Formats Unpacked: Aria Code
How a format challenges the idea the opera belongs to a different time
Before we jump into today’s unpacking I wanted to point you toward So. What Do Those Numbers Really Mean, a new format we’ve launched on. Over the next six weeks, we are going to look at six different audience metrics and delve into their history to try and get a better understanding of what the numbers really mean. We’re kicking things off with the Facebook Like. Have a read and subscribe if you’d like to see more.
OK. Back to this week’s format.
Doing the unpacking is our very own Patricia Yaker Ekall. Patricia is the writer and editorial lead for the Bellagio Bulletin and Bellagio Perspectives, a newsletter and publication we produce for the Rockefeller Foundation. Patricia’s previous unpackings include Red Table Talks and Ça Commence Aujourd’hui.
Over to Patricia…
What’s it called?
Aria Code with the Metropolitan Opera and WQXR
What’s the format?
A music podcast with a multi-faceted cultural twist. Grammy award-winning musician, Rhiannon Giddens, hosts a podcast in which she decodes opera’s most beloved arias.
What’s the magic that makes it special?
Delving into the human experience behind each aria, Giddens breaks them down with the help of singers, experts and “people with amazing stories to tell.” Host and guests seem to have a blast pouring over an aria’s melodic likeability. But, thanks to the experts brought on to the show, the pieces’ other elements are also dissected. Such as the historical context of an aria’s storyline and how it is anchored in that of the composer. Crucially (especially for those not naturally inclined to give opera a go), Giddens ties each episode to current events. It is this aspect of the show that makes opera seem as relevant as the day it first premiered.
Aria Code challenges the concept that opera belongs to a particular time, and is to be enjoyed by a particular audience. It cuts to the crux of the matter which, coincidentally, sits at the heart of every story’s allure: the human experience. The podcast takes an unapologetic look at emotion, without sensationalisation, pathos or pretension.
Basically, Aria Code is that podcast your friend sends you because you’ve been forced to attend an opera spectacle – via a spouse, work event, charitable endeavour or that leftover Christmas gift you didn’t ask for. Chances are that Aria Code, in its selection of the most popular arias ever performed, has thoroughly decoded at least one song from that opera. Listening to the podcast will give you something more precious than post-show talking points. It’ll give you the opportunity to engage with an art form that earnestly seeks to express what it feels like to re-live universal human experiences like love, pain, triumph and awe. And all in the span of a mere aria.
Puccini’s Turandot: Hope Never Sleeps In this episode, Gidden and Co. look at “Nessun Dorma” – yes, that Pavarotti performance – and asks: “How can music like this help us through trauma, through illness, through a global pandemic?”
An unlikely combination: “Nessun Dorma” and the global pandemic. But when, in 2021, the world was oscillating between despair and hope, many turned to this song as the symbol of hope and triumph. Whether it was opera professionals singing to their neighbours, or children singing to the world via Zoom, “Nessun Dorma” was THAT song. Sorry, aria. Why did this aria resonate?
Turandot, at face value, seems like a tale of two lovers finding their way through obstacles to each other. The difference is that one-half of the couple - Princess Turandot - is that obstacle. Turandot knows she is expected to wed, a process that would strip her of independence and power. She fears losing her birthright as the leader of her kingdom. What further complicates this story is that Turandot’s ancestress was physically and socially forced into this position, resulting in the heroine’s fear of, and resentment toward, men.
As the opera unfolds, Puccini’s Turandot appears to be a story about trauma, specifically how a heroine copes with ancestral abuse and her fear of history repeating itself. But how the tale begins is not how it ends. Thanks to “Nessun Dorma,” the opera is transformed from a tale about the despair brought on by suffering, to a tale about hope. Thus how the aria became the universal symbol of hope during the pandemic.
Dessert Island Discs is a legendary radio show on which celebrities share personal stories through a selection of their favourite songs. The Music of Meditation podcast, by singer-songwriter NAO. A podcast on music and meditation designed to combat the challenges of life.
And thanks to you lot for reading. I’d love to hear about any new formats you’re loving at the moment. I need something new. Surprise me by leaving your suggestions in the comments or simply replying to this email.
See you all next week.