Aretha Franklin Takes Over for an Ailing Luciano Pavarotti & Sings Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” at the Grammys (1998)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one:

When the star is unable to perform, a talented underdog is plucked from the chorus and thrown into the spotlight with just minutes to prepare…

It’s a crowd pleasing plot, one that occasionally plays out in real life, as it did at the 1998 Grammy Awards, above.

The twist was that the underdog role went to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, pinch-hitting for her friend, operatic superstar, Luciano Pavarotti, benched by a sore throat at the zero hour.

Given the nature of the event, the Radio City Music Hall audience probably wouldn’t have minded had the planned programming been scrapped in favor of "Respect," "Natural Woman," or any number of tunes Franklin can crush without batting an eyelash.

Instead, she stuck with “Nessun Dorma,” the famous final act opener from Giacomo Puccini’s Turnadot. Never mind that it was Pavarotti’s signature aria, that the man had popularized it to such a degree that your average football hooligan could identify his voice from a recording. Over a billion viewers tuned in to catch it on 1994's Three Tenors special on TV, then rushed out to buy the subsequent live album, a rare crossover hit.

Franklin wasn’t totally green in the Puccini department. As master of ceremonies Sting informed the crowd, she’d performed the song two nights earlier at a fundraiser for MusiCares. Still, a fair amount of chutzpah was necessary.

Naturally, a handful of opera purists refused to fall under the spell, even when Franklin hit that celebrated high B, but they seem to comprise a minority.

Pavarotti, whom Sting presented with a living Legend Grammy immediately following Franklin’s performance, died in 2007.

As for that other Grammy legend, Franklin reprised “Nessun Dorma” for Pope Francis in Philadelphia last fall, again putting her personal stamp on it by switching from Italian to English midway through.

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- Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday

George Orwell’s 1984 Staged as an Opera: Watch Scenes from the 2005 Production in London

Should we have any doubt about the malleability of George Orwell’s dystopian 1948 novel 1984, we need look no further than its most recent, very loose incarnation in a coming film titled Equals, which Variety’s Peter Debruge writes “should resonate most with the arthouse-going segment of the ‘Twilight’ fanbase.” That’s not a description that fills me with hope for a film project that might have brought us a worthy update of Orwell’s classic, as relevant as ever in a world full of high-tech surveillance states, technologically-enabled post-factualism, and choose-your-own creeping totalitarian political scenarios. These are concerns that deserve, nay beg, for a mature cinematic treatment, and a sophisticated new film adaptation of 1984 might be just the thing we need to grasp the moment. Instead, we may have to settle for glossy, Orwell-esque teen romance.

On the other hand, we might consider what should presumably be a sophisticated treatment of the novel in a recent adaptation that premiered in 2005 at London’s Royal Opera house. Composed by New York Philharmonic conductor Lorin Maazel, with a libretto by poet and critic J.D. McClatchy and Tony-award winning writer Thomas Meehan, the 1984 opera would seem to offer much more than an entertaining diversion. The work is Maazel’s first production, and he told the BBC, “I found that once I got into the material I was very inspired, very motivated, by the breadth of the story, by the challenge of making this extraordinary novel come alive in a different frame and context.”

As Maazel points out, and as the coming Equals movie exploits, the novel’s plot does indeed turn on a romance, among other potentially theatrical elements. Maazel says he “found within [it] the true stuff of opera---doomed love affair, political intrigue---very much like Don Carlos, or Fidelio, or Tosca.” How successful were Maazel and his writers at translating the dark political plotting of the novel to the brightly-lit stage of the Royal Opera? Well, you’ll notice that the “Press Articles” section of the opera’s website is tellingly thin, perhaps because the critics were not kind to the production, many calling it a vanity project, given that Maazel had financed it himself (with a company called Big Brother Productions). Nonetheless, the New York Times praised the libretto as “an effective treatment of George Orwell’s complex and iconic novel” that honors Orwell’s “themes and characters,” though they found the music in general much less compelling.

Widespread critical disparagement did not seem to impact ticket sales, however; the performance nearly sold out for three nights in a row. Opera houses everywhere, struggling as they are to attract new audiences and patrons, may yet consider reviving the work for its popularity. In the meanwhile, curious fans of opera, the novel, or both, can purchase a DVD of the production and see several clips here. At the top of the post, hear the overture and below it, see the love duet of Winston (Simon Keenlyside) and Julia (Nancy Gustafson). Further down, hear audio of the hymn “All Hail Oceana,” and just above, see the production’s finale. Speakers of Italian may find this brief television segment on the production of interest as well. While neither Maazel’s ambitious opera nor the upcoming, very loose commercial film adaptation seem to offer the contemporary 1984 we need, I for one hold out hope for a treatment that can effectively crystalize our fraught political present and Orwell’s disturbingly imagined future.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

New Web Site, “The Opera Platform,” Lets You Watch La Traviata and Other First-Class Operas Free Online

la traviata
Click the image above to watch Verdi's La Traviata.

