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Aria Code

Author: WQXR & The Metropolitan Opera

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Aria Code is a podcast that pulls back the curtain on some of the most famous arias in opera history, with insight from the biggest voices of our time, including Roberto Alagna, Diana Damrau, Sondra Radvanovsky, and many others. Hosted by Grammy Award-winner and MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Rhiannon Giddens, Aria Code is produced in partnership with The Metropolitan Opera.

Each episode dives into one aria — a feature for a single singer — and explores how and why these brief musical moments have imprinted themselves in our collective consciousness and what it takes to stand on the Met stage and sing them.

A wealth of guests—from artists like Rufus Wainwright and Ruben Santiago-Hudson to non-musicians like Dame Judi Dench and Dr. Brooke Magnanti, author of The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl—join Rhiannon and the Met Opera’s singers to understand why these arias touch us at such a human level, well over a century after they were written. Each episode ends with the aria, uninterrupted and in full, recorded from the Met Opera stage.

Aria Code is produced in partnership with WQXR, The Metropolitan Opera and WNYC Studios.
50 Episodes
Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is the most famous love story in the Western canon. It’s a tale so embedded in our culture — one that has seen so many iterations and retellings — it might feel hard to appreciate its original pathos, and the way it perfectly distills the intersections of young romance, idealism, and rebellion. In this episode, host Rhiannon Giddens and guests take a fresh look at this classic by focusing on the character of Juliet and her pivotal decision to take the friar’s draught, a concoction that will help her feign death long enough to escape an arranged marriage and run away with Romeo. It’s both an act of tremendous courage and one that sets their tragedy in motion. In Charles Gounod’s operatic retelling, the aria Juliet delivers as she wrestles away her fear is so difficult that it’s often cut from productions. But it’s a pivotal moment, and a testament to Juiet’s agency. Soprano Diana Damrau is up to the task, and delivers a rendition of “Amour, ranime mon courage” — otherwise known as the “poison aria” — from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. THE GUESTS Soprano Diana Damrau is among the most celebrated opera singers of her generation. She’s graced the stages of opera houses all over the world, and sung the role of Juliette at both The Metropolitan Opera and La Scala. After her debut as Juliette in 2016, it quickly became a favorite. For her, Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette” is “one of the most beautiful operas ever written.” Yannick Nézet-Séguin serves as music director for the Met Opera orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Montreal’s Orchestre Metropolitain, among many other appointments and collaborations with esteemed orchestras. In his opinion, “Roméo et Juliette” beats out “Faust” as Gounod’s best opera. Emma Smith is a Shakespeare scholar and critic at the University of Oxford. Among her publications is the book “This Is Shakespeare,” which was a Sunday Times bestseller and has been translated into several languages. Smith frequently works with theater companies on their productions of Shakespeare plays and consults for film and television.Acclaimed British author and theater director Neil Bartlett, whose novels include “The Disappearance Boy” and “Address Book,” directed “Romeo and Juliet” for the Royal Shakespeare Company in London. He says the experience leaves him feeling “wrung dry with admiration.”
Carmen is maybe the most famous heroine in all of opera. She’s a woman of Romani descent living in 19th century Spain, sensual and self-confident, aware of the power she wields over men — and she enjoys it. In her signature aria, popularly known as the “Habanera,” she describes herself as a bird who can’t be captured. True to her own word, Carmen — and what she represents — is hard to pin down.  When “Carmen” premiered in Paris in 1875, it was deemed wildly immoral. Carmen becomes intrigued by a soldier, Don José, who initially pays her no attention. She seduces him, Don José abandons his fiancée to run away with her, and one thing leads to another (this is opera, after all) — he winds up murdering Carmen in a fit of jealous rage. One interpretation is that this is the story of a man giving into temptation and meeting his downfall. A more modern view would position Carmen as a proto-feminist. She’s a woman who refuses to be controlled, and that puts her life in danger.But perhaps Carmen’s greatest irony is that she is both a complex character and a full-blown stereotype of Romani women. In this episode, host Rhiannon Giddens and guests unpack the myth and the magic of Georges Bizet’s "Carmen," and Clémentine Margaine brings it home with a performance of “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” from the Met stage.THE GUESTSFrench mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine first performed in “Carmen” as a member of the children’s chorus. Shortly after graduating from the Paris Conservatory, she joined the ensemble of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, where she sang her first performances in the title role. Since then, she’s performed Carmen at opera houses all over the world. Susan McClary is a pioneer in feminist music criticism. She’s a musicologist at Case Western Reserve University whose research focuses on the cultural analysis of music, both the European canon and contemporary popular genres. She’s authored 11 books, including "Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality" and the Cambridge Opera Handbook on “Carmen.”Ioanida Costache is an assistant professor of ethnomusicology and an affiliate of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University. She is of Romanian-Roma descent, and her work explores the legacies of historical trauma inscribed in Romani music, sound, and art. Her family likes to pass on the story of the time her great-grandfather performed the cimbalom for President Roosevelt at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Rosamaria Kostic Cisneros wears many hats. She is a professional dancer, dance historian and critic, Romani studies scholar, Flamenco historian, as well as a sociologist, curator and peace activist. A research-artist at Coventry University’s Centre for Dance Research, she works to bring arts and culture to vulnerable groups. She was introduced to flamenco by her Spanish-Roma mother during their frequent trips to Seville.
