Manitoba Opera

Jun 26, 2024

Magical Elixirs, Medical Quackery & Snake-Oil Salesmen

 

In Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love, the titular tincture is procured by the naïve and lovesick Nemorino from the travelling physician Doctor Dulcamara. Nemorino, down to his last pennies and unlucky in love, approaches the self-styled “Encyclopedic Doctor” who entertains an audience of villagers. Dulcamara hawks medicines and salves to cure liver disease and paralysis, smooth wrinkles, eradicate lice and vermin, increase libido, and so on, haggling prices down from extravagantly unaffordable to taking whatever coin he is offered. Nemorino begs him for the love elixir of Queen Isolde. Although the doctor is unfamiliar with the tale of Tristan and Isolde, he nevertheless leaps at the opportunity to make a quick sale, exchanging the erstwhile magical liqueur – SPOILER ALERT – (actually a bottle of red wine) for the sum total of Nemorino’s wealth – a single zecchin (a Venetian ducat), and cautioning the young man that the elixir will require 24 hours to take its effect (giving the fraudulent doctor time enough to get out of town).  

This kind of medical quackery is a familiar trope, being well-documented in histories and lampooned in works of fiction.  

“The term quack originates from quacksalver, or kwakzalver, a Dutch word for a seller of nostrums, medical cures of dubious and secretive origins . . . they plied their trade on street corners and at country fairs, hawking homemade remedies in loud, attention-grabbing voices—hence the term quack, likening their cries to noisy ducks or geese.” – Drago, E. B, 2020.  

Even the word “charlatan” is directly related to quackery. The word comes from “Cerretani,” the name for people from Cerreto di Spoleto- a small town in what is now Italy that became notorious in the Middle Ages for widespread fraud committed by its inhabitants who would collect alms on behalf of medical and religious foundations which they would keep for themselves. This evolved to medical charlatanism, exploiting the absence of institutional medicine in rural areas and the superstition of a poorly educated populace. There and across Europe, unscrupulous vendors sold cure-alls concocted from all manner of bizarre and potentially dangerous (or even wholly fictitious) components. One such prescription, published by Sr. William Solomon of London in the 17th century calls for: 

Gold, one half ounce.
Powder of a lion’s heart, four ounces.
Filings of a unicorn’s horn, one half ounce.
Ashes of the whole chameleon, one and a half ounces.
Earthworms, a score.
Dried man’s brain, five ounces.
To be mixed together and digested with universal spirits. 

Such practices were not isolated to Europe. A North American audience might draw parallels to the iconic snake-oil salesmen of the old West. The great irony of snake-oil is that it originated as a genuine product – an oil derived from Chinese water snakes, high in omega-3 fatty acids and known as a potent anti-inflammatory.  

In the late 19th century the American Clark Stanley, a cowboy turned patent medicine vendor, learned about snake oil from Chinese railroad workers. He set about to capitalize on its reputation, unconcerned that Chinese water snakes were nowhere to be found in the American West. From 1879 the “Rattlesnake King” touted a miracle salve produced from rattlesnake oil, the secrets of which he claimed to have learned from a Hopi medicine man. He distributed pamphlets and gave public demonstrations to sell his patent-protected panacea which he prescribed:  

“. . . for the cure of all pain and lameness, for rheumatism, neuralgias, sciatica, contracted muscles, toothaches, sprain, swellings, frost bite, bruises, sore throat, bites of animals, insects, and reptiles.” – Bryant, C.W. & Clark, J., 2024. 

It wasn’t until 1916 that this “snake oil” was found to have nothing to do with snakes whatsoever – the recipe consisted of beef fat, red pepper, mineral oil, camphor, and turpentine. For his fraudulent activities spanning over three decades, Stanley was fined $20 (equivalent to about $500 today). The damage had been done, and “snake oil salesman” entered the public lexicon as an umbrella term for any person selling a bogus or ineffective product. 

