background notes by David Sander with costume sketches from the show
World War I and the Christmas Truce of 1914
Now approaching its centenary, World War I scarcely receives the same attention as its more atrocious and deadlier younger sibling. Yet the conflict’s position in history reveals a horrific change in modern warfare tactics that must have shocked and overwhelmed its participants.Previously, Western Europe had enjoyed an unprecedented 43-year period of relative peace. The last major clash had been between France and Prussia in 1870–71, instigated by the former, but provoked by the latter over the succession of the Spanish crown to a Hohenzollern heir. Since the Napoleonic wars, the Germans had been engaged in a massive land-grab, acquiring Schleswig-Holstein in 1864; Hesse, Hanover and Mecklenburg in 1867; Bavaria in 1871; and the Alsace and Lorraine districts following the French defeat. It was at this point Wilhelm I appointed himself Emperor of the Second Reich.
The Kaiser’s rise in prominence attracted the attention of England’s Queen Victoria, who in the process of arranging royal matches for her litter of children, chose Wilhelm’s son, the Crown Prince Frederick, for her oldest daughter “Vicky.” Sadly, the heirs apparent would only enjoy a short time in the spotlight as Frederick died in the first year of his reign, leaving the empire to his son Wilhelm II. Through other dynastic marriages, the new Kaiser found himself first cousins to George V of England, Nicholas II of Russia and various heads of state as Victoria’s other children would make similar matches. Danish King Christian IX likewise became “father-in-law” to Europe through the marriages or successions of his four children. This close bloodline would cast an uneasy pale over the Great War that was to come.
Following the Franco-Prussian War, politics on the Continent continued to sour. France, Austria and Denmark would never get over their strategic and territorial losses. Austria found some solace in assimilating the Balkan nations of Bosnia and Herzegovina, an action supported by the diplomatically sympathetic Germans, while angering the other Balkan nations, Serbia in particular. Russia had the recent unpleasant memory of losing a war in the Crimea (1853–56) fought against Turkey, France and Britain. Nonetheless, an eventual alliance was made between the three unlikely comrades who now feared a newly unified Germany’s menacing power. Britain, in particular, was drawn out of historical isolationism after seeing Russia’s disastrous defeat in the Russo-Japanese war in 1905, knowing France would need at least one functional ally.
For all his bluster, Wilhelm II was terrified of the shift in balance of power, for his only treaty was with Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, a relationship that had been tested by his grandfather in the 1866 war between the two countries. In an unexpected tactical move, when the young Kaiser inherited his empire, he foolishly dismissed the new Reich’s architect, Otto von Bismarck. Through duplicity, diplomacy and guile, the former chancellor had carefully engineered the map of Europe to Germany’s advantage. Wilhelm preferred a more direct approach and embraced the “Schlieffen Plan,” a remarkably detailed and audacious top-secret preparation to invade France through Belgium and the Alsace-Lorraine (to be fair, France had a similar Plan XVII designed to retake its conquered provinces). The army could be sustained by Germany’s vastly superior and government-controlled railway system, giving the initiative enough manpower and artillery to capture Paris in 39 days. Attention could then be shifted to the east, as it would take the third entente member, Russia, at least that long to marshal its forces, thereby avoiding a war on two fronts.
Wilhelm found his opportunity when the heir to the Austrian Empire, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife were fatally shot on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo, Bosnia, by a member of the Serbian radical group, the Black Hand (the anarchists had already successfully murdered the king and queen of Serbia in 1903). He privately urged the archduke’s uncle, Franz Joseph, to take decisive action. When a list of unrealistic demands to investigate the matter was rejected (actually the Serbian government agreed to all but a few points), Austria recalled its ambassador and declared war within the month. The resulting conflict in the remote Balkans was hardly a concern for greater Europe, but all the treaties were triggered into action. Russia was honor-bound to defend Serbia and entered the war on its behalf. Wilhelm was obligated to fight on Austria’s side, and to justify the protection of Germany’s own borders in East Prussia, he seized the opportunity to initiate the Schlieffen Plan against Russia and its allies. On August 4, 1914, the Germans invaded Belgium and headed toward France. As this action was a violation of Belgian neutrality, Britain was obliged to enter the war, against strong opposition.
