Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Aria di Sorbetto: aber bitte mit Sahne

Eis Christina: Frankfurt's favorite Ice Cream

Opera has come a long way since its origins in the 1600s and its Golden Age in the 19th century, from which many of the stereotypes of opera have spawned. Familiar scenes of a night at the opera include aristocrats in their box seats, fanning themselves and using their opera glasses to look at anything but the action on stage. In this day and age, opera is a versatile and vibrant art, breaking stereotypes and taking on many forms.
Italian comic opera in the 18th and 19 century, however, was still very structured in its Bel Canto beginnings. So much so, that the audience knew, in the middle of the second half, there would be a chance to go out and get some ice cream - namely, during the Aria di Sorbetto (literally: sherbet aria), a song usually sung by a minor character with no major influence on the plot. 
It is such a character that I am playing now in Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) - Berta (a.k.a. Marcellina) the maid. I shouldn’t complain - at least I have an aria at all. When Giuseppe Verdi started to dominate the opera scene, the typical Bel Canto structure began to make way for a more realistic verismo style, in which there was no room for fluffy, ignorable arias. Every note had to mean something. This is why Violetta’s Annina, Gilda’s Giovanna, and Leonore’s Ines had no aria of their own. Unlike Mozart’s coquette maids Despina and Blondchen who had very influential roles and significant parts to sing, Verdi’s domestics were simply there to serve their Diva - to set up the emotion for her cavatina (0:22-0:56), to look appropriately concerned while she’s singing it, and to bring the bad news which would then catapult her into a cabaletta (5:45-6:20) -- see this example from Il Trovatore:
Nowadays, opera directors are inclined to put much more emphasis on the drama of opera than on the singing (so do I, frankly). When I played Ines in Il Trovatore, the director told me (and I quote), I was to be “the reflection of Leonore’s subconscious.” A-ha. Well, I must have done something right, because it was then that the über-successful German director Christof Loy hand-picked me to be one of his chorus of anonymous nymphs and shepherds in his production of L’Orfeo in Düsseldorf.
Ines in Il Trovatore (Bonn)
This is the challenge that singing a smaller role raises. You have much less time to prove your competence. You have to do in four lines what the leading lady has all night to do -- to show the audience the spectrum of the character’s emotions, musicality, and relationship to the other characters. You have to be on the ball the second you step out onto the stage. And every second has been worth it. Of all the Einspringer that I’ve done over the years (jumping in when someone, somewhere gets sick), the majority have been for these smaller roles -- I jumped in as Ines in Bonn (for Anja Harteros!) and in Wiesbaden. The L’Orfeo production was revived five times over a span of seven years and was also quite well-paid. And it was because of my previous experience playing Berta in Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the Kammeroper Frankfurt that I landed this current job in the same role.
Berta in "Il Barbiere di Siviglia"
Theater Hagen 2011

Much to my delight, as opposed to the audiences of the 19th century, I know that people are actually there watching and listening to my Aria di Sorbetto, perhaps enjoying my 15 minutes of fame instead of a scoop of Straciatella.

And another Berta...
Düsseldorf 2012
And ANOTHER Berta ...
Wiesbaden 2012


  1. Having suffered through several of said small, aria-free roles this season, I can thoroughly sympathise. I'm glad that (a) you get an aria (obviously at the expense of your youth and beauty, but hey...) and (b)modern etiquette means that the audience is forced to wait for their damned ice creams, and gets to enjoy your singing that aria!

    Have fun.

    K x

  2. Well, I actually ask for no sympathy, as I am happy to have work at all! Of course it's more challenging and rewarding to develop a larger, more significant role, though. My first Berta in Barbiere was not portrayed as an old, fat woman, and in fact, I sang my aria topless! (with tape on the nippies, of course) *tee-hee*