Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Six months with Jane Austen: Emma and the fate of unmarried women

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. [1]
Of all of Jane Austen's heroines, Emma is the one that most seems to be a kind of fantasy figure. All of Austen's other heroines come either from wealthy families in newly straitened circumstances (Elinor and Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, Anne Elliot in Persuasion), or from families that inhabit the lower levels of the gentry or pseudo-gentry and thus are already in relatively straitened circumstances (Elizabeth and Jane Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey).

But Emma is different. As we learn in the early stages of the novel, Emma is "the heiress of thirty thousand pounds," and this gives her a freedom unique among Austen heroines: in order to have a financially secure future, she does not have to marry. In fact, she "'declares she will never marry'":
'I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry...Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want: I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband's house as I am of Hartfield; and never, never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man's eyes as I am in my father's.' [2]
But if Emma Woodhouse has "'very little intention of ever marrying at all,'" there is another Emma in Austen's work who provides a more sobering picture of the possible fate awaiting an unmarried woman: Emma Watson, heroine of the fragment The Watsons (written around 1805). After the uncle who has raised her dies, and her widowed aunt makes an "imprudent" remarriage, Emma Watson returns to her birth family's home and, like Fanny Price when she makes a similar journey in Mansfield Park, discovers that
...she was become of importance to no one, a burden on those whose affections she could not expect, an addition in a house already overstocked, surrounded by inferior minds, with little chance of domestic comfort, and as little hope of future support. [3]
It is a bleak picture of superfluousness, poverty, and a lack of privacy and solitude combined with social, emotional and intellectual isolation. And in Emma, a similar future, or present, is faced by each of the single women who do not share Emma Woodhouse's happy state of financial independence.


The "parlour-boarder": Harriet Smith

Harriet is 17, and "the natural daughter of somebody. Somebody had placed her, several years back, at Mrs. Goddard's school, and somebody had lately raised her from the condition of scholar to that of parlour-boarder." [4] Although Harriet's unseen and unknown guardian—presumably her biological father—pays extra so that she can live as a part of the proprietor's household and have the use of their sitting room, she is without social connections or financial means of her own. She is utterly dependent on her mysterious benefactor, a situation that leaves her future highly uncertain.

Mr. Knightley tells Emma that Harriet "'may be a parlour-boarder at Mrs. Goddard's all the rest of her life,'" but he is wrong: Harriet is only likely to be a parlour-border for the rest of her father's life. When he dies, Harriet's "'very liberal'" allowance is likely to be abruptly cut off. As Mr. Knightley notes, she has "'probably no settled provision at all'"—that is, she has been given no money of her own and cannot expect any legacy from her father. Wills were and are public documents, and a father who cannot acknowledge Harriet while he lives is unlikely to expose his family to scandal when he dies. [5]

Jane Austen was herself a parlour-boarder. When she was nine, she and her sister Cassandra (then twelve) were sent as parlour-boarders to Abbey House School in Reading. So Jane was intimately familiar with the odd in-between status of parlour-boarders, who lived in the proprietor's household, but were not a part of it. Jane also knew what it meant to be dependent: after her father died in 1805, she had to rely almost entirely on her brothers for financial support (at least until she began to receive a modest income from her writing).

Harriet, of course, has no relatives she can call on. After her father's death, if she remains unmarried it's likely that she will be forced to earn her means of livelihood; she will be "'left in Mrs. Goddard's hands to shift as she can.'" [6] Without useful accomplishments, knowledge or skills, she will face a future in which her circumstances are drastically reduced—an existence much like that of another character in the novel, Miss Bates.


The "old maid": Miss Bates

Miss Bates is the daughter of Highbury's former vicar. She lives with her elderly mother and one servant above a Highbury shop in a "very moderate-sized apartment, which was every thing to them." Miss Bates must live "in a very small way...She had never boasted either beauty or cleverness. Her youth had passed without distinction, and her middle of life was devoted to the care of a failing mother, and the endeavour to make a small income go as far as possible." We are told that they have "'barely enough to live on,'" and indeed, Mr. Knightley regularly sends them food from his estate. [7]

Miss Bates' situation is not unlike that of Jane Austen herself: she never married, of course, and at the time that Emma was written she lived with Cassandra and their widowed mother in Chawton Cottage, a house on the grounds of an estate owned by her brother Edward. While the Austen women were not as poor as Mrs. and Miss Bates, they too had to live within limited means.

Miss Bates' status as a poor old maid is viewed with horror by Harriet Smith and disdain by Emma:
'But then, to be an old maid at last, like Miss Bates!'

'That is as formidable an image as you could present, Harriet;...[but] I shall not be a poor old maid; and it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid!' [8]
It is Mr. Knightley, of course, who reminds Emma that Miss Bates "'is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion.'" [9]



The governess: Jane Fairfax

Another potential future for unmarried women without incomes is exemplified by Jane Fairfax, the niece of Miss Bates. Orphaned as a young girl, Jane Fairfax was taken to live with the family of Colonel Campbell, the commanding officer of her father's regiment:
The plan was that she should be brought up for educating others; the very few hundred pounds which she inherited from her father making independence impossible...By giving her an education, [Colonel Campbell] hoped to be supplying the means of respectable subsistence hereafter. [10]
Jane Fairfax is intended to earn her living as a governess, one of the few "means of respectable subsistence" available to women of the pseudo-gentry. This is no enviable position, as Jane makes clear to Mrs. Elton, the former Miss Hawkins, whose father, "a Bristol—merchant, of course, he must be called," is undoubtedly involved in the slave trade:
'I am not at all afraid of being long unemployed. There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something—Offices for the sale—not quite of human flesh—but of human intellect.'

'Oh! my dear, human flesh! You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling [Mrs. Elton's brother-in-law] was always rather a friend to the abolition.'

'I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave-trade,' replied Jane; 'governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.' [11]
Given Jane Austen's feelings about the slave-trade, clearly implied in Mansfield Park, the parallel Jane Fairfax suggests with the exploitative "governess-trade" is highly suggestive. And the hyperbolic effusions of Mrs. Elton about the position she ultimately arranges for Jane do not allay our suspicions of the circumstances that await her:
'...there are not such elegant sweet children anywhere. Jane will be treated with such regard and kindness!—It will be nothing but pleasure, a life of pleasure.—And her salary!—I really cannot venture to name her salary to you, Miss Woodhouse. Even you, used as you are to great sums, would hardly believe that so much could be given to a young person like Jane.'