The Schlieffen Plan was largely an intellectual exercise and didn’t account for a fair amount of Belgian resistance or British involvement. Nonetheless, in a few months the Germans found themselves entrenched on the French border. A war that was supposed to be over in six weeks had stalemated by December. Part of the problem was the increased lethality of industrialized nations. Nineteenth-century warfare had been a gentlemanly undertaking, where major battles would be decided in just a few days. In the four-decade gap since the last skirmish, both sides had significantly developed the velocity and range of artillery, which now included bolt action rifles, Howitzers, machine guns and tanks. Cavalry, cannons and bayonet runs were replaced by large, black, ear-splitting siege guns (christened “Black Berthas,” after the Krupp bomb manufacturing heiress) that yielded nitrate incendiary devices, capable of killing more soldiers with greater force, as did the subsequent introduction of unpredictable, toxic chlorine gas. In trenches that ran from the English Channel to Switzerland, both sides dug in their heals for a subterranean war of attrition and endured hideous conditions – cold, moisture, mud, vermin, barbed wire, bombs and bullets – as well as a range of new illnesses coined “shellshock” and “trench foot.”
By December, Pope Benedict XV called for a cessation of hostilities for the holiday season, and both sides were ready for a break in the unanticipated carnage. Acceptable military code allowed for small armistices during the course of a war (for meals and to bury the dead), and fraternization with the enemy, though discouraged, had occurred as recently as the Crimean, Civil and Franco-Prussian wars. “Tommy” and “Fritz” could put aside obligatory nationalism to see their opponents as regular guys forced into combat by ambitious superiors. Given Britain’s strong German ties, many soldiers had actually worked in England and spoke English. Saxons and Anglo-Saxons had a shared ancestry, and most of the other Germans were Bavarian, Hessian and Westphalian reservists rather than soldiers of the Prussian elite – those were sent to the eastern front to defend their native lands. It was not uncommon for lower-grade officers to also participate in these proceedings, though some shrewdly left it to the enlisted men, believing the casual exchange might lead to useful intelligence from the other side of No Man’s Land.
Still, an official Christmas truce in 1914 was out-of-the-question, yet contrary to popular belief, there were many of them up and down the lines. The British had received care packages from King George’s daughter, Princess Mary, containing tobacco and chocolate, and the Germans were given cigars, beer and Tannenbäume from 32-year-old Kronprinz Wilhelm (who actually commanded the Fifth Army in the Argonne). Interactions varied from singing holiday songs back-and-forth between the trenches to actual cease-fires with both sides meeting on the battlefield, sharing a smoke and exchanging rations. One had to be careful not to get too close to enemy territory, for some soldiers were taken prisoner if they gained any knowledge of positions or weaponry. Many of the British were perplexed by the appearance of the candle-lit trees over the makeshift bunkers and the kind spirits of the Germans – these were, after all, the same people who had brutally invaded Belgium with little regard for civilian life or property. Nonetheless, if they kept the conversation light and didn’t discuss the war, conviviality could be maintained.
Once part of the proud Napoleonic Grande Armée until La Débâcle (their defeat to the Prussians), the French soldiers were a little more hesitant to be cordial, given Germany’s aggressive history toward their country, with its siege and land seizure just 40 years earlier, and at present at the edge of France with the intent to recapture Paris. With the spirit of revanche, their camaraderie was not nearly on the same scale as the British. As one recorded, “You would not find the French and Germans exchanging cigarettes, I think, even if it were the morning of Judgment Day.” (In contrast, one rather ungrateful French soldier remarked to a German, “Beat those Britishers. We have no use for them.”) Though there were short agreements to lay down arms in order to take care of the dead (many of whom had been putrefying on the battlefield for weeks), after the task was completed, the animosity on both sides only grew.
Experiences varied from place to place. In some cases, wild animals were shot, roasted and shared, and football games (American soccer) allegedly took place on Christmas Day (though the shell-pitted battlefield may have presented somewhat of a challenge). Two famous opera singers were recognized singing at the front. Incidents of haircuts, juggling and backwards bicycling were reported, and newspapers were exchanged as the Germans believed theirs were filled with lies. Many thought of extending the armistice to Boxing Day (December 26) or all the way to the New Year. Photos were taken and letters of disbelief were sent home detailing the unusual circumstances – several found their way into the English and German periodicals alongside reports of their adversaries’ barbarity. When hostilities did resume, it was with reluctance, and the conflict was slow to achieve its original pitch.