When the Voyager spacecraft set off to explore the galaxy in 1977, it carried a recording to represent the best of humanity. The “Golden Record” featured everyone from Bach to Chuck Berry, but there was only one opera aria: the rage-fest and coloratura masterpiece from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”As Kathryn Lewek reprises her role as Queen of the Night in this season’s holiday presentation of “The Magic Flute” at The Metropolitan Opera, we’re revisiting this episode. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests consider why the Queen of the Night’s big moment – “Der Hölle Rache” – is an out-of-this-world achievement, how Mozart created a profound fairy tale for adults and what it takes for a soprano to reach the stratosphere. You’ll witness Kathryn Lewek hit all those high notes onstage at the Met Opera and hear from Timothy Ferris, the man who produced NASA’s “Golden Record.”The GuestsSoprano Kathryn Lewek describes singing “Der Hölle Rache” as throwing darts with your eyes closed. But after performing the part more than 200 times, she certainly knows how to hit the bullseye.Harvard University professor Carolyn Abbate once took her son to see The Magic Flute and he declared it to be “bad, but not in the way I expected it to be bad.” Her latest book is A History of Opera: The Last Four Hundred Years.Composer and author Jan Swafford was a graduate student when he spent his last $50 to buy a copy of The Magic Flute and immediately regretted it: He hated the opera. To say he’s warmed to Mozart over the years would be a wild understatement.Timothy Ferris produced the Golden Record that went up with NASA’s Voyager space probes in 1977. It was the only record he ever produced, but he's written many books including Coming of Age in the Milky Way, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
It’s the early 1900s, and the steamship El Dorado makes its way along the Amazon River towards Manaus, a city in the heart of the Brazilian rainforest. Onboard is the world-famous opera singer Florencia Grimaldi. She’s got a gig at the opera house in Manaus, but that’s just a cover. She’s actually hoping for a reunion with her long-lost love, the butterfly catcher Cristóbal.But on the journey, Florencia learns that Cristóbal went missing in the rainforest while in pursuit of a rare butterfly. From the deck of the ship — and now in quarantine due to a cholera outbreak — she delivers her final aria, calling out to him, the river and the rainforest that surround her: “Escúchame.” Hear me, listen to me. “From you my song was born,” she affirms — and in embracing her love for him, she is released and reborn.Daniel Catán’s lush and lyrical score has become a staple of contemporary operas, and its staging marks the Metropolitan Opera’s first Spanish-language production in nearly 100 years. In this episode, host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests take us on a journey through natural wonder, transcendent love, and self-discovery.THE GUESTS Soprano Ailyn Pérez makes her Metropolitan Opera debut in her native language of Spanish as Florencia Grimaldi. She identifies with Florencia and the sacrifices that are sometimes necessary to pursue an artistic career.Andrea Puente-Catán is a harpist, director of development at Ballet Hispánico, and the widow of “Florencia” composer Daniel Catán. She met Catán when she was 17 years old. Decades later, playing harp in that opera’s production at Palacia de Bellas Artes brought them back together.  Author, filmmaker, and fearless traveler Alycin Hayes knows a thing or two about Amazonian adventures. When she was 21, she hitchhiked from her home in Canada to South America, where she met up with other roving internationals to paddle along the Amazon River in a dugout canoe. She describes her adventures in her recent memoir "Amazon Hitchhiker."Paul Rosolie is conservationist, writer, and wildlife filmmaker whose memoir “Mother of God” details his extensive work in the Amazon. He’s the founder and field director of Junglekeepers, a conservation outfit based in Peru, and he joins the show via a remote interview taped in the jungle.
Malcolm X led many lives within his 39 years: as a bereaved but precocious child; as an imprisoned convict; as a firebrand spokesperson for the Nation of Islam and Black nationalism; and ultimately as one of the most pivotal figures of the Civil Rights movement. Today, he continues to inspire passion and controversy, his legacy as nuanced as the man himself.Anthony Davis’s opera “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” seeks to gather Malcolm X’s many identities and hold them together in the way only an artistic work can. When the piece was premiered by New York City Opera in 1986, it broke ground not just for its unique melding of jazz and blues idioms with contemporary classical traditions, but also for the choice made by Davis and his cousin, the librettist Thulani Davis, to situate recent history on the operatic stage.It turns out that a life as dramatic and urgent as Malcolm X’s is ripe for opera. In the aria “You Want The Story, But You Don’t Want To Know,” Anthony and Thulani Davis take the occasion of a police interrogation to let Malcolm X’s character reflect on the tragedies and injustices that have shaped his life up to that moment — and, in his refusal to deliver “easier” narratives, to presage the often tumultuous search for truth and righteousness that would direct his life in years to come. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the drama and the passion of Malcolm X’s life and its inherent musicality upon the Metropolitan Opera’s premiere of this modern classic.THE GUESTSIt may have taken nearly forty years for composer Anthony Davis to see the Metropolitan Opera stage “X,” but he’s kept himself busy in the interim. This prolific composer, which The New York Times described as “the dean of African-American opera composers,” is also known for “Amistad,” “Wakonda’s Dream,” and “The Central Park Five,” the latter of which won him a Pulitzer Prize in 2020. If anyone was born to be a musician, it’s Davis: People tell him that the first time he played the piano was as a baby sitting in the lap of jazz pianist Billy Taylor.   Grammy Award-winning baritone Will Liverman was described by The Washington Post as a “voice for this historic moment.” Portraying Malcolm X in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” is only his most recent artistic triumph. Others include his breakout performance as Charles in Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up In My Bones” and the premiere of “The Factotum,” an opera he both starred in and co-created. His hope for “X” is to help “kill some of the preconceived notions about who Malcolm X was and find the humanity in him.”Zaheer Ali is the executive director of the Hutchins Institute for Social Justice at the Lawrenceville School and something of a Malcolm X expert (a Malcolm X-pert?). He served as the project manager of the Malcolm X Project at Columbia University and his work on the Civil Rights icon has been featured in documentaries like Netflix’s “Who Killed Malcolm X?” and CNN’s “Witnessed: The Assassination of Malcolm X.” He traces his fascination with Malcolm X back to an assignment given by his eleventh-grade English teacher.