'Ah! madam,' cried Emma, 'if other children are at all like what I remember to have been myself, I should think five times the amount of what I have ever yet heard named as a salary on such occasions, dearly earned.' [12]
Even in those rare instances when governesses were decently paid, theirs was hardly "a life of pleasure." They were frequently isolated within the household. As David Selwyn writes, "The isolation experienced by a governess was often very demoralizing: treated by her employer, to whose class she naturally belonged, as a social inferior, and yet distrusted by the servants, she often found her position in the household to be very lonely." [13]

While Emma's governess, Anne Taylor, becomes her friend and confidante and is treated like a member of the Woodhouse family, such an outcome was highly unusual. Far more typical were the experiences that Anne Brontë drew on three decades later for her novel Agnes Grey. As Elizabeth Gaskell wrote of a conversation she held with Anne's sister Charlotte,
She said that none but those who had been in the position of a governess could ever realise the dark side of 'respectable' human nature; under no great temptation to crime, but daily giving way to selfishness and ill-temper, till its conduct towards those dependent on it sometimes amounts to a tyranny of which one would rather be the victim than the inflicter. [14]
Each of these three characters offers a bleak portrait of "the immovable plight of the single woman without money." [15]

Fortunately in her fictional world Austen can arrange matters more happily than they generally turned out in real life. And Emma is her sunniest novel. At its conclusion—skip to the next paragraph if you don't want to know how it all turns out—Harriet's future is assured by her marriage to a "'respectable, intelligent gentleman-farmer,'" Miss Bates will be more firmly integrated into Highbury's social world through Emma's "regular, equal, kindly intercourse" and solicitude, and Jane Fairfax is rescued from the need to become a governess by her marriage to the man to whom she has long been secretly engaged. Even Emma discovers that despite her lack of financial need, her intention to remain unmarried has been subverted by the discovery that she is in love. [16]

Of course, for those facing "the immovable plight of the single woman without money" there was another possible way to earn an independent income. But it lay on the fringes of respectability, involved a substantial degree of financial risk, and offered only a modest promise of return: publish a novel.

Next time: Northanger Abbey and women writers and readers
Last time: Mansfield Park, an estate built on "the ruin and labour of others"

Other posts in the "Six months with Jane Austen" series:



Portraits by Sir Thomas Lawrence, top to bottom:
  1. Duchesse de Berry (detail), 1825
  2. Lady Wallscourt Playing Music (detail), 1825
  3. Mrs Siddons as Mrs Haller in 'The Stranger' (detail), c. 1796-1798
  4. Mary, Countess Plymouth (detail), 1817
Quotations taken from:
  1. Jane Austen, Emma, Volume I Chapter i; Chapter 1.
  2. "thirty thousand pounds": Emma, I. xvi.; 16. "'declares she will never marry'": Emma, I. v.; 5. "none of the usual inducements": Emma, I. x.; 10. 
  3. "very little intention": Emma, I. x.; 10. "of importance to no one": Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon. Oxford World's Classics, 1990, pp. 317-318.
  4. Emma, I. iii.; 3.
  5. "a parlour-boarder," "very liberal," "no settled provision": Emma, I. viii.; 8.
  6. Emma, I. viii.; 8.
  7. "moderate-sized apartment": Emma II. i.; 19. "very small way": Emma, I. iii.; 3. "barely enough": Emma, II. v.; 23.
  8. Emma, I. x.; 10.
  9. Emma, III. vii.; 43.
  10. Emma, II. ii.; 20.
  11. "Bristol—merchant": Emma, II. iv.; 22. "not at all afraid": Emma, II. xvii.; 35.
  12. Emma, III. viii.; 44.
  13. David Selwyn, "Making a living," in Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, Second Edition. Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp.153-154. 
  14. Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Ch. VIII
  15. Edward Copeland, "Money," in Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 129.
  16. "respectable, intelligent gentleman-farmer": Emma, I. viii.; 8. "regular, equal, kindly intercourse": Emma, III. viii.; 44.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Pounding us over the head with Tosca


There's a remarkably revealing interview with the outgoing general director of San Francisco Opera, David Gockley, in the May 2016 issue of Opera News. He paints a grim picture of the future of the company:
I don't envy my successors. Unless they can find a way to engage a very distractible, multi-interest, transient-minded public to attend opera more frequently, to go from attenders to donors to bequeathers, and engage these generations who have not had musical training in schools...we won't survive.
According to Gockley, opera companies face three key problems:

1. Attracting younger audiences: There are too many other claims on their attention, and the musical form, subject matter, and staging conventions of opera are unfamiliar to them. Gockley has had some excellent ideas about bringing opera into people's lives, with education programs in the schools and initiating free live simulcasts from the opera house to the Giants' ballpark; it will be imperative for his successor to continue and expand these programs.

But has opera ever appealed primarily to people under 35? I didn't start listening to opera regularly until my mid-30s, and didn't become a subscriber right away. Perhaps SF Opera should worry a bit less about getting 20-year-olds into the opera house for the first time, and worry more about retaining its existing audience.

2. The decline in subscriptions: If younger audiences do go to the opera they tend to buy single tickets instead of subscribing:
The young single-ticket buyer, or the older single-ticket buyer, likes the twelve major chestnuts. If you want to have full houses with subscribers now occupying only forty-five percent of the theater—and you've got fifty-five percent of your capacity left to sell—you are looking at reviving Carmen every three years, rather than every five years.
So in Gockley's view, the decline in subscriptions leads to conservative scheduling.

But what if Gockley's got it backwards, and conservative scheduling leads to a decline in subscriptions? Next season at SF Opera features Verdi's Aida and Rigoletto, Puccini's Madama Butterfly and La Bohème, and Mozart's Don Giovanni. Aida was last seen as recently as 2010, Rigoletto in 2012, Madama Butterfly and La Bohème in 2014 (!), and Don Giovanni in 2011.

Including next year, in the past sixteen seasons SF Opera has produced Madama Butterfly an astonishing seven times—almost every other season. Not far behind are Puccini's Tosca (six times), La Boheme and Mozart's Magic Flute (five times), Bizet's Carmen, Rossini's Barber of Seville, and Verdi's La Traviata and Rigoletto (four times).

