Tuning in to Opera 2021

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A course exploring, enjoying and discussing opera at U3A Nillumbik, Melbourne, conducted by Lyn and Tom Richards

Welcome to Tuning in to Opera. Our group meets on Fridays in U3A terms in the Girl Guide Hall, Eltham. This blog offers information about the operas and composers we study - and links to lots more materials about them including live performances. Contact U3A Nillumbik to join the course.

This course has run since 2016: see this website for its first years and this blog for 2019-20.


Recap! We started our exploration of Australian works last term with the most recent. The double bill of new operas from epic myths opened Victorian Opera's 2021 season, featuring young Australian composers. Cassandra - blog post here - was created by composer Simon Bruckard and librettist Constantine Costi. Echo and Narcissus - blog post here - was by composer Kevin March and librettist Jane Montgomery Griffiths.

After diverting to the ways other, older operas have used classical myths, we watched The Eighth Wonder, wondering at its disappearance from the disappearing history of Australian opera. Visit our blog post here, for the rave reviews for that operatic critique of a culture that disappears its own productions.

We moved our exploration to operas telling stories of an older Australian history and culture. That's where we start this new Term. See our blog post for 'A short history of our black opera'. We started with the work of Deborah Cheetham. In 2009, she set up Short Black Opera, a national not-for-profit opera company devoted to the development of Indigenous singers. It produced the first Indigenous opera in Australia, Cheetham's Pecan Summer, which tells the historic story about the Cummeragunja walk-off. Here's that history and the story of the opera.

This year, she followed it with Parrwang Lifts the Sky, a little opera with a lot of big messages, which begins our new term.

The children discover sunlight in Parrwang's treetops, above their dark world.

Billed as a children's opera, Parrwang Lifts the Sky is colourful, musical, funny and sweetly moving, telling a traditional legend through human-animal voices.

At left: Bunjil (Don Christopher) Mr and Mrs Waa (Shauntai Batzke and Kiran Rajasingam) Parrwang (Rebecca Rashleigh) and Gorngany (Deborah Cheetham).

'Short Black Opera’s collaboration with Victorian Opera encourages VO to widen its participation in reconciliation and to broaden the culture of the stories it tells, allowing for more Aboriginal voices in the arts. It introduces traditional Wadawurrung storytelling and language to a younger generation. Parrwang delivers an environmental message, as the council of birds are worried about the human destruction of nature...The opera is a work of aesthetic beauty in its set, costume and lighting design, representing stylistic elements of the traditional Dreamtime story on which the piece is based as well as the more traditionally operatic style of the robes which the council of birds wear.

Read more in this thoughtful review here. More detail here.

The birds sing in English and Wadawurrung.

Parrwang is available for streaming until December. Go to the VO website for more information, trailer and the link to the stream. Or for members of our group, log in to your free digital subscription, donated by Vic Opera, and view the opera from there.

In our second week, we'll look at the use of dance to convey Indigenous stories. And then we return to the strange short history of highly praised operas from Australian composers. More to come....


It had to end, this flood of free live streamed operas, as the Metropolitan Opera bravely returns to live theatre. All good things come to a (probable) end. Thankyou, to the Met; what an amazing privilege we've had, for 70 weeks, a different fine opera every night.

So here are the last free offerings. Dates are Melbourne time. As Melbourne is back in lockdown, I've listed below the last operas of their Puccini week, to fill your suddenly emptied diary. And then the final week of 'viewers' choices'.

Friday, July 16

Puccini’s Madama Butterfly

Starring Hui He, Elizabeth DeShong, Bruce Sledge, and Paulo Szot, conducted by Pier Giorgio Morandi. Production by Anthony Minghella. From November 9, 2019.

Anthony Minghella’s production (his only one of an opera) was revived after 10 years, and reviews approved.

Watch it for the music and visual images, Limelight advised. Or 'If you feel in the need a good cry, and who doesn’t now and then' - Huffington Post. Or just for the extraordinary artistry of scene, costume, and - novel then - puppetry.

Hui He as Cio-Cio-San with the Bunraku puppet of her son

Saturday, July 17 Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West Starring Barbara Daniels, Plácido Domingo, and Sherrill Milnes, conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Production by Giancarlo Del Monaco. From April 8, 1992.

