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Opera News on the Air (1949)

Moderated by Boris Goldovsky

Source: Source: Intermission feature during broadcast of Metropolitan Opera performance of Manon Lescaut, December 10, 1949
Transcribed from audiocassette held by the Weill-Lenya Research Center, Ser.114/24

Mrs. August Belmont: Now it’s time for “Opera News on the Air.” With Boris Goldovsky today are two top-flight personages of the American theater, Mr. Kurt Weill, composer, and Mr. Vinton Freedley, producer. We certainly must credit Mr. Weill and Mr. Freedley with many distinguished contributions to the American theater in recent years. As president of ANTA, and of course you know that ANTA means the American National Theater and Academy, Mr. Freedley is at the helm of one of the most important activities in the history of the American theater. Mr. Weill, of course, is internationally known for his many successful scores. Here in America, we particularly remember his score for One Touch of Venus, for the musical version of Street Scene, and, this season, for the current musical hit Lost in the Stars. And now, Mr. Goldovsky.

Goldovsky: Thank you, Mrs. Belmont [applause]. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Today’s opera, Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, brings us face-to-face with an unusual and interesting situation in the history of the musical theater. When Puccini began to compose his opera, there was already in existence another work derived from the same story. The opera called Manon by the French composer Massenet. Massenet’s opera had been produced nine years before Puccini’s and was enjoying great success everywhere. Puccini nevertheless went ahead and nowadays we find that both operas are equally successful. Which, it seems to me, is an almost unprecedented occurrence.

Weill: Certainly the spectacle of two currently successful scores, based on a similar story, is an unusual one, Mr. Goldovsky. Of course, composers in bygone times weren’t the least bit reluctant to write music on texts which had previously been set by others.

Freedley: And a good thing, too, Mr. Weill. If they had been, we would never have had Rossini’s Barber of Seville or Verdi’s Falstaff.

Weill: Yes, or Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet, which caused many earlier versions to be forgotten, at least a dozen of them.

Goldovsky: Now, they are forgotten and that’s what’s so unusual in the case of the two Manons, Mr. Weill; they are both public favorites.

Freedley: Of course, Puccini took the precaution to avoid duplicating the situations of the old opera. The locale is the same only for the first act. And even here the plot is handled very differently. As for the rest, you could say that Puccini concentrated on those episodes in the story which Massenet left out.

Weill: I think what Puccini did was to seize on those aspects of the story that appealed most to him, that fired his own musical imagination. For example, Massenet devotes only a small part of his work to tragedy, while in Puccini’s opera Manon’s disgrace and suffering occupies fully half of the work.

Goldovsky: And causes Puccini’s musical inspiration almost to explode into his most characteristic melodic utterance. Such as, for instance, this wonderful melody that Manon sings in the last act, a few minutes before she dies (plays musical illustration on the piano).

Freedley: Well, whatever else you might say, that certainly does sound like Puccini.

Goldovsky: Doesn’t it, Mr. Freedley? You know, I imagine a good many of our listeners are hearing Manon Lescaut for the very first time today. And yet, I’m sure many of them–simply because of their familiarity with other Puccini works–have the strange feeling that they know this opera also.

Weill: And, in a sense, they would be quite right. It almost seems as if each opera of Puccini echoes all the others.

Freedley: Oh, now, listen now, wait a minute. Are you accusing Puccini of simply repeating himself over and over again?

Weill: By no means, Mr. Freedley. But if a composer’s basic material is rich enough, as Puccini’s certainly was, it can be repeated again and again, and it will always be different.

Freedley: Yes, but you just said one Puccini opera was apt to echo all the others. Now, I’m ready to concede that you and Mr. Goldovsky are the real experts as far as music is concerned, but for my part, I . . .

Goldovsky: I think Mr. Freedley is putting us on the spot, Mr. Weill. What he really is asking is: Just why does Puccini sound so much like himself? Well, I wonder. Let’s have a look at some of the music in today’s opera and see if we can find a clue of some kind. Now, let me think. This tune we just played (illustration) now doesn’t that sound something like Mimì’s outburst in the third act of La bohème? (illustration)

Freedley: Except, of course, that the melody, the rhythm, the harmony are totally different [laughter].