This is not to say that these are not great operas, or that they don't deserve their popularity. And they are works that may well entice first-time audiences into the opera house. But for subscribers who are contemplating renewal, such repetitive programming offers few rewards.

Gockley would say, no doubt, that the full houses for Madama Butterfly and Tosca make possible productions of less familiar and/or more costly repertory, such as Berlioz's epic Les Troyens and the delightful Surrealist-themed production of Handel's Partenope from the 2014/15 season. (SF Opera had last produced Les Troyens in 1968, and had never before staged Partenope.) But when the opera schedule relies too heavily on Gockley's "chestnuts," it diminishes the sense of excitement that is a major reason we started subscribing in the first place.

After the financial and artistic disasters of Pamela Rosenberg's tenure as general director (2001-2005), Gockley has brought financial stability to the company. But by programming a handful of opera's greatest hits over and over, the company may have reached the point of diminishing returns.

When I look back on the most memorable productions we experienced during Gockley's tenure at SF Opera, I see that most of them were not often-revived operas. In chronological order, they are:
SeasonOperaWhat made it so memorable
2006-2007Iphigénie en Tauride (Gluck)A great, rarely produced Mozart-era opera with a searing performance by its Iphigénie, Susan Graham
2009-2010Die Walküre (Wagner)Nina Stemme's Brunhilde and some visually arresting moments conjured by director Francesca Zambello, set designer Michael Yeargan, and Projection Designer Jan Hartley in the most involving opera in the Ring Cycle
2009-2010Il Tabarro (Puccini)Conductor Patrick Summers brought out all of the richness of Puccini's darkest and most cinematic score, and Patricia Racette was utterly compelling as the doomed Giorgetta
2012-2013Les Contes d'Hoffmann (Offenbach)A staging that evoked nightmares, an amazing cast, and the use of the new integral edition of the score which gave this fragmented opera narrative and dramatic coherence
2014-2015Partenope (Handel)An excellent young cast and a playful and dramatically apt updating to the milieu of the Surrealists
2014-2015Les Troyens (Berlioz)This production featured the world's leading exponents of the roles of Didon (Susan Graham), Énée (Bryan Hymel), and Cassandre (Anna Caterina Antonacci)
2010-2011 & 2014-2015 (toss-up)Le Nozze di Figaro (Mozart)Brilliant young casts in SF Opera's handsome staging of Mozart's greatest opera

What these productions have in common is creative programming (with the possible exception of Figaro, most of these operas are not among the "twelve chestnuts"), excellent casting (the singers were not always famous, but they were always superb and dramatically committed), and insightful, engaging, and visually striking productions.
3. Union contracts: In the Opera News interview Gockley laments that in San Francisco, unlike at the Houston Grand Opera, he couldn't cut productions and so slash the salaries of orchestra, chorus, and crew. Thankfully—arbitrarily cutting the salaries of the people who are responsible for realizing your productions onstage seems like the worst possible way to balance your budget. (If you're in any doubt about the level of craft involved in staging opera, I recommend the documentaries In the Shadow of the Stars and Sing Faster! The Stagehands' Ring Cycle.)

Gockley also complains that touring is not financially feasible. In these days of live streaming, there would seem to be other possible ways to reach audiences outside of the Bay Area.

These complaints also ignore that these contracts were negotiated and approved by SF Opera management, including Gockley. And weren't Gockley's predecessors operating within the terms of similar contracts? The tenure of Lotfi Mansouri as general director (1988-2001) seems like a golden age of programming diversity in comparison to the last ten years, but surely he had to meet contractual obligations as well.

A larger problem, literally, is that SF Opera is trapped in a dynamic that is the result of opera's 19th-century success. Along with other large companies such as Chicago's Lyric Opera and New York's Metropolitan Opera, SF Opera has to fill a vast house for show after show. So it must program works that will sell 3,000 tickets per performance. If five performances is the minimum number that would justify the expense of producing a work, that means that SF Opera has to count on selling at least 15,000 tickets per production. That's a lot of tickets.

On the scale of things, opera tickets are not that expensive. I've spent more on certain meals and rock concerts than I have on decent seats at the opera, and have gone standing room for less than the cost of a movie ticket. But it's clear that the need to sell at least 15,000 tickets per production places constraints on the company. Even given these constraints, though, exciting programming is still possible—as Gockley himself has proved.

Meanwhile, many smaller opera companies in the Bay Area and beyond have not only embraced artistic risk and challenge, but see it as part of their mission. They are providing audiences with anything but routine experiences.


New SF Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock, a Gockley protégé who takes over in August, faces a crucial choice. Will he give us more of the same "pound them over the head with Butterfly and Tosca until they submit" scheduling, or will he try to find a better balance between the well-known and the less-familiar-but-worthy? In my view, if the company doesn't do some serious reconsideration of its current programming choices, it risks becoming artistically irrelevant. And as I said above, I think such unimaginative programming may be a significant factor in the decline of the company's subscriber base.

So I offer a dozen or so operas for Shilvock's consideration for future seasons. None has been produced during Gockley's time at SF Opera, and some have never been produced there at all:
OperaLast performed at SF Opera
Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria (Monteverdi, 1640)1990
La Calisto (Cavalli, 1651)Never
Dido & Aeneas with Venus & Adonis (Purcell and Blow, 1680s)Never
Hippolyte et Aricie (Rameau, 1733) or Medée (Charpentier, 1693)Never
Semele or Hercules (Handel, 1740s)Semele, 2000; Hercules, never
Alceste (Gluck, 1767)Never
Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Paisiello, 1782—this would make a great pairing with their next Marriage of Figaro in 2020) or Il Matrimonio Segreto (Cimarosa, 1792) or Il Mondo della Luna (Haydn, 1777)Never
Eugene Onegin (Tchaikovsky, 1879)2004
Pelléas et Mélisande (Debussy, 1902)1997
Arabella (Strauss, 1933)1998
Dialogues des Carmélites (Poulenc, 1956)1982
Follies or A Little Night Music or Passion (Sondheim)Never

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Ishq Vishk: A Bollywood Mansfield Park

Rajiv (Shahid Kapoor) and Payal (Amrita Rao) in Ishq Vishk
There's a psychological phenomenon known as the "frequency illusion": once something is brought to your attention, you start noticing it everywhere. Now that I've embarked on the Six Months with Jane Austen project, I'm starting to see her influence in unexpected places.

