In the last few years sporting events have been bursting out all over the musical comedy stage. It may be said that Damn Yankees, that happy mixture of baseball and Gwen Verdon, sparked the current vogue for musical athletes, but we have also had harmonious basketball players, swimmers and race track touts as well as boxers singing and dancing the legends of their respective sports. Except for football (which was put on the stage years ago in George Ade's The College Widow and has now been revived in Leave It to Jane, the musical version), these sports are new to musical comedy.
This is an article from the Dec. 14, 1959 issue
But the new development on Broadway is an old story in grand opera. I myself have located 15 different varieties of sporting events in what is called "sarious" music—the bullfight in Bizet's Carmen, for instance, all the way to Aaron Copland's Rodeo, Honegger's Rugby and the crap game in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, the last of which is in part treated like a fugue, though none of the players rolling the bones seems to appreciate it. In my earlier years I put a complete game of pelota, the Basque national sport, into my opera Ramuntcho, authentic in all respects except that it was played indoors, while pelota is classically an outdoor sport.
And new forms of sport are constantly appearing in opera itself. At the festival at Spoleto in Italy this year bridge made its first appearance in opera in A Hand of Bridge, the collaboration of Gian Carlo Menotti and Samuel Barber. All the action in this brief opera takes place around the card table. Two suburban couples who play bridge together every night sing their secret thoughts as they shuffle, deal, bid and pass. "I'm dummy again, I'm always dummy!" warbles Sally without sorrow. "I want to buy that hat with the peacock feathers." Her husband, Bill, is dreaming about his mistress and not paying much attention to his cards: he sings absent-mindedly, "If I could only take you home with me and strangle you in the night!" The other wife, Geraldine, totally unaware of the lethal thoughts of her partner, sings of her longing for love. And the remaining member of this sinister suburban quartet, a young chap named David, sings dreamily, "Every day another version of every known perversion. If I were rich as Morgan I would still play bridge every night with Sally and Bill." Obviously, a bridge game of this sort needs the services of a Charles Goren to analyze the hands; the players themselves seem hardly to know what was bid.
But opera has always had a weakness for crooked card games. In December 1910, in New York, the audience at the Metropolitan was electrified on the opening night of Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West when poker first appeared at the Met. Emmy Destinn was playing la fanciulla del West, or Minnie, the girl of the golden West. Caruso was Ramerrez, alias Johnson, the road agent. Pasquale Amato was Jack Rance, the sheriff.
When Jack Ranee corners Johnson in Minnie's cabin, she makes the lawman a proposition. They will play poker for Johnson, the best two hands out of three. If Minnie wins, Ranee will allow Johnson to escape. If Ranee wins, the tenor is to hang and Minnie is to become Jack Rance's girl.
It is possible that Puccini had no idea whatsoever of how poker was played. Minnie wins the first game. Ranee wins the second. In the third game Minnie draws a weak hand and, being a resourceful girl, pretends to feel faint and asks the gullible sheriff to get her a drink. While his back is turned she hastily stuffs her cards into her blouse. From her stocking she pulls out five brand-new cards, which she has apparently carried there for precisely this emergency. When Ranee returns she shows him this substitute hand—three aces and a pair. Johnson is free, and so is Minnie—the crook.
The moral perplexities involved in crooked card games in opera are so complex that we must return to this phase of the matter later; for the time being, it is enough to point out that Puccini needed an expert on cards, and it may be that there should have been an Ernest Hemingway on hand to write about the bullfight in Carmen, an expert on archery in William Tell and an authority on fencing in most operas. For the composers of operas had a weakness for this sport, which they generally introduced in the guise of a duel. Sometimes the principals in these events are really mad at each other and are not engaged in what would be called a sporting event. There is a magnificent fight of this sort in the first act of Mozart's Don Giovanni, where the Don, attacked by the father of Donna Anna, whom he has wronged, engages the old gentleman in a duel and runs him through. But more often the action is arbitrary, as is the match in the last act of Verdi's La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny), between Don Carlo and Don Alvaro. Not that we actually see them fight. After spending some 48 bars insulting each other they rush offstage to combat, Don Carlo singing, "Vengeance.... My sword shall slay you!"
After a spell of sword clashing, Don Alvaro appears alone. To make it crystal clear that he has won, we hear Don Carlo say, "I am dying." When Leonora asks Don Alvaro what has happened, he says, "He provoked me.... I killed him." Leonora: "Who was he?" Don Alvaro: "Your own brother." Leonora: "Great Heaven! (runs hastily to the woods)."
In Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onégin the hero and his best friend, Lenski, have quarreled over what the baritone and the tenor always quarrel about in opera. Lenski challenges Onégin, and the two meet in a deserted spot. Before shooting, they sing together:
So now we stand here parted
By thirst for blood and even death,
Where once, in friendship open-hearted,
We each would give our dying breath
To save the other."
Onégin fires first, and Lenski drops dead, Onégin rushing to him and saying in a croaking voice: "Dead!" At least that is what is supposed to happen. On one unfortunate occasion at the Metropolitan the property man forgot to load Onégin's pistol. As they came to the end of their song ("Shall we not join hands, hands of gladness? No. No. No. No.") and fired, nothing happened. At last the resourceful Lenski clasped his side, exclaiming, "My old heart trouble!" and fell dead anyway.
It will hardly be believed that an innocent sport like angling can be fixed, but it can be done in opera. In Rimski-Korsakov's Sadko the hero announces to the people of Novgorod that he is going out on Lake Ilmen to catch three fish made of solid gold. When this is greeted by three rousing jeers, Sadko bets his head against the wealth of the merchants of Novgorod. He then goes out in a canoe, drops his net and, sure enough, catches the three golden fish, enriching himself and bankrupting the merchants. But what he hasn't bothered to tell anyone is that the Princess of the Sea, a submarine cutie who is in love with him, has arranged to have the fish swim into his net any time he would like to have them.
The same sort of dubious sporting event appeared 77 years before Rimski-Korsakov in Karl Maria von Weber's Der Freisch√ºtz (The Free-shooter), which we are told won the greatest applause in the history of the German theater on its opening night in Berlin. Max, a young forest ranger, has been having a batting slump—hasn't shot anything for some time. If he doesn't win tomorrow's shooting match he stands to lose his girl, Agathe, and his job as well. Like many contestants in operatic sporting events, he makes a deal with the devil's disciple, who gives him seven bullets. Six of them will hit anything he wants. But the last shot belongs to the devil. Max scores bull's-eyes with the magic bullets, but the last shot hits Agathe. Everything is all right, though, for Agathe carries a charm that is proof against all magic.
Something of the same sort would have come in handy at the most famous shooting match in opera, that in Rossini's William Tell. Rossini himself was certainly no sportsman—once when he was writing a song in bed, it fell to the floor, and he wrote another rather than pick it up—but William Tell is full of action. The tyrant Gessler hangs his hat on a pole and orders all citizens to bow to it. Tell refuses and Gessler sentences him to shoot an apple off his son's head. As the apple is being placed on Jemmy Tell's head, the archer, pretending to select an arrow, conceals another under his coat. "Be immovable, and incline thine eyes toward the earth," Tell says to his son. "One movement, and thy doom is sealed." Reluctantly, he draws his bow, takes careful aim and splits the apple. As he faints during the scene of general rejoicing, the extra arrow falls out of his jacket.
"What's that for?" Gessler wants to know.
Now if Tell had any sense, he would have replied, "Oh, just a spare"—something like that.
Instead, this being opera, he sings, "Per te, s' egli era estinto!" (For thee Gessler, had I killed my child!) Gessler: "Trema!" (Tremble!) Tell: "Io tremar?" (I fear not!) Gessler: "Put him in irons."
Wagner loved hunting scenes. In the famous night scene that opens the second act of Tristan und Isolde the women stand listening to King Marke's hunting horns as he rides off to the hunt; and the spectacular hunt meet in Tannh√§user is staged with wild scenery, horses and a pack of hounds. It may be that the effect is never what the composer intended. Isolde is waiting for the sound of King Marke's hunting horns to die away so that she can signal to Tristan to come over for a spot of necking. But it is never made clear why Marke should be riding away with his followers in the dead of night. What is he hunting—owls? And I remember a glamorous performance of the hunt scene in Tannh√§user at the Metropolitan years ago when one of the hounds slipped his leash and wandered around the stage. He sniffed one of the trees in Joseph Urban's superb forest set, turned to the audience and the rest of the pack with an expression that plainly said, "Hey, fellers, look, a real tree!" and performed the customary ritual to the vast entertainment of the audience but to the ruination of the mood of that scene of the opera.
If all other forms of competition failed, Wagner could always come up with a singing contest. In Tannh√§user the knights compete in making up songs on a given topic, the topic, in this instance, being: The True Nature of Love.