If a loved one were to die, how far would you be willing to go to bring them back? Orpheus, the ancient Greek musician, goes to hell and back to have the love of his life, Eurydice, by his side again. The gods cut a deal with Orpheus: he can bring his love back from hell, but all throughout the journey, she has to follow behind him and he is not allowed to look back at her. Unable to resist, he turns to see her,  and the gods take her for a second time. In a moment of overwhelming grief, Orpheus asks, “What will I do without Eurydice?” Ahead of this season’s production of "Orfeo ed Euridice" by the Metropolitan Opera, we’re revisiting this episode, in which host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests reflect on Christoph Gluck's operatic adaptation of the Orpheus myth and the all-encompassing nature of both grief and love. At the end of the show, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton sings “Che farò senza Euridice?” from the Metropolitan Opera stage.The GuestsMezzo-soprano Jamie Barton grew up in a musical family, with days full of bluegrass, classic rock, and music history quizzes about the Beatles. In her role debut as Orfeo, she searches for this hero’s vulnerability, dramatically and vocally, and figures out how to embody a version of this character that’s modeled on Johnny Cash. Author Ann Patchett stumbled upon her love for opera while writing her book “Bel Canto.” But the Orpheus myth has been part of her life — and has influenced her writing — for a lot longer.  She’s fairly certain that she would travel to the depths of hell to save her husband of 29 years. Jim Walter lost his wife to cancer in 2015. He cared for her through some very difficult years, and kept hope alive even when things looked hopeless. He says that nowadays his grief usually isn’t as immediate and gut-punching as it once was, but he is still sometimes overcome with sadness at unexpected moments.
“L’Elisir d’Amore” — “The Elixir of Love” — is what’s known as an opera buffa, or comic opera. That means that we’re in for a happy ending.But Donizetti knows that the payoff is only earned through the suffering of his protagonists. In one pivotal moment, our hero Nemorino glimpses his beloved shedding a single tear — and he concludes (crazily, but correctly) that it can only mean that she loves him back. The aria Nemorino delivers here — one of the most famous in the history of opera — expresses the singular moment when the agony of unrequited love shifts to the certainty of a blissful future.In this episode, host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests unpack the potential for heartbreak that lies within every happy ending and why Donizetti might be one of the most underrated opera composers. Tenor Matthew Polenzani brings it home with a rendition of “Una furtiva lagrima” from the Met stage.THE GUESTSOver the course of a career spanning more than 30 years, tenor Matthew Polenzani has sung the role of Nemorino on opera stages all over the world. He has a family of barbershop quartet singers to thank for his introduction to music.Fred Plotkin is the author of “Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera.” As a proud Donizetti fanboy, he believes that the psychological insight Donizetti brings to his characters is nearly unmatched in the work of other composers.When she’s not teaching French at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, Laine Doggett is brushing up on her medieval lore. As the author of “Love Cures: Healing and Magic in Old French Romance,” she knows a thing or two about magical elixirs.Judith Fetterley is a former professor, master gardener, and writer. She’s got a love story of her own that involves elixirs. You might have read it in the New York Times’ “Modern Love” column under the title, Was She Just Another Nicely Packaged Pain Delivery System?
What does redemption mean to a man sentenced to death? Is capital punishment justice or vengeance? Could anyone ever forgive a murderer?These are just some of the questions behind the true story of the nun who became a spiritual adviser to men on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Dead Man Walking was first a 1993 memoir by the Catholic nun and fervent death penalty abolitionist Sister Helen Prejean; later, it was adapted into an Oscar-winning movie. Sister Helen’s story inspired a national conversation around the death penalty — and the opera duo Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally. Their adaptation of Sister Helen’s story has become one of the most celebrated operas of the 21st century, and, with the last federal execution taking place as recently as 2021, feels as timely as ever.In her aria “This Journey,” Sister Helen’s character reflects on her religious calling as she makes her way to the Angola prison for the first time. In this episode, host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests take us deeper into the true story that inspired the opera and the experiences that continue to inform Sister Helen Prejean’s ministry.The GuestsThe Metropolitan Opera’s 2023 production of Dead Man Walking marks the fifth time mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato has sung the role of Sister Helen. She describes the role as one that’s impossible to emerge from without feeling changed. Having embodied Sister Helen so many times, DiDonato feels “much less comfortable turning a blind eye to things.”American composer Jake Heggie is best known for Dead Man Walking, the most widely performed new opera of the last 20 years. In addition to 10 other full-length operas and numerous one-acts, Heggie has composed more than 300 art songs, as well as concerti, chamber music, choral, and orchestral works. When librettist Terrence McNally proposed adapting Dead Man Walking into an opera, Heggie’s “hair stood on end” and he immediately “felt and heard music.”Sister Helen Prejean is a Roman Catholic nun, the author of the memoir Dead Man Walking, and a leading voice in the effort to abolish the death penalty. She’s served as a spiritual counselor to numerous convicted inmates on Death Row as well as to families of murder victims and survivors of violent crimes. Despite her wisdom, Sister Helen claims to know “boo-scat” about opera.