 

Works consulted: 

Bryant, C. W. and Clark, J. (2024, February 14). Short Stuff: The Original Snake Oil Salesman. Stuff You Should Know (podcast). https://omny.fm/shows/stuff-you-should-know-1/short-stuff-the-original-snake-oil-salesman 

Drago, Elisabeth Berry (2020, December 15). Quacks, Plagues and Pandemics: What charlatans of the past can teach us about the COVID-19 crisis. Distillations Magazine: Unexpected Stories from Science’s Past. Science History Institute Museum & Library, December 15, 2020. https://www.sciencehistory.org/stories/magazine/quacks-plagues-and-pandemics/ 

Peschel, E. R. & Peschel, R. E. (1987, December). Medicine and Opera: The Quack in History and Donizetti’s Dr. Dulcamara. Medical Problems of Performing Artists Vol. 2, No. 4. https://www.jstor.org/stable/45440260 

Timio, M. (2002, February) “The Cerretani and charlatans: a poor page in the history of medicine and nephrology” (abstract, English). Giornale Italiano di nefrologia : organo ufficiale della Societa italiana de nefrologia. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12165947/ 

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May 28, 2024

10 Things to Note About the Upcoming Season’s Shows

The Elixir of Love (L’elisir d’amore)

  • Composer Gaetano Donizetti was a very versatile dramatist. He wrote over 70 operas, as well as cantatas, sacred works, orchestral works, and chamber music.
  • For many years, legend had it that The Elixir of Love was composed in two weeks. This has been disproved; however, composing this work in just six weeks is an exceptional accomplishment.
  • Although originally set in an Italian village, The Elixir of Love can easily be set virtually anywhere, as it is an opera in which there is no essential local colour to be preserved. The typical motifs of impromptu comedy and simple melodies reminiscent of folk song give the piece its charm and contribute to its popularity.
  • The Elixir of Love is a mixture of several old recipes for comedy, but its delicate depiction of the psychology of love and its study of desire are very modern.
  • Dr. Dulcamara is considered one of the great comedy figures of the operatic stage. His name means “bitter-sweet” and he is more than the stereotype of an itinerant quack. It is a very rewarding role for bass buffos. With the wisdom of a man of experience, he uses his wiles to help the undecided make up their minds and ultimately, find happiness.

 

La Bohème

  • Being one of the most famous operas in the repertoire, it’s no surprise that La Bohème has inspired musicals, films, and even cartoons including the1987 movie Moonstruck starring Cher and Nicholas Cage, the 1996 musical Rent, set in New York, and an episode of the long-running animated TV show, The Simpsons.
  • When Puccini wrote La Bohème he had already achieved renown as the composer of Manon Lescaut which had scored a sensational success. La Bohéme, the composer’s fourth opera, won him even greater fame, and he was hailed as the successor to Verdi.
  • The characters of this opera are said to be fairly accurate portraits of artists and habitués of the Latin Quarter of Paris who were friends of Henri Murger, the author of the novel Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, during his early days as a struggling writer.
  • The opera’s main characters – Rodolfo, Mimi, Musetta, and Marcello – are very relatable and that has contributed to the success of this piece. They are regular human beings. They’re our neighbors, the people we went to school with, maybe a great group of friends or roommates with whom we built strong bonds.
  • Puccini actually competed with another famous Italian composer, Ruggero Leoncavallo, to debut the first La Bohème and it cost them their friendship. Leoncavallo had claimed huge success with his opera Pagliacci a few years earlier, and he wanted to beat Puccini by writing his own La Bohème. He lost though, as Puccini’s version came out in 1896 and Leoncavallo’s in 1897. However, Puccini’s version had already made its mark by then, and their friendship did not survive the race.
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Apr 3, 2024

CARMEN, THE WORLD’S MOST POPULAR OPERA, CLOSES MANITOBA OPERA’S 2023/24 SEASON

Considered to be one of the world’s most popular operas, Carmen, the sexy thriller that seduces the audience with every note, will be presented by Manitoba Opera at the Centennial Concert Hall Saturday, April 13 (7:30 pm), Wednesday, April 17 (7 pm), and Friday, April 19 (7:30 pm).

