Nov 042017

On this date in 1737 the Real Teatro di San Carlo in Naples began performances with Domenico Sarro’s Achille in Sciro. San Carlo is the oldest continuously active venue for public opera in the world. Nowadays the opera season runs from late January to May, with a ballet season from April to early June. The house once had a seating capacity of 3,285, but has now been reduced to 1386 seats. San Carlo became the model for numerous theaters throughout Europe. The theater was commissioned by the Bourbon king Charles III of Naples because he wanted to endow Naples with a new and larger theatre to replace the old, dilapidated, and too-small Teatro San Bartolomeo of 1621, which had served the city well, especially after Scarlatti had moved there in 1682 and had begun to make Naples one of the major opera centers in Europe.

The new opera house was designed by Giovanni Antonio Medrano, a military architect, and Angelo Carasale, the former director of the San Bartolomeo. The horseshoe-shaped auditorium is the oldest in the world. It was built at a cost of 75,000 ducats. The hall was 28.6 meters long and 22.5 meters wide, with 184 boxes, including those of proscenium, arranged in six orders, plus a royal box capable of accommodating ten people, for a total of 1,379 seats. Including standing room, the theatre could hold over 3,000 people. The fastidious composer and violinist Louis Spohr reviewed the size and acoustic properties of this opera house very thoroughly on 15 February 1817 and concluded that:

There is no better place for ballet and pantomime. Military movements of infantry and cavalry, battles, and storms at sea can be represented here without falling into the ludicrous. But for opera, itself, the house is too large. Although the singers, Signora Isabella Colbran, [Prima Donna of the Teatro San Carlo opera company and Rossini’s future wife], and the Signori Nozzari, Benedetti, etc., have very strong voices, only their highest and most stentorian tones could be heard. Any kind of tender utterance was lost.

When it was opened, the opera house was much admired for its architecture, its gold decorations, and the sumptuous blue upholstery (blue and gold being the official colors of the Bourbons), and was, at the time, the biggest opera house in the world. In 1809 Domenico Barbaia was appointed manager of the royal opera houses in Naples and remained in charge until 1841. He soon established a reputation for innovative and dazzling productions, which attracted leading singers to the opera house. On 13 February 1816 a fire broke out during a dress-rehearsal for a ballet performance and quickly spread to destroy a part of building. On the orders of Ferdinand IV, of Charles III, Barbaia was able to rebuild the opera house within ten months. It was rebuilt as a traditional horseshoe-shaped auditorium with 1,444 seats, and a proscenium, 33.5m wide and 30m high. The stage was 34.5m deep.

On 12 January 1817, the rebuilt theatre was inaugurated with Johann Simon Mayr’s Il sogno di Partenope. Stendhal attended the second night of the inauguration and wrote: “There is nothing in all Europe, I won’t say comparable to this theatre, but which gives the slightest idea of what it is like…, it dazzles the eyes, it enraptures the soul…”

In 1844 the opera house was re-decorated, changing the appearance of the interior to the now-traditional red and gold. Apart from the creation of the orchestra pit, suggested by Verdi in 1872, the installation of electricity in 1890, the subsequent abolition of the central chandelier, and the construction of the new foyer and a new wing for dressing rooms, the theatre underwent no substantial changes until repair of the bombing damage in 1943.

When San Carlo was built, the Neapolitan School of opera enjoyed great success all over Europe, not only in the field of opera buffa but also in that of opera seria. Naples became the capital of European music and even foreign composers considered the performance of their compositions at the San Carlo theater as the pinnacle of their careers. Likewise, the most prominent singers performed and consolidated their fame at the San Carlo.

From 1815 to 1822, Gioachino Rossini was house composer and artistic director of the royal opera houses, including the San Carlo. During this period he wrote ten operas: Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra (1815), La gazzetta, Otello, ossia il Moro di Venezia (1816), Armida (1817), Mosè in Egitto, Ricciardo e Zoraide (1818), Ermione, Bianca e Falliero, Eduardo e Cristina, La donna del lago (1819), Maometto II (1820), and Zelmira (1822). After the composition of Zelmira, Rossini left Naples.

To replace Rossini, Barbaja first signed up Giovanni Pacini and then another rising star of Italian opera, Gaetano Donizetti. As artistic director of the royal opera houses, Donizetti remained in Naples from 1822 until 1838, composing sixteen operas for the theatre, among which Maria Stuarda (1834), Roberto Devereux (1837), Poliuto (1838) and the famous Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), written for soprano Tacchinardi-Persiani and for tenor Duprez.