Naturally, when news reached headquarters of these unofficial armistices, the high command was not pleased, but retribution was relatively lax. Though anti-fraternization is key to the success of any soldier, there was still a sense of wartime chivalry and few court-marshals were conducted, only a stern warning not to do it again. Many units were redeployed as it was believed they would not fight with the same voracity now that they had met the enemy face-to-face.
There was more talk about a truce the following Christmas. Some veiled attempts – songs in trenches and casualty burials – did occur but nothing to the degree as what had been experienced one year earlier. The war had taken on a harsher tone of inhumanity with a greater intensity of slaughter. Soldiers had witnessed the menacing effects of poisonous gas, Zeppelin and airplane bombings and submarine warfare, now tainted by the sinking of the Lusitania, an event that further damaged Germany’s image in the world view (particularly by the Americans, who lost over 100 citizens in the almost 2,000 civilian deaths). In spite of these gruesome engagements, all with high casualties, the battle front was fairly static until the entrance of the United States in 1917. By then, Russia had been consumed by civil unrest, and Austria was secretly suing for peace with France. Finally, by November 11, 1918, Germany came to grips with its folly and surrendered unconditionally.
In the end, the Schlieffen Plan ultimately failed. So promising at first, the maneuver had underestimated Paris’ garrison and the tenacity of its people, supply-and-demand problems at the invasion’s western-most flank, unreliable communication to forward positions and the earlier-than-anticipated mobilization of Russian troops in the east. The war redrew the map of Europe, costing millions of lives and the end of three empires while laying the groundwork for an even deadlier and more grotesque conflict just two decades later.
Early in the War to End All Wars, a 25-year-old lance corporal had narrowly escaped death in the first battle of Ypres on the Belgian border. He vehemently declined to participate in the Christmas Truce that followed and was devastated by Second Reich’s loss nearly four years later. Embittered, a wildly patriotic Adolf Hitler set in motion his dangerous course for an apocalyptic new world order.
Music Monday with Mary
Stories surrounding the opera, Silent Night.
“Will ye go tae Flanders” is a traditional Scottish folksong from the beginning of the 18th century. In the version below, photos of the unspeakable horror of the WW I battlefields in and around Ypres (“Ieper” in Flemish) and Passchendale are shown so quickly that one can barely keep up with the details. The sadness, the waste, the unspeakable horror of what happened in Belgium…a country that has such a long history of being invaded and devastated.
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Minnesota Opera’s New Works Initiative production of Silent Night by Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell is set mainly in “the bunkers of a battlefield near the French-Belgian border around Christmas, 1914.” The libretto, an adaptation of the French film Joyeux Noël, is a compilation of true stories, all of which occurred wholly or in part, during the various Christmas truces of 1914. In December of 2010, I traveled to northern France and Belgium in order to find out more about the locations of the truces, hoping to see some of them with my own eyes. As luck would have it, I was able to contact a battlefield tour guide who is a specialist on the Christmas truce, and was one of the consultants for the BBC documentary The Christmas Truce.
I was in Texas, rather desperately sending emails to all of the battlefield guides for that area, knowing that I would arrive in France in a few days, and wanted to make sure I found the right person. Sending as many emails as possible was a bit of a “Hail Mary” pass into cyberspace. Two days before my flight, I awoke in the middle of the night and went online. “Dear Mary, I am Annette Linthout. I am the person you need for your battlefield tour.” She went on to explain that she and her husband, Christian Delplace, had a B & B near Ypres, Belgium, the site of some of the Christmas truces, and that she was an expert in the subject. Not knowing much more than that, I told my trusty friend and travel companion Margaret P. to get ready for an adventure. We met in Normandy and a few days later were on the train for Lille, France, where Christian had arranged to pick us up.
