bill Janklow

 

September 2, 1935

“I think the music is so marvelous, I don’t believe I wrote it,” said George Gershwin as he signed his name to the 700-page completed orchestral score of the opera, Porgy and Bess on September 2, 1935. Critics pretty much agreed, calling it the first and finest American opera.

In February 1934, George and Ira Gershwin along with DuBose and Dorothy Heyward began their collaboration on a libretto, songs, and music for DuBose Heyward’s novel, Porgy, about African American life in the fictitious Catfish Row (based on the real-life Cabbage Row) in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early 1920s.

porgy1During the summer of 1934, Gershwin spent several weeks at the Heyward’s beach cottage on Folly Island off the coast of Charleston, observing local customs and music, and joining in such rituals as “shouting” which involved rhythms created by hands and feet as accompaniment to spirituals.

The play opened at the end of September in Boston and early October in New York . The cast included the Juilliard-trained singers Anne Brown as Bess and Ruby Elzy as Serena; Todd Duncan, a Howard University music professor as Porgy; and vaudevillian John W. Bubbles as Sportin’ Life. The music, a brilliant synthesis of jazz, blues, and folk elements, has found a permanent spot in the American folk and popular repertoire – “I’ve Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,” “Bess, You is My Woman Now,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “Summertime.”

The play had a Washington D.C. run, during which Todd Duncan led the cast in a strike to protest the National Theater’s segregation policy, saying they would never play in a theater that barred them from purchasing tickets to certain seats because of race. Theater management gave in to this demand and for the first time an integrated audience attended the National Theater.

West Coast engagements proved a financial disaster, and the play folded, languishing in the United States for many years, while remaining popular in Europe and the Soviet Union. A complete production was not mounted on an American stage again until 1976, when the Houston Grand Opera staged a critically acclaimed revival.  In 1985, fifty years after its Broadway premier, the “folk opera” was performed by New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and has since become a permanent fixture in the American opera repertoire.