The opening night performance, Saturday, April 13, is sold out. Good seats are still available for the Wednesday, April 17 and Friday, April 19 shows.

For tickets, call 204-944-8824, go online at mbopera.ca, or in person at the MO Box Office, lower level, Centennial Concert Hall (9:30 am – 4:30 pm, Monday to Friday). Seniors, students, and youth discounts are available.

Set in Spain in the 1930s, Carmen tells the story of a passionate, free-spirited woman who can have any man she wants, but when she seduces the young soldier Don José only to cast him aside for the handsome bullfighter, she seals her tragic fate. Carmen will be sung in French with French dialogue and projected English projections.

Carmen is unrivalled in its hit list of melodies and recognizable music, including Carmen’s smoky Habanera, Don José’s Flower Song, and the rousing Toreador Song. Over 140 years after its premiere in Paris, composer Georges Bizet’s opera continues to captivate audiences around the globe.

“Who can resist the sensuous music of Bizet? With its lavish score and brilliant orchestration, Carmen is an irresistible theatrical event. Last performed by the company in 2010, we are very pleased to bring this opera to the stage for an entirely new audience,” explains Larry Desrochers, General Director & CEO.

 

THE ARTISTS
Acclaimed American mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson makes her company debut as the fiery temptress, with the celebrated Canadian tenor David Pomeroy reprising his role as the obsessive corporal Don José. Internationally renowned Canadian baritone Daniel Okulitch will be appearing as Escamillo the dashing bullfighter.

Two Winnipeg favourites will also be featured: sopranos Lara Ciekiewicz, who will be singing the role of Michaëla and Lara Secord-Haid as Frasquita. Jacques Arsenault (Remendado) will be making a company debut. Giles Tomkins, who appeared in 2019 with the MO as Basilio in The Barber of Seville, will sing Zuniga, with Johnathon Kirby singing the dual roles of Moralès and Le Dancaïre. Barbara King will sing Mercédès.

Brian Deedrick will direct the production. Deedrick last directed La Bohème for the company in 2014. Tyrone Paterson will conduct the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and the Manitoba Opera Chorus. Lighting is by Hugh Conacher. Set, properties, and costumes provided by Edmonton Opera.

 

THE STORY
As the workers at a Seville cigarette factory enter the city square on their lunch break, the sensual and seductive Carmen teases her many admirers. Only the corporal Don José is resistant to her charms. Piqued by his disinterest, she playfully tosses a flower at him.

Later, Carmen is arrested for wounding a co-worker in a rowdy fight. Don José is to take her to prison but has fallen under her spell and lets her escape. He later deserts the army to join Carmen and her band of smugglers, disregarding his life-long sweetheart and his dying mother. Carmen has tired of the jealous José however, and decides to take on a new lover, the bullfighter Escamillo. Jealousy ignites and José’s rage leads to shocking, murderous consequences.

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Mar 27, 2024

MANITOBA OPERA UNCORKS A SEASON OF ROMANCE

2024/25 Season Productions Overflow with Young Love, Laughter & Loss

Manitoba Opera (MO) will present two crowd-pleasing productions in its 2024/25 Season. The season will kick off with the Donizetti comedy that is sure to win everyone’s heart, The Elixir of Love October 26, 30, and November 1, 2024. The timeless tale of love and loss, Puccini’s La Bohème will close the season April 5, 9, and 11, 2025. All performances take place at the Centennial Concert Hall.

“We have two lovely vintages on the list, so I invite you to join us in uncorking a season of delicious opera next year,” commented Larry Desrochers, General Director & CEO. “First off, we have The Elixir of Love, a sparkling champagne of an opera, effervescent with charm and laughter. If The Elixir of Love is champagne, then La Bohème is surely a rich and velvety red, swirling with passion and pathos.”