To be honest, I did not even know where Ypres was . . . just that it was somewhere north of the French border. I was not aware of its proud and sad history. My eyes were opened by this two day trip and I found the key to unlock many of the questions I had about the Christmas truce as it related to Silent Night. When Annette told me in her next emails that she would outline a battlefield tour that included the sites of the Bruce Bairnsfather truce, Hill 60, the museum of Ypres and sites in France near Fromelles and Frelinghen, I had to take her word that this was what I was looking for. And it was!
There followed two intense days of visits to truce sites, discussion with archivists in the museums in Ypres and Messen, an amazing moment in the Menin Gate memorial while three buglers played The Last Post, a visit to the Irish Peace Project, a chance meeting with archeologist Martin Brown as he led the team to excavate trenches in frozen fields, and hours of discussions about the Christmas truces. Where did they take place, what do they mean for us today?
I will explore several of these themes in subsequent posts. Below is a very important scene from the film Joyeux Noël. This is a key scene in our opera, Silent Night. It is December 24, 1914. The weary and wounded soldiers from Scotland, France and Germany are in their cold, wet trenches, trying not to think too much about Christmas celebrations taking place in their respective homes all over Europe. Suddenly, music is heard across No Man’s Land. A German opera singer, now a soldier, starts to sing along with the bagpipes of Father Palmer, a Scottish pastor. Barely daring to believe that they are making music together, they eventually crawl to the edges of the trenches. The Scots and French see the small Christmas trees (Flammenschwert) that Germans have sent to their soldiers and that are now posed on top of the trench walls. These trees, with lit candles, frighten the opposing soldiers at first. They did not know what a Christmas tree was, this was a German tradition. Some soldiers thought it was a new kind of weapon, or some kind of trick. However, the German opera singer, Nicholas Sprink, who will be played by American tenor William Burden, takes his courage in his heart and crawls out of the trench, walking into No Man’s Land with the tree held high, singing a Christmas song. Gradually the other soldiers venture out of their trenches to meet him, and the Christmas Truce of 1914 has begun.
There are two real stories of opera singers in the trenches during Christmas 1914. Our character, Sprink, is based upon the German heldentenor, Walther Kirschhoff, who was not enlisted, but was sent by the Crown Prince to the German trenches to entertain the troops for Christmas Eve. A soldier on the opposing side recognized the famous tenor’s voice, and started to applaud. This began an exchange which resulted in Kirschhoff climbing up to the top of the trench to see who was applauding him, and a truce began.
Another operatic tenor who was an enlisted soldier started a Christmas truce on his part of the front. This was Victor Granier of the Paris Opera. German soldiers, the Wurttembergers of the 246th Reserve Regiment of Infantry filed their official report as follows: “Was it possible? Were the French really going to leave us in peace today, Christmas Eve? Then from across the way came the sound of a festive song – a Frenchman was singing a Christmas carol with a marvelous tenor voice. Everyone lay still, listening in the quiet of the night. Was it our imagination or is it maybe meant to lull us into a false sense of security? Or was it in fact the victory of God’s love over all human conflict?”
In my next blog post, I will show you my photos of the Christmas truce site near Ypres, the famous “Bruce Bairnsfather” site, and tell you his story. For now, I leave you with one more clip from a dramatization of the Christmas truce. This is a version without music from the film Oh, What a Lovely War.
Minnesota Opera’s Silent Night premieres November 12, 2011, and runs through November 20. For tickets please call the box office at 612-333-6669 or go online to mnopera.org.
Music Monday with Mary
There is a heightened sense of excitement here at Minnesota Opera as we finish up our lauded performances of Mozart’s Così fan tutte. In just one week, we will start rehearsals for our long-awaited world premiere of Silent Night, Minnesota Opera’s newly commissioned opera by American composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell.
This opera captured my imagination as soon as Dale Johnson told me about it. I have been reading as much as I can find about the Christmas truces of 1914. And please note that I do mean “truces”. I was astonished to find out just how large this pacifistic movement was on the Western Front in Europe…stretching from the coast of Belgium to Switzerland. As luck would have it, I was also able to visit authentic locations of the truces that inspired the French film producer Christian Carion to create his movie, Joyeux Noël, whose screenplay was the basis for Mark Campbell’s libretto. Carion is from northern France and, although the battle scenes of his film were shot in Romania, he was astonished at how his crew was able to recreate the visage of his “pays”….his region of France. In the next blogs, I will post some of my photos of the locations of the Christmas truces in Belgium and northern France. I will also tell you some of the true background stories that inspired our opera’s libretto.