In "A Bollywood Persuasion" I lamented the scarcity of Bollywood Jane Austen adaptations. I had only counted three: from worst to best they were Aisha (based on Emma, 2010), Bride and Prejudice (based on Pride and Prejudice, of course, 2004), and Kandukondain Kandukondain (I Have Found It, based on Sense and Sensibility, 2000).

But it turns out that I just wasn't looking closely enough. Austen's Mansfield Park features a sensitive, shy, slightly awkward young woman, Fanny Price, who has been in love with her cousin Edmund Bertram since she was 10 years old. Edmund treats Fanny like his kid sister, though, and is instead dazzled by the new girl in town, the pretty, vivacious, but shallow Mary Crawford. Will Edmund ever recognize that all the time his true love has been right next to him?

That plot should sound familiar to viewers of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something's Happening, 1998; it's #2 on the list of "The Top 10 Shah Rukh Khan movies").* But the "shy girl secretly in love with her male best friend" plot is also central to another Bollywood film, Ishq Vishk (Love and all that, 2003; direction and story by Ken Ghosh, screenplay by Vinod Ranganath).**

Payal (E & I favorite Amrita Rao) has loved Rajiv (Shahid Kapoor in his first leading role) since they were children. Now they are attending "Spencer College" (a thinly fictionalized St. Xavier's), where the students seem to spend most of their time hanging out at the student union, planning beach parties, performing in dance competitions and getting bad advice from the Love Guru rather than going to class:



The music is by Anu Malik, with lyrics by Sameer; the playback singers are Sonu Nigam, Alka Yagnik and Alisha Chinoy.

Rajiv can rely on the bright, studious Payal, of course, to answer for him when attendance is taken, do his homework, and slip him test answers.

Rajiv wants to belong to the popular clique, but everyone in the group is in a steady couple: to be accepted he'll need a girlfriend. (Everyone in the clique also looks to be about 30 years old, but never mind.) When the group plans an overnight excursion to the beach at Alibaug, Rajiv pretends to Payal that he's fallen in love with her. Payal believes that this is the fulfillment of her dearest wish; Rajiv, of course, is simply using her so that he can go on the beach trip, and is planning to dump her right afterwards. As he tells his friend Mambo (Vishal Malhotra),


Throughout the film, Shahid's boyishly appealing good looks are used to set up expectations of wholesome virtue that his unsympathetic character then systematically undermines.

That night Rajiv discovers that Payal's parents are away, and tells her that he's coming over to see her. She is panicked that her parents will return and find him there, but he insists:

Payal's first hint that Rajiv might not be worthy of her devotion.
When he shows up, Payal can't leave him standing on the doorstep—the nosy neighbors will start gossiping. She has no choice but to let him in. He asks for a drink, and while Payal is getting it, he notices something on her dresser: her diary.


Rajiv discovers that he is on every page:


Payal is shocked and hurt that Rajiv would read her diary:

Payal's second hint.
But despite these warning signs, Payal decides to open her heart to Rajiv—a decision she will come to regret.

A few days later Payal observes the fast of Karva Chauth. Rajiv is touched despite himself, and vows to complete the ritual by giving Payal her first sip of water and first taste of food at moonrise. He sneaks into her room, but—perhaps unsettled by the sincerity of Payal's emotions, or the ritual's implications (a wife fasts during Karva Chauth for her husband's long life)—keeps making a joke of it. Payal tries to tell him how much it means to her:


At Rajiv's urging, Payal has already begun to do things against her better judgment. When he asks her to go on the beach trip with him and his new friends, Payal has to lie to her parents to get their consent. She quiets the twinges of her conscience by focussing on her feelings for Rajiv.

At the beach, Payal draws Rajiv away from the rest of the group for an emotionally intimate moment:


Rajiv misunderstands her intentions, and immediately betrays her trust by trying to pressure her for physical intimacy. She struggles to break away from him, and has to slap his face to get him to stop. Heated words are exchanged, and the scales fall from her eyes: she suddenly realizes why Rajiv has been paying attention to her:


Payal's heart is broken:



Back at school, Rajiv rebuffs Payal's attempts to apologize (of course, she has nothing to apologize for). Payal finds herself instead the unwilling witness of Rajiv's attempts to win the new girl at school, Alisha (Shenaz)—just as Fanny Price is subjected to the pain of watching Edmund's courtship of Mary Crawford. Alisha is everything that Payal isn't: conventionally pretty, popular, rich, stylish, "modern." Rajiv thinks that Alisha is everything he could want in a girlfriend. But, as Edmund Bertram discovers in Mansfield Park, you should be careful what you wish for...

I don't want to overstate the virtues of Ishq Vishk. It rarely strays very far from the formulas of teen comedy. Sometimes those formulas are employed effectively—there's a painfully embarrassing attempt by Rajiv's father (Satish Shah) to have The Talk about sex that proceeds pretty much as awkwardly as my own father's did with me—and sometimes they descend into crude humor and slapstick.

But Ishq Vishk is also surprisingly moving. Although Rajiv and his girlfriend quest are ostensibly the focus of the film, its moral and emotional center is Payal. Thanks to Amrita Rao's touching performance, we come to share Payal's feelings of hope and pain—just as we share those of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park.

Amrita and Shahid's very natural-seeming, warm onscreen chemistry is even more apparent in writer/director Sooraj Barjatya's film about "the journey from engagement to marriage," the powerfully affecting Vivah (Marriage, 2006). But if you want to see where that chemistry began, Ishq Vishk is available from Shemaroo Films for free on YouTube; click the CC button to view with English subtitles.



* KKHH also includes a reunion between the heroine and the man she loved eight years previously and for whom she has kept a torch burning ever since, as in Persuasion.

** The title is untranslatable; in Hindi or the Hindi-English hybrid Hinglish, the rhyming reduplication of a word (as in English Vinglish (2012)) adds both emphasis and a slightly ironic, slightly dismissive tone. It's something like the Yiddish "shm" or "schm," as in the Yinglish "fancy-schmancy." An English equivalent might be to follow a word with a wry "and all that," thus my rendering of Ishq Vishk as "Love and all that."

