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SPORT FOR ART'S SAKE
Deems Taylor
December 14, 1959
Composers like to put sport into opera and musical comedy, says America's top musical commentator, but they ignore the rules of sport on the stage
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December 14, 1959

Sport For Art's Sake

Composers like to put sport into opera and musical comedy, says America's top musical commentator, but they ignore the rules of sport on the stage

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In the last few years sporting events have been bursting out all over the musical comedy stage. It may be said that Damn Yankees, that happy mixture of baseball and Gwen Verdon, sparked the current vogue for musical athletes, but we have also had harmonious basketball players, swimmers and race track touts as well as boxers singing and dancing the legends of their respective sports. Except for football (which was put on the stage years ago in George Ade's The College Widow and has now been revived in Leave It to Jane, the musical version), these sports are new to musical comedy.

But the new development on Broadway is an old story in grand opera. I myself have located 15 different varieties of sporting events in what is called "sarious" music—the bullfight in Bizet's Carmen, for instance, all the way to Aaron Copland's Rodeo, Honegger's Rugby and the crap game in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, the last of which is in part treated like a fugue, though none of the players rolling the bones seems to appreciate it. In my earlier years I put a complete game of pelota, the Basque national sport, into my opera Ramuntcho, authentic in all respects except that it was played indoors, while pelota is classically an outdoor sport.

And new forms of sport are constantly appearing in opera itself. At the festival at Spoleto in Italy this year bridge made its first appearance in opera in A Hand of Bridge, the collaboration of Gian Carlo Menotti and Samuel Barber. All the action in this brief opera takes place around the card table. Two suburban couples who play bridge together every night sing their secret thoughts as they shuffle, deal, bid and pass. "I'm dummy again, I'm always dummy!" warbles Sally without sorrow. "I want to buy that hat with the peacock feathers." Her husband, Bill, is dreaming about his mistress and not paying much attention to his cards: he sings absent-mindedly, "If I could only take you home with me and strangle you in the night!" The other wife, Geraldine, totally unaware of the lethal thoughts of her partner, sings of her longing for love. And the remaining member of this sinister suburban quartet, a young chap named David, sings dreamily, "Every day another version of every known perversion. If I were rich as Morgan I would still play bridge every night with Sally and Bill." Obviously, a bridge game of this sort needs the services of a Charles Goren to analyze the hands; the players themselves seem hardly to know what was bid.

But opera has always had a weakness for crooked card games. In December 1910, in New York, the audience at the Metropolitan was electrified on the opening night of Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West when poker first appeared at the Met. Emmy Destinn was playing la fanciulla del West, or Minnie, the girl of the golden West. Caruso was Ramerrez, alias Johnson, the road agent. Pasquale Amato was Jack Rance, the sheriff.

When Jack Ranee corners Johnson in Minnie's cabin, she makes the lawman a proposition. They will play poker for Johnson, the best two hands out of three. If Minnie wins, Ranee will allow Johnson to escape. If Ranee wins, the tenor is to hang and Minnie is to become Jack Rance's girl.

It is possible that Puccini had no idea whatsoever of how poker was played. Minnie wins the first game. Ranee wins the second. In the third game Minnie draws a weak hand and, being a resourceful girl, pretends to feel faint and asks the gullible sheriff to get her a drink. While his back is turned she hastily stuffs her cards into her blouse. From her stocking she pulls out five brand-new cards, which she has apparently carried there for precisely this emergency. When Ranee returns she shows him this substitute hand—three aces and a pair. Johnson is free, and so is Minnie—the crook.

The moral perplexities involved in crooked card games in opera are so complex that we must return to this phase of the matter later; for the time being, it is enough to point out that Puccini needed an expert on cards, and it may be that there should have been an Ernest Hemingway on hand to write about the bullfight in Carmen, an expert on archery in William Tell and an authority on fencing in most operas. For the composers of operas had a weakness for this sport, which they generally introduced in the guise of a duel. Sometimes the principals in these events are really mad at each other and are not engaged in what would be called a sporting event. There is a magnificent fight of this sort in the first act of Mozart's Don Giovanni, where the Don, attacked by the father of Donna Anna, whom he has wronged, engages the old gentleman in a duel and runs him through. But more often the action is arbitrary, as is the match in the last act of Verdi's La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny), between Don Carlo and Don Alvaro. Not that we actually see them fight. After spending some 48 bars insulting each other they rush offstage to combat, Don Carlo singing, "Vengeance.... My sword shall slay you!"

After a spell of sword clashing, Don Alvaro appears alone. To make it crystal clear that he has won, we hear Don Carlo say, "I am dying." When Leonora asks Don Alvaro what has happened, he says, "He provoked me.... I killed him." Leonora: "Who was he?" Don Alvaro: "Your own brother." Leonora: "Great Heaven! (runs hastily to the woods)."

In Tchaikovsky's Eugene On�gin the hero and his best friend, Lenski, have quarreled over what the baritone and the tenor always quarrel about in opera. Lenski challenges On�gin, and the two meet in a deserted spot. Before shooting, they sing together:

"My foe!
So now we stand here parted
By thirst for blood and even death,
Where once, in friendship open-hearted,
We each would give our dying breath
To save the other."

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