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Narrative Discussion of Pieces

A rambling commentary on lesser-known operatic repertoire, mentioning most of the pieces offered here as well as recommending several that aren't.

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NOTE: The label "in progress" should not be taken too literally. It means simply that the piece has been started but hasn't been finished. Whether it is seeing any actual progress is another matter....

For Soprano


I don't even remember why I first set the music for "I dreamt that I dwelt in marble halls". It has been by far the most popular piece on this site. I encountered the aria by way of the opera, but its following is overwhelmingly in the non-opera world. It's a pleasant song, but not particularly "operatic". Among professional singers, it may be of interest to a soprano who is called upon to sing an aria in English, but who doesn't care for 20th century music nor Purcell.

The soprano repertoire is fairly well explored, so there isn't an abundance of pieces in need of republication, but there are a few. Of these, the one I've set is "Adieu, mon doux rivage", which is very popular among those sopranos who know it but, inexplicably, remains relatively unknown. Aside from being a beautiful aria, it sits nicely in the middle ground between "light" and "heavy" repertoire. It has a slow lyric line with calls for a fuller, richer sound than you get in the chirpy leggiero rep, but at the same time it doesn't require the sort of weight that listeners want to hear in, say, Puccini. Also, although there are a few high notes, the tessitura sits lower than usual for the sort of arias given to "light" sopranos.

There is an expectation that, within the soprano range, lighter voices must sit higher and heavier voices must sit lower. Those individuals whose voices are an exception to this pattern are at a disadvantage if they don't seek out a slightly off-center repertoire better suited to them. (The other alternative for such sopranos is to call themselves mezzos instead, but that also has its problems....) "Adieu" is by no means the only one in this category, but it is one more -- and it's in French.


The most obvious gap in the soprano anthologies is "Comme autrefois" from Bizet's Les Pêcheurs des Perles. Why this didn't make it into the new Schirmer anthology, I have no idea: every soprano seems to want to sing it. I assume it's published as a separate piece by someone somewhere, but most sopranos I know continue to use photocopies from that dreadful Kalmus score. I've got the music entered on file, but I've never gotten around to the tedious work of cleaning it up. My friend has been bugging me to finish this one for years.

Another surprising absence is the popular "Ebben? Ne andrò lontana" from Catalani's La Wally. This is in the Ricordi anthology, but for some reason hasn't been picked up elsewhere.

Some other soprano arias that interest me are a bit more obscure. Most are problematic in one way or another, but they're great enough to warrant more exposure. "Bruits lointains" from Massé's Paul et Virginie is a stunning grand aria, featuring a little bit of everything in terms of range and style. I'm sure it's difficult to pull off, but for polished and versatile singer it could be a tremendous concert piece. Another stunning but obscure aria is "Der Freund ist dein" from Goldmark's Die Königin von Saba, which requires a female chorus to accompany. "Regarde-les ces yeux" from Massenet's Esclarmonde is a little better-known, and a favorite among listeners who know it. It has an intensely emotional story and some dramatic leaps in range. Another aria worthy of interest, but absent in any anthology that I know, is "Depuis le jour", from Charpentier's Louise.

Some others I've started work on, for various reasons. A few of these are essentially usable now, but they lack the sort of polish I like to give a piece before releasing it publicly. "O mio babbino caro" is readily available elsewhere, but I set it when someone once wanted transposed. When I was studying Lakmé, I set the two non-coloratura arias, both of which are quite nice (though often the sort of soprano who gets cast for her exquisite Bell Song does a rather mediocre job of the slower numbers). "Filomena abandonata" from Haydn's Orfeo is something a colleague once asked me for. It's a difficult aria with a huge range and a lot of coloratura. She needed a piano reduction for it, which as far as I know has never been published.

Outside of the opera repertoire, one lovely piece I've encountered is Eva dell'Acqua's "Villanelle". It's a charming little show piece for a light coloratura (with a lot of high notes, but some low range also). Sumi Jo has frequently sung it in concert, though I don't think it's on any of her recordings.

I've also taken an interest in some humorous songs loosely related to classical singing, including Victor Herbert's popular "Art is calling to me", better known by its refrain "I want to be a prima donna-donna-donna". Another like this is Friml's "The dawn of love", which may well have been in earnest when written but lends itself very well to an exaggerated campy interpretation.

For Mezzo-Soprano, Alto and Contralto


My main focus in publishing has been music for mezzos, partly because I love the mezzo voice and I have so many friends who are mezzos, and partly because the mezzo repertoire is so neglected nowadays. Sometimes my friends complain to me, "There's no good rep for mezzos." This is false, of course -- even among the commonly published (and commonly performed) material, there's quite a bit of good music -- but on the other hand, they do have a point: It does seem like all you ever hear is the same old Mozarts, Rossinis, and Carmens (all good, but overdone) plus a few bland trouser-role songs. Where are the mezzo's "Sempre libera", "Vissi d'arte", and Queen of the Night arias? Must the good arias always be for soprano? Surely there must be something more.

