Let’s haul on some sea chanteys

As I’ve previously noted, the work songs went into the woods in the winter, carried by sailors who came ashore for the season. But few songs in return migrated from the forests to the sea.

Women’s names could be a clue to the, uh, moral integrity of many messages. “Sally” or “Nancy,” for instance, some more sterling than others.

Other work songs include chain-gang ditties or even the racist, “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah,” though it might fit what’s become of the minimum-wage American workplace.

As for spellings, I’m sticking with “chantey,” based on a scholarly friend’s insistence the notes having a chanter setting the pace. “Shanty” and “chanty,” though, are more common.

Here are some related facts.

  1. This folk music genre flourished aboard larger merchant vessels of the 19th century as a means of setting a rhythm to optimize joint labor involved in either a pulling or pushing motion, such as lifting anchor or setting sail, tasks that required working together for a long time. Think of circling a capstan. Think “Heave!” Or “Haul!”
  2. That’s why many of them are about whaling.
  3. The tradition soared in the period between the War of 1812 and the Civil War and died out with the arrival of steam-powered ships.
  4. Its roots, though, go way back through earlier work songs around the world, including stevedores loading and unloading ships.
  5. Some of the chanteys originated with African-Americans performing “cotton-screwing” on shore, using a large screw-jack to compress and bale cotton for shipment from Southern ports. Some of the incomprehensible words in the songs are attributed to this.
  6. Essentially, it’s a call-and-response form between the solo chantey man and the work crew.
  7. Sometimes they were accompanied by a bosun’s pipe, fife, drum, or fiddle.
  8. They were sung by pirates, too.
  9. About 200 were set down on paper, but thousands more were likely lost.
  10. Some may have been used when relaxing in the evening.


A shoutout to vocal warmups

If you like to sing, even if only in the shower, let me encourage you to check out some of these online.

One of my biggest surprises after getting involved in serious chorus participation after I retired from the newsroom was the importance of the warmups at our rehearsals. I had come to four-part, a cappella singing through Mennonites in my mid-30s, and I had never cottoned up to practicing scales and similar exercises back when I was learning violin as a preteen.

What George Emlen and then Megan Henderson presented in our first 15 minutes or so of rehearsal each week with Boston Revels totally changed my attitude. A good warmup not only added a few notes to my range but also tuned to the entire ensemble into a more, pardon the pun, finely tuned and more responsive instrument. Some of the exercises were definitely fun, laughter filled, as well as challenging. Try singing “Many mumbling mice singing by the moonlight my how nice” repeatedly as the pitch rises and the tempo speeds up, for instance, and soon the sopranos sound like they’re the Chipmunks on laughing gas. Or any of the numbers games.

And then, when Covid interrupted in-person interaction, some online offerings stepped into the void. I’m still finding them very helpful during the week between the rehearsal warmups with my new group, Quoddy Voices, and conductor John Newell.

Here’s a sampling:

