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). 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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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


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, 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.


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.


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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