Somehow the outlaw Dick in this oddly wild west Puccini gem doesn't seem likely to fit Domingo, but he played the part, with and without mustache, in several famous productions.

Here (without mustache), and the production and singing are reputedly splendid. 'Domingo repeated his familiar interpretation of the outlaw-hero, brooding ardently, flirting ardently, suffering ardently, singing ardently. He has few if any rivals in this role.' A great review here, concluding 'Perhaps Del Monaco has given us the ultimate oxymoron: a thinking person’s “Fanciulla del West.”'

Sunday, July 18 Puccini’s La Rondine Starring Angela Gheorghiu, Lisette Oropesa, Roberto Alagna, Marius Brenciu, and Samuel Ramey, conducted by Marco Armiliato. Production by Nicolas Joël. From January 10, 2009.

Monday, July 19 Puccini’s Turandot Starring Nina Stemme, Anita Hartig, Marco Berti, and Alexander Tsymbalyuk, conducted by Paolo Carignani. Production by Franco Zeffirelli. From January 30, 2016.

And then - it's the 71st and final week of the Met's free livestreams of their productions, one every day through Covid crises. Our grateful thanks for these operas that lit our lockdowns.

Final Week: Viewers’ Choice

Tuesday, July 20 Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro Starring Renée Fleming, Cecilia Bartoli, Susanne Mentzer, Dwayne Croft, and Bryn Terfel, conducted by James Levine. Production by Jonathan Miller. From November 11, 1998.

If I'd voted for the Viewers' Choice, it might have been for this one - it's the Marriage of Figaro production I have most enjoyed - and it's for the acting as much as for the splendid singing. Here's the wonderful duet , “Sull’aria”, as those two remarkable women create the letter, setting the plot to trip up the Count. And Bryn Terfel is having a ball and singing it splendidly!!!

Wednesday, July 21 Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci Starring Tatiana Troyanos, Jean Kraft, Plácido Domingo, and Vern Shinall; Teresa Stratas, Plácido Domingo, Sherrill Milnes, and Allan Monk, conducted by James Levine. Production by Franco Zeffirelli. From April 5, 1978.

Thursday, July 22 Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles Starring Diana Damrau, Matthew Polenzani, Mariusz Kwiecień, and Nicolas Testé, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. Production by Penny Woolcock. From January 16, 2016.

Friday, July 23 Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann Starring Erin Morley, Hibla Gerzmava, Kate Lindsey, Christine Rice, Vittorio Grigolo, and Thomas Hampson, conducted by Yves Abel. Production by Bartlett Sher. From January 31, 2015.

Saturday, July 24 Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment Starring Natalie Dessay, Felicity Palmer, Juan Diego Flórez, and Alessandro Corbelli, conducted by Marco Armiliato. Production by Laurent Pelly. From April 26, 2008.

If I had voted for the funniest production this week, it would have been this one.

Dessay's scene ironing the regiment's long johns is one to remember.

Dessay's portrayal of down to earth Marie is hilarious and truly memorable - and Flórez as the gormless local with the flawless 9 high C's has been a staple of favourite clips in our class for a year. (He broke the Met rule about encores!) Here he is at ROH ... Here's the finale.

Sunday, July 25 Verdi’s Il Trovatore Starring Anna Netrebko, Dolora Zajick, Yonghoon Lee, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, conducted by Marco Armiliato. Production by David McVicar. From October 3, 2015.

Monday, July 26 Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera Starring Sondra Radvanovsky, Kathleen Kim, Stephanie Blythe, Marcelo Álvarez, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, conducted by Fabio Luisi. Production by David Alden. From December 8, 2012.

Lyn, 16th July, 2021.


'I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer.' The amazing and hugely influential operas of Richard Strauss are given a whole week at the Met during our term break. It's especially interesting because they showcase a different director for each. And some comparisons of singers, particularly great divas, (in fabulous period dresses) over time.

