“Aria Code” explores the meaning of music

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For many fans, the highlight of any opera is a remarkable aria, such as “O mio babbino caro” by “Gianni Schicchi” by Puccini or “Vesti la giubba” by “Pagliacci” by Leoncavallo.

But these works aren’t all about one intense melody, and many listeners turn to opera-themed podcasts to better understand the layers of this emotion-filled art form.

One such podcast among many is “Aria Code”, a collaboration between classical music radio station WQXR and the Metropolitan Opera in New York and hosted by Rhiannon Giddens. A singer, songwriter and musician originally from North Carolina, Ms. Giddens studied opera at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and helped found the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a string orchestra in which she sang and played the violin and piano. banjo.

“Aria Code” uses the slogan “The Magic of Opera Revealed, One Song at a Time” and humorous episode titles like “Once More Into the Breeches: Joyce DiDonato Sings Strauss” and “Breaking Mad: Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor “.

The series has expanded its audience in this third season: podcast downloads have increased by more than 20% compared to season 2, according to its co-creator and lead producer, Merrin Lazyan.

The podcast also helped the Met reach its audiences as the opera house was closed for nearly 18 months by the Covid-19 pandemic. (The opera officially reopens on Monday, although it hosted an audience on September 11 for a live performance of Verdi’s Requiem.)

Gillian Brierley, deputy general manager of marketing and communications at the Met, said via email that the podcast was a way for the Met to “reach not only opera fans but new audiences as well, bringing the line to life. emotions of opera through lively stories and interviews as well as precious recordings from our audio archives. “

The seed for the idea for “Aria Code” came from Mrs. Lazyan, who studied classical vocal performance at the Royal College of Music in London. At WQXR in 2017, she suggested a segment in which a Met artist would explain the aria “Queen of the Night” from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” composed using archival recordings from the Met. But her colleagues saw wider potential, coming up with a series “that could potentially open up an art form that comes with a bit of baggage to a wider audience,” she wrote in an email.

Credit…Rick stockwell

As the format evolved, Ms Lazyan said, a team from WQXR and WNYC Studios (the podcast division of New York Public Radio) decided to include several guests and people outside of the opera world to make topics more relevant to modern life. (The episodes end with a recorded Met performance of the selected tune.)

“We realized that the best version of this show would be one that would delight existing opera fans, but also be accessible to an audience that is new to opera, or maybe even skeptical of it,” said she declared. “We didn’t want to dilute it, but we wanted to cross the barriers. “

In choosing an aria for an episode, Ms. Lazyan is working closely with the Met. “Pre-pandemic,” she said, “all of the tunes and selected artists have been featured in the current season on the Met’s stage, and we’ve done our best to align the episode releases with their production schedule. . This year, we have chosen tunes from their canceled and upcoming seasons. “

To keep “Aria Code” interesting, the producers are aiming for a mix of well-known operas and what Ms. Lazyan called more obscure gems, as well as a variety of voice types and even languages.

“When it comes to the other guests on the show – musicologists and playwrights, scientists and doctors, athletes and writers and more – I choose them,” she said, sometimes with input from Mrs. Giddens and others.

Finding the right host was also essential, she said, calling Ms Giddens a “dream host for so many reasons”.

“It was important for us to find someone who understands and appreciates this music, but who is not necessarily an opera insider,” Ms. Lazyan said, but a guide for “longtime opera enthusiasts. , curious people who only stuck one toe in, and people who thought it was all a bunch of insane blasphemies.

“Ms. Giddens’ goal in her own music is to dig into the past and speak bold truths about our present,” Ms. Lazyan said, “which is exactly what ‘Aria Code’ aims to do as well.”

Ms Giddens said she jumped at the chance to host in part because of the “sheer universality of opera – these deeply moving stories reflect the best and worst of human nature, performed with skill. breathtaking and an artistic collaboration “.

She added that she has always been interested in equal access to the arts. “If given the chance,” she said, “people who hate the idea of ​​opera might actually like it, if they are exposed to it in the right way.”

Its not always easy. “Helping listeners connect to the emotion of opera can be a challenge offstage,” Ms. Lazyan conceded.

“For some tunes, the sheer athleticism of opera performance comes to the fore,” she said. “Singing is such a personal and internal process, and it can be difficult to verbalize the nuanced inner workings of an artist’s technical and interpretive approach.

“But hearing a singer describe how to strike the high note at the end of an exuberant coloratura passage feels like being in the heavens among the stars, and simultaneously hearing that final high note ringing like a bell while the singer talks about it, makes this process immediate and exciting for listeners.

Other tunes “welcome a much more personal and intimate type of storytelling,” Ms. Lazyan said. “For those, I’m looking for guests with a personal experience that fits the events or the emotional heart of the music.”

For “Madama Butterfly”, psychotherapist Kyoko Katayama “told the story of her mother, whose love affair with an American GI who abandoned her pregnant in Japan was a strange parallel to abandonment and to Cio-Cio San’s betrayal in the opera, ”Ms. Lazyan said.

“Throughout the episode, you hear Kyoko’s story alongside the story of ‘Butterfly.’ You hear how deeply personal it is, and it really opens the door to a different way of feeling the power of this music.

While the music and its composer may be the main draw, what about the librettists who shaped the words?

“Aria Code” certainly doesn’t ignore them, but Knoxville-based opera director Keturah Stickann, Tenn., Puts them squarely in the spotlight in another podcast, “Words First: Talking Text in Opera”. She puts the spotlight on librettists, she said via email, “because I feel like they sort of disappear when talking about a work. I like to make sure we pronounce their names.

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