At last! After much anticipation, Aria Code returns! We’re guiding listeners through highlights from the Metropolitan Opera’s 2023-2024 season, pairing beloved classics with investigations into modern masterpieces. So get ready for a night at the opera — from the comfort of your own home. (Or wherever!) Arias from the likes of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking and Anthony Davis’s X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X will tackle some of the most complex social and ethical questions head-on, while classics like Bizet’s Carmen and Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette plunge us into the thick of opera’s favorite themes of desire, love, and longing. Hosted by Grammy Award-winner, MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, and (most recently) Pulitzer Prize-winning musician Rhiannon Giddens, each episode features a signature combination of music and riveting storytelling, paired with Met Opera performances by world-renowned opera stars, including Joyce DiDonato, Matthew Polenzani, Will Liverman, Clémentine Margaine, Diana Damrau, and Ailyn Pérez.    Aria Code is produced by WQXR in partnership with The Metropolitan Opera. This season, we’ll be releasing episodes on a biweekly basis, starting October 4.
“To be or not to be, that is the question.” It’s hard to think of a more famous line from a more famous play. In this iconic speech from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the troubled Danish prince asks whether this whole life thing is even worth it. But “to be or not to be'' is not the only question we’re asking this week.  When everyone knows this line so well, how do you make it fresh again? How does adapting Shakespeare’s play into an opera change our understanding of the text? In this episode, host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore one of the most famous speeches in literature, its transformation into opera, and why Hamlet’s brooding soliloquy continues to intrigue artists and audiences four centuries later. Tenor Allan Clayton created the role of Hamlet in Brett Dean’s opera at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2017. Dean wrote this vocally and dramatically challenging part specifically for Clayton: he would have him read monologues from Shakespeare’s original in order to get a sense of his voice and once even emailed him changes during an intermission. Opera dramaturg Cori Ellison worked closely with composer Brett Dean and librettist Matthew Jocelyn throughout the development of Hamlet. She was the staff dramaturg at the Glyndebourne Festival from 2012 through 2017, where Hamlet premiered, and has worked with opera companies around the world, including as a staff dramaturg at New York City Opera and Santa Fe Opera. Actor and director Samuel West has worked across theater, film, television, and radio, but he was obsessed with Shakespeare's Hamlet. He starred as the Danish prince (whom he describes as “a floppy-shirted noodle”) for one year and three days with the Royal Shakespeare Company. But who’s counting?! Jeffrey R. Wilson is a faculty member in the Writing Program at Harvard, where he teaches a course called “Why Shakespeare?” He feels that Shakespeare is still so popular because of the deep and varied problems his plays present: textual, theatrical, thematic, and ethical problems. He is the author of three books, including Shakespeare and Trump and Shakespeare and Game of Thrones.
When we talk about “falling in love,” we talk about it like it is something that just happens. Suddenly the ground opens up and we are falling for somebody, as if there is no choice in the matter. This is everywhere -- in movies, TV shows, novels, and of course, in opera. Take Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde - while Tristan is bringing her across the Irish sea to marry his uncle Marke, King of Cornwall, they both drink a love potion and fall instantly, madly in love with each other. But Isolde is still betrothed to King Marke, who catches them in a passionate night of love, and one of his men stabs Tristan, who later dies from the wound. Standing over his lifeless body, Isolde sings of her love for Tristan in her final climactic aria, the “Liebestod,” as their love triumphs over even death itself. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore forbidden passion, agonizing desire, and what it means to “fall” in love. Soprano Jane Eaglen is known for her portrayals of Wagner’s most commanding heroines, including Brünnhilde and Isolde. She actually met her husband during her first-ever production of Tristan und Isolde at Seattle Opera, and she would find his seat in the audience each night and sing to him from the stage. She is on the voice faculty at the New England Conservatory. Alex Ross is the music critic for The New Yorker and author of The Rest is Noise and Listen to This. He spent nearly a decade writing his most recent book, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, which explores Wagner’s wide and complicated influence on art and politics. When he first heard Wagner’s music, he thought it was “messy, unsteady, and confusing,” but Tristan und Isolde was the opera that changed his mind. Mandy Len Catron has been studying and writing about romantic love for ten years. She wrote the essay, “To Fall In Love With Anyone, Do This,” for The New York Times “Modern Love” column about how she and a friend fell in love by answering 36 questions and staring into each other’s eyes--almost like a modern-day love potion. The essay went viral shortly after its publication in 2015. She has also written the book How To Fall in Love With Anyone: A Memoir In Essays. To spice things up, she’s currently working on a book about loneliness.
