March 18, 2012

Katisha's aria: a parody you might have missed

Sir Arthur Sullivan
Among the pleasures of The Mikado, those that I enjoy most are the moments of musical parody.  Considering how dearly Sullivan wished to launch his own career in "serious" operatic composition, he certainly seems to have relished lampooning some of the clichés of Italian opera in his Gilbertian comedies.

In Pirates of Penzance, for example, his target is the stereotypical ensemble in which various characters sing - at great length - about how any minute now they're going to go and take some drastic action: rescuing mother, killing some baritone, returning a library book - whatever.  In this case, the contrast between promised action and protracted inaction prompts Major-General Stanley to speak for all of us when he keeps piping up in irritation: "Yes, but you don't go."

In The Mikado, the example that no opera-lover can miss occurs in the Act I finale with Katisha's entrance.  Here, the cliché du jour is "The Big Plot Twist" so beloved by Verdi, Bellini and perhaps especially Donizetti.  This is the device wherein various principals and chorus are onstage in a scene of festive celebration when suddenly their rejoicing comes to an abrupt halt with the dramatic sudden entrance of "One Bearing Startling News".  This news is delivered with great histrionics, resulting in a big ol' buzzkill and a concerted number with chorus in which everybody says, in effect, "OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG!" with multiple cymbal crashes and lots of Neopolitan sixth chords.

I mentioned Donizetti since he goes to the plot-twist well not once but twice in his warhorse Lucia di Lammermoor.  The famous Sextet occurs in the scene of Lucia’s wedding to Arturo.  Her old flame Edgardo bursts in with Accusations Of Betrayal (OMG!).  Realizing he’s just found theatrical gold with this whole thing, Donizetti can’t resist another helping to prep the Mad Scene.  Festive wedding guests are merrily slurping down champagne and miniature hot dogs in barbecue sauce at the wedding buffet when Raimondo enters with a downer: the bride done chopped up the groom.  OMG!  I imagine Donizetti putting the finishing touches on this moment and thinking to himself (in Italian, naturally - I’m translating): “Yeah, I’m just begging for a parody here.  Oh well - bite me, music history.”

In Mikado, everyone in Titipu is waxing festive over the impending-if-doomed-to-be-short-lived nuptials of Micro-Brew and Pflegm-Pflegm..... er, Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum (sorry, still re-living my recent Top 10 Rejected Names post), when in bursts ugly old Katisha with Horrific News Of A Startling Nature: Nanki-Poo is the Mikado's son, and her own fiance.

Of course, Sullivan's joke is that the chorus gets a tad over-eager to commence with their OMG's and keeps stepping on her lines; it takes her seven or eight tries to get the pertinent words out.

But this has all been a digression (In my college days, my friends used to call me the Digression King) to review the Italian opera parodies you probably already knew.

Now for one that may have escaped your attention:  Katisha’s aria “O Living I” in Act II of The Mikado.  Anyone on to Sullivan’s modus operandi should naturally be a little suspicious at the straight-faced poignancy of this solo.  The elderly, unattractive and unloved Katisha indulges herself in a bit of self-pity now upon realizing that she’s not going to snag Nanki-Poo in marriage after all, since, as far as she knows, he and his head have parted company.

You can search Gilbert’s lyrics for irony, but the truth is that these words would be appropriate in any conventional Italian music drama:

Hearts do not break!
They sting and ache
For old love’s sake
But do not die.

Though with each breath
They long for death
As wittnisseth
The living I, the living I.

Oh living I!
Come, tell me why,
When hope is gone,
Dost Thou stay on?

The trusting among you (and I know you’re out there) will read through this, and listen to it as set to Sullivan’s music and perhaps think to yourselves “Golly gee: it’s a moment of genuine human emotion!  See there, that Glenn Winters doesn’t know everything; why only two blog posts ago he was claiming that Gilbert and Sullivan’s humor is based on the absence of genuine sentiment. But lookie, lookie; here it is for the world to see and appreciate.  The old boys could lay aside their silliness and allow us a moment of humanity.  OH, THE HUMANITY!!  *sniff*"

I don’t think so.  I think this is another parody, albeit an especially subtle one.  

I direct your attention to Giuseppe Verdi; specifically, to his epic drama Don Carlo; specifically, to the mezzo lead, Princess Eboli; specifically, to her great aria “O don fatale”; specifically, to the passage beginning “O mia Regina, io t’immolai al folle error di questo cor”.  (Specific enough?)  Here, listen to it; the passage in question begins at 1:53.

It bears a striking similarity in vocal style, texture and affect to the “Oh living I” passage beginning at 1:23 of Katisha’s number.  Come on, you hear it, don’t you?

Now consider the two situations.  Eboli is cursed with her beauty; that is her “don fatale” (fatal gift).  She blames her beauty for all her troubles, lamenting at one point “I can only shed my tears; I’ve no hope, I can only suffer.”  Now look again at Katisha:  Gilbert and Sullivan have taken Eboli’s problem and turned it upside down!  Or, if you prefer, topsy-turvy.  Katisha is a mezzo with a parallel but opposite problem: she is cursed by her ugliness.

The exact opposite complaint, with music that is a direct homage.

Dry your eyes, Pookie, and swallow that lump in your throat.  You’ve been punked by Arthur Sullivan!  And as always with this kind of parody, the secret to its genius lies in how straight the music plays the joke; no winking, no slyness in the orchestration; it’s simply a highly effective setting of heartfelt words.

Now THAT’S subtle. And wonderful.

My new book The Opera Zoo: Singers, Composers and Other Primates is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. Order online at or by phone from the Customer Service line at 1-800-344-9034 ext.3020. 

1 comment:

  1. I love this! I performed Katisha last spring, and indeed found this aria a challenge in that it does seem to be actual human emotion in a sea of "off with their heads!" cleverness and lack-of-sentiment. I appreciate the parallel - thank you for sharing.