Opera has always had its appreciators, and fervent ones at that, but in recent decades the form has had to extend its appeal beyond its inner circle of die-hard fans. Some of these efforts, such as the Metropolitan Opera's high-definition broadcasts to movie theaters around the world, have proven surprisingly successful, encouraging the lowering of opera's barrier to entry. Now, thanks to a site called The Opera Platform, you don't have to go to a theater of any kind; you can watch full-length performances anywhere with an internet connection.

In order to promote itself as "the online destination for the promotion and enjoyment of opera" designed to "appeal equally to those who already love opera and to those who may be tempted to try it for the first time," The Opera Platform offers one "showcase opera" per month, viewable free, in full, with subtitles available in six different languages. It also provides a host of supplementary materials, including documentary and historical materials that put the month's featured opera in context.

"The Opera Platform is a partnership between Opera Europa, which represents opera companies and festivals; Arte, the Franco-German cultural broadcasting channel, and the participating opera companies," writes the New York Times' Michael Cooper. "It has a $4.5 million budget," Reuters reported, "with about half coming from the European Union’s cultural budget." So the site certainly has its resources in order, but what of its content?

The Opera Platform has come strong out of that particular gate with Verdi's La Traviata, produced at Madrid's Teatro Real, which you can watch for free until August 11. This tale of "the short and hectic life and tragic death of a high-society courtesan in 19th century Paris," as the site's notes put it, comes told through Verdi's "music of profound humanity" and the staging of famed Scottish opera director David McVicar, "who, with his usual elegance, sets the drama in a world of romantic references while retaining an up-to-date perspective."

Opera-lovers of previous generations could scarcely have imagined that technology would bring this degree of viewing convenience to their art form of choice. And now that The Opera Platform has got up and running, would-be opera-lovers have no excuse not to get into it, in the comfort of their own homes or anywhere else. And if you want to have some popcorn while you watch, go for it — nobody's going to shake their opera glasses at you.

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Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Gets Adapted Into an Avant-Garde Comic Opera

Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in CinemaFollow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Gets Adapted Into an Avant-Garde Comic Opera

Ludwig Wittgenstein, enfant terrible or idiot savant? A student of the great Bertrand Russell and protégé of renowned mathematician and logician Gottlob Frege, the angry young upstart’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus put both elder thinkers on notice: The days of their comfortable assumptions were numbered, in a series of austere, cryptic aphorisms and symbolic propositions that make very little sense to those of us who lack the prodigious intellects of Russell and Frege. While Wittgenstein is often dismissed, writes Paul Horwich at New York Times’ philosophy blog “The Stone,” as “self indulgently obscure,” perhaps the real reason many academic philosophers reject his work is that it renders them superfluous. Philosophy, Wittgenstein obliquely claimed in his half-mystical, hyper-logical treatise, “can’t give us the kind of knowledge generally regarded as its raison d’être.”

Given the Tractatus’s firebombing of an entire area of human endeavor, it’s no surprise it hasn’t fared well in many traditional departments, but that hasn’t stopped Wittgenstein’s work from finding purchase elsewhere, influencing modern artists like Jasper Johns, the Coen Brothers, and, not least surely, Finnish avant garde composer and musician M.A. Numminen.

This odd character, who caused a stir in the 60s by setting sex guides to music, took it upon himself to do the same for many of the Tractatus’s propositions, and the results are, well…. Listen for yourself. At the top of the post, we have video of Numminen performing the fifth and final movement of his Tractatus suite—the famous final proposition of that strange little book: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” (“Woven man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen”). Numminen sings this in German, in his high-pitched, creaking voice. The rest of the suite he sings in English. Just above, hear the first movement, “The World Is…,” and below, hear movements 2-4, “In Order To Tell…,” “A Thought Is…,” and “The General Form Of A Truth Function.” He even sings the symbols, in breathless transcription. You can stream and download the full suite at Ubuweb and follow along at the Tractatus hypertext here.



Should Numminen’s tinpan alley-like compositions strike you as a particularly ridiculous setting for Wittgenstein’s genius, fear not; the Motet below (“Excerota Tractati Logico-Philosophici”), by composer Elisabeth Lutyens, treats the eccentric German’s work with a great deal more reverence.

via Leiter Reports

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

J.S. Bach’s Comic Opera, “The Coffee Cantata,” Sings the Praises of the Great Stimulating Drink (1735)

From the time that a nameless genius in either Ethiopia or Yemen decided to dry, crush and strain water through a berry known for making goats nervous and jumpy, coffee has been loved and worshiped like few other beverages. Early Arab doctors proclaimed the stuff to be a miracle drug. Thoroughly caffeinated thinkers from Voltaire to Jonathan Swift to Jack Kerouac debated literature, philosophy and everything in between at coffee houses. Author Honoré Balzac even reportedly died because of excessive coffee drinking (it was either that or the syphilis.)

