The opera that received encores for almost every scene

Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro

Premier, Vienna, 1 May 1786

Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor

The Marriage of Figaro is opera’s longest running hit. Since opening 232 years ago at the Vienna Burgtheater, it has never required reviving. Even the efforts of Salieri, Righini, and Martini—infamous in­triguers of Emperor Joseph’s Court—could not blunt Figaro’s success. Vien­nese audiences saw nine perfor­mances that season and their en­thusiasm resulting in repeated calls for aria encores. In his memoirs, Michael Kelly, the Anglo-Irishman who sang the roles of Basilio and Don Cur­zio, tells us: “almost every scene was encored, which pro­longed it nearly to the length of two operas, and induced the Emperor to issue an order, on the second presentation, that no piece of music should be en­cored.” The order was politely ignored.

Figaro’s appearance in Prague (the Austrian Empire’s other ‘capital’) was even more successful. In his letters home, Mozart reported: “Here they talk about nothing but ‘Figaro’. Nothing is played, sung or whistl­ed but ‘Figaro.’ No opera is draw­ing like ‘Figaro.’ Nothing, nothing but ‘Figaro.’” So complete was Mozart’s success, it led immediately to the Don Giovanni commission, a marvelous conse­quence, indeed.

Lorenzo Da Ponte

For Figaro, Mozart turned to Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’ play, Le mariage de Figaro (1778), the second part of his stage trilogy that included Le barbiere de SéviIIe, and La Mère coupable (The Guilty Wife). Mozart was sufficiently impressed with the play (which he must have read, since its performance was banned in Vienna) to risk both censorship and the Emperor’s displeasure. Selecting Lorenzo Da Ponte to write the libretto, Mozart for once showed a little political savvy since Da Ponte was able to persuade Emperor Joseph the play was not revolutionary by deleting its political speeches. In his delightful, self-aggrandizing memoir, Da Ponte takes full credit for sanitizing Figaro by “expunging those incendiary passages.”

As a consequence, in the opera Figaro does not upbraid the Count by reminding him that an accident of his birth is his sole claim to fame: “Because you are a great noble you believe you are a great genius. Nobility, fortune, rank, position, what have you done to deserve all these goods? You went to the trouble of being born—nothing more!” In the late 18th century this was strong stuff, and in France Beaumarchais paid for it with a stint in the Saint-Lazare jail. But in Vienna, Da Pointe was aware of the Emperor’s feelings of contempt for hypocritical aristocrats, as well as for those untitled “royals” who all owed their wealth and eminence to the accident of birth.

Thus, for the libretto, Da Ponte drop­ped the provocative political speeches but changed little else in plot and structure. His creative energies went into inven­ting arias where only a line or two of dialogue exists in the play. And this genius for dramatic revelation inspired Mozart’s incredible music. And what music it is: so rich and varied as to be positively breathtaking. Yet, its beauty is always employed in delineating character and heightening the drama. In Mozart’s adaptation, Beaumarchais’ glib, sometimes  superficial characters are transformed in­to complex ones, especially the three principals: Figaro, Susanna, and the Countess.

After The Marriage of Figaro’s sensational Vienna opening run, popular though it was with the general public, it became Mozart’s undoing at Court. Viennese aristocrats, as well as those un­titled members of the upper­ class, were accustomed to see­ing themselves glorified in opera. Indeed, Mozart’s two preceding works—Idomeneo (1781) and The Abduction from the Seraglio (1782)—conventionally glorified their aristocratic characters, portraying them as both generous and noble, while their servants are properly respectful and faithful. But after the ‘insult’ of Figaro, Mozart lost the precious little patronage he enjoyed for subscription concerts and new work com­missions. Viennese ‘royals’ were not amused that Count Almaviva, the opera’s only representative of the privileged class, was so complete­ly put down by his wife, in league with mere servants. They found nothing comic about this; rather, they found Mozart and his opera insolent.

The Mozart-Da Ponte collaboration produced two more opera—Don Giovanni (1787) and Così fan tutte (1790)—both of which enjoyed more favor with Prague audiences than with Viennese. And only in Don Giovanni did the libretto center on the affairs of an aristocrat, this one a famously reckless, even cruel, womanizer. But much of the class sting was glossed over by the fact that the Don Juan legend had its own mythical history. Taken together, all the Mozart-Da Ponte operas set a standard for music and story that has never been surpassed.