However, this week, I would like to continue my little series of book reviews! I have found a wealth of material about World War I, and specifically about the Christmas truces. No doubt many of you will want to do some background reading, either before or after you see our production of Silent Night. So here are just a few selected volumes concerning this vast subject.
First of all, a book to explain the Christmas truce to children.
The Best Christmas Present in the World by Michael Morpurgo, published by Egmont for ages 4-8. Echoes of Christmas 1914 in the trenches call to the present day when a letter found by chance in an antique desk brings one soldier’s experience hauntingly to life. Heart-warming and spine-tingling, this is a perfect story to curl up with on a winter’s night. It is beautifully illustrated by Michael Foreman. British author Michael Morpurgo has written more than forty books and won the Whitbread Award, the Smarties Award, the Circle of Gold Award, the Children’s Book Award and has been short-listed for the Carnegie Medal four times.
Silent Night: The Story of the WW I Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub, a Plume book published by Penguin Putnam, Inc. This book is being read in the Twin Cities by several groups who are also coming to our production of “Silent Night”, and I will be presenting lectures of background information about the opera, including many photographs of the truces and the truce sites. Weintraub’s book also discusses what might have happened if the fighting had stopped in December 1914 in the Chapter 7 “What If -?”. The following phrase from page 174 resonates in our opera’s theme. “Although the unchanged reality of war is that the shots ordered by increasingly remote presences are absorbed by ordinary humans, Christmas 1914 reopened imaginations to the unsettling truth that at each end of the rifle, men were indeed the same.”
Another marvelous book is Christmas Truce: The Western Front, December 1914 by Malcom Brown & Shirley Seaton, Pan Grand Strategy Series. This was one of the earliest books on this subject, first published in 1984. It is written from the British point of view, and contains some excellent illustrations. The miracle of the truce and the shameful facts of the remainder of the war years, when men were ordered to kill each other while encased in thousands of miles of trenches in Western Europe, are also well told by these historians. On page xxv, Brown writes: “Conan Doyle’s phrase, indeed, sums up the attraction of the truce: it is the human dimension which means that this relatively obscure event in the fifth month of a fifty-two-month war is still remembered and will continue to catch the imagination.”
The next book on my list, by Alan Wakefield, is about various truces during the whole of World War I, lest we think that 1914 was the only year when the soldiers stopped fighting at the end of December. This book is Christmas in the Trenches, from Sutton Publishing. It contains many fascinating illustrations and talks about Christmas truces and celebrations from 1914 through 1918. The book is fascinating because it also talks about Christmas celebrations on other fronts, for instance in East Africa, Salonika, Macedonia, etc.
I will end with another book which I find particularly touching. Meet at Dawn, Unarmed: Captain Robert Hamilton’s account of Trench Warfare and the Christmas Truce in 1914 by Andrew Hamilton and Alan Reed, published by Dene House Publishing in the UK. In 1980, Andrew Hamilton found his grandfather’s marvelously detailed leather-bound diaries, kept from 1913-1950. The diary from August 5, 1914, to January 12, 1915, had been typed out and bound. Andrew Hamilton was a history teacher and was excited to find material he could use for his lessons on the Great War. One of the highlights of the diary was Robert Hamilton’s account of the Christmas truce.
Although there seem to be a number of books specifically devoted to the Christmas truce, there are even more than on this list, including some in French and one in German. And accounts of these truces are found in many of the books and documents on WW I. There are also a number of blog sites specifically for the Christmas truce and reenactments of the truce.
Read and come to see our opera! The opening night is November 12, 2011!
Mondays With Mary
Fortunate enough to work in Salzburg every summer during the Salzburg Festspiele, this year I heard a magnificent master class for singers and pianists by pianist Alfred Brendel. That led me to purchase a book that I recommend to all of you, entitled Alfred Brendel On Music: His Collected Essays, published by Chicago Review Press. Brendel is as witty as he is profound. Reading him is as delightful as is hearing him speak. As we prepare one of Mozart’s great operas, Così fan tutte, I give you below a few of Brendel’s thoughts on the master.