  1. Cheryl Porter Vocal Coach. One of my favorites. With her big boxing gloves (seriously) and irresistible if corny enthusiasm, she could as easily be leading a housewives’ weight-control calisthenics round. But her exercises are heavy-hitting, well-grounded, and even dance inducing. Suitable for group singers and those looking to solo alike. Diss her at your own risk.
  2. Nathan Dame. Great perspectives from an outstanding Wylie East (Texas) public high school music educator. This is an example of why music can be a crucial part of a well-rounded curriculum. Dame pours so much energy into his adolescent choruses, I’m left wondering how he recovers at the end of the day. The kids clearly rise to his challenges and respect them. Many of his insightful techniques, meanwhile, seem to arise somewhere within him rather than from a textbook or standing tradition. And you can practice alongside them.
  3. Roger Hale. Solid college-level sessions for both actors and singers, grounded in classical perspectives with his Dixie State University students.
  4. Madeleine Harvey. Her video series relies on the fundamentals of traditional vocal training, things like breathing, breath control, tone, range top and bottom, pitch, agility, and avoiding strain. These are the kind of sessions a singer encounters with a personal professional vocal coach.
  5. Eric Arceneaux, Professional Vocal Warmup. His technical understanding of the voice extends to many popular music styles. Makes snobby me appreciate the abilities of some top-selling singers, too.
  6. Matthew Gawronski Just follow the notes on the screen. Some versions include a full choir to sing along with.
  7. Church Music Dublin with Mark Duley. Practical, everyday stuff. He’s one leader who finds physical movement with the hands and arms or more can improve the sound. I was skeptical at first. Not so now.
  8. Tony Leach with the Collaborative Music Education series from Pennsylvania State University. Professor Leach adds rote training in the African and African-American traditions to his excellent classical discipline. You’ll definitely get a sense of what makes Gospel such a focused genre to perform. I just wish the videos included his student choruses so that you’d get a feel of singing with others.
  9. Paul McKay One Voice. Not all of the warmups are for folks who read musical scores. McKay’s especially fine for explaining the inner working of things like riffs and runs and other techniques that greatly extend today’s vocal expression.
  10. Cincinnati Youth Choir. Don’t scoff at some of the children’s choirs. Their energy, clarity, and precision can be contagious. Just listen to the CYC’s video of “One voice” for proof. Besides, they can humble some of the rest of us.

Of course, if you start with these, you’ll quickly discover a host of great concerts and conductors as well. Beware.


Musically, it’s about time moving on

One of the subtle changes in the world of high culture in my lifetime has been the widespread acceptance of women as both conductors and classical composers.

Long seen as a bastion of Dead White Males, almost exclusively Europeans, the musical bias was deeply engrained. Few of the world’s leading orchestras even had women in their ranks, much less on their programs or as regular guest soloists. That snobbery, by the way, also excluded American conductors and composers, and people of color in general, across the board in the Old World and the New.

When the gender line began to bend, the first women composers to gain significant attention, as far as I remember, were Felix Mendelsohn’s sister, Fanny, and Robert Schumann’s wife, Clara.

More recently, Amy Cheney Beach has come to the fore. New Hampshire-born and then proper Boston society, she was largely self-taught, a piano virtuoso whose hefty piano concerto and symphony are both personal favorites. Her keyboard works have justifiably gained advocates, and a comprehensive retrospective at the University of New Hampshire marking the 150th anniversary of her birth was a revelation. Some of her gorgeous chamber works, moving into a more Impressionistic vein, actually moved me to tears listening in live performance.

Today, talented women composers are showing up everywhere, even winning major prizes like the Pulitzer. Quite simply, it’s hard to keep up.


Similar advances are being seen on the podium, led by Americans.

Pioneered in the ‘60s and beyond by Sarah Caldwell at her Opera Company of Boston and Margaret Hillis at the Chicago Symphony Chorus, early conductors of note also included Judith Somogi with opera and orchestral roles across the U.S. and then Europe, Eve Queller at her Opera Orchestra of New York, and Fiora Contino, who I remember from opera productions at Indiana University.

Later, as innovative major symphony music directors, we’ve been blessed with Joanne Faletta at the resurrected Buffalo Philharmonic and Marin Alsop in Baltimore.

It’s all opened the doors for a slew of younger conductors who are moving up the ranks and in the running for major positions like heading the Los Angeles Philharmonic, now that Gustavo Dudamel will be moving on to Gotham.

Looking at the 18 conductors being heard on live Metropolitan Opera broadcasts this season, I see four are women, one twice, something that would have been unimaginable at such a conservative institution only a decade ago.

Do note the trend, then. Anyone else find it exciting?

Looking forward to another open stage night

Here’s a shoutout to our monthly open stage at the Eastport Arts Center at 6 tonight or, if the weather’s bad, the same time tomorrow.