The Marriage of Figaro, 1967

On this special occasion, it is well to remember that The Marriage of Figaro was the calling-card production for the Opera Association of Western Michigan (as Opera Grand Rapids was then known) in 1968, when locally produced opera began in Grand Rapids. It was an ambitious undertaking, one that has proved the local group was up to the challenge. And for the next 50 years that challenge has been repeatedly met with ever-increasing standards of excellence. It is therefore especially fitting we celebrate this 50th anniver­sary of Opera Grand Rapids with this new production of Mozart’s masterpiece.


by Gilbert R. Davis

Dr. Davis, GVSU Emeritus Professor of English, has been writing Opera Grand Rapids program notes since the 1970s, and with this one bids a fond addio.

May 4 & 5  |  7:30 PM  |  DeVos Performance Hall


The quintessential comic opera.

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I DREAM Composer pays tribute to Dr. King’s dream

Composer Douglas Tappin shares his inspiration for the new opera I DREAM

Douglas Tappin


“As I imagined his life, I saw something clear. There was a plight—people in this country with a plight. It was something he saw and experienced in childhood as he grew up in the South.”

– Douglas Tappin


I wrote and composed the libretto and score of I DREAM while living in Atlanta, reading accounts of the Civil Rights Movement, and talking to many individuals who had been a part of it, including members of Dr. King’s family and some of his closest friends. The experience was so visceral and so profound that I felt, literally, compelled to tell the story—one of the greatest stories in human history and, more particularly, a great American story of recent history. In order to portray about 30 years of Dr. King’s life in a two-hour period, I needed all my resources as a musical-dramatic writer to set it as a Rhythm & Blues opera. I am using that term partly because that is what I set out to do, and also because I appreciate the need to label something, to define it, even though it is really just seamless storytelling using music and drama combined.

At the core of the story is a plight that is one of injustice—the plight of the poor, the needy, the orphaned, the oppressed, the downtrodden, the stranger, the captive, the hated one, the ones whom are persecuted. But in the face of that plight, and the most remarkable thing to me about the story, is the way people chose to confront it by using love, which is astonishing. And, not just a theoretical concept of love, but love that was walked out in a strong, practical way.

The focus for I DREAM is the thirty-six hours leading up to Dr. King’s assassination on April 4th 1968, and a series of dreams, reminiscence, and premonitions in respect to his life leading up to that point—right to the fateful moment on the balcony of Memphis’ Lorraine Motel. It is an exploration, a challenge and an articulation of the villain and the hero within the heart, humanity and façade of a man. I DREAM is a work that effectively bridges classical and popular traditions in its composition and orchestration.

In the Classical Tradition Orchestra of 70 musicians; the realism of Verismo with a primacy of dramatic purpose; on the scale of Grand Opera—a prioritization of immense production values and tremendous, moving music; a strong sense of local relevance, a vast cast, a significant movement and dance aspect, powerful confrontations, opulent duets, and weighty choruses; through-composed—each scene flowing evenly and naturally into the next, blending recitative, aria and arioso; establishing, developing and resolving themes and motifs; and appropriately featuring full vocal ranges.

In the Popular Tradition 21st Century artistic and theatrical sensibilities and consciousness as to duration; two acts lasting roughly two hours; written in English; subject matter: popular, relevant, accessible and universal; form: familiar song, melodic, and rhythmic structure; style: a fusion of contemporary, gospel, soul, spiritual, blues and jazz; rhythm and blues instrumentation—featuring piano, keyboard, Hammond B-3, lead and acoustic guitar, bass guitar, and drums; pace: relentlessly moving towards an escalated conclusion; selected moments of dialogue.

I set out to create something artistically excellent (musically, lyrically and as a matter of production) and entertaining—a powerful, moving, and inspiring operatic experience that is definitive, memorable, and enduring. Additionally, I wrote and composed I DREAM to honor the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the movement he inspired, to unite diverse individuals and institutions in understanding the prophetic message of Dr. King, and to remember Dr. King’s dream in the midst of contemporary culture, in a way that moves those who experience I Dream to live that dream by loving as Dr. King did.


-Composer Douglas Tappin



 January 15  |  7:30 PM  |  Fountain Street Church


The story of a preacher from Atlanta.

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Verdi’s battle over censorship of his revolutionary opera

Verdi’s Rigoletto Premiere, Venice, March 11, 1851

Since its opening at the Teatro La Fenice, Rigoletto has re­mained one of Verdi’s most cele­brated works, a favorite with audiences and critics alike. Even the aged Rossini, who until Rigoletto had withheld his praise, finally acknowledged Verdi’s musical genius. And when the opera opened in Paris, it ran for over 100 performances to packed houses, causing Victor Hugo (au­thor of the opera’s source) no little resentment. But the highest praise came from George Bernard Shaw, a famous music reviewer as well as playwright, who described Rigoletto as “a treasure of art and genius burnt into music.”

