As fancy as I am, I do have a little cultural blind spot: opera. And oh my goodness, I just lie about it all the time. I’ve discovered that you only have to know about ONE opera to know more than most people, so it’s a good gamble to take if you’re trying to look like an expert. Just start nattering on about La Rondine in excruciating detail and trust me: no one will ask you one single question about it or any other opera. For extra credit, hum a few bars. La-la-la-LAAAAAAAA! And then just watch them run for the exits!
You could just listen to Aria Code, the Rhiannon Giddens-hosted podcast that deconstructs and analyzes a famous aria each week—and each episode does way more than just offering up a musical analysis.
For the episode about “Dove sono,” from The Marriage of Figaro, for example, Giddens talks not only to soprano Susanna Phillips (who sings it) but also to columnist and therapist Dan Savage, who tackles the infidelity issues the aria brings up. Each episode is a little thirty-minute crash course that reveals the complicated—sometimes thrilling—reasons why we still listen to these pieces.
While each episode’s breakdown helps provide understanding of that particular aria’s meaning, the real meat of each episode is when Giddens and her guests contextualize the piece at hand, both in its original time and in our current one. Issues of politics, gender roles, diversity, and sexuality are brought up and dealt with seriously and deftly. (I strongly recommend the episode about “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess, with guest Victoria Smalls, a Gullah woman who’s now a commissioner for the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.)
After a loooong hiatus, Aria Code is back for a third season on March 10 with eighteen (!) new episodes and—fascinatingly—a promise to examine some jazz pieces as well. So if you thought my operatic la-la-la-ing was annoying, wait’ll you hear my muted trumpet!