Cads, bounders and unbecoming women in opera and song: episode one

Our latest exhibition at the UL Music Department, launched this week, explores the darker side of opera and song. We begin our mini-series of exhibition-related posts with a look at some of opera’s less-than-delightful characters.

Villains abound – think of Iago (Otello), Rocco (Fidelio), Scarpia (Tosca) and the eponymous Don Giovanni. Similarly ladies of less than respectable behaviour are the principal characters in, Carmen, Salome, and Lulu. I’m sure you can think of many more and are already sharpening your pen to add to the list. But then, opera – whether the reinterpretation of an existing literary work or not – often explores the darker aspects of life: jealousy, envy, prostitution, ambition, cruelty all feature in abundance.

We start our series with four works: The Beggar’s Opera, Don Giovanni, Lulu and Salome. Why those? Well, because it allows us to feature items from our many special collections – from Hans Keller (but I would include him, wouldn’t I?) to Alwyn, Frederick Booth and Coates/Powell Lloyd. Dear reader, you may need a stiff drink for this…

John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera with its villain-as-hero Macheath – the leader of a pack of thieves and a womaniser to boot –  delighted and shocked its audience when it was first staged in London in 1728 and has remained popular ever since. A ballad opera satirising Italian opera, politics and social conditions, its musical numbers are set to popular ballads, opera arias, folk songs and hymns of the day. Audiences would have known many of the tunes and the work was so successful that a spin-off industry of souvenirs was created.

One of the best-known ballads from the work is Macheath’s song ‘If the heart of a man is depress’d with care’ in praise of the restorative power of women. “I must have women”, he says after his song “There is nothing unbends the Mind like them…” (Act II Scene III)

Perhaps the most famous adaptation of the work is Kurt Weill’s 1928 “Threepenny Opera” [M200.a.212.105a] setting Brecht and Hauptmann’s re-working of the play as a satire of capitalism. Macheath becomes “Mack the Knife” whose chilling ballad has been the subject of many covers from Bobby Darin [A2005.301] to Michael Bublé [A2010.452].

Surely the most (in)famous blackguard in all opera is Don Giovanni. Mozart’s eponymous opera was first performed on 29 October 1787 in Prague. The libretto was by Lorenzo Da Ponte with whom Mozart had collaborated the previous year for The Marriage of Figaro. It tells the story of the serial sexual conquests and excesses of the debauched, licentious, amoral Don Giovanni, who takes a risk too far at the outset of the opera in his murder of the Commendatore, whose ghost joins him for dinner in the penultimate scene offering Giovanni the chance to repent. Giovanni refuses and is drawn down to hell to meet his fate.

The Coates/Powell-Lloyd archive contains Powell-Lloyd’s vocal score [MRS.5.44] of the work which has been re-bound to include blank sheets of paper between each page of music so that Powell-Lloyd could set out his production and stage directions. It makes fascinating reading.

Jumping forward a century or so, and quietly ignoring many of nineteenth-century opera’s disreputable individuals (feel free to suggest your own…), we reach 1905. The year in which Richard Strauss’s Salome was first performed in Dresden.  Oscar Wilde’s original play was first published in French in 1891 and then in English translation in 1894. Strauss’s opera was not heard in London until 1910, where it (and indeed the original play) had been banned by the Lord Chamberlain. Even then the 1910 production at Covent Garden conducted by Beecham was heavily bowdlerised: the Opera House was forbidden to show the head of John the Baptist and instead, was forced to substitute a sanitised platter with a “serving suggestion” of blood over which Salome was expected to hold forth.

The opera is infamous, of course, for Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils. Having demanded as payment for her entertainment, – and received – the head of Jokanaan (John the Baptist), with whom she has fallen violently in love but who has rejected her, she glorifies in her trophy in what must surely be one of opera’s most degenerate scenes. Herod, horrified, orders her execution.

Thirty years later, we meet Lulu, one of opera’s most infamous femmes fatales. She uses her charms utterly unscrupulously, marrying her way up the social scale via one man after another, killing them or driving them to suicide in turn. There is some justice, however grim, in that having been arrested for the murder of Doctor Schön (husband number three), the die is cast for her downfall. She ends up working as a prostitute in London and is herself murdered by Jack the Ripper. The desperate and degrading story sits in stark contrast to the richness of the music.

Berg had completed only two acts and an orchestral suite for Lulu before he died and its first performance in Zurich in 1937 used only this material. Not until 24 February 1979, at the Paris Opéra 44 years after Berg died was the work presented in a completed version undertaken by Friedrich Cerha.  For an excellent in-depth study of the work, Douglas Jarman’s book for the Cambridge opera Guides series [M706.c.95.183] is highly recommended.

And finally, during our researches for this exhibition, I sought out the two biographies of Berg in Hans Keller’s library [handlist available on request]: as I was leafing through his copy of Cornelius Cardew’s translation of Willi Reich’s Life and Work of Alban Berg, the dust jacket came loose. What do I find on the reverse? The draft of part of Keller’s review of the book for Sunday Times [4 July 1965] “…and an excellent, indispensable book it is”, he says. Which seems a good place to stop and hand over the keyboard to one of my colleagues for the next in our series. Dear reader, you can come out from behind the sofa now…



The exhibition is set up in the cases just outside and just inside the Anderson Room and will run for the next three months.

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1 Response to Cads, bounders and unbecoming women in opera and song: episode one

  1. Pingback: Politically incorrect | MusiCB3 Blog

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