This week we’re decoding with the man who wrote the code - Terence Blanchard, composer of Fire Shut Up in My Bones. Not only is it the work that reopened the Met after its 18-month pandemic shutdown, but it’s also the first opera by a Black composer ever to be performed there. Based on the 2014 memoir of the same name by New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, Fire Shut Up in My Bones is a coming-of-age story about his childhood in a tiny town in northwest Louisiana.  From a young age, Charles knew he was different, not like his brothers or the other boys. After being sexually assaulted by his older cousin, he was consumed by shame, and especially when he began to feel attraction toward boys as well as girls. The South was not the place to be questioning one’s sexual identity as a Black man in the 1970s and 80s. But in the aria “Peculiar Grace,” he puts his questions aside and looks forward to a brighter future. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the experience of feeling like an outsider, and the life-changing path toward self-acceptance. Composer Terence Blanchard is a multiple Grammy-winning composer and jazz trumpeter. Fire Shut Up In My Bones is his second opera, and it premiered at Opera Theatre of St. Louis in 2019. He has scored countless films, and is known for his many collaborations with the film director Spike Lee, including most recently Da 5 Bloods and BlacKkKlansman. Each was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Score. He credits his father for his love of opera, and he has a particular fondness for Puccini’s La bohème. Baritone Will Liverman is singing the role of Charles in the Met’s production of Fire Shut Up In My Bones. While he was sitting on his couch during the pandemic, wondering if he’d ever get to sing in front of an audience again, he was invited to send an audition tape and landed the role just a few days later. Will has collaborated with D.J. and artist K-Rico to create The Factotum, a contemporary  adaptation of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville for the Lyric Opera of Chicago. He is an alumnus of the Ryan Opera Center at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Dr. E. Patrick Johnson is an artist, writer, and professor of Performance Studies and African American Studies at Northwestern, where he is also the Dean of the School of Communication. He is the author and editor of several award-winning books, including Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South. His research for the book included dozens of interviews with men who were born, raised, and still live in the South, and he later adapted it into a staged-reading, Pouring Tea, as well as a full-length play and a documentary. He has received multiple awards both for his scholarship and his stage work.
Psalm 137 depicts the ancient Hebrews, enslaved and weeping “by the rivers of Babylon,” as they remember their homeland, Jerusalem. Those words have inspired songwriters of reggae, Broadway, disco, folk and more, but one of the most memorable versions is featured in Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Nabucco. The opera retells the story of the Babylonian captivity when Nebuchadnezzar (or Nabucco, in Italian) seizes Jerusalem, destroys the temple, and enslaves the Israelites in his kingdom. At the heart of the opera is “Va, pensiero,” also known as the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, in which the Israelites yearn for their lost home.  It’s this yearning for home by those exiled from their homeland, and of refugees trying to build a new identity in a new land, that has helped make Verdi’s first big hit resonate far beyond the opera house since its premiere. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the experience of refugees and immigrants, the significance of memory and community, and the power of 100 voices joined in song. Donald Palumbo has been the chorus master at the Met Opera for 15 years. He can remember almost every time he has ever performed “Va, pensiero,” and usually ends up standing in the wings just to listen to it. He previously was the chorus master at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and has taught at Juilliard since 2016.  Professor Mark Burford is a musicologist at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. He specializes in 19th-century Austro-German music, and twentieth century African American music, and is the author of the award-winning book Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field.  He previously taught at the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall, Columbia University, and City College of New York. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg is the Scholar in Residence at the National Council of Jewish Women. She writes books about the messy business of trying to be a person in the world, and about how spirituality can transform that work. She is the author of seven books, including Nurture the Wow and Surprised by God. She’s been named one of the top 50 most influential women rabbis. Roya Hakakian is an Iranian Jewish writer and the author of two volumes of poetry in Persian. Her family was exiled from Iran following the 1979 revolution, after which they lived as refugees in Europe for a year before immigrating to the United States. Her most recent book is A Beginner’s Guide to America: For the Immigrant and the Curious. 
The young Composer in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is one of opera’s great trouser roles -- a female singer playing the part of a young man.  He is set to premiere his new opera at the home of the richest man in Vienna, only to learn moments before the performance that a bawdy comedy troupe will be performing at the same time.  As his plans collapse around him, the Composer falls in love with Zerbinetta, the leader of the commedia dell'arte troupe, and his whole world changes in a flash. In his aria “Sein wir wieder gut,” he sings about how he now sees everything with new eyes. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the transformational power of love, music and putting on a pair of pants. The Guests Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is a multi Grammy Award-winner and a fierce advocate for the arts. She’s also kind of a hero, bringing her talents to classrooms, prisons, and refugee camps, and sharing the transformative power of music. She loves playing trouser roles, and finds singing the Composer in particular to be an experience of discovery and total joy.  Writer Paul Thomason is a die-hard Strauss fan and is writing a book about the composer. He sees Strauss as the great humanist among composers, because he presents his characters exactly as they are. He studied conducting and worked with maestros Thomas Schippers and Peter Maag. He has also appeared on the Met Opera’s intermission quizzes during their Saturday broadcasts. Mo B. Dick is a founding father of the drag king movement. He started performing in drag in 1995 and founded Club Cassanova, the first weekly party dedicated to drag kings, and has made appearances in movies and television. He is also one of the cofounders of the website, which archives the history of drag kings and crossdressers dating all the way back to the Tang dynasty.