Giuseppe Verdi was also associated with the theater. In 1841, his Oberto Conte di San Bonifacio was performed there and in 1845 he wrote his first opera for the theater, Alzira; a second, Luisa Miller, followed in 1849. His third should have been Gustavo III, but the censor made such significant changes that it was never performed in that version nor under that title (until a re-created version was given in 2004). It was later performed in Rome with significant revisions to the plot and its location, while the title became Un ballo in maschera.

The unification of Italy in 1861 lead to Naples losing its status as the musical center of Italy and the home of the country’s leading opera house to La Scala as power and wealth moved northwards. By 1874 the fall in income from performances led to the closing of the opera house for a year. Its fortunes were able to recover due to the continued support in the later half of the 19th century and into the 20th century by Giacomo Puccini and other composers of verismo operas, such as Pietro Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano, and Cilea, who staged their works here.

In the late 19th century, the house created its own in-house orchestra under Giuseppe Martucci, which helped attract a number of respected conductors including Arturo Toscanini, Pietro Mascagni and composer Richard Strauss, whose influence expanded the opera house’s repertoire.

One performer who did not appear in Naples from 1901 onward was Naples-born Enrico Caruso, who after being booed by a section of the audience during a performance of L’elisir d’amore, vowed never to return.

Here’s a small taste:

Speaking of taste, one of the most beloved Neapolitan dishes, perhaps as part of a pre-opera dinner is spaghetti alle vongole napolitano. It’s very simple to make and is one of my favorites.  You must use very small clams, but you can use linguine in place of spaghetti.

Spaghetti Alle Vongole Napolitano


500 gm fresh small clams in their shells
200 gm cherry tomatoes, cut in half
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
500 gm spaghetti


Wash the clams thoroughly and keep them in salt water for half an hour before cooking.

Cook the spaghetti in abundant boiling water.  Check every few minutes once it is soft to make sure it is cooked al dente and no more.

Sauté the garlic gently over medium heat in oil in a deep skillet (with a lid) for about 2 minutes. Do not let it take on any color. Add the tomatoes, salt to taste, and half of the parsley. Stir slowly and cook for 3-4 minutes.

Drain the clams and add them to the skillet. Stir and cover until the clams are open (3-4 minutes). If the sauce is too dry add a small amount of boiling water from the pasta pan.

When the spaghetti is cooked al dente, drain and put it back into the same pot. Pour over it the juices from the cooked clams.  Stir for 1 minute over low heat.

Empty the spaghetti on to a serving dish and serve with the clams and tomatoes garnished with the remaining parsley.

Serves 4

Feb 292016


Today (29 February) is sometimes known as leap day, because it is the day that differentiates a leap year from ordinary years. More generically it is known as an intercalary day, a day that makes sure that the calendar and the revolution of the earth around the sun mesh. They are necessary in all calendars because the earth’s revolution around the sun is not exactly divisible into days. It’s about 6 hours more than 365 days, so every 4 years a day needs to be added to make things right. But . . . it’s not exactly 6 hours either. If it were, things would be ducky. Because it’s slightly less, a leap day is omitted in 3 years out of 400. The rule is that if a year is divisible by 100 but not by 400 it is NOT a leap year. So 1900 was not a leap year, 2000 was, and 2100 won’t be. I felt a little cheated when 2000 came around. Quirky though it sounds, I wanted to have that one year in my life that skipped being a leap year. Oh well.

Calendars whose months are determined by the moon’s phases sometimes have more intercalary days than strictly solar calendars, because 12 months of 28 days gives a year of only 336 days and 13 months gives you 364. If you want to keep a lunar calendar meshed with the sun, as the Chinese do, for example, you have to fiddle about a bit with extra days. Or you can be like Muslims and just let your religious festivals, based on lunar cycles, wander all over the solar year. The Julian calendar, implemented by Julius Caesar, was the first to introduce 29 February as a leap day. Pope Gregory’s reforms that gave us the Gregorian calendar we use today, had to make some major adjustments for errors in the Julian calendar, but kept 29 February as a leap day. For this adjustment in England, you can go here:

Obviously, the calendar is very important for keeping this blog. When the blog anniversary comes around in May this year (3 years and counting), I am going to experiment with celebrating festive days that wander about the year (such as Easter), because they are based on lunar rather than solar cycles. A challenge. For now 29 February is enough of a problem for me. Lots of anniversaries fall on 29 February, but I cannot content myself with choosing one and waiting until next year for another. Instead this post is going to have to be a hodge-podge of things that have occurred on 29 February throughout history.


