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PDX OPERAbeat | A Company Blog is the blog for all things Portland Opera, featuring a variety of guest contributors who will provide insider's tidbits on all we do to celebrate the beauty and breadth of opera.

Falstaff class: you're invited!


For those of you who don't know, I took this job (eight seasons ago) fresh out of grad school, with no opera background at all. I had seen one opera -- of course, it was Carmen! -- but most of what I remember about that experience was that I missed the bus and had to call my mom in a panic and get her to drive me to the theater herself. I was fifteen. I do not remember a single thing about the show.

That means that almost every show we produce at the opera is a new learning experience for me. Occasionally I'll be passingly familiar with a few tunes -- I think we can pretty much all hum moments from Figaro or Barber or La Boheme -- but on the whole, these pieces are entirely new to me. The great thing about working on operas, though, is that by default you get to learn a piece pretty well by the time you're finished with it. I hear any given opera no fewer than ten times, and for most shows it's more like fourteen times. So I learn four or five new operas every year just by showing up to work.

Most of the time, I don't make much effort to learn the shows beforehand. As is true for most of us, I am very busy during the season, and there isn't a ton of time to study scores and listen to recordings. And frankly, most of the time it isn't that important. What I need to know best is usually there on the page; I don't need to be able to recognize arias by ear (a thing that I am, by the way, notoriously bad at even if I'm very familiar with a work). Familiarity is helpful but not necessary. Since I know I'll be very familiar with the show by the end of the run, studying scores and recordings often feels like maybe not the best use of my very precious time.

Of course, there have been exceptions. Orphée was probably the first show I actively worked to know before rehearsals began. I wrote about the process a little bit here. In that specific instance, what I was interested in was more about meeting Philip Glass than it was about learning an opera. I recognized that one only gets a few opportunities to meet somebody so important, and I hated to shake his hand without having at least a glimmer of understanding -- or heck, recognition -- of his work. Falling in love with Orphée (and later Galileo) was an accidental side effect! It wasn't at all the objective. I just wanted to be informed.

So, Falstaff. Ever since we first decided to program it, people have told me: "You are going to love Falstaff." But there's always this caveat: Falstaff's lack of any big 'tunes' (by which I mean standalone arias that everybody knows, like Pagliacci's "Vesti la giubba" or Carmen's "Habanera") make it a harder sell for many listeners. It's more difficult for the ear to latch on to. It's mostly through-composed -- flowing from one musical moment to the next, without independent recits and arias -- and that's always more challenging for a listener because there isn't really a break. The ones you get are momentary; fleeting and then gone. Falstaff was Verdi's final opera, and, so the story goes, he wrote this one purely for the fun of writing it, for himself much more than for the audience. It is, I have been told a number of times, is "a musician's opera."

For this last show of the season, I thought it might be an interesting adventure to take you along on my journey to learn Falstaff. I've never seen the show, nor have I even heard it -- any of it. Remarkably, somehow I have never even read any of the Shakespeare plays the character appears in (Henry IV parts 1 & 2, and The Merry Wives of Windsor). I am going into this one totally cold. Do you want to come along with me?

So, my homework this week:

• Read all 3 Shakespeare plays.
• Make at least one complete pass through a recording of the opera, possibly following along with the score (if time allows)
• Begin reading The Verdi-Boito Correspondence (amazon | goodreads)

Next week I'll report back with what I learn. Please feel free to join in! And if you're a fan of Falstaff, chime in: what else should I read, watch, listen to?



We are excited to hear our Resident Artist tenor, Matthew Grills, in recital tomorrow at Portland Art Museum! Tickets are currently sold out, but if you didn't get one and you're hoping to get in, any tickets not claimed by 6:55 PM will be released again to the general public. Hope to see you there!

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