Monday, April 4, 2016

Six months with Jane Austen: Mansfield Park and slavery III


Mansfield Park, an estate built on "the ruin and labour of others"

In The Country and the City, Raymond Williams compares the rural cottages of farming families with the great country houses that were built on the fruits of others' labor:
It isn't only that you know, looking at the land and then at the house, how much robbery and fraud there must have been, for so long, to produce that degree of disparity, that barbarous disproportion of scale. The working farms and cottages are so small beside them: what men really raise by their own efforts or by such portion as is left to them, in the ordinary scale of human achievement. What these 'great' houses do is to break the scale, by an act of will corresponding to their real and systematic exploitation of others. [1]
Williams calls the great houses "visible triumphs over the ruin and labour of others...a visible stamping of power, of displayed wealth and command." He was speaking of the enclosure and expropriation of land formerly held in common by villages and small farmers during the 18th century and before, "land gained by killing, by repression, by political bargains." [2]

The wealth of many large landowners depended not only on expropriation at home, but on exploitation abroad: the trade in and the labor of slaves. In Mansfield Park we learn that Sir Thomas Bertram is the owner of an "Antigua estate." Antigua was one of the "sugar islands" of the West Indies, where virtually all the cultivable land had been converted to the production of sugar. Sugar cultivation was extraordinarily profitable, and by the early 19th century had led to the consolidation of vast plantations worked by armies of African slaves. Sugar was the main driver of the slave trade: about two-thirds of all the slaves brought from Africa to the New World were sent to areas of intensive sugar cultivation. [3]

As the owner of an Antiguan estate, Sir Thomas would have been understood by Jane Austen's contemporary audience to have been a slaveowner and a participant in the slave trade. And it is clearly from his sugar plantation that he derives the bulk of his wealth. In fact, it is highly likely that Sir Thomas was born on Antigua to a settler family. As Frank Gibbon has written,
One must not assume that sugar estates such as those on Antigua were owned by Englishmen born and bred who had somehow acquired them as speculative capitalists...Virtually every inch of the older West Indian islands was owned by West Indians, that is, by white settlers, relatives and descendents. [4]
The implication is that Sir Thomas is an ex-colonist who moved to England in order to establish himself in British society. Mansfield Park has been built with the wealth produced by slaves.


Why does Sir Thomas go to Antigua?

Early in Mansfield Park we learn that "poor returns" and "some recent losses on his West India estate" make it "expedient [for Sir Thomas] to go to Antigua himself, for the better arrangement of his affairs." [5] While sugar plantations "were the largest privately owned enterprises of the age and their owners were among the richest of all men" [6], Sir Thomas discovers that his absentee ownership has led to problems on his plantation that threaten his wealth (and thus his social standing). What could have caused problems sufficiently severe to require Sir Thomas to return to Antigua in person?

The answer must necessarily be somewhat speculative—we are told only that Sir Thomas is dealing with "business"—but it probably relates to two main issues. The first is the abolition of the slave trade. Brian Southam has convincingly identified the time frame of Mansfield Park: the main action takes place between the fall of 1810, when Sir Thomas leaves for the West Indies, and the summer of 1813. This timing is significant because the British slave trade was abolished beginning in 1807, and the number of British naval ships stationed off the African coast to interdict slave ships was tripled (to 6) in 1810. [7]

With the supply of new slaves drastically diminished, it became more difficult to replace slaves who were worked to death, who were incapacitated or killed by injury, illness, or punishment, or who ran away to escape maltreatment. "Slave flight was the most common...form of slave resistance in Antigua," writes David Barry Gaspar. [8] It is likely that the managers left to oversee Sir Thomas's estate are having difficulty maintaining a sufficient labor force to run the plantation because of their harsh treatment of the slaves.

Gordon, a runaway Mississippi slave whose back had been scourged.
From the Matthew Brady studio, Washington, DC, ca. 1863.
None of this is directly stated in the novel, of course, although on Sir Thomas's return Fanny Price does "'ask him about the slave-trade…but there was such a dead silence!'" [9]

But Mansfield Park is a novel of parallels, and there are two in particular that are suggestive. Late in the novel Henry Crawford, suitor of Fanny Price, must travel to his Norfolk estate to deal with a problem that has arisen—more "business":
 ...It had been real business, relative to the renewal of a lease in which the welfare of a large and—he believed—industrious family was at stake. He had suspected his agent of some underhand dealing; of meaning to bias him against the deserving; and he had determined to go himself, and thoroughly investigate the merits of the case...He had introduced himself to some tenants whom he had never seen before; he had begun making acquaintance with cottages whose very existence, though on his own estate, had been hitherto unknown to him. This was aimed, and well aimed, at Fanny. It was pleasing to hear him speak so properly; here he had been acting as he ought to do. To be the friend of the poor and the oppressed! Nothing could be more grateful to her... [10]
In Henry's absence, his agent has been acting in an "underhand" way with the laborers on his estate. Henry must intervene personally as a "friend of the poor and oppressed" in order to set things right. The parallel with Sir Thomas, who must travel to his Antigua plantation to investigate firsthand and set right the (probably brutal) actions of his agents, seems intended. [11]


Another parallel is with Mrs. Norris, Fanny's aunt, who in Sir Thomas's absence has been a cruel taskmistress to Fanny—another example of "ill-managed business":
"Fanny," said Edmund, after looking at her attentively, "I am sure you have the headache."

She could not deny it, but said it was not very bad.

"I can hardly believe you," he replied; "I know your looks too well. How long have you had it?"

"Since a little before dinner. It is nothing but the heat."

"Did you go out in the heat?"

"Go out! to be sure she did," said Mrs. Norris: "would you have her stay within such a fine day as this? Were not we all out? Even your mother was out to-day for above an hour."

"Yes, indeed, Edmund," added her ladyship, who had been thoroughly awakened by Mrs. Norris's sharp reprimand to Fanny; "I was out above an hour. I sat three-quarters of an hour in the flower-garden, while Fanny cut the roses; and very pleasant it was, I assure you, but very hot. It was shady enough in the alcove, but I declare I quite dreaded the coming home again."

"Fanny has been cutting roses, has she?"

"Yes, and I am afraid they will be the last this year. Poor thing! She found it hot enough; but they were so full-blown that one could not wait."