It has often been cited as fact that in 1288 queen Margaret of Scotland issued an edict that on the 29th of February a woman had the right to ask any eligible bachelor to marry her, and if he refused he had to pay a fine. No matter how often this “fact” is repeated, however, there is no evidence of such an edict. Nonetheless, there has been a modest history of leap year dances, and the like, on this date, at which male and female roles are reversed, although in these days of greater gender equality in such matters, they have faded in popularity. “Popping the question” by a man nowadays seems to be more the province of stupid sitcoms than real life, in which couples come to a decision jointly over time – at least in the world I inhabit.


Notable events on this date don’t generally have anything to do with the fact that it is a leap day. For example, it is recorded that on 29 February 1504 there was a lunar eclipse that Christopher Columbus used to his advantage. For a year Columbus and his men were stranded on Jamaica. A Spaniard, Diego Méndez, and some locals paddled a canoe to get help from Hispaniola. The governor, Nicolás de Ovando y Cáceres, detested Columbus and obstructed all efforts to rescue him and his men. In the meantime Columbus, in a desperate effort to induce the indigenous population to continue provisioning him and his hungry men, won their favor by predicting the lunar eclipse for 29 February 1504, using Abraham Zacuto’s astronomical charts.

A person who is born on February 29 is sometimes called a “leapling.” In non-leap years, some leaplings celebrate their birthday on February 28, some on March 1. A few observe birthdays only on the authentic intercalary date, February 29, that is, every four years. The effective legal date of a leapling’s birthday in non-leap years varies between jurisdictions. In the United Kingdom, for example, when a person born on February 29 turns 18 in a non-leap year, they are considered to have their birthday on March 1 in the relevant year. In New Zealand, a person born on February 29 is deemed to have their birthday on February 28 in non-leap years, for the purposes of Driver Licensing under §2(2) of the Land Transport (Driver Licensing) Rule 1999. Otherwise, New Zealand legislation is silent on when a person born on 29 February has their birthday.


Confusion about the birthdays of leaplings has occasionally been used as a fictional plot device. For example, in Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1879 comic opera The Pirates of Penzance, the young hero Frederic was accidentally apprenticed to a band of pirates until his 21st birthday. Having passed his 21st year, he leaves the pirate band and falls in love. However, since he was born on February 29, his 21st (literal) birthday will not arrive until he is eighty-four, so he must leave his fiancée and return to the pirates. Rest assured, if you do not know the work, they figure it out.

There are a few people born on February 29 I might single out, but I’ll pick three.

First, the most curious, born in 1904 is Adolph Blaine Charles David Earl Frederick Gerald Hubert Irvin John Kenneth Lloyd Martin Nero Oliver Paul Quincy Randolph Sherman Thomas Uncas Victor William Xerxes Yancy Zeus Wolfeschlegelsteinhausenberdorft Sr, born in 1904 near Hamburg. He had 26 first names, one for every letter of the alphabet, and a very long last name. I am assuming he used “Sr” because his son was also Adolph, and not that he also had 26 names. It is on record as the longest official name. He shortened it to Mr Wolfe Plus 585 Sr.


Second, is Gioachino Antonio Rossini, born in 1792. He was a famous Italian composer who wrote 39 operas as well as sacred music, chamber music, songs, and some instrumental and piano pieces. His best-known operas include the Italian comedies Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) and La Cenerentola (Cinderella), and the French-language epics Moïse et Pharaon and Guillaume Tell (William Tell). Until his retirement in 1829, Rossini had been one of the most popular opera composers in history. He is quoted as joking, “Give me the laundress’ bill and I will even set that to music.” There is no question that Rossini had a flare for writing tuneful and memorable melodies.

The overture to William Tell may be Rossini’s most well known piece because of its continued use in popular media. The intention of the overture is to paint a musical picture of life in the Swiss Alps, the setting of the opera. It was described by Berlioz (who usually loathed Rossini’s works) as “a symphony in four parts”, but unlike a symphony with its discrete movements, the overture’s parts transition from one to the next without any break.

Prelude, Dawn

The Prelude is a slow passage in E major, scored for five solo cellos accompanied by double basses. It begins in E minor with a solo cello which is in turn ‘answered’ by the remaining cellos and the double basses. An impending storm is hinted at by two very quiet timpani rolls resembling distant thunder. The section ends with a very high sustained note played by the first cello.


This dynamic section in E minor is played by the full orchestra. It begins with the violins and violas. Their phrases are punctuated by short wind instrument interventions of three notes each, first by the piccolo, flute and oboes, then by the clarinets and bassoons. The storm breaks out in full with the entrance of the French horns, trumpets, trombones, and bass drum. The volume and number of instruments gradually decreases as the storm subsides. The section ends with the flute playing alone.

