Monday, March 4, 2013

Retirements that don't stick; great comebacks in the music world

On classical WFMT, we recently heard  a "From the Recording Horn" segment on opera soprano Magda Olivero.

Born 1910, she retired from the stage, age 31, to marry.

That lasted 10 years, she made her comeback at 41.  After that, she had a very long and successful career.

Remarkably, she would debut at 65 at the Metropolitan Opera House as Tosca.

She performed well into her 90s.  An Internet report has her now age 102, living in Milan.

Remarkable story, remarkable comeback.

Some videos here:

Some opera retirements stick.  The most famous:  that of Gioachino Rossini, the famed composer ("William Tell," countless others).  He retired at 37, wealthy, and apparently satisfied with his status as the most famous opera composer -- ever.  For him, there was no comeback to the business that made him rich and famous.

What did he do with himself?  Wikipedia:  "Rossini had been a well-known gourmand and an excellent amateur chef his entire life, but he indulged these two passions fully once he retired from composing, and today there are a number of dishes with the appendage "alla Rossini" to their names that were either created by or specifically for him. Probably the most famous of these is Tournedos Rossini, still served by many restaurants today.

But music held its sway on him, and he would pick up his pen later, as Wikipedia outlines:

"In the meantime, after years of various physical and mental illnesses, he had slowly returned to music, composing obscure little works intended for private performance. These included his Péchés de vieillesse ("Sins of Old Age"), which are grouped into 14 volumes, mostly for solo piano, occasionally for voice and various chamber ensembles. "

Compared to his operas, these are rarely heard.

Continuing on:  "Often whimsical, these pieces display Rossini's natural ease of composition and gift for melody, showing obvious influences of Beethoven and Chopin, with many flashes of the composer's long buried desire for serious, academic composition. They also underpin the fact that Rossini himself was an outstanding pianist whose playing attracted high praise from people such as Franz Liszt, Sigismond Thalberg, Camille Saint-Saëns and Louis Diémer.

"Rossini died at the age of 76 from pneumonia at his country house at Passy on Friday, 13 November 1868. He was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France. In 1887, his remains were moved to the Basilica di Santa Croce di Firenze, in Florence, at the request of the Italian government."

Nearly 40 years after he quit the opera business.

We can't talk about retirements and opera without mentioning Rossini's compatriot, Verdi, who surpassed the facile Rossini to take the top spot in the opera composing world (though some might say that honor belongs to Puccini).  Verdi himself came out of 10 years of retirement to resume his career.

Wikipedia tells the story:

"After the completion and premiere of the opera Aida in 1871, Verdi decided that it was time for him to end his successful career as a composer of opera, though he was easily the most popular, and possibly the wealthiest, composer in Italy during the time, much as Rossini had done after the completion of the opera William Tell.

"Because of the immense popularity of Verdi’s music in Italy by the 1870s, Verdi’s retirement seemed to his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, to be a waste of talent and possible profits. Thus a plot of sorts was hatched in order to coax the composer out of retirement to write another opera. Because of the importance of the dramatic aspects of opera to the composer, Verdi was especially selective in his choice of subjects. Consequently, if he were to agree to create another opera after a decade of retirement, the libretto would need to be one that would capture his interest. It was generally known that Verdi admired the dramatic works of Shakespeare and had, throughout his career, desired to create operas based on Shakespearian plays. However, his one attempt at doing so, Macbeth (1847), although initially successful, was not well received when revised for performance in Paris in 1865.[1] Because of its relatively straightforward story, the play Othello was selected as a likely target.

"Finally, after some plotting, Ricordi, in conjunction with Verdi’s friend, the conductor Franco Faccio, subtly introduced the idea of a new opera to Verdi. During a dinner at Verdi’s Milan residence during the summer of 1879, Ricordi and Faccio guided the conversation towards Shakespeare’s play Othello and to the librettist Arrigo Boito (whom Ricordi claimed to be a great fan of the play also). Suggestions were made, despite initial skepticism on the part of the composer, that Boito would be interested in creating a new libretto based upon the play. Within several days, Boito was brought to meet Verdi and present him with an outline of a libretto for an opera based on Othello. However, Verdi, still maintaining that his career had ended with the composition of Aida, made very little progress on the work. Nonetheless, collaborations with Boito in the revision of the earlier opera Simon Boccanegra helped to convince Verdi of Boito’s ability as a librettist. Finally, production began on the opera, which Verdi initially referred to as Iago.

"As the Italian public became aware that the retired Verdi was composing another opera, rumors about it abounded. At the same time, many of the most illustrious conductors, singers and opera-house managers in Europe were vying for an opportunity to play a part in Otello's premiere, despite the fact that Faccio and La Scala, Milan, had already been selected as the conductor and the venue for the first performance. The two male protagonists had been selected, too: Italy's foremost dramatic tenor, Francesco Tamagno, was to sing Otello while the esteemed French singing-actor Victor Maurel would assume the villainous baritone role of Iago. Romilda Pantaleoni, a well known singing-actress, was assigned Desdemona's soprano part.

"Upon the completion of the opera, preparations for the initial performance were conducted in absolute secrecy and Verdi reserved the right to cancel the premiere up to the last minute. Verdi need not have worried: Otello's debut proved to be a resounding success. The audience's enthusiasm for Verdi was shown by the 20 curtain calls that he took at the end of the opera. Further stagings of Otello soon followed at leading theatres throughout Europe and America."

Appears this thing "retirement" can be mercurial thing.


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