"There was no help for it, certainly," rejoined Mrs. Norris, in a rather softened voice; "but I question whether her headache might not be caught then, sister. There is nothing so likely to give it as standing and stooping in a hot sun; but I dare say it will be well to-morrow. Suppose you let her have your aromatic vinegar; I always forget to have mine filled."

"She has got it," said Lady Bertram; "she has had it ever since she came back from your house the second time."

"What!" cried Edmund; "has she been walking as well as cutting roses; walking across the hot park to your house, and doing it twice, ma'am? No wonder her head aches."

Mrs. Norris was talking to Julia, and did not hear.

"I was afraid it would be too much for her," said Lady Bertram; "but when the roses were gathered, your aunt wished to have them, and then you know they must be taken home."

"But were there roses enough to oblige her to go twice?"

"No; but they were to be put into the spare room to dry; and, unluckily, Fanny forgot to lock the door of the room and bring away the key, so she was obliged to go again."

Edmund got up and walked about the room, saying, "And could nobody be employed on such an errand but Fanny? Upon my word, ma'am, it has been a very ill-managed business."

"I am sure I do not know how it was to have been done better," cried Mrs. Norris, unable to be longer deaf; "unless I had gone myself, indeed...I thought it would rather do her good after being stooping among the roses; for there is nothing so refreshing as a walk after a fatigue of that kind; and though the sun was strong, it was not so very hot. Between ourselves, Edmund," nodding significantly at his mother, "it was cutting the roses, and dawdling about in the flower-garden, that did the mischief."

"I am afraid it was, indeed," said the more candid Lady Bertram, who had overheard her; "I am very much afraid she caught the headache there, for the heat was enough to kill anybody. It was as much as I could bear myself. Sitting and calling to Pug, and trying to keep him from the flower-beds, was almost too much for me."

Edmund said no more to either lady; but going quietly to another table, on which the supper-tray yet remained, brought a glass of Madeira to Fanny, and obliged her to drink the greater part. She wished to be able to decline it; but the tears, which a variety of feelings created, made it easier to swallow than to speak.

Vexed as Edmund was with his mother and aunt, he was still more angry with himself. His own forgetfulness of her was worse than anything which they had done. Nothing of this would have happened had she been properly considered; but she had been left four days together without any choice of companions or exercise, and without any excuse for avoiding whatever her unreasonable aunts might require. [12]
Sir Thomas ultimately realizes his mistake in allowing Mrs. Norris to have any influence in his household: "Here had been grievous mismanagement." [13] Again, a parallel with the overseers' likely actions on the Antigua estate—the suggestion of overwork, cruelty, and indifference—seems deliberate.

A real-life model for Aunt Norris

"I thought it would rather do her good." The odious Mrs. Norris is constantly couching services that she demands from others in terms of the supposed benefits that will accrue to those who must perform the services on her behalf. In this she is echoing arguments notoriously put forward by some pro-slavery advocates. One in particular claimed that slavery benefits the slaves, "all of whom may be considered as rescued." He went on to assert
That this trade is carried on as much to the ease and comfort of those that are the subjects of it...as it is possible for human ingenuity to devise. That the ships employed in it, are so peculiarly constructed for the accommodation of the Negroes, as to be unsuitable for any other trade. That the opinion, which has been industriously propagated, of these ships being unequal to the numbers which were said to be crowded in them, is groundless;...That on the voyage from Africa to the West Indies, the Negroes are well fed, comfortably lodged, and have every possible attention paid to their health, cleanliness, and convenience.

Hence it is, that the happiness and misery of Negroes, in the West Indies, depend almost totally on themselves...If he is industrious in his own concerns, and attentive to the interest of his superior, mild in temper, and tractable in disposition, he is entitled to indulgencies, which thousands, even in this country, would be happy to enjoy.—The habitations of the slaves, on every estate,...are, in general, comfortable and commodious;...this, with a comfortable night's rest, enables them to return with vigor to the next morning's work, which, however strange it may seem, is not so hard as that of most of the laboring poor in Britain. [14]
The author of these words was a man named Robert Norris. His views are held up to scorn in The History of the...Abolition of the British Slave-Trade, published in 1808 by Thomas Clarkson—one of Jane Austen's favorite authors; she wrote in 1813 that she had been "in love" with Clarkson. [15] Surely Mrs. Norris's last name cannot be a coincidence.

"...on the voyage from Africa to the West Indies, the Negroes are well fed, comfortably lodged,
and have every possible attention paid to their health, cleanliness, and convenience"—Robert Norris.
The slave ship Brooks, from Thomas Clarkson's The History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment
of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament
, v. 2 (Second edition, 1836).

Real-life models for Sir Thomas Bertram and his sons

I wrote that Mansfield Park is a novel of parallels, and indeed there is a real-life parallel which may have informed Austen's portrait of Sir Thomas and his eldest son, Thomas. As Brian Southam discovered and Frank Gibbon has further researched, in 1760 Jane Austen's father George was appointed as a trustee of an Antiguan sugar plantation. [16] So Austen's immediate family were themselves involved in the slave economy. George Austen was named as a trustee on behalf of James Nibbs, who may have been one of his former students at Oxford. The two men were apparently quite close; in 1765 Austen asked Nibbs to stand as godfather for James Austen, his eldest son, who may have been named for Nibbs. (Nibbs may have named his second son, George, after Mr. Austen.)

Like Sir Thomas Bertram, James Nibbs came from Antigua to settle permanently in England. Nibbs had an eldest son, also named James, just as Sir Thomas's eldest son is also named Thomas. And James Nibbs Junior spent money extravagantly and became enmeshed in debt, just as the younger Thomas Bertram, "who feels born only for expense and enjoyment," does in Mansfield Park. [17]

In 1789 James Nibbs Senior took his son back with him to Antigua, just as Sir Thomas takes Thomas Bertram with him "in the hope of detaching him from some bad connexions at home." [18] James Junior had a devout younger brother who became a clergyman, just as does Thomas's younger brother Edmund. As Gibbon writes, "This story of the eldest son's prodigal waste of his family's Antiguan fortune and the steady piety of the younger son—his namesake—must have concerned the Rev. George Austen deeply and was undoubtedly a well-known and much-discussed family topic. [A portrait of James Nibbs Senior in the Austen household is mentioned in an 1801 letter of Jane's.] At any rate the coincidence with some of the events in Mansfield Park is remarkable." [19]