People who go to see Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor spend the entire evening waiting for the famous Mad Scene, to hear the soprano’s incredible acrobatics, and to feel her intense emotional changes over the course of the lengthy showstopper. But the Mad Scene is more than a vocal showpiece: it’s a window into what it means to lose touch with reality and the ways women’s real-life challenges can go ignored or, even worse, pathologized as illness. In the opera, Lucia has no control of her life; her brother betrays her and forces her to marry a man she doesn’t love. Alone and out of options, Lucia escapes in the only way she can: she murders her new husband and descends into madness. But how do we understand her crimes and hallucinations? And what can Lucia teach us about how we diagnose and treat mental health conditions today? Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests dive into the history of women and madness, as well as the story of a woman living with bipolar disorder today. Soprano Natalie Dessay had a thriving career as a coloratura soprano before cashing in her opera chips and turning her talents to theater and jazz. When she sang the role of Lucia at the Met in 2011, she approached it a bit like a circus performer, adding physical challenges to match the vocal ones. Dr. Mary Ann Smart is a professor of music at UC Berkeley. As a grad student, she wrote her dissertation on mad scenes in 19th century opera, and she has since authored multiple books, including Siren Songs: Representations of Gender and Sexuality in Opera. One of the things that she finds most poignant about Lucia’s Mad Scene is the fact that Donizetti spent the end of his life being treated for physical and mental illness.  Activist and writer Dr. Phyllis Chesler has written more than 20 books, including the seminal work, Women and Madness. Her work deals with freedom of speech and freedom of thought. Her recent books include Requiem for a Female Serial Killer, and her memoir An American Bride in Kabul. She believes writing is most definitely a form of madness. Author and attorney Melody Moezzi wrote Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life in order to capture her experiences as an Iranian-American Muslim woman with bipolar disorder, and to help others with this condition feel less alone. She is an advocate for destigmatizing mental health conditions, and she believes that sometimes, what looks like madness can actually be a rational response to an irrational world.
Perhaps no opera better reflects the questions and contradictions at the heart of Russian history than Modest Mussorgsky’s historical epic Boris Godunov. Based on the play by Alexander Pushkin (considered by many to be one of Russia’s greatest writers), it’s a meditation on power and legitimacy, and a portrayal of a pivotal period in Russian history -- The Time of Troubles.  When Tsar Ivan the Terrible dies without an heir, Boris Godunov is elected tsar, casting doubt on his legitimacy. He rules well for a few years, but then all hell breaks loose, with a famine, a revolt, and a pretender claiming to be the real tsar. As his country’s problems compound, Boris confronts his feelings of powerlessness in the monologue, “Dostig ja vïsshei vlasti.” Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the nature of power, the question of legitimacy, and how an opera can shine a light on a nation’s past as well as its present. The Guests Bass René Pape (A.K.A. “The Black Diamond Bass”) has been singing the role of Boris Godunov for 15 years. Like many of the kings and rulers he’s played on stage, he sees Boris as someone who has all of the power but none of the joy. In addition to his velvety voice, Pape is also known for his collection of rubber ducks, and even has one in his own image, the PapeDuck. Dr. Simon Morrison is a professor of music history at Princeton, specializing in Russian and Soviet music. He fell in love with Russian music when he was an undergraduate and wrote his dissertation on the life and work of Sergei Prokofiev. His most recent book is Bolshoi Confidential, a history of the Bolshoi Ballet, and he is currently writing a book on the history of the city of Moscow, which finds him studying 11th century documents written on birchbark. Dr. Shoshana Keller is a professor of Russian, Soviet, Eurasian, and modern Middle Eastern history at Hamilton College. She first became interested in Russia after getting to know the music of Shostakovich and Stravinsky while playing French horn as a kid, and she was fascinated by pictures of Russian onion domes in a social studies class. She loved the Russian language too, but found the grammar devilishly difficult and immersed herself in its history. She has written multiple books, and is working on an experimental mapping project of the nations in Kazakhstan
One of opera’s great heroines is based on one of history’s extraordinary women. The 19th century French courtesan Marie Duplessis was elegant, successful, famous, and gone before her time, dying of tuberculosis at the age of 23. One of her lovers, Alexandre Dumas fils, was so inspired by her that he wrote a novel and a play about her life called The Lady of the Camellias, which in turn inspired Giuseppe Verdi to compose La Traviata. Verdi immortalized Marie Duplessis in the character of Violetta Valéry, giving us a woman both at the height of her vitality and success, and on her deathbed. Alone, and having loved and lost a man named Alfredo, she sings “Addio del passato.” This aria is a farewell to the past and a plea to God for forgiveness. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the brief, vibrant life of Marie Duplessis and how Verdi captured her plaintive farewell in music. As a child, soprano Lisette Oropesa saw her mother perform the role of Violetta on stage and was heartbroken by the end! Still, she found the courage to eventually take on this great heroine herself. Lisette has enjoyed learning about the strength, smarts, and tenacity of the real-life Marie Duplessis.  Writer Fred Plotkin is the author of Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera. He has worked in opera since 1972, doing everything but singing, and has written six books on Italian cuisine. Verdi is his hero because he represents all the greatness an artist can achieve both artistically and as a human being. Writer and journalist Liesl Schillinger translated Alexandre Dumas fils’ novel, La Dame aux Camélias, and discovered in Marie Duplessis an extraordinary, generous, and shockingly modern woman. In Dumas fils, she discovered a man who was critical of the constraints and double-standards that constrained women during the 1800s.  Actor and director John Turturro is known for his roles in over 60 feature films, but perhaps less well-known as a Verdi fan. He sometimes includes operatic music in his films, and he’s even tried his hand at directing Verdi’s Rigoletto. Growing up, he remembers fondly how his dad and uncles would gather around a record player to compare and critique different singers’ performances of a single aria.