Goldovsky: Well, you’re a hard man to convince, Mr. Freedley. Well, let me think. I think I can do better than that. I can give you something that even you will admit is similar in some respects. Let’s take the two tenor arias: the one we just heard in Manon Lescaut‘s first act as sung by Des Grieux (illustration); and now this, which Pinkerton sings in the last act of Butterfly (illustration).

Weill: Well, let’s admit they do sound alike, Mr. Goldovsky. But, don’t you think that these are only superficial resemblances? What is much more significant, to me, is a certain device Puccini makes extremely effective use of and that is his way of passing the melodic line back and forth between the voice and the orchestra. Sometimes the voice, sometimes the orchestra taking the lead, and sometimes both together. This has the advantage of letting Puccini set whatever words he likes to the melody, without worrying about having them dovetail exactly, and thus gives him the fullest latitude. The words and the music are both freer.

Goldovsky: As a matter of fact, Mr. Weill, the tenor aria I just quoted form the first act of Manon, when it first appears, has exactly that kind of dovetailing of which you speak. The orchestra plays the first measure (illustration), then the tenor comes in (illustration). The orchestra alone continues and now here they come together. A most typical Puccini device. Incidentally, as another example of Mr. Weill’s point, I wonder how many people assume unconsciously that the opening notes of Rodolfo’s famous aria from La bohème, “Che gelida manina,” are these (illustration). Of course, that is the melody we hear, but what Rodolfo really sings is this (illustration). It is the orchestra that plays [the familiar melody of] “Che gelida manina.”

Freedley: But you’re not suggesting, are you, that Puccini’s the only composer who does that? That isn’t really what makes Puccini sound like Puccini, is it?

Goldovsky: You are a difficult man, Mr. Freedley. I must confess that the answer to what makes Puccini sound like Puccini isn’t as simple as I thought a few minutes ago. It’s obvious that there is a good deal more to musical personality than a few superficial characteristics.

Weill: I think there is indeed, Mr. Goldovsky. I also think there is an answer to the question of Mr. Freedley, “Why Puccini sounds like Puccini?” But I’m convinced we have been looking for it in the wrong place. Of course, we could pursue this matter further into a somewhat technical analysis, but even then I doubt if we would have the answer. The answer lies deep within the composer himself and only a sort of musical psychoanalysis, I would say, could get to the root of it.

Freedley: Still, we’ve seen the sort of thing which brings out the Puccini in Puccini, so to speak. Wouldn’t you say then when a composer hits a dramatic situation which expresses his own emotions best, well that’s the time he writes his kind of melody.

Weill: Exactly! You will notice that in his various operas Puccini consciously colors his music to fit the time and place of his action. For instance, oriental color in Butterfly and Turandot. But when he hits one of those dramatic situations which he finds most stimulating to himself, the unconscious takes over. He writes pure unadulterated Italian Puccini.

Goldovsky: Tell me, Mr. Weill, as a composer yourself, are you conscious of any particular emotional appeal that brings forth the most characteristic in you; that brings out the Weill in Weill, so to say? [laughter]

Weill: Well, I’m not conscious of it when I actually write music, but looking back on many of my compositions, I find that I seem to have a very strong reaction in the awareness of the suffering of underprivileged people–of the oppressed, the persecuted. I know, for instance, that in the music I wrote for Lost in the Stars, I consciously introduced a certain amount of South African musical atmosphere, and yet, in retrospect, I can see that when the music involved human suffering, it is, for better or worse, pure Weill.

Freedley: Probably every composer has some sort of basic melody within himself which reappears in countless different guises.

Weill: Precisely, and that’s why it’s so easy to detect similarities as we have done here today. Resemblances that turn out, on close inspection, to be more apparent than actual. They are emotionally similar because they reflect and express the personality of the same highly individual composer.

Goldovsky: All of which indicates that the extraordinary emotional appeal of Puccini’s music is no accident. It is based on no special technical device nor on any particular musical vocabulary. These could and have been copied and imitated, but the result was still not Puccini. Even as we listen to this comparatively early work today we are conscious of being in the presence of an authentic musical personality. It may not be easy to determine why this is so, but perhaps that doesn’t matter too much. We listen and we know it is so.

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