Next time: Emma and the fate of unmarried women
Last time: Mansfield Park: Lord Mansfield and the antislavery movement

Other posts in the "Six months with Jane Austen" series:



  1. Raymond Williams, The Country and the City, Oxford University Press, 1973, pp. 105-106. 
  2. Williams, The Country and the City, pp. 97, 105-106. 
  3. B. W. Higman, The sugar revolution. Economic History Review, Volume 53 Issue 2, 2000, pp. 213-236. Higman details the elements of the sugar revolution in the British Caribbean from the late 17th to the early 19th centuries, which include a rapid change from smallholdings raising diverse crops and employing indentured labor to large plantations devoted to sugar monoculture and relying on African slaves. By the 1750s the slave population on Antigua outnumbered the white population by ten to one (David Barry Gaspar, "To bring their offending slaves to justice": Compensation and slave resistance in Antigua 1669-1763,  Caribbean Quarterly
    Vol. 30 No. 3/4, 1984, pp. 45-59.)
  4. Frank Gibbon, The Antiguan connection: Some new light on Mansfield Park. The Cambridge Quarterly, Volume 11 Issue 2, 1982,  pp. 298-305.
  5. Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, Volume I Chapter iii; Chapter 3.
  6. R. W. Fogel, Without consent or contract: The rise and fall of American slavery, 1989, quoted in Higman, The sugar revolution, p. 223.
  7. Brian Southam, The silence of the Bertrams: Slavery and the chronology of Mansfield Park. Times Literary Supplement, 17 February 1995, pp. 13-14.
  8. Gaspar, "To bring their offending slaves to justice," p. 50. 
  9. Austen, Mansfield Park, II. iii.; 21. This exchange has occasioned a great deal of comment. The silence is on the part of Fanny's cousins, rather than Sir Thomas himself (who is reported to be rather pleased with Fanny's interest in his "business affairs"). For extensive discussions of this passage, see Southam, The silence of the Bertrams, and George Boukulous, The politics of silence: Mansfield Park and the amelioration of slavery. NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 39 No. 3, 2006, pp. 361-383. I think Boukulous underestimates the extent of Jane Austen's abolitionist sympathies.
  10. Austen, Mansfield Park, III. x.; 41.
  11. I'm not the only one to whom this parallel has occurred; it is discussed at length in Boukulous, The politics of silence.
  12. Austen, Mansfield Park, I. vii.; 7.
  13. Austen, Mansfield Park, III. xvii.; 48.
  14. Robert Norris, A short account of the African slave trade, in Memoirs of the Reign of Bossa Ahadee, King of Dahomy, an Inland Country of Guiney, Lowndes, 1789, pp. 170-177; "rescued" comment, p. 156. See http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/norris/menu.html
  15. Austen, letter to her sister Cassandra, 1813; see http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/auslet22.html#letter126: "I am as much in love with the author as I ever was with Clarkson..."
  16. Southam, The silence of the Bertrams; Gibbon, The Antiguan connection.
  17. Austen, Mansfield Park, i, ii.; 2.
  18. Austen, Mansfield Park, I. iii; 3.
  19. Gibbon, The Antiguan connection, p. 302.

Friday, April 1, 2016

The other Boheme



Giacomo Puccini and Ruggero Leoncavallo

The two Bohèmes. In mid-March 1893 the composer and librettist Ruggero Leoncavallo encountered his fellow composer Giacomo Puccini at a caffè. Both men were coming off recent successes: Leoncavallo's Pagliacci (first performance May 1892) and Puccini's Manon Lescaut (first performance February 1893) had each been received with acclaim. Perhaps inevitably, the talk turned to new projects. Puccini told Leoncavallo that he was working on an opera based on Henri Murger's novel Scènes de la vie de bohème (1851); Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa (who had completed Manon Lescaut) were hard at work on the libretto.

Leoncavallo was incensed. He, too, was working on an opera based on Murger's novel, and had been for months. And according to several sources, Puccini knew it: it's been suggested that Leoncavallo had earlier offered him the Bohème libretto, and Puccini had turned it down. Leoncavallo felt that La bohème was his idea, and Puccini was stealing it. [1]

After the men separated, Leoncavallo quickly contacted the newspaper Il Secolo, where the following notice appeared in the March 20-21 issue: "Maestro Puccini, to whom Maestro Leoncavallo declared two days ago that he was writing Bohème, confessed that only upon his return from Turin a while back did he think of setting La bohème to music, and that he had spoken of it to Illica and Giacosa who, according to him, have not yet finished the libretto. Maestro Leoncavallo's priority as regards this opera is thus indisputable."

Puccini responded with his own notice in the paper Il Corriere a few days later, claiming his previous ignorance of Leoncavallo's project. He proposed a friendly competition: "Let him compose, and I will compose, and the public will judge for themselves." Puccini's publisher Ricordi, though, telegraphed to Paris to try to secure the rights to Murger's novel to prevent Leoncavallo from working on it, only to discover that it was in the public domain. The slow-motion race to complete La bohème was on. [2]

Puccini won. His La bohème premiered in February 1896 and was an immediate hit. One hundred and twenty years after its first performance, Puccini's Bohème is his most-produced work and justly remains one of the most popular operas ever written. Leoncavallo's version did not appear until May 1897, and despite some initial success never established itself in the repertory.

Which is a shame, because judging from West Edge Opera's concert version of "The other Bohème" (seen March 22 at Berkeley's Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse), Leoncavallo's version seems quite stageworthy. It has some excellent music, and some powerful scenes (particularly in the last two acts). If opera houses have room for two Manons (Massenet's Manon and Puccini's Manon Lescaut) and four Fausts (Berlioz's La damnation de Faust, Gounod's Faust, Busoni's Doktor Faust, and Boito's Mefistofele), there should certainly be room for both Bohèmes.



Cesira Ferrani, Puccini's first Mimì, and Rosina Storchio, Leoncavallo's first Mimi

Novel into opera. Murger's novel is written as a linked series of stories that portray four friends—the writer Rodolphe (Rodolfo in the operas), the painter Marcel (Marcello), the musician Schaunard, and the philosopher Colline—and their love affairs in the bohemian quarter of Paris in the 1830s. Even though the two Bohèmes are both based on this source material and feature many of the same characters, they are surprisingly different.