And in fact, there is, but you have to dig around a little to find it. Part of the problem is fashion. For the past 50 years, Verdi and Puccini have been very in, and French romantics have been very out. Verdi wrote a couple of fabulous mezzo roles, but they're all for a big dramatic voice which most ordinary mezzos either aren't ready for or will never be right for. Puccini hardly wrote for mezzo at all.

The French, on the other hand, wrote abundantly for mezzo throughout the 19th century (as did the Russians). One of the best things any mezzo can do is get a hold of an anthology published about a hundred years ago, because it will be full of great arias. (The two to look for are by John Church (Opera Songs, book 2), and the Schirmer anthology edited by Max Spicker.)

Among the best of these, included in both anthologies, are two arias by Gounod which I've published here. "O ma lyre immortelle", from Gounod's first opera, Sapho, has all the makings of a concert favorite -- which indeed it once was. Theatrically, it is maximally dramatic (in 19th century Paris, the grandest divas were mezzos), while at the same time musically it remains beautifully lyric. Along the same lines, less the histrionics, is "Nuit resplendissante", from the obscure Cinq-Mars. This, in my opinion, is the single most beautiful aria in all of opera, for any voice part.


A few others which I have no serious plans to publish are as worthy as anything in the current rep, if not more so. I'll take this opportunity to recommend them to mezzos who want to go scrounging in the nearest library:

For the mezzo with good agility and upper range, I like the brindisi in Massé's Galathée. It's not very profound, but it has a fun story (like Perichole, she experiences intoxication for the first time), and makes a charming little showpiece. I know this one is in the John Church book, and it may be in Spicker as well.

For an accomplished mezzo who can handle almost anything there is "Il m'aime / Espoir charmant", the lengthy grand aria from Maillart's Les Dragons de Villars. The story of the opera is rather vapid, but the music is the apex of Paris's great opéra comique era. For a mezzo diva eager to show off, I know no better vehicle. This one can be found in the current Peters anthology (titled "sopran", but including several mezzo pieces as well), where it is printed in German, albeit with a few minor errors and without the fancier versions of the cadenzas.

Another excellent showpiece, less flashy and more misterioso, is "Ferme les yeux" from Massenet's Le Roi de Lahore. It is predominantly quiet, with two contrasting sections -- a slow part with lots of luscious murmury low notes, and a fast part with delicate leggiero turns -- and toward the end it becomes big and expansive. These contrasts also make it an excellent audition aria.

Another potential audition piece which I've discovered is "Was das Leben ist" from Korngold's Die Tote Stadt. This is a very short excerpt, from the beginning of the opera, barely long enough to qualify as an aria. It is nevertheless stunningly beautiful, equal to the more famous excerpts (ie, Pierrot's Tanzlied for baritone, and the "Glück, das mir verblieb" duet often sung as a soprano solo). If you're in a situation where you expect you'll only be allowed to sing 16 bars, this arietta is the perfect way to pack all the power of late romantic opera into a short excerpt.

Outside of opera, two mezzo solos I like are the "Urlicht" from Mahler's 2nd symphony, and "On the field of the dead" from Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky. Both are rich and beautiful solos, centered in the low-middle range, the latter more sorrowful than the former. More than most pieces, the Mahler loses something when the accompaniment is reduced for piano, but it's still a lovely voice part. I'm told that a piano-vocal version has been published, but I had written my own reduction before I knew about it. Perhaps some day I'll finish it up. The Prokofiev is under copyright protection, so I can't do anything with that one.


Friends who know that I'm a bit of a Puccini devotee sometimes ask me if it's really true that Puccini wrote nothing for mezzo. It's not quite true, but almost. Frugola's arietta in Il Tabarro I find uninteresting as a solo piece. The Zia Principessa in Suor Angelica, really a contralto part, has nothing excerptable. The rest, like Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, are ensemble roles only.

Puccini basically didn't like mezzos, so once he knew how, he stopped writing for them. To find Puccini music that a mezzo can sing, you have to go to the music he wrote before he really knew what he was doing. The only substantial mezzo role in Puccini is Tigrana in Edgar. Even she is rather confused, as Puccini wrote several revisions to the opera, tailored to different singers, at least one of whom was really a soprano. Tigrana is an interesting character -- sort of a Carmen type -- but in the final version, nothing she sings is easily excerpted.

Tigrana's great aria -- "La coppa è simbol della vita", where she leads the chorus in a thundering drinking song -- was cut in the course of revisions. Perusing the music, one can sort of see why. It is extremely demanding of the singer, calling for full volume at both extremes of a mezzo's range, with none of the helpful writing or rests that an experienced composer learns to give to the singer. One can imagine how, in the course of the entire opera, this aria could be a voice-killer. In concert, on the other hand, it is achievable, by the sort of mezzo who takes on a role like Azucena. Musically, it is glorious, especially with a big boisterous chorus.

The other Puccini mezzo aria that intrigues me, "Se come voi piccina" from Le Villi, isn't intended for mezzo at all. It is written instead for the soprano. While the role (Anna) in its entirety is undeniably soprano, this particular aria is rather ambiguous. A few bars definitely call for a soprano voice, but there are also lengthy sections that sit in the low-middle range where a typical mezzo can sing them more beautifully than a typical soprano can. The result is that the aria can only be really effective by a not-so-typical singer who can display the best qualities of both soprano and mezzo.