The first competitor, Wolfram, sings of the joys of austere, platonic, spiritual love, preferably unrequited:
We know, however, that Tannh√§user, who has spent a year with Venus in her grotto, does not share his sentiments. Remarking something to the effect that "if you want to worship cold perfection, take a look at the stars," Tannh√§user replies: and goes on with his explicit conception of the nature of love. "By now Tannhauser has lost control of himself," says the austere Ernest Newman. "Madly he sings his song from the first act in praise of the goddess of earthly love, the fountain of all grace and beauty and joy; he ends with a cry to all poor mortals who have never known her love to fly with him to the hill of Venus. At this unblushing revelation of where he had spent the time of his absence from them the assembly breaks up in horror. The ladies leave the hall with gestures of dismay."
Wagner's other singing contest makes up the whole plot of Die Meistersinger. But of all the sloppily run contests! In Act One, Pogner announces a forthcoming song contest, the prize being the hand of his daughter, Eva, provided she consents—which, of course, renders the whole offer a swindle. Walther, who has had his eye on Eva, decides to take the examination for the title of Mastersinger so he can compete in the contest. He flunks miserably, thus eliminating himself. But in Act Two it is obvious that Walther and Eva are going steady, which again makes the approaching contest meaningless. In Act Three, to nobody's astonishment, Walther walks off with the prize, leaving us with the spectacle of a useless contest with only two entrants, won by a competitor who is ineligible.
There is a good deal of this sort of thing in Wagner: the scene in Parsifal, when the hero, poaching on the grounds of Montsalvat with his bow and arrow, brings down a stuffed swan; and the garden scene in the same opera, when the magician Klingsor throws the javelin at Parsifal, but it stops in mid-air and Parsifal makes a sensational barehanded catch. It may be that contests which are so mysteriously decided cannot really be called sporting events, but they serve, at any rate, to indicate the extent of something like sport in opera and the strange changes that take place in sport when it unites with music.
One of these weird games that exist only in opera appears in Schwanda, the work of the Czech composer Jaromir Weinberger that was first produced in Prague in 1927. In the course of the action we find Schwanda, the bagpipe player, in Hell (never mind how he got there). The devil, who is bored, hints that a little bagpipe playing might be fun. Schwanda refuses. Then the devil tricks him into signing away his soul.
Just as the devil is about to arrange a little party for Schwanda and a few intimate friends, Babinski strolls in. He is a friend of Schwanda's (and never mind how he got there, either). Babinski proposes a game of cards. The devil accepts with alacrity. He names the stakes: if he wins he gets Schwanda's and Babinski's souls. If he loses he forfeits half his kingdom and Schwanda gets his soul back.
The game that follows is odd even by the standards of these queer contests we have reviewed. They keep calling out numbers, and the devil keeps drawing fresh cards out of his boot. Just as he is about to declare himself the winner, Babinski thrusts his hand, into his boot and draws the winning card. The moral seems to be that for once virtue has outcheated the cheater and that rigged games don't work.
There is at least one honest card game in opera. It is the game that Alfredo Germont plays against Baron Duophol in the second act of Verdi's La Traviata. In Flora's mansion (after the masqueraders pretending to be matadors from Madrid have sung of killing five fine bulls in one day's contest) all sing: "La palestra dischiudiamo agli audaci giuocator" (Let us throw the portals open to the gamblers who wait). We learn that Alfredo takes Baron Duophol for about $800, but only because his luck is good. No funny business with cards in boots or stockings, or pacts with the devil.
But what sort of game are they playing? The cards are cut and presumably dealt. "On this," sings the Baron, "I stake a hundred louis." Alfredo sings that he'll see him.
Then a kibitzer named Gastone cuts the cards again and sings to Alfredo: "Un asso...un fante" (An ace...a knave...). "You've won it."
"Wilt double?" says the Baron.
This time Gastone sings: "Un quattro, un sette" (A four, a seven).
"Victory is mine!" sings Alfredo.
It is all pretty puzzling. Nothing in the game is the least like the conversation of my card-playing friends. Honest the game is (by operatic standards), but it is impossible to avoid a suspicion that Verdi was making it up as he went along. The moral standards of players in contests in opera are deplorably low, whether they are hunting, shooting, fencing or engaged in singing contests: somebody cheats in almost all the games, or, if not, the games don't make much sense. Sport in opera plainly needs some rules.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Deems Taylor was born in New York in 1885, played the piano in hotel dining rooms while studying architecture at New York University, started composing with a college operetta, The Isle of Skidoo. Famous as the erudite music critic of the New York World, he made musical history as the first successful American composer of opera (The King's Henchman in 1927 and Peter Ibbetson in 1931) and made musical history also as a pioneer radio commentator at symphonic broadcasts.