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was also apparently a coffee enthusiast. So much so that he wrote a composition about the beverage. Although known mostly for his liturgical music, his Coffee Cantata (AKA Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht, BWV 211) is a rare example of a secular work by the composer. The short comic opera was written (circa 1735) for a musical ensemble called The Collegium Musicum based in a storied Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, Germany. The whole cantata seems very much to have been written with the local audience in mind.

Coffee Cantata is about a young vivacious woman named Aria who loves coffee. Her killjoy father is, of course, dead set against his daughter having any kind of caffeinated fun. So he tries to ban her from the drink. Aria bitterly complains:

Father sir, but do not be so harsh!
If I couldn't, three times a day,
be allowed to drink my little cup of coffee,
in my anguish I will turn into
a shriveled-up roast goat.

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes,
more delicious than a thousand kisses,
milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
and, if someone wants to pamper me,
ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

The copywriters at Starbucks marketing department couldn’t have written it any better. Eventually, daughter and father reconcile when he agrees to have a guaranteed three cups of coffee a day written into her marriage contract. You can watch it in its entirety below, or get a quick taste above. The lyrics in German and English can be read here.

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow.

Space Jazz, a Sonic Sci-Fi Opera by L. Ron Hubbard, Featuring Chick Corea (1983)

The Church of Scientology has a number of fascinatingly distinctive characteristics, including but not limited to its foundation by a science-fiction novelist. That novelist, a certain L. Ron Hubbard, launched his religion in the America of the 1950s, a prosperous place in a Space Age decade when all things science-fictional enjoyed a perhaps unprecedented popularity. Another big mainstream sci-fi wave would wash over the country in the late 1970s and early 80s, when, as Nathan Rabin puts it at Slate, "thanks to the popularity of E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, space was the place and science fiction was the hottest genre around. Scientology wanted in, so an ambitious plan was hatched: Hubbard’s epic 1982 Battlefield Earth novel, to be followed by Space Jazz," an album containing a "sonic space opera" based on the novel. At the top of post, you can hear the track "Earth, My Beautiful Home," one of the project's few un-bombastic numbers, and one performed by a genuinely more-than-credible jazz pianist, Chick Corea

The Church of Scientology counts Corea as a member, as it then did another of Space Jazz's guest players, bassist (and Corea's Return to Forever bandmate) Stanley Clarke. This puts the album into the unusual class of works both written and performed by Scientologists, a group which also includes Battlefield Earth's much later, John Travolta-starring cinematic adaptation, now known as one of the most notable flops in film history. Rabin, in his article, also covers several other albums credited to Hubbard, including 1986's posthumous Mission Earth, recorded by multi-instrumentalist/Scientologist Edgar Winter, which he calls the only one "that could conceivably be played on the radio without prompting confused cries of, 'Why?' and 'What?' and 'Is this even music?'" Some say science fiction has undergone another boom in recent years, but alas, we still await the great Scientological concept album of the 21st century.

via Slate

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Experience Invisible Cities, an Innovative, Italo Calvino-Inspired Opera Staged in LA’s Union Station

The site specific opera Invisible Cities is up and running at LA's historic Union Station. Location aside, something in this original work demands that I subject it to the New York Magazine Approval Matrix I carry around in my mind. It's a snarky, quadfurcated rating system for the latest trends and happenings.

The phrase "based on an Italo Calvino novel" should guarantee it a spot in the Highbrow range.

Opera purists might consider the fact that ticket holders must rely on wireless headphones to get the full sound mix as reason enough to send this innovative work to the Despicable end of a "deliberately oversimplified guide to who falls where on our taste hierarchies." A philistine myself, I think matching wandering singers to an invisible live orchestra (they're sequestered in a nearby room) sounds Brilliant. It's as if a  silent disco and a flash mob mated, giving birth to a baby with impervious street cred and an incredible set of pipes. Here, have a listen...

Unlike the typical Improv Everywhere lark, the audience here is in on this gag. Though innocent passersby may wonder why various individuals are mooning around the terminal singing, Invisible Cities is a ticketed performance. Indeed, its popularity is such that the producers have needed to add extra free shows. Approval Matrix suggests it's time to hop a train to LA.

H/T Kim L.

via GigaOm

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Ayun Halliday dreams that her opera-hating 13-year-old son will one day consent to attend another free dress rehearsal at the Met, so that she can chaperone. Follow her @AyunHalliday

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