It’s always a lot of fun, alternating live music and spoken word. I even tried a section from Quaking Dover last month, instead of poetry or fiction, and some found my reading emotionally moving. I did bill the genre as creative non-fiction rather than history. Well, there are no footnotes and I’ve focused on the overall story and people more than mere names and dates. The reaction has me looking at additional opportunities for presenting the work.

Here’s one band that showed up, and I’m hoping they’re back. They do look quintessentially Maine, and you can imagine their joyful sound.

The free event’s billed as “open mic” but I’ve long hated that spelling of “mike,” even if it’s become too widespread to counter.

Still, we had a fine turnout and went an hour longer than planned. I’d be really surprised if you wouldn’t be wowed by at least something. There’s so much talent around here.

Joyfully uncovering a few more musical masters

So much of the classical music scene focuses on revisiting a core repertoire of masterpieces and their composers. Ideally, that leads to deeper understandings and discoveries within the most inspired scores, although superficial repetition and familiarity are more common. Even so, it is exciting when new faces are admitted into that circle. Within my own lifetime I’ve seen that happen with Mahler and Vivaldi, as well as to a lesser extent with Charles Ives.

Adding to the excitement is the reality that the repertoire is no longer exclusively dead white (European) males.

Americans, north and south, are gaining recognition after having long been excluded, though it should be much more. From a more global selection, so are women and people of color.

Sometimes, a composer can embody all three, as is the case for Florence Price (1887-1953). A substantial portion of her surviving work, discovered and recovered in 2009 in her abandoned summer home, is only now gaining an airing and a growing admiration. This Little Rock, Arkansas, native was, it turns out, the first Black American woman to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra – Chicago – and her style has a lightness that blends her own roots, the America of her time, and classical expectations. As a choral singer, I can attest to her unique touch underpinning the scores we’ve performed.

Among other Black composers finally gaining overdue attention, let me mention:

Julius Eastman (1940-1990), an eclectic, genre-crossing American trailblazer whose tragic life included seeing his own works largely scattered to the wind when he was evicted from his apartment and officials threw his possessions out into the street. What remains of this Curtis-trained original is well worth exploring in its large, provocative vision of time, space, classical, jazz, pop, politics, sex, and utter wonder.

Edmond Dede (1827-1903), a New Orleans-born Creole who lived much of his life in France as a successful pianist, conductor, and composer. If he sounds a bit like toe-tapping John Phillip Sousa, remember he came along a generation earlier. He emerged from a lively scene of free Black classical musicians in New Orleans who even had their own symphony orchestras. As far as serious music in America goes, only New York seems to have had more going on in the years before the American Civil War. Don’t overlook this when you’re thinking of the origins of jazz, either.

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799), is remembered as a man of many talents in Paris, including his abilities as a fencer and as the French Mozart. Among his many achievements are commissioning and premiering Haydn for what are known as the Paris symphonies. For his own work, I’d start with his 14 violin concertos, especially as championed by soloists Randall Goosby or Rachel Barton Pine.

The one who excites me the most is Vicente Lusitano (roughly 1520 to sometime after 1561). He was the first Black to have his music printed, along with some crucial musical theory texts. A Portuguese-born priest and musician, his sonorous choral pieces are said to equal Palestrina’s. I’d agree with that. After some intense rivalry in Rome, he turned Protestant, married, and moved to Germany, where he disappeared. The little we know of him still redefines the history of Black composers as existing all the way back to the high Renaissance rather than being much more recent and marginal. Oh, my, I am hoping my choir will soon be attempting something of his, no matter the challenge.


While that’s a sampling of Black masters from the past, a lot is happening now, too. Two living composers of special note I’ll mention are Jessie Montgomery and Terence Blanchard.

That said, keep your ears open!

We’re welcoming the CBC

Longtime regulars to the Red Barn know that I love radio, especially when it involves classical music. Look, I was an avid listener to “educational stations” even before National Public Radio emerged, dialing in marginal ten-watt FM signals from Antioch College or the AM daylight offerings of WOSU from Ohio State University, both of them static laden. And then there was WJR in Detroit, a high-power, clear-channel voice with its own huge staff that included Karl Haas and his “Adventures in Good Music” hour in the morning as well as the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, unless those came during a Redwings hockey game.

