What the 20 episodes of the podcast "Aria Code" boil down to is: Why should I care about opera?
Produced by the Metropolitan Opera and public radio's WNYC Studios, each engaging episode breaks down a single aria and works on a couple levels: Opera lovers can stay in touch with the art form, which won't be presented live for months. And folks who don't know a lot about opera (raises hand) can get a lively introduction.
Chatty Renaissance woman Rhiannon Giddens, whom you may remember from Ken Burns' "Country Music" series, hosts "Aria Code," found at wnycstudios.org/podcasts/aria-code. An insider who's scheduled to sing Bess in a production of "Porgy & Bess" this fall and an outsider who regularly cops to being surprised by details about the music, Giddens says her mission is "to unwrap a classic aria and see what's inside."
A variety of guests help her, and the real genius of the podcast may be its casting.
Most episodes include a musician or two, an academic and someone with an unexpected take on the material, all edited into an aural collage that could include widower Jim Walter calmly breaking your heart as he talks about his late wife in an episode devoted to "Che Farò Senza Euridice" from "Orpheus and Eurydice," or writer Kyoko Katayama offering a real-life "Madama Butterfly."
Individual stories connect
Each episode's secret is discovering how its participants fit together, just as we all connect to each other.
Take "Butterfly" and the aria "Un Bel di Vedremo," most famously sung by Maria Callas. Although it's beloved, Giacomo Puccini's "Butterfly" is problematic because it victimizes and exoticizes its Japanese heroine, who has a relationship with a visiting American. She believes he loves her, but he actually bought her and he ends up deserting her and their child.
Something similar happened to Katayama. Her Japanese mother had an affair with her American father at the end of World War II, and while her commentary doesn't grapple with whether "Butterfly" was Puccini's story to tell, Katayama's words about her mom supply a deeply human context.
"What resources did she have?" she asks. "I feel pain for my mother and actually that's why I agreed to speak to you. I wanted to give my mother some voice she didn't have. I had to wait 70 years to do that."
You don't need to care about opera to be moved by that, or by the discussion of grief in the episode devoted to the "Orpheus and Eurydice" aria.
Novelist Ann Patchett says she discovered the art form while writing "Bel Canto," the main character of which is an opera singer. After completing her subsequent book, "State of Wonder," she realized it was an attempt to speak with her best friend, Lucy Grealy, who had been dead for more than a decade. That's juxtaposed with Walter describing his wife's sudden death.
What does all this have to do with "Orpheus and Eurydice," in which the former character descends to hell to return his lover to the land of living? The universal desire to revisit the dearly departed.
Patchett says grieving showed her the novelist's superpower, the ability to say, "You're dead. I'm bringing you back." Walter talks about how mourning his wife's never-recorded recipe for tomato sauce taught him to cope: "Anytime I find myself dwelling on those things, I immediately switch gears to what are all the things we were able to experience before she did pass."
A few episodes dive into the misogyny of operas, many centering on women but nearly all written by men. The episode on Camille Saint-Saëns' "Mon Coeur S'ouvre à ta Voix," from "Samson and Delilah," is almost entirely about "femmes fatale," a concept that blogger James Jorden says comes from an "erroneous attempt on the part of men to understand how women's sexuality worked. Men felt sexually attracted to women and didn't understand why that happened and instead of looking inside themselves, said, 'These women must have some kind of magical power.' "
"Aria Code" was created to boost operas produced by companies such as the Met and Minnesota Opera, but it could be more critical. All the "Porgy & Bess" commentators acknowledge problems with the show, including an African-American expert on the characters' Gullah culture and bass/baritone Eric Owens, who says he'll only play Porgy for a company if it hires him for other roles first. But the "Summertime" discussion would be even stronger if it included a participant arguing that this product of white creators is, like "Butterfly," hugely troubling.
When a defense is needed, "Aria Code" leans on the beauty of the music. Each episode ends with a full performance of the piece being discussed, including the swoony "Delilah" aria, which you probably know even if you think you don't, and less familiar works such as "Hymn to the Sun," from Philip Glass' "Akhnaten."
We hear the music while smart people talk about it, so we know exactly what soprano Joyce DiDonato means when, singing the title role in "Cinderella," she reached the joyous finale and looked for direction.
"The conductor took his left hand and he gave it to me," she recalls of the Gioachino Rossini work scheduled for next spring at Minnesota Opera. "It was such an invitation to not be with the orchestra or keep in tempo. It was an invitation to fly."
While we're listening to some of the most beautiful music ever written, "Aria Code" sneaks in music theory.
Many singers discuss the challenges of the arias — starting out on a very high or powerful note, say — and the music's impact on them and us.
The deceptive aria from "Orpheus and Eurydice" begins in a major key, so we think it's happy, but then switches to minor. Singer Jamie Barton reveals she suppressed her voice's natural vibrato when she sang it, to help listeners hear the pure pain of loss.
Often, singers and conductors describe how, like Joy Division does with the cheerily devastating "Love Will Tear Us Apart," contrast can make us uncomfortable.
"Her words are saying she wants all this hope for the future. The orchestra is telling us maybe that's not going to happen," African studies professor Naomi André says of "Summertime."
Why we still care
Over and over, the commentators talk about how operas' meanings change, constantly revealing new dimensions.
"Turandot," one of the most produced classics, is a great example. It's the story of a princess in a war-torn land who creates impossible riddles to test men who want to marry her; when they fail, their heads go on the spikes she uses as decorations. She's kind of a pill. Giddens compares her to an extreme version of "The Bachelorette" — losing contestants don't just leave the house; they get decapitated.
Since the show also says Turandot is a survivor of rape culture, that wisecrack underscores the extent to which "Turandot" speaks to us, a century after Puccini wrote it.
It also points to an essential truth that "Puccini Without Excuses" writer Will Berger describes. The composer died without having completed "Turandot" but as long as companies are still finding new takes on classic operas, maybe none of them is ever really completed.
"It's not an unfinished masterpiece," says Berger of that work, "but an endlessly evolving one."