My assessment of the piece is that for a soprano the problem is the overall tessitura, whereas for a mezzo the only problem is a handful of troublesome passages. With that in mind, I've considered writing a slightly revised version intended specifically for mezzo. But it turned out to be not so easy to make the changes smoothly, so the project was never finished. (In its unaltered form, the aria is published in a small collection titled "Early Puccini for Soprano", including five arias from Villi and Edgar.)


The first two of these belong in the "available" category.

The "O du mein holder Abendstern" on these pages is the product of an inspiration I had one day. It occurred to me that the famous baritone aria would sound fabulous if sung by a low contralto voice. Transposition required a little bit of tweaking in the accompaniment.

"Chi disprezza gl'infelici" is a novelty aria by Rossini in which the entire vocal part is written on a single note. Rossini's setting is crafted ingeniously, so that it sounds almost convincing. If one isn't paying attention, and if the singer sings with sufficient conviction, one could hear quite a bit of this aria before realizing that it is, literally, monotonous. I think it would be delightful to insert this into a recital program for novelty's sake.

"O bella mia" is an aria/quartet from Giordano's Siberia. The rest of the opera is all right, though not a lost masterpiece, but this one ensemble is gorgeous and deserves to be heard in concert. Given my personal fondness for the mezzo voice, and the great improbability of gathering four baritones together for one recital, I decided to focus on the somewhat lesser improbability of collecting four mezzos together. (I have, in fact, attended a recital of three mezzos.) Toward that end, I have rearranged the piece somewhat -- partly to accommodate the higher range, but mostly to adapt for concert presentation, including passing the melody from voice to voice, as is popular in those "three-tenors" type programs.

This work is essentially finished, lacking only some minor busy-work to make the piece ready for publication. If I were to hear of four mezzos looking for something to sing together, I would surely finish it up in a hurry. One or more of the parts could easily be taken by a soprano. In the original casting, the voices are two baritones, a tenor, and a bass. But the tenor never goes very high, and what little range distinction there was for the bass I have blurred further by crossing up the parts a bit.

For Tenor

For tenors there is an abundance of material and a relative lack of singers for it, so there's little point in looking for more repertoire. Most of my attention to the tenor rep has been as a result of writing transpositions. If I want to try out a song in different keys, it's easier to do it from a page written in the new key.

The one piece I actually finished, "Una furtiva lagrima", was for someone else. (He wanted it transposed up!) In the original key, this aria is available virtually everywhere, so I wouldn't expect much demand for it here. I did get one order for it, though, perhaps from someone outside of the opera community.

I have several others on file as a result of transposing them for myself. They aren't published because I only prep them enough to try them out myself, which is a much lower standard of legibility than what I want for publishing. Two of these are also ubiquitous: "Che gelida manina" and "La donna è mobile". Most of the rest are from the light French repertoire. The only one of potential interest is "Deserto in terra" from Donizetti's Dom Sébastien. That's a beautiful aria, and I recommend it to any tenor who has high C's to burn. (I set it to see if it worked well transposed down into my own range: It didn't.)

The one tenor aria that really calls out to be published is the song of the Indian merchant from Rimsky-Korsakov's Sadko. It's an immensely popular tune, and not just among tenors. A readable edition, with an intelligent transcription of the Russian, would be useful. I kind of like the other two merchant songs, too, for baritone and bass.

For Baritone and Bass

I've paid very little attention to the baritone rep, except to notice that Pierrot's Tanzlied, from Korngold's Die Tote Stadt, is a very popular aria which isn't in any anthology. Presumably this is due to the fact that it only recent came out of copyright protection. I assume it's published as a separate piece somewhere.

I do keep an eye out for good arias for low bass. The standard repertoire has little to offer a true bass. So much of it is for dramatic bass-baritone, with both style and high notes that many basses would rather do without. As a result we see the same few arias over and over. Some of them are good; others not so much.

I offered "Sciagurato! in van tu tenti" primarily as an audition piece for novice basses looking for something respectable but manageable other than the Sarastro arias, but more accomplished basses might also like to learn it. It's not a show-stopper, but it's a good aria, with some nice low notes. More fun than, say, "Vecchia zimarra" or "O Isis und Osiris".

Two other lesser known arias, not here, which I recommend to low basses are "Il mio piano è preparato" from Rossini's La Gazza Ladra and the Zipperlein aria from Nessler's Der Trompeter von Säckingen. Both have a few E's but mostly sit lower in the staff. Both are essentially buffo, but in different ways. The first is a lively bel canto, with all the frills one expects from Rossini, including coloratura (yes, coloratura basso!) and a patter section. I like it much better than similar Rossini bass arias which turn up out of force of habit. (Sure, Barbiere is more familiar than Gazza Ladra, but not because of Bartolo's aria.) The Nessler is a deliciously wry concert aria, which combines a lot of beautiful music with some witty and subtle character acting. It also shows off plenty of low notes.

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January 29, 2002