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Mar 25, 2024

Opera & Reading A Winning Combination

Every February Manitoba Opera participates in “I Love to Read” Month by bringing opera singers into classrooms to read some of our favourite children’s stories about opera-loving animals. This year, mezzo- soprano Keely McPeek and bass-baritone Stephen Haiko-Pena visited 27 classrooms at 14 schools, reading to over 800 students. As part of each workshop, students learned some Italian opera vocabulary and were treated to a short performance by the presenter.  

Opera Cat and Encore, Opera Cat! translated to Anishinaabemowin 

Additionally, students in several Ojibwe Language Program classrooms in the Louis Riel School Division received a very special visit. John McLean, who has translated the book Opera Cat into Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe), visited these classrooms to read his translation to the students. John shared a bit of his own story, telling students how he was forced to learn English and reprimanded for speaking Ojibwe when he was younger, how lucky they are to be learning the language in their schools, and how happy it makes him to share his language with them. He even mentioned that in translating the story he had to come up with new words for words like “limousine” and “pizza” that didn’t have a preexisting analogue in Ojibwe! Keely McPeek accompanied John to these classrooms and sang in Anishinaabemowin, performing the “Mending of Violence” aria from Li Keur: Riel’s Heart of the North 

Video recordings of John’s translations of Opera Cat and Encore, Opera Cat! are now available as part of our Opera Storytime online video library. These videos can be viewed at https://mbopera.ca/storytime/videos/ using the password: OperaStories21! 

We extend our gratitude to Councillor Brian Mayes and the City of Winnipeg for their generous support of our Opera Storytime program, including funding for the Anishinaabemowin translation.

 

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Mar 25, 2024

Nadine Hink joins Development Team

 

Nadine Hink has joined the staff on a term position as Development Assistant. 

She has been working with the company since early February and is primarily providing administrative support for initiatives such as The Power of Voice Endowment Campaign and The Gail Asper Award fundraising event.    

“I am currently most excited to be working on The Power of Voice Endowment Campaign,” explains Nadine. “I am pleased to be part of this project because it means I am contributing to the sustainability of opera for future generations. I am also very excited to learn more about opera and stage productions from the people who cherish it the most.”  

Nadine sees the role of Development Assistant as an opportunity to demonstrate her experience with administration and research and to continue that growth while making a difference in her community. 

“I have a deep need to strengthen my community, and I belong in a space that supports art,” she says. “I see myself working in the non-profit sector going forward. Some of my recent volunteering has piqued my interest in fundraising and public relations. Along with my administrative skills, I am also very sociable. I am excited to learn more about myself and my future while at Manitoba Opera.”   

Nadine grew up in Winnipeg and headed west to Headingley when she got older. She also spent a lot of time at Lake of the Woods, Ontario, where her father built a cabin for the family. “The lake was a very special place for my sister and me to grow up.”  

Roller skating tops Nadine’s list of favourite things to do in her spare time. “I have been skating for three years and cannot get enough. I also love creating art, biking, pinball, volunteering, live music, camping, and spending time with my family and friends.”  

After receiving her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Manitoba, Nadine worked as a jewelry artist for many years. She joined her family’s real estate appraisal firm in 2018 where she developed the clerical and analytical skills that have been put to good use in her role with Manitoba Opera.   

“It’s an honor to be a part of Manitoba’s arts and music scene. Manitoba Opera is providing an ideal place for me to marry my passions and skills and I’m grateful for this opportunity.” 

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Mar 14, 2024

Remembering Michael Cavanagh

Manitoba Opera acknowledges with great sadness the passing on March 13th of Winnipeg-born and raised stage director, librettist, and dramaturg, Michael Cavanagh at the age of 62.

Michael’s association with Manitoba Opera began in 1974 when, as a 12-year-old, he appeared in the children’s chorus of our production of Tosca – a production that also included Michael’s father, Brian (d. 2005) in the adult chorus. In his twenties, Michael participated as an adult chorister in eight mainstage productions and appeared as RALPH RACKSTRAW (H.M.S. Pinafore) and as FREDERICK (The Pirates of Penzance) in Manitoba Opera’s Opera in the Schools touring productions. In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, Michael held numerous administrative and production positions with the company including special projects coordinator, assistant stage manager, stage manager, and production manager.