“Mozart is made neither of porcelain, nor of marble, nor of sugar. The cute Mozart, the perfumed Mozart, the permanently ecstatic Mozart, the ‘touch-me-not’ Mozart, the sentimentally bloated Mozart must all be avoided. . . . Mozart was not a flower child. His rhythm is neither weak nor vague. Even the tiniest, softest tone has backbone. Mozart may dream now and then, but his rhythm stays awake. . . Let us never lose sight of the humanity of this music, even when it gives itself an official and general air. The umimpeachability of his form is always balanced by the palpability of his sound, the miracle of his sound mixtures, the resoluteness of his energy, the living spirit, the heartbeat, the unsentimental warmth of his feeling.” (Alfred Brendel, ” A Mozart Player Gives Himself Advice”).
Combining Mozart’s magical, masterful music with the wit and wisdom of the libretto by the scandalous genius, Da Ponte, results in the basis for Minnesota Opera’s beautiful production of Così fan tutte. It has long been an opera that combines everything that we love about musical theatre….comic, absurd, tragic, profound, mysterious!
We are looking forward to seeing you in the audience at the Ordway, starting September 24! Tickets may be purchased online at mnopera.org, or by calling the Minnesota Opera Ticket Office, 612-333-6669.
Monday Music with Mary
Welcome back to posts with Mary! I am Mary Dibbern, Head of Music at Minnesota Opera and starting my third season with this amazing company. I spent the summer in my second home in Paris, France, where I gave a recital with the lovely couple Edmundas Seilius, tenor, and Kristina Zmailaite, soprano, from Vilnius, Lithuania. We performed excerpts from their newly released CD of art song duets by Massenet, as well as excerpts from Massenet’s Manon. At the same time, my book Manon: A Performance Guide was released from Pendragon Press (New York). My other recital offering was in Normandy, performing French vocal and instrumental music with baritone Kurt Ollmann, tenor William Lavonis and French violinist Marion Larigaudrie.
Mary Dibbern accompanies baritone Kurt Ollmann at the Atelier de la Main d’Or Concert Hall in Paris, France
A highlight of that concert was the first performance of my edition of Jacques Leguerney’s Sonata for piano and violin, soon to be published by Musik Fabrik. Another project was teaching at the University of Miami in Salzburg, Austria. During two weeks there, I heard many offerings from the Salzburger Festspiele, including the “Notturno for Baritone and String Quartet” by Othmar Schoeck, with Matthias Goerne and the Belcea Quartet. This Quartet is one of the most sensitive and sophisticated I have ever heard.
And speaking of sensitivity and passion, this week I heard the MPR Artist-in-Residence, violinist Chad Hoopes. More musical, more passionate, more moving ….one cannot find. He is from Minnesota and gives us one more reason to be proud of living and working here. The arts in Minnesota are flourishing! Come back next Monday to read some insider stories about Minnesota Opera’s season opener, Mozart and Da Ponte’s Così fan tutte.
Watch Chad Hoopes on CBS
Clinton Smith Interview
Clinton Smith is in his third season with Minnesota Opera’s Resident Artist Program as assistant/cover conductor and chorus master. It was a delight to interview him a few days ago as he prepares to make his professional conducting debut. Please join us at the Ordway for this 2pm performance of La traviata, the last in our series of eight performances!
MD You will conduct a performance of Verdi’s La traviata on for Minnesota Opera at the Ordway in St. Paul on March 13. In what way is this a first for you?
CS This will be the first time I have conducted a professional orchestra! Every other orchestra I have conducted up to now has been a civic group, a volunteer group, except for Michigan Opera Theatre Orchestra, but a church hired them, so in a way, it does not count. This is a true professional debut for me! And I know it could be a risk for Dale Johnson and Floyd Anderson to give me this opportunity, so I am very grateful to them for their trust.
MD What do you think has led to this feeling of trust in you?
CS I think the system here is the right one. I came into the Resident Artist Program as a pianist. I worked very hard, learning a lot of repertoire, including many arias for the various auditions. It was sink or swim and I realized very quickly what I needed to learn immediately, and what I would be learning later.
MD And you have been with a lot of different guest conductors in the past three years! You have seen so many ways of conducting and working!
