On Friday and Saturday, December 5 and 6 at 7:30 p.m., Westminster Opera Theatre will present Franz Joseph Haydn’s opera “Il Mondo della Luna” at Princeton High School. This science-fiction comic opera will be performed by Westminster Choir College students, with music direction by William Hobbs and stage direction by Joseph Levitt.
Right now, I’m betting that you have at least three questions:
- Wait, Haydn wrote operas?
- What’s a science-fiction comic opera?
- And how did Haydn manage to write one in the 18th century?
“Il Mondo della Luna” is what we call an opera buffa –essentially, a comedy. It received its first performance in 1777, conducted by Haydn himself, in Hungary. The libretto (the opera’s words) were written by Carlo Goldoni. Interestingly, this seems to be a case of “if at first you don’t succeed: try, try again.” Haydn’s opera seems to have been the fourth time this libretto was set to music – the first being about 1750. (I can almost imagine Haydn humming: “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” as he composed.)
The title, “Il Mondo della Luna,” translates to “The World on the Moon.” And yes, Westminster Opera Theatre will perform it in Italian, but there will be English supertitles so you can follow along. The performance will also be fully staged (sets, costumes and acting) with orchestra.
Haydn’s opera was pretty much forgotten after his lifetime, until it was revived in 1992. Since then, it’s been performed a few times by small and student opera companies.
On a side note: the most memorable of those recent productions was by Gotham Chamber Opera in 2010. They performed it in the Hayden Planetarium, transforming it into an opera house, and projecting images from NASA on the 180-degree dome. And I can’t decide what tickles me most: performing Haydn at the Hayden, using NASA imagery in an 18th century opera, or just doing an opera in a planetarium. But I digress…
Before we get too far into this discussion, let’s talk plot.
The Plot (dum, dum, dah!)
The comedic science-fiction opera revolves around the phony astrologer, Ecclitico, and Ernesto, who are in love with the daughters of the wealthy Buonafede, who will never give permission for these unions. Ecclitico claims to have built a telescope strong enough to not only see the moon, but also its inhabitants, and fools Buonafede into believing that they’ve actually traveled to the moon. Bamboozled into thinking that he is marrying his daughters to the emperor of the moon and a star, he accepts his fate when finding out the truth.
The overture to the opera (in C major) is notable for its long development and symphonic character. Haydn must have liked it, because he reused that piece as the first movement of his Symphony Number 63—which was totally common in this period. Haydn also reused parts of the opera in his trios for flute, violin and cello. And one of Ernesto’s arias becomes the Benedictus in his “Mariazeller Mass.” Interestingly, the key of E-flat is used throughout the opera in association with the moon. In the 18th century, that key was often linked with darkness and sleep.
More About Haydn
Haydn lived from 1732 and 1809 and he was a prominent and prolific composer of the Classical period (note the reference to a 63rd symphony above!). How prominent? Well, a little before he died, there was a concert of his “Creation” (really great piece) performed in his honor. Haydn was brought into the hall on an armchair to the sound of trumpets and drums and was greeted by Beethoven and Salieri (who conducted the performance, but DID NOT murder Mozart, just so we’re clear), as well as other musicians and members of the aristocracy. Not a bad send off.
Starting in his lifetime, Haydn was known as “Papa” Haydn, for a couple of reasons. One, it was an affectionate term, since Haydn was a kind and generous teacher to those musicians in his employ. Two, he was regarded as the leading figure in the development of the symphony and string quartet forms.
But remember at the beginning, when I sensed your surprise at Haydn having written an opera? Well, he did compose 14 of them. And those compositions took up a great deal of his time, but he’s not known today much as a composer of opera. And maybe that’s partly because, aside from Mozart, Classical-era operas have not seen the same kind of revival as, say, those of the earlier Baroque period, or the Early Romantic period. And later-era operas never quite went out of fashion to begin with.
And here’s your bit of cocktail-party trivia for the day: where’s Papa Haydn’s head? Well, today it’s buried with his body, but that wasn’t the case until about 145 years after he died. At Haydn’s burial in 1809, two men bribe the gravedigger to sever and steal the dead composer’s head. The two men were phrenologists and wanted to examine the head to associate his artistic prowess with aspects of his cranial anatomy. The skull was only reunited with the body in 1954.
About Westminster Opera Theatre
Westminster Opera Theatre is the opera performance group of Westminster Choir College, which itself is a division of Westminster College of the Arts, part of Rider University (I’m imaging little Russian nesting dolls as I write that description). One of the world’s leading schools of music, Westminster Choir College is a four-year music college and graduate school that prepares men and women for careers as performers and as music leaders in schools, universities, churches and professional and community organizations. Westminster Opera Theatre has been praised for its innovative productions of a wide range of operas. Participants in the program have gone on to perform in opera houses around the world. Recent
Westminster Choir College of the Arts gratefully acknowledges the generous support of the Herbert B. Mayo Performance Endowment.
Westminster Opera Theatre performs Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Il Mondo della Luna” on Friday and Saturday, December 5 and 6 at 7:30 p.m. The performances take place at Princeton Regional Schools Performing Arts Center, Princeton High School, located at Houghton Street and Walnut Lane, Princeton, NJ 08544. Tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for students and seniors. Tickets can be purchased at the Westminster box office at 609.921.2663 or online. For more information about Westminster Opera Theatre, call 609.921.7100 or visit www.rider.edu/westminster.