What makes us human? As artificial intelligence becomes more advanced, technology is becoming even more integrated into the fabric of daily life, and better able to simulate real human interactions. But what really separates humans from machines is our ability to love, to dream, and to believe in an illusion.  In Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, the poet Hoffmann thinks he’s finally found love, and he’s so head-over-heels that he doesn’t realize something’s off -- Olympia, the woman of his dreams, isn’t a woman at all. She’s a wind-up doll. But like all of us humans, he can’t help but view his beloved through rose-colored glasses.  In “Les oiseaux dans la charmille,” Olympia sings one of the great arias for a coloratura soprano, and it’s music that’s so difficult it seems like only a machine could sing it. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests find the human angle to this doll’s song, exploring the pitfalls and illusions of love in the time of A.I.  Soprano Erin Morley started singing “Les oiseaux dans la charmille” in her very first voice lesson at the Eastman School of Music. Since then, she’s been searching for just the right balance of human and robot as she sings up into the stratosphere.  Conductor Johannes Debus is the music director for the Canadian Opera Company. He loves the kaleidoscopic range of styles in The Tales of Hoffmann, and how Offenbach seems to explore all aspects of humanity with great sympathy. Machine-learning research Caroline Sinders looks at technology and society through the lens of design and human rights. She is currently a researcher at the Berggruen Institute, and an artist in residence at Ars Electronica, and previously was a design researcher at IBM Watson. Dr. Robert Epstein is a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology. He established the first-ever annual Turing Test and is a pro at distinguishing artificial intelligence from human intelligence. But even he is susceptible to wearing rose-colored glasses -- just like Hoffmann, and just like the rest of us. 
Note: This episode includes descriptions of childhood sexual assault. The drive for revenge can be all-consuming, especially when you or someone you love has been wronged. Outcast and distraught, the title character in Richard Strauss’s Elektra is obsessed with avenging the murder of her father. And because the story is based on a Greek myth, and Greek myths are full of dysfunctional families, this means that Elektra is hellbent on killing her own mother. We get our first taste of the darkness inside Elektra’s mind, and the trauma at the heart of her rage, in the monologue, “Allein! Weh, ganz allein.” It's a sort of primal scream accompanied by a huge orchestra, and Elektra plans her revenge in all its gory, graphic glory. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the depths of trauma and the heights of vengeance, both for Elektra and for a man whose own drive for revenge brought him to those very same extremes of elation and despair. The Guests: Soprano Nina Stemme thinks there’s some truth to the story that Strauss once told an orchestra to play so loudly that they would drown out the soprano singing Elektra, and she should know -- she’s one of today’s leading interpreters of the role! She invested a lot of herself in shaping this character, and it's one that takes all of her physical and emotional energy to perform. William Berger is an author and radio commentator. Equal parts opera buff and metalhead, he brings his love of intense storytelling to his work at The Metropolitan Opera, and to his exploration of Elektra. While it's a story of violence and revenge, Berger thinks the real journey is the one of psychological discovery and deep Freudian conflicts bubbling to the surface.  David Holthouse is a writer and documentary filmmaker who spent three years of his life consumed by the desire for revenge. He meticulously plotted to murder the man who raped him when he was seven years old. He tells his story of childhood sexual assault in his first-person essay “Stalking the Bogeyman,” and follows up on his story in “Outing the Bogeyman.”
It’s not easy to talk about death. We associate dying with so much suffering and loss. But for many people, the end of life is full of peaceful remembrance of the moments and relationships that have meant the most. For the leading man in Puccini’s Tosca, that’s the sweetness and beauty of his beloved.  Caught up in the messy politics of his time, Mario Cavaradossi has been arrested, interrogated, and tortured. And then, he’s sentenced to death. “E lucevan le stelle” finds Cavaradossi in his prison cell one hour before his execution. He knows his life is over, and what does he do? He gets lost in a daydream about a passionate night spent with Tosca. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the memories and dreams that give us meaning at the end of our lives. Joseph Calleja, A.K.A. The Maltese Tenor, sees a lot of himself in Cavaradossi - they’re both men of intensity and passion. He says that if the spectrum of human emotion were a harp, Puccini knew exactly the right string to pluck at just the right moment to convey the emotion the character is feeling. Carolyn Abbate teaches music at Harvard University and writes about opera, including the book A History of Opera. One of the memories that she holds most dear is of an afternoon spent in a meadow with her son when he was young. Dr. Christopher Kerr is the CEO and Chief Medical Officer at Buffalo Hospice and Palliative Care. Chris recently wrote a book called Death is But a Dream: Finding Hope and Meaning at LIfe’s End, about the dreams and visions that many people experience at the end of their lives. This work was later turned into a film, which became the basis of a Netflix production and a PBS World documentary.  
Comments (11)