In the 1990s, Michael spent two seasons as Resident Assistant Director at Vancouver Opera under the mentorship of then Artistic Director, Irving Guttman.  Between 1998-2001, Michael served as Artistic Director of Edmonton Opera. Michael made his mainstage directorial debut with Manitoba Opera in 1996 with a production of La Cenerentola.  Over the next 20 years, Michael would go on to direct a total of 12 productions on our mainstage, the last one being Falstaff in the fall of 2016.

On the international stage, Michael directed hundreds of productions for companies across Canada and the U.S., including Opéra de Montréal, Opera Philadelphia, Boston Lyric Opera, Lyric Opera of Kansas City and Minnesota Opera. Of special note is Michael’s 2010 production of Nixon in China for Vancouver Opera, which led to remounts for San Francisco Opera (2012), Wide Open Opera in Dublin, Ireland (2014), and the Royal Swedish Opera (2016).  In 2018, Michael was invited back to Stockholm to stage Aida, and in 2021, Michael was appointed Director of Opera for the Royal Swedish Opera, a position he held until shortly before his passing.

As a librettist, Michael wrote and produced seven new chamber operas, including four in partnership with Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel (Gisela in Her Bathtub, City Workers in Love, The Bachelor Farmers of the Apocalypse, and The Master’s Stroke) and one created with composer and Manitoba Opera’s own Assistant Music Director and Chorus Master, Tadeusz Biernacki (Happy Campers). Michael’s two other original operas were created in collaboration with Edmonton- based composer, Jeffrey McCune (Zeus and the Pamplemousse, and The Y2K Black Death Oratorio).

We at Manitoba Opera extend our most sincere and heartfelt condolences to Michael’s wife Jackalyn and daughter Amelia, his mother Angela, his brother Carl, his sister Christine, as well as Michael’s countless friends and colleagues in Winnipeg, across Canada, the United States, and overseas.

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Feb 28, 2024

Carmen: From “Fiasco” to Favourite 

Even though it is considered by many to be the world’s most popular opera of all time, Carmen had a very difficult start.  

“The public did not recognize the work’s stature immediately, and Bizet was hard hit by the fiasco of the first performance. However, that he died of a broken heart as a result is nothing more than a sentimental legend. In the following months, he worked at an oratorio and on a revision of the opera for a planned Viennese staging in the autumn.  

Unfortunately, he succumbed to a weak heart on June 3, 1875, at just 36 years of age, his death coinciding to the minute with the curtain that fell on the 33rd performance of his Carmen. 

Six years after the premiere, Carmen was being performed in 15 cities across three continents. The march of success was already unstoppable. In 1907, the public rioted outside the theatre in São Paulo, Brazil, causing several deaths when some people were unable to get tickets for the performance.  

It is difficult to judge whether the cool public reception to the first performance of Carmen was due to the opera’s subject or to the music itself. In the end, both provided grounds for rejection. With a Roma woman as the main character, one who lures a soldier away from the army, sings and dances in disreputable places, takes up with smugglers, and is finally killed on stage by her former lover, Bizet’s work certainly stands apart from the conventions of opéra comique. The milieu was described as lawless and the main character accused of indecency. As a result, the press demanded that minors be denied entry to performances of Carmen for moral reasons. The truth of course is that Bizet managed to create an archetypal figure whose effect is comparable with that of Don Giovanni, Hamlet, or Faust. And in the 20th century, Carmen acquired special status as the embodiment of a woman who makes her own decisions.” (1) 

Over the past decade, Carmen has been the third-most performed opera worldwide. (2)  There are well over 200 recordings to choose from, and its music is continually in use in commercials, cartoons, and movies.  Not bad for something that started out as a fiasco.    

  

  1. Opera, Editor-in-chief, András Batta,2000 English Edition, Könemann Verlagsgesellschaft mbH 
  1. Manitoba Opera Carmen Study Guide 
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