To launch the Salon Thursdays series of free lectures at the Dahesh Museum of Art Gift Shop, curators selected one of the most learned and engaging fine arts critics and scholars in New York today, Fred Plotkin. His presentation, Aida: One Woman, Two Nations, and Verdi’s Egyptomania, will take place at 6:30 PM on October 4th at the Dahesh Gift Shop at 145 Sixth Avenue in New York. People interested in attending can call the shop at 212.759.0606, or visit online at http://www.minimusdesign.com/dma/. If you have an interest in Verdi, opera, or all things Egyptian, this is a must-see event.
Plotkin is familiar to radio listeners for his intermission features during the New York Metropolitan Opera international radio broadcasts, where he does audio essays, intermission features and is a popular guest on the Met's Opera Quiz. His seminars at the Metropolitan Opera Guild are always sold out and he has lectured about opera for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, BAM, the Smithsonian, the Morgan Library, the Los Angeles Opera, the Wagner Society of Southern California, the Salzburg Festival and the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.
Plotkin is also the author of the best-selling Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera and Classical Music 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Classical Music, which has also enjoyed a vogue in both the UK and China.
Readers who are avid WQXR listeners can also read Plotkin’s entertaining and informative blog, Operavore, which can be found at: http://www.wqxr.org/#!/people/fred-plotkin/. It is highly recommended.
Fred Plotkin took a few moments out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions prior to his lecture this week.
I’ve heard you say that Giuseppe Verdi was one of the most significant figures of the 19th Century art world in Italy. Why is that?
I would say that Verdi was the most significant cultural figure in Italy in the 19th Century. His life spanned from 1813-1901 and, though he grew up in a rural setting, he immersed himself in literature and music on his own. With his great genius, rigorous discipline and fiery though compassionate temperament, he saw his art as a vehicle for communicating his principles while never compromising the sheer visceral pleasure that his operas (really, music dramas) provided at the time and still do.
Can you tell us a little bit about how and why Aida was commissioned?
By the time Aïda was commissioned, he was in his mid 50s, the richest and most successful composer in the world. He had not written an opera for several years and could pick and choose his subjects. The commission came from the Khedive of Egypt to coincide with the opening of the Suez Canal and the Cairo Opera House. Ultimately, Rigoletto was the opening opera but Aïda did have its world premiere there. I believe that Verdi viewed Aïda as an opera that was meant for Italians to see and wrote it with them in mind. That will be part of the subject of my talk at the Dahesh Museum.
You have said that Aida is a profoundly political work. In what way?
Aïda is about how private passions collide with public service. In addition, just because one nation can dominate another militarily, it does not mean that the occupied nation has been conquered on the deepest level. The title character in this opera may be a slave in one country but she does not forget that she is the princess of another. Even the conquerors (the Egyptians in this case) come to realize that their might can only go so far.
How has this work been interpreted – and reinterpreted – over the years?
In countless ways! Perhaps too many. I saw a production in Europe in which the Egyptians were Nazis and the Ethiopians were the oppressed Jews. This completely missed the point of the opera and trivialized the horrors visited upon Jews, gays, Gypsies and others during the Holocaust. I believe, with all operas, that superimposing a concept on an opera only diminishes that work. It is more important for musicians and stage directors to really apply themselves to understanding the intentions and aesthetics of composers and librettists and find inspiration from them.
Can you tell us a little bit about Operavore? How did it come about?
I was approached by WQXR, America’s iconic classical music radio station, in the winter of 2011 to be a writer for their new blog about opera, then known as WQX-Aria. This was part of the station’s plan to expand its reach and connection with listeners (who are intensely knowledgeable and loyal) and to also create topics for discussion. In short order, the station added an Operavore feed in which you can listen to opera all the time streamed on www.wqxr.org. I was happy to sign on, with the proviso that I not do reviewing because I know so many people in the opera field. Instead, my two articles a week cover a wide range of issues that have opera as a common link. So I might write about singing, teaching opera, production design, politics, sex, food, wine, conducting, finances, and the five senses, all in relation to opera. I do one article a month as part of a series I call Planet Opera, in which I write about one city and its relationship to opera. These have included the more predictable places (Milan, Vienna, Barcelona) but also unusual but significant spots such as Ghent, Genoa and Dublin. Next up is Cincinnati.
Finally, do you have any projects in the pipeline you would like to share with our readers?
I lead a very popular series at the Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò of NYU (24 West 12th Street) called “Adventures in Italian Opera” that is free and open to the public. In it, I am joined by great practitioners of Italian opera who come and talk--meaningfully, not superficially--about how they do what they do. This season’s dates are Oct 24 (Remembering Richard Tucker); Nov 9 (David Alden on directing Un Ballo in Maschera); Dec 3 (tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, star of La Clemenza di Tito and La Rondine); Feb 26 (Celebrating Giuseppe Verdi on his bicentennial); Mar 12 (José Cura on performing Otello); Apr 30 (Fabio Luisi, principal conductor of The Metropolitan Opera).
Many thanks to Fred Plotkin – we will be speaking with him again in the future!