Stravinsky the Comedian

Some really great theater can happen when opera composers play with the conventions of the genre.

In the comment section of the “What’s Opera Doc” post, Eph brought up a great bit in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Pinkerton, the brash American lieutenant  interrupts his aria almost mid phrase to offer his guest a drink of  Milk punch or Whiskey.  It’s a funny and surprising moment of reality, and reminded me of another, even more extreme example of arioso interruptus.

Stravinsky actually presses pause on an aria and then restarts it half an hour later.

In Act II, Scene 3 of The Rake’s Progress, Baba the Turk, the hero’s new wife, enters a plate smashing tirade of jealousy.  Literally plate smashing.  It’s in the score.  (“Scorned! Abused!”) In the middle of a ridiculously extended vocal candenza, Tom reaches the end of his nerves and plops his wig over her face, causing her to freeze in place, mid-aria.

[audio:|titles=Rake’s Progress Baba Before]

At the top of the next act, our now bankrupt hero’s properties are being auctioned off, including the still motionless Baba.  When this “unknown item” fetches the highest price by far, the auctioneer removes the wig and Baba springs to life, continuing the aria exactly where she left off a full 25 minutes earlier (depending on the length of intermission).  She continues her tirade, this time directed at the auction attendees. (“Sold! Annoyed!”)

[audio:|titles=Rake’s Progress Baba After]

That’s some pretty funny stuff.  (As opera goes.)  It should be pointed out that this opera was composed in 1948-1951, right around the juncture between modernism and post-modernism, which makes a lot of sense for those of you who for whom that sort of thing makes sense.  (See what I did there?)

(Excerpts from the London Digital recording with Riccardo Chailly and the London Sinfonietta.)


Feb 2010

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  1. 1

    You see interrupted songs more often, I think, in musical theater, which maybe lends itself to the device better than opera because song and speech are being juxtaposed all over the place already. For example, in My Fair Lady, Freddy is rhapsodizing about Eliza’s behavior at the race the day before, and just as he recalls her cry of “Move your bloomin’ …!” he’s interrupted by someone answering the door before he can complete the thought. (A particularly canny device, because the whole point of Freddy’s little bit of song there is to remind the audience where we last left that part of the story, and this gently nudges the audience to remember for themselves how the line ended and thus to remember the situation and Freddy’s foolish naivete.)

    A fairly common structural device in musicals is to sing a chorus or two of a song and then, without stopping for applause, have a short dialogue scene which wraps up the action of that scene and/or points ahead to what’s coming next. Meanwhile, the music of the song continues under the dialogue. That bit of dialogue business finished, we return to the song for one more chorus, or sometimes just a repeat of the last line or two. The reason for this: The end of a song gets applause, so it’s desirable to end the scene and the song at the same time so that the applause adds to the sense of conclusion of the scene and helps cover some of the transition to the next scene. Whereas the lamest way you can end a scene is to have the song end and then have maybe three or four lines of dialogue and then the scene ends. If your scene continues with more dialogue after the song, generally you need that dialogue to be substantial and significant, like a minute or more and containing some real plot, or it will come off as an anticlimax after the end of the song. So if the bit of dialogue you have isn’t important enough to stretch out to a minute or so, and you can’t cut it and you can’t place it before the song even starts, then what you can do is put it *within* the song.

    That’s not quite the same thing as what you’re talking about, as it’s not meant for comic effect — in fact, the writers are ardently hoping that it doesn’t call attention to itself as a device — but very similar in terms of structure.

    Another favorite interruption of mine from musical theater: In the act two opening number of The Most Happy Fella, the chorus number is abruptly interrupted in the middle of a phrase, the lights change, everybody on stage freezes except for two characters, and these two characters sing what they’re thinking about while everybody else is having a good time. Their music is completely different in mood, tempo, rhythm, everything — where the chorus is lively and joyful, their duet is brooding and anguished. Then they finish, the lighting changes back, and the chorus resumes its lively number in midphrase exactly where it left off.

    So what Loesser has there is a song actually being interrupted by a whole other song. And not for comedy, either — the effect is to make vivid these two people’s unhappiness in the middle of a crowd that’s celebrating. It’s a powerful moment.

  2. 2

    Here’s a favorite interruption of mine from opera: In the ORIGINAL version of Ariadne auf Naxos, in Zerbinetta’s big showpiece, at one point the orchestra crescendos to the point where it drowns her out, you can’t hear her singing her line. Zerbinetta gestures impatiently to the conductor in the pit to get him to quiet them down. The orchestra gets quieter, Zerbinetta gestures her approval, and she continues. Unfortunately when Strauss and von Hofmannsthal revised the opera, they shortened the showpiece and dropped this little moment of silliness.

    There’s a lovely joke of the same sort in Haydn’s 60th symphony: The last movement begins with a lively theme, but after a few measures there’s suddenly a terrible dissonance. The conductor stops the orchestra and has all the strings check their tuning. The pair of violins that is found to be incorrectly tuned then plays the offending note while tuning it, so you hear it slide up a half step. Then the movement starts over from the beginning and continues without further mishap. All this — the orchestra stopping, the tuning of the strings up a half step — is carefully written out in Haydn’s score.

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