Not long after I started my Dr. Bookworm blog three years ago, I found out what I really wanted to do with my life. I aspire to blog about a book the way each episode of the podcast Aria Code cracks open a single operatic aria. This is my first podcast review.
In Dr. Bookworm, my goal is to introduce the reader to a good book, to add to their knowledge, and most of all, to touch their heart. I do this by taking a book and showing how an aspect of it speaks to my heart. Some books evoke memories. Some stir up political fire. Some marvel at Nature. Some embrace love and family. Actually, each essay combines all of that, and more. The fun of it is to connect all these seemingly disparate dots.
Aria Code picks an aria and drills down on, or more accurately, opens up that one scene. The show elicits commentary from people you might expect: singers, musicologists, conductors, also writers, artists, historians, psychologists. It has also featured some less likely speakers: a doctor, a sex worker, an AI “bot” designer. Each episode also showcases the aria as sung on the New York Metropolitan Opera stage. The Met is a podcast co-sponsor.
But wait! There’s more. Each show is hosted by Rhiannon Giddens, the banjo-picking singer prominently featured on Ken Burns’s eight-part series Country Music. She majored in opera in college, but academic credentials are the icing. She is a relatable, oftentimes funny, narrator who ties the music and the guest comments together.
Admittedly, not everyone warms up to opera. My friend Julie complains, “All that screaming.”
For me, opera is a direct route to grand emotions. Music intensifies the giddy heights of love, the despair of betrayal, the satisfaction in skewering an opponent, the relief of escaping – an unwanted marriage, military conscription, the devil, lecherous old (or young) men, execution, anything. My own life is lived in small increments, and that’s a good thing. I avoid real-life drama. But I love it in opera.
Aria Code is a great entrée into opera for newbies, as it deconstructs, or decodes, an aria, explaining how Mozart or Verdi is still relevant to today’s world. This is my goal with Dr. Bookworm, too. I want to show why a certain book speaks to me, and hopefully, to others.
Aria Code is also wonderful for those of us who are familiar with opera. The shows expand the social and psychological horizons, through the lyrics and, most of all, through the music. Let me show you what I mean.
Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro has been a fan favorite since its debut in 1786. Its convoluted plot involves Figaro and Susanna, servants to Count Almaviva. They have to overcome numerous obstacles to their planned marriage. The main one is that Count Almaviva is set on seducing or, if that fails, raping Susanna. As an 18th century lord, he is entitled. His aria “Hai già vinta la causa” (“you’ve won the case already”) is a giant temper tantrum when he realizes that his “inferiors” are thwarting him.
The three podcast discussants – Gerald Finley, who plays Almaviva; a professor of English and comparative literature; and a journalist about women’s issues – draw parallels to reactions among entitled males in the news today.
Almaviva first attempts to capture Susanna through financial incentives. Think Harvey Weinstein offering movie roles. Then he becomes angry and nasty. Think Bret Kavanaugh snarling at Senator Amy Klobuchar. Finally, he is the aggrieved party. Who loves being aggrieved more than Donald Trump?
One of the first episodes to air after the Covid hiatus was “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot. This aria ends with the soaring “Vincero, vincero, vincero” – “I will win.” Podcast guest Dr. Michael Cho, a pulmonary doctor, describes the battles his patients were waging against Covid.
I found the “O Patria Mia” episode especially meaningful. “O Patria Mia” means “O, My Homeland,” and is from Giuseppe Verdi’s 1871 opera Aida. The story takes place in the time of the Pharaohs. Aida, an Ethiopian princess held captive in Egypt, sings “O Patria Mia” on the banks of the Nile. It is her expression of all she has lost and her longing for home. One of the recurring themes in my blog is the investigation of my own identity after coming to the United States from China when I was eight.
This May 2021 podcast of Aria Code about Aida brings together as guests: Latonia Moore, soprano; Naomi Andre, professor of American and African Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies, and Mahtem Shiferraw, a poet and visual artist who is half-Ethiopian and half-Eritrean.
Latonia Moore is thrilled to be a Black singer playing a Black role. She talks about productions that make her appear much darker than her natural coloring. Her message is that it’s not necessary that the Ethiopian Aida look darker than the Egyptians; she just needs to look different. At the end of the podcast, Latonia Moore sings the entire aria.
Professor André states that when Verdi was writing this opera, the European colonization of Africa was at its height. Long story short, this exacerbated tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Writer and artist Mahtem Shiferraw’s life has been greatly affected by this political situation. Her father is Ethiopian; her mother Eritrean. The conflict between these two countries has been so intense that their family was not safe in either country. Her family moved to the United States when she was a young woman.
Although safe from political violence, Shiferraw, like Aida and like me, lost her language, her relatives, her sense of community, in effect, her home. In LA, she wasn’t Ethiopian or Eritrean. She was Black.
Shiferraw talks movingly of parts of Africa that’s only memory now: the sound of hyenas laughing and the waterfall where the Blue Nile originates. It adds a rich texture of current relevance to an already great opera. The next time I see a production of Aida, I will remember that you can follow the same river Aida is sitting next to all the way to its Ethiopian source.
Tell me: What are your feelings about opera?