Later, living in the interior desert of Washington state, I relied on nighttime AM broadcasts from San Francisco and Calgary, Alberta, not all of it classical. I do remember the Canadian cohosts of one country music show expressing their amazement after a visit to Nashville that folks down there really did speak with “those” accents.

As for what I was saying about static? You came to live with it as part of the show.

Flash ahead, then, to today, when I’m living at the easternmost fringe of the USA. Most of my listening has come from streaming non-commercial stations in Boston and New York or Maine Public Classical. And then, for Christmas, my family gifted me with a Bose sound system to replace my broken components stereo.

As I loaded its radio presets, my otherwise savvy elder daughter confessed her ignorance of AM radio. It ain’t what was, for sure, no matter how much I used to fume at the static resulting when elderly cars came down the street.

Two of the six FM stations I’ve set the Bose to are Canadian Broadcasting Corporation outlets in St. John, New Brunswick, a distance up Fundy Bay from us. I am surprised how clearly their signals come in.

Like National Public Radio in the United States, the CBC is publicly funded and non-commercial. Its main network is primarily news, public affairs, and other talk, while a second is all-music, including classical during the daytime hours.

We’re finding both channels to be refreshing and exceptionally well done.

New York and Washington aren’t the center of their news coverage, for one thing. And the music includes a hefty number of Canadian voices, including a program of contemporary Indigenous music that follows the Metropolitan Opera on Saturdays – the latter with its own host working around what we get in the U.S.

Well, as announcers used to say on TV and radio during the station breaks, “Please stay tuned.”

And we will. There are many varied tastes in this household to match.

Whither the Revels?

EARLIER RED BARN POSTS have touted of Revels as a unique Boston-based arts institution that presents joyous performances blending story, theater, music, dance, literature, history, and much else from many varied world peoples into a magical collective experience. Sound amazing? It’s been. Everyone in our family has delighted in these offerings, no matter how eclectic the theme. As the motto proclaims, “Revels creates musical and theatrical events and educational programs that celebrate cultural and seasonal traditions from around the world, for and with the communities we serve.” It’s even spawned similar groups across the country, as I learned while living in Baltimore and had friends active in the neighboring Washington productions.

While many Revels programs are centered on solstices and equinoxes, the most popular one, far and away, leaves most of the public knowing our organization only as the “Boston Christmas Revels” and then being surprised to hear that Revels Inc. also offers workshops, concerts, pub sings, children’s courses, and a harbor cruise or two throughout the year. I know I’m forgetting some others. That successful “Christmas” identity, for what it’s worth, created a branding problem that’s finally being rectified, in part by rebadging the holiday extravaganza as Midwinter Revels. In addition, let me point out that the flagship attraction has always included many decidedly non-Christian and secular elements, as well as some familiar carols sung by the entire audience. Quite simply, these shows are not about baby Jesus front and center.

My family’s treks from New Hampshire to those Yule pageants in Harvard’s Christopher Wren-inspired Sanders Theatre (which seems to come straight out of Shakespeare or Harry Potter) quickly became a highlight of our year. It meant a day exploring the big city itself as well as across the Charles in cosmopolitan Cambridge, where you could find yourself in amazement at the many languages heard along its sidewalks. We’d always stop at the Harvard Coop for new calendars if nothing else. On those outings the family was introduced to subway rides, bowls of Vietnamese Pho in Chinatown, even the coffee and wine isles of Trader Joe’s back before there was one close to home. How could I forget watching our seven-year-old be absolutely enthralled by a Leonardo da Vinci theme full of Renaissance music in Italian and Latin and featuring Revels legendary founder John Langstaff in what turned out to be his final appearances, not that I could have dragged the kid to a concert of the same program. She was hooked.