Mia Michael

▶ Really Amazing ️You Can Try This➤➤👉

Jan 12th

Ted Zuschlag

good stuff. arias put a lump in my throat.

Mar 7th


Journalists talking about themselves and their profession, mostly. And narrating the plot in a tedious fashion. Wished there was more discussion of the music.

Sep 6th


This was so beautiful! I honestly didn't think I'd like opera and just listened to this at random, but I am completely converted. The content and editing of this podcast is transporting 💖

Aug 3rd

New Jawn

I've listened to Aria Code from the first episode, and this one is my favorite. So Very well done and insightful. many thanks.

Apr 26th

New Jawn

That was so incredibly awesome! Many many thanks.

Jun 22nd

New Jawn

This is the first episide I've heard in this podcast. It's wonderful. It's so full of great info and insight that I listened to it 3 times. I am very excited to have found Aria Code and can't wait to listen to all episodes.

Jun 22nd

Maria Luize

Wonderful program, great specialists and Elīna...she continues to be practically perfect in every way. Thanks for the work of all, truly loved the deep analysis of this extraordinary complex aria.

Jun 25th

David Stewart

Great podcast. I'd love to hear an episode covering one of the bass or baritone arias.

May 7th

Peter Kitchen

Fantastic podcast. Each episode is just the right length and is packed with interesting and accessible stuff without starting from scratch. Can't wait for the new series.

Feb 12th


I love this podcast! keep up the good work!

Jan 9th
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