But Verdi’s success with Rigoletto did not come without difficulties with government censors, who almost sunk the project. Adapted from Hugo’s play, Le Roi s’amuse, the Aus­trian military censors found the libretto too controversial. [Readers will remember prior to the Italian Risorgimento; northern Italy was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.] Indeed, Hugo’s play had been too strong even for Parisian audiences, who drove it from the stage after only one performance. They considered it licentious and anti-royalist.

Giuseppe Verdi

Verdi was determined to adapt the play to opera. He thought Le Roi s’amuse “a creation worthy of Shakespeare.” So, to comply with the censor’s demands, Verdi agreed to demote King François I to a duke, change the setting from France to Mantua, and delete a bedroom scene he never in­tended to stage. He would not, however, eliminate the sack used for Gilda’s death, an objection the military censor made on purely aesthetic grounds. [Alas, how far we have come from those days of the soldier-scholar-­aesthete.]

“The Censorship”—as Verdi con­temptuously called it—dogged him throughout his career, and for Rigoletto the battle was won only in Austrian-controlled Italy. No sooner was the opera transferred to Rome, Naples, or Palermo than it underwent new censorship tinkering, ludicrously reflected in its many name changes: Viscardello, Lionello, and Clara di Perth, the latter nicely displaying the Italian censors’ penchant for setting all disagreeable stories in Scotland, where anything could happen!

For Verdi, Rigoletto closed his “galley years,” the early chapter of his career when he wrote fif­teen operas in twelve years; more importantly, Rigoletto caused dra­matic changes in Italian opera. To audiences brought up on Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, Rigoletto was uncon­ventional and full of surprises. For example, from the opening curtain, the Duke’s banter about his amorous affairs seems to prepare us for a light, comic opera; not until Count Monterone enters is there any hint of the opera’s dark side. But once in place, the tragic com­plication is immediately taken up in the music, shunting aside its opening gaiety.

Moreover, Verdi’s revolution­ary changes can be seen in every part of the opera’s musical struc­ture. Reducing show-stopping arias to a minimum, the music is inextricably bound to the drama, everywhere supporting the action and delin­eating character. Gone are the conventional arias that so often exist solely to call attention to themselves and show off the illustrious singers who demanded them, no matter what the dramatic situation required.

By contrast, the Duke and Gilda’s famous arias—”Questa o quella” [This one or that, they’re all the same] and “Caro nome” [Sweet name of my beloved]—are essential to their respective char­acterizations. And the Duke’s “La donna ê mobile” [Women are fickle] adds a bitter touch to the dramatic irony of the last scene. The final strains of this throw-away aria, sung offstage by the careless Duke, provide the chilling backdrop for Rigoletto’s tragic discovery.

Apart from these arias, Rigoletto unfolds musically in a se­ries of duets and dramatic exchanges. Gone are the big en­semble numbers, where princi­pals and chorus plant themselves in static poses, to “tell” us of the drama unfolding; in their place are scenes “enacting” the drama. This is beautifully illustrated in the exchange between Rigoletto and the assassin Sparafucile, as well as in Rigoletto’s concluding “Parisiamo” [How alike we are]. Their encounter employs recitative, duet, and monologue, but no conventional arias to detract from the drama and characteriza­tion Verdi sought.

This extraordinary dramatic technique can be seen everywhere in Rigoletto, but its most pow­erful illustration is in the opening scene of Act II, where Rigoletto searches for evidence of Gilda at Court. At first brusque with the courtiers, he is soon reduced to pleading, then finally condemns them—”Cortigiani, vil razza dannata” [Vile, damned courtiers]. In this moving exchange, the music for Rigoletto and chorus departs completely from anything Italian opera had seen before, fluctuating between recitative and arioso to create this powerful scene.

By thrusting drama into the forefront, Rigoletto became the central piece in Verdi’s opera revolution. With it he changed opera from a singer’s showpiece to an integrated drama, one that demands all elements work together. And, as if such radical changes were not enough, never before had such a subject ap­peared in opera. Only Verdi would consider using a deformed—both physically and morally—jester as his central character; but for Verdi, Rigoletto was a new kind of tragic figure, “outwardly ridiculous and de­formed, yet inwardly filled with passion and love.”

The story of this pitiful jester, condemned to his hateful role (played, alas, all too skillfully) represents a new direction in opera. And after Rigoletto, the place of music in opera was so altered, the Italian musical stage would never be the same. And in his own operas from 1851 on—La Traviata, Simon Boccanegra, Un Ballo in Maschera, Otello and Falstaff—Verdi continued to build on the revolutionary changes Rigoletto intro­duced, and the composers who followed have been forever in his debt.


by Gilbert R. Davis

Dr. Davis has contributed notes for Opera Grand Rapids’ productions for over 35 years.