Ranz des Vaches

This pastorale section in G major signifying the calm after the storm begins with a Ranz des Vaches or “Call to the Cows”, featuring the cor anglais. The horn then plays in alternating phrases with the flute, culminating in a duet with the triangle accompanying them in the background. The melody appears several times in the opera, including the final act, and takes on the character of a leitmotif. This segment is often used in animated cartoons to signify daybreak.

Finale, March Of The Swiss Soldiers

The Finale, often called the “March of the Swiss Soldiers” in English, is in E major like the Prelude, but is an ultra-dynamic galop heralded by trumpets and played by the full orchestra. It alludes to the final act, which recounts the Swiss soldiers’ victorious battle to liberate their homeland from Austrian repression. Although there are no horses or cavalry charges in the opera, this segment is often used in popular media to denote galloping horses, a race, or a hero riding to the rescue. Its most famous use in that respect is as the theme music for The Lone Ranger. At one time this usage was so famous that the term “intellectual” was jokingly defined as “a person who can listen to the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger.”The Finale is also quoted by Dmitri Shostakovich in the first movement of his Symphony No. 15.


Third, is Ann Lee, also known as Mother Ann, born in 1736. She is sometimes credited as being the founder of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, commonly called the Shakers. She was not. That honor should probably go to James and Jane Wardley, but Ann Lee was a vitally influential leader in the movement’s early days, especially in the United States. I am sorry that Mother’s Ann’s birthday has to be shared with a host of other people and events because of the crush to do so much in one post on February, because there is so much I would like to say about her.

The Shakers, originally called Shaking Quakers, were an offshoot of the Quakers who left to form their own group after the Quakers wanted to play down physical manifestations of spirituality. I first learnt about the Shakers when I went to graduate school in North Carolina where my first mentor was Dan Patterson who was, at the time, writing the definitive work on Shaker song. The Shakers are sometimes described as millenials because they believed in the imminent second coming of Christ. I came to greatly admire them because of their steadfast belief in what I consider to be core Christian values, that include, simplicity, pacifism, complete equality of the sexes, and tranquility of the spirit built on faith. They were widely known for their craftwork, especially their furniture because of its elegance, utility, beauty, and simplicity. For a time in the 19th century they had a number of large and prosperous communities scattered throughout the United States, but they eventually died out because they practiced complete celibacy, and, therefore, could only grow or even remain stable in numbers through recruitment, which slowly tapered off as the Industrial Revolution progressed and the simple (celibate) life became less and less appealing. They also required new recruits to hand over to the community all of their wealth and possessions (much as Acts of Apostles tells us early Christian communities in Jerusalem behaved).

Gender equality among the Shakers was absolute. This stems from their reading of Genesis in which they argued that the first creation story (Genesis 1), describes God creating humans, male and female, in his own image. That is, they saw the story as identifying God as BOTH male and female. Many believed that God had returned in human form, not as a man, but as a woman – Mother Ann. Mother Ann was the second coming of Christ.

Shakers, following St Paul, believed that the Spirit granted humans gifts in many forms. Their music, for example, was not deliberately composed, but came to individuals as gifts. The most famous is called “Simple Gifts”

This song embodies the essence of Shaker ideas. The mention of turning is a reference to the fact that Shakers danced to awaken and enliven their spiritual natures.


I can’t think of a better recipe for today than Shaker lemon pie. This was my wife’s favorite, and I give her recipe from memory even though I never made it myself. It comes, originally, from a Shaker community cookbook she owned, but it’s easy enough to remember. It is simple, a little tart and a little sweet.


Shaker Lemon Pie

Choose lemons for this recipe that are as thin skinned as possible. If the skins are too thick it will not work. You will need a little under 1 lb of lemons. Cut off the ends of the lemons to expose the flesh. Discard the ends and slice the lemons as thinly as possible. You’ll need a really sharp knife to get them paper thin. Remove the seeds and place the slices in a non-reactive bowl. Mix the slices with 3 cups of granulated sugar, cover and let rest in the refrigerator overnight.

Next day preheat the oven to 450°F/230°C.

Grease a 9” deep pie dish and line it with pastry (see Hints). Beat 4 eggs well and mix them with the lemon slices. Pour this mix into the pie shell, making sure there is a flat and even layer of lemon slices on the top. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 375°F/190°C and bake for an additional 20 to 25 minutes, or until the eggs are set and the top is golden. Cover the pastry edge with foil if it begins to brown too quickly. Serve hot or cold.