Once I retired from the newsroom, I became a charter member of the Revels Singers, a marvelous, non-auditioned community chorus, which then gave me something of an insider’s view of the organization itself, as well as of a broader Harvard University outlook, not that everyone in the ensemble had Yard credentials. It was more of what we might call atmosphere, breathe it in. Believe me, I never imagined being able to sing at such a glorious level. The rehearsals were well worth a two-hour commute down and another two hours home each week.

Just seeing others go through the agony of auditioning for the next Yule show and feeling crushed at being rejected or knowing the sacrifices ahead if they were selected was edifying. So this is what Broadway actors go through? At least they get paid.

But then we faced our move much further to the northeast, plus the Covid outbreak.


LIKE OTHER PERFORMING ARTS arts organizations, the company took hard financial hits from Covid. The highly anticipated 50th anniversary show was scrapped, replaced with a shortened virtual retrospective. That had to hurt, financially and creatively. A renewed outbreak of the vicious virus forced the last half of the next year’s run to be cancelled on short notice. Gone was half of the ticket revenue and related sales of CD albums and related goods in the monumental lobby. In addition, seating for that and the most recent run was reduced due to Covid precautions – down from the 1,000 max that the fabulously intimate auditorium normally packs in. Pre-Covid, sold-out dates were the norm.

On the positive side, Revels began offering online video streaming after the live run, something that allowed us to keep up with the latest manifestations from 353 miles away.

From our perspective, though, what’s resulted is two duds. They just didn’t hold our interest, no matter the quality of the video production.

What worries us is the pandering nature of seeking a more diversified or at least younger audience, even as I applaud shifting from “Christmas” to “Midwinter” in labeling the event. It’s like Netflix or Disney took over.

The first theme in response was set in a decrepit London pub that had just been sold to a naïve American couple. I’m still disturbed by the idea of placing a family-friendly show in a bar, OK? Like “Cheers” from the other side of the Big Pond? Besides, there was none of the mystery and majesty that frame the Revels experience. Quite simply, it felt cheap. The musical line introduced commercial pop tunes known to almost everyone, even me, a far cry from Revels’ usual exotic folk and classical foundation that would take us places we’d never previously imagined. Those tunes were merely predictable, cliché, far from Revels’ usual intrepid discoveries or original compositions. There are many other places ticket buyers can go for a secular Christmas experience, high among them the Boston Pops. So far, at least, Revels has avoided anything Santa. Thankfully. Ho-ho-ho.

The latest entry, set in drab Ellis Island a hundred years back, is even more troubling. The storyline tried to mix Irish Catholics and Czech Jews along with Mexicans already in the USA. It felt forced, artificial, ultimately superficial. Actress Carolyn Saxton was squandered in a preachy, stocky, unessential Spirit of Place role. Hers wasn’t the only polemic that told rather than showed. A “Christmas in the Trenches” sequence was a further reach, even with the German carols, which at least were more seasonal than the Irish “Long Way from Tipperary” and “Wild Rover.” The storyline definitely veered away from any Czech winter opportunities.

The show finally burst free of its wooden action after intermission with some hot Mexican dancing and singing, especially Ricardo Holguin’s flying tenor and fluid movement. If anyone should be in line for David Coffin’s jack-of-all-trades MC replacement (should that ever come), Ricky could be the one. But I am left having no idea what those South of the Border flares had to do with Midwinter.

More troubling was the way that so much we anticipate each year is being reduced in size and impact. The words to “Lord of the Dance” were recast to eliminate the Lord Shiva comparison to Jesus, which has always troubled me, yet in universalizing the thought, it wound up greatly diluting the original. The powerful concluding “Sussex Mummers Carol” was reworded and shortened, and the abbreviated mummers’ play unintentionally announced that winter was already over. So why are we here? I didn’t even see any of the traditional morris dancers, unless they were carrying stag horns. The sword dancers, I’m told, are their own discipline. Praise be, even if for most of their scene, they were five rather than the usual six I remember!