CS Yes, I have seen many rehearsal styles, or ways of communicating with singers. There was a time in the rehearsal for La traviata where the coordination was lost between the singers and the orchestra. I might have said to the singers at that moment: “You are ahead of me.” But Maestro Christie said: “I just don’t feel it that quickly.” What an eloquent way to express his interpretation of what had just happened! It shows what a classy guy he is! He does not let egos get in the way, or take things personally, which I very much admire. And I see what a good relationship he has established with the singers.
MD What are you expecting from your experience of conducting a performance on March 13?
CS I feel ready! I know that the time I have put in at Minnesota Opera so far has made a difference. I would not have been ready for this when I first came, or even a year ago. I feel very secure in my relationship with the players. I have been working with them to help in the pit and in the rehearsals. We have a good rapport, and they have even been asking me: “When are you conducting?” I think they will be excited for me, and be on their toes! I know when I look out over them, it will be great to feel that I know everybody.
MD Did you have the same feeling of rapport with the players when you conducted La boheme in Michigan in 2007?
CS I did in a way….my confidence was high, basically because I was too inexperienced to understand how complicated it was! I was thrown into conducting La boheme with little rehearsal, although I convinced my teacher, Martin Katz, to let me conduct a little bit of the dress rehearsal, and a minimal amount in some orchestral rehearsals. So I feel that, if I was able to jump in and do a performance four years ago, I can certainly do one now, even though I realize this is a different level.
MD How are you practicing to prepare for this upcoming La traviata performance?
CS As I sit in rehearsals, I conduct it mentally while picturing the layout of the players.
MD Do you feel that kind of preparation gives you the more or less automatic coordination that you need as a conductor for this piece?
CS Yes, when conducting, you cannot be searching in the score. If you are totally present to what the singer needs, everything else must be automatic.
MD Do the singers know that you will be conducting them for that performance?
CS They do! I feel that they are supportive, too, because we worked together in the staging rehearsals for a whole week when Maestro Christie was absent. I was able to “get it in my body” and they could see that I am clear, and that I listen to them. And I am also excited to see the chorus onstage from the pit!
MD They know you so well, and they are ready for you!
CS I definitely feel ready and welcome. I will not be in uncharted territory.
MD You will also have some performances with the Minnesota Opera next season for Madama Butterfly and Lucia di Lammermoor. Then after that, what do you see as the next step in your career as a conductor?
CS From what I understand, I need to start building a base as guest conductor in smaller companies, while having an assistantship at a bigger house. This would help to connect me with other professionals, and to build my repertoire. I would like to reconnect with places where I am already known, such as in Michigan and Texas. I think coming out of here with those three operas under my belt will be marvelous for me.
MD Do you feel that conducting the Minnesota Opera Orchestra is like driving a Rolls?
CS More like driving a beautiful Italian sports car in the case of La traviata! And I will always remember this first Traviata!
MD And I see that you have a beautiful edition of the orchestra score, bound in red!
CS I feel so secure with it in front of me! It stays open! And it is big enough so I can glance down at it and get the information that I need instantly! It is one thing to sit in a chair with a score, and another to stand in front of so many people, especially in terms of finding what you need in the score.
MD If you have to search for your place in the score, you could lose your coordination? You are like a dancer perhaps?
CS Yes, and you must always think ahead, while always being “present”.
MD I am so happy for you, and we all are. In a few weeks, we will have another conversation with you to find out how it went and how you feel after this wonderful debut performance on March 13!
The literary background that led to the creation of Verdi’s La traviata is multi-layered. While many people think that the opera’s libretto is based upon the true story of the author Alexandre Dumas fils (meaning junior) with the Parisian courtesan Marie Duplessis (born Alphonsine Plessis), in actuality an earlier episode from her life probably gave Dumas more of the story line for his novel, The Lady of the Camelias (La Dame aux Camélias), than did his short and stormy relationship with her.
Marie was born in 1824 to a modest family in the Normandy region of France. Her father was a notorious drunkard and abusive to the whole family. The most notorious of his acts was to try to burn his wife alive in their own house. After her later death, he managed to sell Alphonsine into prostitution. She was one of the many “grisettes” of Paris… young women who worked in small shops during the day, and sold themselves to men of modest means at night. Our Mimi of La boheme fame was probably a grisette….at least in the original novel Scenes from the Life of Boheme by Henri Murger.
