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TEN OPERATIC QUESTS:
In the footsteps of….

On this Page: Introduction | Monteverdi | Handel | Mozart | Verdi | Wagner | Puccini | Strauss | Janacek | Britten | Off the beaten track


An introduction
to the Operatic Quests Course

This on-line course was commissioned by the LIVING and LEARNING in RETIREMENT group at York University’s Glendon Campus for the winter of 2022. Iain outlines the principles of questing suggested in Father Owen Lee’s brilliantly insightful book “The OLIVE TREE BED and other QUESTS” and applies them to the search for the buildings and graves associated with opera’s most famous composers, from the invention of opera in 1600 to the present day.

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In the footsteps of
CLAUDIO MONTEVERDI
(1567 – 1643)

Our first quest will be for Opera’s first master who began his career in his native CREMONA as a composer of madrigals. He was later engaged by the Gonzaga court in MANTUA which there commissioned his first operatic masterpiece “Orfeo” in 1607. He spent his final three decades as the Maestro di Cappella at St Mark’s Basilica in the Republic of VENICE. His “Ulysses” and “Poppea” were written for that city when he was in his seventies. We will search for his impressive monumental tomb in the Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari.

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In the footsteps of
GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL
(1645 – 1759)

Perhaps the greatest master of the Baroque form of opera, his early years were spent in HALLE (where his birthplace is now a major Handel museum)and then his early 20s were spent traveling in ITALY where he studied Italian opera extensively. He moved to LONDON in 1712 at the age of 27 and remained there for the next five decades, producing over 40 operas and a similar number of oratorios. We will visit his home in Mayfair (now a Handel museum) and will search for his tomb in “poets’ corner” in the south transept of Westminster Abbey.

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In the footsteps of
W. A. MOZART (1756 – 1791)

After his years as a child prodigy in his native SALZBURG (where we will visit both of the two extensive Mozart museums), he spent is teen years travelling throughout the courts of Europe. We will visit the site of his first great success, “Idomeneo” in the Cuvillies theatre in the Residenz in MUNICH in 1781. We will visit his home in VIENNA (an important museum) to see where he wrote his operas buffa, “le Nozze di Figaro” and “Cosi fan Tutte” and his two singspiels “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” and “Die Zauberflote” – and also his occasional home in PRAGUE where he wrote “Don Giovanni” and his coronation opera seria “La Clemenza di Tito”. Finally, we will make a pilgrimage to find his unmarked grave in a now disused cemetery some distance outside Vienna.

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In the footsteps of
GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901)

Known as “the heart of Italian opera”, he was born in the tiny village of LE RONCOLE, (which now boasts no less than two national monuments in his honour). In his teen years he moved to the local market town of BUSSETO, where he married the daughter of the town’s most prominent merchant (whose home is also now a Verdi museum). The newly married couple moved to MILAN, where, tragically, his wife and two young children died. Later, after a series of successes in VENICE, NAPLES, ROME and VENICE, he moved back to Busseto and built a farm nearby (perhaps the most sacred of all Verdi pilgrimage sites) at SANT’ AGATA. We will, of course, not forget to say “grazie maestro” at his tomb in the crypt of the Casa di Riposo per I Musicisti, the retirement home for musicians which he generously endowed in MILAN..

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In the footsteps of
RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883)

Perhaps the most influential composer of all time, Wagner spent his early years in LEIPZIG and DRESDEN. As an itinerant conductor, Wagner was continuously on the move throughout Europe, spending significant time in RIGA and PARIS. We will follow in his footsteps to the “Asyl” in the garden of the Wesendonck villa in ZURICH. After his miraculous retrieval by King Ludwig II of MUNICH in 1864, his final years were spent there and in the Villa Triebshen across the lake from LUCERNE (a major Wagner museum) and also in BAYREUTH. After visits to PALERMO, he died in the Palazzo Vendramin in VENICE (which now contains another important Wagner Museum). We will not forget to visit his grave in the garden of the Villa “Wahnfried” in BAYREUTH.

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In the footsteps of
RICHARD STRAUSS (1864 – 1949)

Wagner’s most prominent successor spent most of his life in his native MUNICH. Nevertheless, our quest will follow his trail to the Semper Oper in DRESDEN, where his operas “Salome”, “Elektra” and “Der Rosenkavalier” and six of his other operas were premiered. We will also visit the Staatsoper in VIENNA, where he was the principal conductor and the SALZBURG Festival, which he founded together with his principal stage director, Max Rheinhardt and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the librettist for six of his major operas. That said, the most prominent site for an operatic pilgrim following in his footsteps is the elegant villa in the mountains at GARMISCH where he spent his final years and where his grave is to be found in the garden of this villa.

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In the footsteps of
GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924)

The composer who most frequently provides the entry point for neophytes into the world of opera, Puccini decided not to follow the family business of hereditary church organists in his native LUCCA after witnessing his first opera as a teenager in nearby PISA. Puccini moved to MILAN where he studied under Ponchielli. A failure for many years, he achieved three turn-of-the-century successes with “La Bohème”, “Madama Butterfly” and “Tosca” – after which he was never again able to find his groove. With the profits of his three early triumphs however, he built a duck-hunting villa at TORRE del LAGO where he comfortably spent the rest of his life. This villa is now a Puccini museum and we will find his modest grave in the private chapel on the grounds.

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In the footsteps of
LEOS JANACEK (1854 – 1928)

Perhaps the most unusual of truly great operatic composers, Janacek spent most of his life in obscurity in the remote Moravian town of HUKVALDY. His composing career finally took off in his seventies with “Jenufa”. From there, we will follow in his footsteps to the provincial capital of BRNO, which first performed most of his major operas, including “The Cunning Little Vixen”, “Katya Kabanova” and “The Makropoulos Affair”. Only after his death was he celebrated in PRAGUE. Today, together with Handel, he is now acknowledged as the only composer to be on par with opera’s three “greatest Gods” : Verdi, Wagner and Mozart.

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In the footsteps of
BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913 – 1976)

Like Janacek, Britten preferred the monastic seclusion of a small village. After their war years in New York and California, Britten and his partner Peter Pears were most frequently to be found at their “Red House” in ALDEBURGH on the pebble-beached, windy Suffolk coast. This provided the location for his first major success “Peter Grimes” which is set in the Moot Hall in that village. Several of his major musical successes, such as the chamber opera “Albert Herring” were later premiered at GLYNDEBOURNE or, as in the case of his “Billy Budd”, at Covent Garden in LONDON. We will make sure to visit his grave in the parish church at ALDEBURGH.

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OPERATIC QUESTING
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK

In our final week, rather than following in the footsteps of a single composer, our operatic quest will search for some of the more unusual and (to me) interesting opera houses. We will travel to SEVILLE, (the setting for so many operas, such as Fidelio, Don Giovanni, le Nozze di Figaro and Carmen, amongst many others) to visit the Maestranza – and to VERONA to see the largest opera house, the capacious outdoor Roman arena. We will also travel over 1,000 km up the Amazon to visit opera’s most exotic and most sumptuous opera house, the Teatro Amazonas in MANAUS. We may also search for the tombs of some other famous opera composers, including Hector Berlioz in the Montmartre Cemetery Paris and Igor Stravinsky on the Isola di San Michele, in Venice.

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