Overall, quite simply, where had the enchantment gone?

I believe that points to a bigger problem for Revels and other arts realms today. Let’s call it the tension between artistic expression versus marketing.


AS BACKGROUND, in Revels’ evolution each year’s holiday show went from a British-centered Christmas party to a celebration with a storyline probing selected national, regional, and cultural themes. Acadian/Cajun was a recent one, with Renaissance Venice for another as well as a northwest Spanish hike on the holy pilgrims’ Way, in addition to Scandinavian countries and then American roots. I think back, too, on an engaging Armenian-Georgia Republic production and another from woolly Russia. Ireland, Wales, Scotland, parts of England, and especially Victorian London also delivered profound entertainments.

At its core, though, are what should be some trademarked, let’s call them sacred, scenes – Sidney Carter’s “Lord of the Dance” that leads the audience out into the Civil War memorial lobby in a serpentine line dance at the intermission, as well as the eerie Abbots Bromley horn dance of stag deer in moonlight once we return to our seats. Add to that the seemingly improvised mummers’ play, a showstopping sword dance, Susan Cooper’s dark-night poem “The Shortest Day” that concludes with “Welcome, Yule!” shouted by the entire audience as they burst into the “Sussex Mummers Carol” blessing that also raises tears and goosebumps with its soaring soprano descant and artificial snowflakes falling from above. In that concluding flash, no choir in Greater Boston is more heavenly, not even the Tanglewood Festival’s with the symphony.

Quite simply, we are disturbed by the tinkering we’re seeing in these essentials. Yes, the Revels are ultimately Anglophile, even Elizabethan or Edwardian, saturated in brocaded deep reds and golds, no matter where the storyline ventures. Don’t deny what’s in Revels’ bones and blood. And don’t ever count me as an Anglophile, no matter how much I’m venting in its defense. Remember, when in Rome …


COMPARED TO OTHER Boston-based arts enterprises, Revels has lacked deep-pockets, despite the sumptuousness of its holiday productions. Its passionate core staff is surrounded by many dedicated volunteers, but aging does mean a change at the helm is in the works, especially with the upcoming retirement of its artistic director a year hence. Something similar has already been transitioning with its music director, the other top creative position, though I’m not convinced it’s securely in place.

In the performing arts, after all, not all of the drama transpires on stage. Revels is no doubt already in the early stages of planning next year’s Midwinter plot and accompanying score.

I would hate to think, as the Bard said, “Our revels now are ended.”

A candid glimpse behind the mask

Don’t know if this is still in the Wikipedia bio page, but it is revealing:

“This man has a very large ego and has hurt the feelings of a choral singer I know. He can be insensitive. Please proceed with caution. This is the ‘kind version’ of what I actually want to say. Thank you.”

Well, the subject did survive seven years as an assistant to a stellar conductor who, according to what I’ve heard from insiders, bordered on sadistic, despite the heavenly perfection of performances under his baton or the public mask of his celebrity.

As I’ve heard said of surgeons, they tend to adopt the operating room mannerisms of their mentors, however tyrannical, outrageous, or circumspect.

Two people I know who have worked under the entry’s subject have only admirable things to say about him.

For now, I’d like to know more about the anonymous person who posted the entry and why. Perhaps as a cautionary tale for all of us in our leadership roles.


Here’s wishing you all could be there

Stephen Sanfilippo is both a wonderful folk musician and a professional historian, two strands that weave together delightfully in his performances and recordings of maritime songs.

He’s a master of the sea chantey repertoire as well as many other seafaring tunes and lyrics – many of which, as he’ll explain, traveled far and wide into the American hinterlands but not back. He does prefer the spelling “chantey” and “chantey man,” for reasons I’ll leave to him to explain. And there are plenty of opportunities to sing along.