October 13 & 14  |  7:30 PM  |  DeVos Performance Hall


Italian grand opera at its finest.

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The story of a composer’s opera premiere

Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia

Few operas have had more sensational openings than The Barber of Seville. Accounts of the fiasco vary in detail, but all agree Rome’s Teatro Argentina audience feasted at young Rossini’s expense. Everything that could go wrong did, disaster striking immediately when the tenor singing Almaviva, who insisted on playing his own guitar, had to tune it, breaking a string in the process. In the audience, Rossini’s enemies pounced on this with cat-calls and whistles. And just as things were settling down, Figaro entered for his marvelous “Largo al fac­totum” (Make way for the city’s fixer), and the sight of his guitar caused another eruption. From there on only Rosina’s “Una voce poco fa” (A little voice I heard just now) commanded any at­tention. But one moment of sanity could not salvage the opening. When it was over, Rossini took to his bed and refused to conduct the next performance.

Rossini’s youthful behavior—he was barely twenty-five—also contributed to the fiasco. Dressed in a too-tight, hazel-colored vicuna suit (with gold buttons!), he looked ridiculous conducting the orchestra. And his obvious scorn for the audience increas­ed their fury. Though Tancredi and L’Italiana in Algeri had catapulted Rossini into the first rank of Italian composers, that evening the Roman audience taunted him mercilessly.

Portrait of Composer Gioachino Rossini

The following night all went perfectly, and the audience responded with cries for encores. When Rossini didn’t appear for the customary bows, they left the theater calling his name. Legend has it they marched to his hotel, where Rossini hid under the bed, convinced “My poor opera has been booed still more than yesterday, and they have come to give me a trouncing.”

Perhaps the most important reason for the opening-night failure was the pro-Paisiello claque, who had come to punish an upstart. As Rossini knew, his opera was com­peting with Giovanni Paisiello’s II Barbiere di Siviglia (1782). Though over thirty years old, it was con­sidered the standard for II Bar­biere. Fearing this, Rossini had written Paisiello to ask permission to set the same text and even chose a different title, Almaviva, ossia l’lnutile precau­zione (Almaviva, or the Useless Precaution) to avoid any presumption. Though Paisiello raised no objection, his supporters were indignant at the upstart’s audacity. The rest is, as they say, history since today no one even remembers Paisiello, and Rossini remains opera’s most celebrated buf­fa composer.

The text of II Barbiere comes from the first part of Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’ 1765 stage trilogy: Le Bar­bier de Séville, Le Mariage de Figaro and La Mère Coupable (The Guilty Wife). The first two parts were immediately turned in­to operas, and though there have been almost a dozen Il Barbiere operas, only Rossini’s is performed today. The reasons for this are obvious; first, the plot employs that favorite comic formula of young lovers, aided by a crafty servant, outwitting an old guardian and would-be lover; second, it abounds in melodic numbers, both comic and romantic; and third, it is full of hilarious buffoonery.

But the most important reason is that not since Mozart’s comedies had music been so expertly used to establish character. Could anyone but Figaro sing his “Largo”? Or anyone but the smarmy Basilio justify slander with “La calunnia è un venticello” (Calumny is a little breeze)? These musical numbers fix character more securely than any costuming or stage antics. Perhaps the best example of this musical genius is Rosina’s first coming to life in “Una voce poco fa,” and then her fuller revelation in “Io sono docile/Son rispettosa’ (I am docile/I am respectful), where she tells us she knows what she wants and how to get it!

Adelina Patti as Rosina in ‘The Barber of Seville’

In the 19th and early 20th century, Rosina’s second act music lesson aria was completely altered by divas who preferred to give their own, thereby ignoring the scene’s dramatic significance for Rosina.

American favorite Adelina Patti regularly substituted “Home, Sweet Home,” whereas Australian diva Nellie Melba preferred the mad scene from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Nineteenth century divas could not resist the singing lesson’s display possibilities, and their supporters encouraged them shameless­ly.

With II Barbiere’s triumph, Rossini’s fortunes skyrocketed, making him the most celebrated opera composer of his time. Thirteen years and many successes later, he retired and spent his remaining forty years indulging his love of high liv­ing. Retiring at the pinnacle of fame was his last brilliant act, as he noted: “Retiring in time requires genius, too.”

by Gilbert R. Davis

Dr. Davis has contributed notes for Opera Grand Rapids’ productions for over 35 years.