Since this was to be Alphonsine’s life in any case, one might say that she was lucky to be noticed one evening by Agénor de Gramont, the Duke of Guiche, one of the most well-known dandys of Paris. Alphonsine was 16 years old, he was 21. He acted as a sort of French Henry Higgens to her Eliza….bettering her position in many ways. He installed her in an apartment on the Rue de Mont Thabor in Paris, gave her a horse and carriages, servants and beautiful gowns. Not only that, he was responsible for helping her fill the gaps in her education. Under his watch, she learned to read, to write…even to play the piano! And it was at this moment that she changed her name from Alphonsine Plessis to the more chic Marie Duplessis.
Agénor de Gramont is much like Armand Duval of Dumas’ novel. The family did not at all appreciate that Gramont flaunted his mistress in public, and it is fairly certain that his father, the Duke of Guiche, made a personal appeal to Marie to give up his son for the same reason that Dumas put into the mouth of Armand Duval’s father: that the marriage of his daughter would be jeopardized by the scandalous life his son was leading. The words of the novel (in English) were “I have a daughter, young, beautiful, pure as an angel. She is marrying a man who loves her, she is entering an honorable family that wants for all to be as honorable as in mine.”
These words of the novel were taken almost unaltered from Dumas’ novel to use in that scene of Act II of Verdi’s La traviata in the section “Pura siccome un angelo.”
The scene from Act II of Verdi’s La traviata in which Germont comes to convince Violetta to give up his son is the turning point in the opera, and musically one of the most beautiful and beloved scenes in operatic repertoire.
Please join us for this, as well as the many other delights of the great music and stage craft known as La traviata!
Mary Dibbern will join Carol Minnetti and Olaf Pfannkuch for Tuesday’s live radio broadcast, Bonjour Minnesota. (February 22, 2011). She will speak to the Francophone community (with English sprinkled in!) about the upcoming Minnesota Opera production of La Traviata. She will also narrate and play excerpts from Verdi’s opera in an historic recording with Anna Moffo as Violetta, Richard Tucker as Alfredo and Robert Merrill as Germont.
La traviata was a scandal, and was censored in both France and England….both church and the press found it to be “immoral and hideous”. It survived this rocky beginning to become one of the most beloved, and elegant, operas ever written. Please join us at 8pm to hear some beautiful music and entertaining stories at KFAI (90.3 FM Minneapolis and 106.7 FM St. Paul).
And don’t forget to come to Alliance Française on Thursday (February 24) to hear The True Story of La Traviata. Mary Dibbern will present (in French, Intermediate Level or above) the story of Alexandre Dumas fils, a young novelist who fell madly in love with a courtesan . . . Marie Duplessis (aka Alphonsine Plessis), and after her death wrote in only three weeks what was to become one of the most famous novels of the 19th century, The Lady of the Camellias, which a year later was transformed into Verdi’s opera, La traviata.
This lecture is free and open to the public. It will be followed by wine and cheese. It starts at 6pm at the Alliance headquarters located at 113 N. 1st St, Minneapolis, 55401-1411.
This week we moved into production of Verdi’s La traviata with a marvelous double cast for the leading roles of Violetta and Alfredo. There will be eight performances, starting on Saturday, March 5, through Sunday, March 13. Minnesota Opera has teamed with Alliance Française of Minneapolis St. Paul to offer lectures on operas concerning all things French. Although La traviata, a masterpiece by Giuseppe Verdi, is an Italian opera, there could never be a more “French” subject that the true story of the courtesan Marie Plessis, as told by her lover Alexandre Dumas fils (the French way of saying Dumas, Junior!). The fictionalized account of their stormy relationship became a best-seller of the 19th century. Minnesota Opera’s Head of Music, Mary Dibbern, will tell this story, illustrated with documents and photos of Paris, at the Alliance Française on February 24, starting at 6pm. The lecture will be in French for Intermediate level or above. It will be followed by wine and cheese to end the event by 7:30pm. The event is free and open to the public. The Alliance is located at 113 North 1st Street, Minneapolis, 55401. Come back to this blog every Monday to continue reading about this true story of the woman known as La Traviata!