Opera's nomads

Opera's nomads

Jenna Simeonov

Ever notice how the guy from out of town, the traveller, the wanderer-sort of character is often a bit shady and untrustworthy? This isn’t limited to operatic characters, but you can certainly find examples in the repertoire (more on those below). More so than I expected, it’s difficult to find any serious backing to my musings; although you can find the Fortune-Teller or the Pirate among the list of stock characters, neither the Vagabond, the Foreigner, nor the Travelling Salesman aren’t really a stock character in the same way as the Senex Iratus or the Femme Fatale.

I’m in a travel-friendly mood these days, as I’m gearing up for a true vacation in Europe. I wanted to pay some homage to the wanderlust-types in opera and music theatre, and maybe nerd out a bit on what sort of significace these characters play in their respective shows.

1. Dulcamara

Dulcamara is the first obvious example, partly because L’elisir d’amore is so beautifull exaggerated, one doesn’t have to work too much to find the dramaturgy within. The travelling scam-artist shows up in Nemorino and Adina’s town, claiming to sell a cure-all remedy for life’s various misfortunes. Donizetti composed one patter song after another for Dulcamara, and the brilliant result is a man who says plenty of words, but most of them lack substance. Here my favourite version of Dulcamara’s opening aria, “Udite, o rustici,” (how demeaning) sung by Bryn Terfel in Dutch National Opera’s 2002 production of L’elisir d’amore.

2. Don José

Carmen’s man of mystery poses more juicy problems for directors (and tenors) than most romantic leads. The standard version of Bizet’s opera leaves out plenty of Don José’s history, including why he left home, what sort of arrangement he and Micaëla really had, and more interestingly, why he has such self-esteem issues.

In the novella by Prosper Mérimée, Don José is a robber, on the run from Navarre after killing a man over a game. He becomes a soldier in Seville, and it’s at this point that Carmen librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy pick up the story in the opera. Neither the novella nor the opera really make Don José a real “hero,” but in both versions, José’s problems and poor decisions are based out of xenophobia and insecure jealousy. Xenophobia is a shame in a traveled man, but insecurity is both a reason to travel and good fodder for drama. Anti-hero-ness aside, here’s Jonas Kaufmann melting hearts with this aria full of lies (sorry, tenors).

3. Azucena

Speaking of Gypsies, Azucena is a combo of untrustworthy nomad plus scary old woman and surprise mother of Il trovatore himself. Verdi certainly didn’t belittle her presence in his opera, but he absolutely played to the stereotypes of this stock-character gold mine (I forgot to add that she’s also poor and a woman). You certainly won’t hear any Verdi heroine sounding like this:

Dolora Zajick sings "Stride la vampa," from Verdi's *Il trovatore* at the Met in 2011.

4. Harold Hill

Ah, The Music Man. I grew up on that 1962 film with Shirley Jones and Robert Preston (#shapoopie). I remember thinking that everyone right here in River City, Iowa was super uptight and pretty mean to the charismatic “Professor” Hill when he got off that train. I now get the whole “don’t trust the new guy” schtick in theatre, and to be fair to the River City-ites, Hill was totally full of it.

But, with the magic of music and Harold Hill’s ability to convince a charmingly gullible group of Midwesterners, we all remember what happened in River City:

Who have I missed? Let us know in the comments below!


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