And significantly, it offers the work of this radical composer over a long life. The tragedies come first. In 1905, as he turned to opera, Strauss produced Salome. Elektra followed in 1909, then the sweet/sad Der Rosenkavalier in 1911, Ariadne auf Naxos in 1912, Arabella 1933, Capriccio in 1942. Strauss wrote, 'Must one become seventy years old to recognize that one's greatest strength lies in creating musical kitsch?' (Even when one's country is Germany, at war.)

The three spirits of nature tower over Deborah Voigt's Ariadne

Here's the schedule (dates adjusted to our time). Go here for the Met's backgrounders and schedule. And go here to watch the current live stream.

Tuesday, July 6 Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier Starring Kiri Te Kanawa, Tatiana Troyanos, Judith Blegen, Luciano Pavarotti, Derek Hammond-Stroud, and Kurt Moll, conducted by James Levine. Production by Nathaniel Merrill. From October 7, 1982.

This is a week for Kiri fans - her much acclaimed performance as the Marchellin in the lovely Rosenkavalier starts the Strauss lineup. (She returns as Arabella on Sunday our time, a decade later.)

And it's a week for lovers of this gloriously musical opera. Our final Strauss screening for the week is of the Met's 2017 production with Renee Fleming.

Wednesday, July 7 Strauss’s Elektra We've had screenings of this brilliant performance by Nina Stemme earlier in lockdown. Our earlier post is here.

An exception to the 'lovely period dresses' comment above - this great diva here is portrayed as literally down to earth.

The three women of this tragedy are Nina Stemme, Adrianne Pieczonka, Waltraud Meier, and Eric Owens plays Oreste. Conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Production by Patrice Chéreau. From April 30, 2016.

Thursday, July 8 Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos

Here's one for the admirers of these two divas - playing two divas. Deborah Voigt is Ariadne and Natalie Dessay brilliant as the cheeky Zerbinetta. Conducted by James Levine. Production by Elijah Moshinsky. From April 3, 2003. NY Times review here.

Friday, July 9 Strauss’s Capriccio

Which is the greater art, poetry or music? Why not ask it within an opera? They do, at length, but there's some great music as they play out this strange either/or in a love triangle - in an opera written in the middle of WWII. As the NYTimes puts it, 'The opera never resolves the question. Somehow this was the perfect way for Strauss to end his opera career.'

Here's Fleming doing the final scene at the 2008-09 gala.

And here's a thoughtful Bachtrack review.

Renée Fleming sings one of her signature roles, the elegant Countess in "Capriccio,"

Starring Renée Fleming, Sarah Connolly, Joseph Kaiser, Russell Braun, Morten Frank Larsen, and Peter Rose, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis (remember him from MSO days?). Production by John Cox. From April 23, 2011.

Saturday, July 10 Strauss’s Salome Starring Karita Mattila, Ildikó Komlósi, Kim Begley, Joseph Kaiser, and Juha Uusitalo, conducted by Patrick Summers. Production by Jürgen Flimm. From October 11, 2008. Prepare for a formidable combination of music and drama, dominated by Mattila's portrayal of the princess as a spoilt, greedy, slightly crazy young woman.

She gets the kiss later... Karita Mattila as Salome

Salome was the audacious breakthrough opera of Strauss's career. A fascinating account here of reactions from colleagues and audiences.

Sunday, July 11 Strauss’s Arabella

Kiri returns, years later, to Strauss at the Met, and this opera is the return by Strauss to a period piece of intrigue and complex plot. Same librettist (Hofmannsthal's last collaboration with Strauss). NYTimes review regrets Kiri's Arabella of before and comments that Natalie Dessay 'proved to have lots of potential'.

Starring Kiri Te Kanawa, Marie McLaughlin, Helga Dernesch, Natalie Dessay, David Kuebler, Wolfgang Brendel, and Donald McIntyre, conducted by Christian Thielemann. Production by Otto Schenk. From November 3, 1994.

Monday, July 11 Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier

Starring Renée Fleming, Elīna Garanča, Erin Morley, Matthew Polenzani, Marcus Brück, and Günther Groissböck, conducted by Sebastian Weigle. Production by Robert Carsen. From May 13, 2017.

We've been offered this gem earlier in lockdown. Fleming first played the Marschallin in 2000, and she performed it 70 times. It was her exit role in 2017. There’s a thinkpiece about the role and the diva here.

Lyn 2 July 2021