The first surprise is that in Leoncavallo's version, it is Marcello and Musetta rather than Rodolfo and Mimì who are the main couple. Because in this era leading men were tenors, that means that the voice types are redistributed: in Leoncavallo, Marcello is a tenor and Rodolfo a baritone, while in Puccini, Rodolfo is a tenor and Marcello a baritone. The second surprise is that two of the acts in Puccini's opera have no parallels in Leoncavallo's opera. Here is a comparison of the structure of the two operas:
Puccini's La bohèmeLeoncavallo's La bohème
Act I: Christmas Eve, at the Bohemians' garret: Rodolfo and Mimi meet
Act II: Christmas Eve, on the terrace of the Café Momus: Marcello and Musetta reconcileAct I: Christmas Eve, in a private room inside the Café Momus: Marcello and Musetta meet
Act III: Winter, at the Barrière d'Enfer: Rodolfo and Mimi quarrel and reconcile; Marcello and Musetta quarrel and separate
"Missing" act: Spring, in the courtyard of Musetta's apartment building: Musetta's eviction party; Musetta breaks with her rich patron and reconciles with Marcello, Mimi leaves with the Viscount and separates from RodolfoAct II: Spring, in the courtyard of Musetta's apartment building: Musetta's eviction party; Musetta breaks with her rich patron, Mimi leaves with the Viscount and separates from Rodolfo
Act III: Autumn, at the Bohemians' garret: Musetta leaves Marcello; Rodolfo rejects Mimi when she tries to return
Act IV: Autumn/Winter (Christmas Eve?), at the Bohemians' garret: The death of MimiAct IV: Christmas Eve, at the Bohemians' garret: The death of Mimi

Even the two acts which seem to tell the same story—the Café Momus scene and the death of Mimì—have substantial differences. In general, Leoncavallo is more faithful to Murger's novel, while Puccini's librettists Illica and Giacosa noticeably depart from the source. However, Puccini's version is far more dramatically compelling. For one thing, Puccini and his librettists realized that Mimi's death would be more moving if she were the focus of our attentions (and emotional investment) from the beginning of the opera; Leoncavallo keeps the focus on Musetta and Marcello until the last act, lessening the emotional force of the final scene. Puccini's music is also more sweeping and melodic. That Puccini's version has become one of the most popular operas ever composed, while Leoncavallo's is rarely performed, is not only a matter of who finished first.

Puccini's missing act. Illica and Giacosa's libretto for Puccini's La bohème originally included another act. As I wrote in Opera Guide 4: La boheme,
In the missing act, the four bohemians arrive at Musetta's grand apartment for a party, only to discover that—after being abandoned by her new lover the Councillor—she's being evicted. They determine to have the party anyway, and arrange the furniture removed from her apartment into a makeshift ballroom in the building's courtyard. Schaunard conducts the [hired] orchestra and, when the building's tenants start to complain, they're all invited to join the party. One of the guests is the Viscount Paolo, who dances and flirts with Mimì as a drunken, jealous Rodolfo looks on. Marcello and Musetta reunite, while Rodolfo bitterly renounces his love for Mimì. As dawn breaks, the guests stagger away as auctioneers arrive and begin selling off the furniture.

Luigi Illica felt that cutting this act inflicted an "enormous wound" on his libretto. Not only is it filled with delightful incidents, it's structurally brilliant. It sets up a reversal of the situations of Rodolfo/Mimì and Marcello/Musetta at the end of Act III, provides another solo opportunity for Musetta as in Act II, and creates an alternation of intimate settings with public festivities from act to act. But Puccini never set it to music, perhaps recognizing that it slowed the opera's dramatic momentum. [3]
Leoncavallo did include the eviction party scene in his version of the opera. However, after seeing it performed, it's hard not to conclude that Puccini was right to omit it. It's dramatically static: we learn nothing more of consequence about any of the characters, with the single exception of Mimi. But that new knowledge is as unwelcome for us as it is for Rodolfo: when Mimi leaves with the wealthy Viscount, she acts in a mercenary way that renders her far less sympathetic. As usual, Puccini's theatrical instincts were unerring.

But despite the lack of drama in its first two acts, Leoncavallo's version gathers momentum in its second half, as West Edge Opera's committed cast under the direction of indefatigable music director Jonathan Khuner proved. Powerhouse tenor Alex Boyer as Marcello, Buffy Baggott as Musetta, Carrie Hennessey as Mimi, Anders Froehlich as Rodolfo, and Michael Orlinsky as Schaunard deserve special mention for their excellent performances, but there wasn't a weak link in the cast.

Leoncavallo's La bohème has been recorded several times. In the clip below, Alexandrina Milcheva sings Musetta and Lucia Popp sings Mimi, with Heinz Wallberg conducting the Münchener Rundfunkorchester. The scene is from Act III, when Mimi returns to the Bohemians' garret to try to win back Rodolfo, only to discover that Musetta is on her way out—she's leaving Marcello. Mimi tells Musetta that if Rodolfo will take her back, she will defy poverty and hunger and hardship; Musetta, who has been experiencing poverty and hunger and hardship with Marcello, is fed up and scornful. Musetta is heard first ("Addio, addio...") and Mimi second ("Voglio Rodolfo!"); it's a taste of the dramatic tension that Leoncavallo is capable of summoning:



West Edge Opera's concert performance of Leoncavallo's La bohème concluded their wonderful 2016 "Opera Medium Rare" series; earlier I wrote about their previous production in the series, Paisiello's Barber of Seville. Coming up in July and August is the company's Festival 2016 at Oakland's abandoned 16th Street train station, featuring Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, Thomas Adés’ Powder Her Face, and Handel’s wickedly cynical Agrippina.




  1. Leoncavallo's offer of his Bohème libretto to Puccini in early 1893, and Puccini's refusal, are mentioned in Arthur Groos and Roger Parker, Giacomo Puccini: La bohème, Cambridge Opera Handbooks, 1986, p. 31, and "Ruggero Leoncavallo: La bohème," in Amanda Holden, ed., The New Penguin Opera Guide, 2001, p. 490.
  2. Il Secolo and Il Corriere quotes from Julian Budden, Puccini: His Life and Works, Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 137-138.
  3. Illica and Giacosa's libretto for eviction party act is included as an appendix in Groos and Parker's Giacomo Puccini: La bohème, pp. 147-181; "enormous wound" comment, p. 40.