Here’s an invitation to his free appearance on Wednesday, January 25, at 6 pm at the Pembroke, Maine, public library, itself an appropriate venue. (I do love the stuffed birds displayed behind him.) The event will be followed by a series of more monthly concerts. Yay!

From his previous appearances here, I can acclaim this is one more facet of what makes living Way Downeast Maine so special to me.

I never expected so much Donizetti

I’ve posted previously on the outstanding and often original finals’ week programming on Harvard’s student-run FM radio station. Each December and May, the regular schedule shifts to a few weeks of special blocks of classical, jazz, rock, folk, world, and many other strands of music I hadn’t even heard of for something the station has trademarked as Orgy, as in “Donizetti Orgy,” which I’ll explain. For accuracy, we should note that final exams really cover closer to two weeks or a tad more.

One year, for instance, they played everything Bob Dylan had recorded. A few years later, a much shorter sequence introduced many of us to Florence Price, a significant Black American woman composer who has since been receiving a posthumous flowering. The decisions are often based on anniversaries, as happened a few years ago when we got to hear everything Beethoven had ever written, in chronological order. Musically speaking, of course. I have no idea about his letters. A year ago, Schubert got the same treatment, meaning a lot of art songs in German, especially. That one nearly became an Orgy of its own for the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, whose son once told classmates what his dad did for a living was make records. Let’s just say that many of these Orgies are highly eclectic.

I did raise my eyebrows in the last round when well over a hundred hours of airtime were devoted to the 225th anniversary of the birth of Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti, known largely for a dozen or so marvelously florid operas. Turns out he created nearly 70 operas plus symphonies, string quartets, concertos, piano scores, songs, and so on, which were presented, again chronologically, in big blocks over two weeks. Where do the programmers dig up all of the recordings? Is this really some Harvard grad student’s thesis project?

Donizetti (1797-1848) is renowned, along with Rossini and Bellini, for a specialized style of opera called bel canto, “beautiful singing,” which has had a major revival in the past half-century. Today its embellishments, soaring lines, and vocal athletics have become widely embraced, but back when I was first listening, it was all revolutionary. And, among the three, Donizetti was far and away the most prolific.

What made the series significant to me was the way it revealed an evolution over his 29-year career from formulaic provincial stage comedies to what we recognize as Romantic opera. It filled in a gap in operatic history for me, getting from us classical Mozart to gripping dramatic Verdi and beyond. Composing at fever pitch, Donizetti often churned out four new operas a year, many of them in one-act pieces plus others that recycled earlier material before he reached a more sustainable stride. Think of a rock band or pop artist turning out an album, which is only an hour or so compared to a three-hour opera. Or a movie composer, for that matter, who has to create a similar amount of music. Nobody does four a year, right?

In the broadcasts, Donizetti’s early works sounded serviceable but not memorable. They were built on strings of solo arias, choruses, and recitative, which I streamed while working on my own life. That would mean one character in the spotlight, exit stage, and then another. Laundry, cooking, vacuuming, or washing dishes anyone? You know, everyday stuff, with music in the background. Midway into the series and his career, though, the dramatic level rose immensely and caught me in my tracks, especially with the appearance of ensembles of simultaneous conflicting emotions and motivations. Yes, there were hints of things ahead, like the flash connecting one faintly familiar tenor aria with what would emerge later, with nine high C pings inserted as “Ah! Mes mis,” and eventually launch Luciano Pavarotti into international household fame in 1972. (We did hear him in that role around 6 am the final day, when “La Fille du Regiment” aired from a recording of London’s Covent Garden production with Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge costarring.)

Quite simply, those were the flashes when I recognized we had crossed over into everything today’s operagoer anticipates, even with Mozart, Gluck, and Handel remaining glorious within their earlier realms.

Many of the Orgies really are once-in-a-lifetime events. With Donizetti, for example, it’s unlikely that I’ll ever again hear most of what was introduced. Simply tracking down rare pieces would be an overwhelming challenge.

Let’s see what May brings. Those kids at WHRB really do deliver.