Aria Code is a podcast that pulls back the curtain on some of the most famous arias in opera history, with insight from the biggest voices of our time, including Roberto Alagna, Diana Damrau, Sondra Radvanovsky, and many others. Hosted by Grammy Award-winner and MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Rhiannon Giddens, Aria Code is produced in partnership with The Metropolitan Opera.
Each episode dives into one aria — a feature for a single singer — and explores how and why these brief musical moments have imprinted themselves in our collective consciousness and what it takes to stand on the Met stage and sing them.
A wealth of guests—from artists like Rufus Wainwright and Ruben Santiago-Hudson to non-musicians like Dame Judi Dench and Dr. Brooke Magnanti, author of The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl—join Rhiannon and the Met Opera’s singers to understand why these arias touch us at such a human level, well over a century after they were written. Each episode ends with the aria, uninterrupted and in full, recorded from the Met Opera stage.
Aria Code is produced in partnership with WQXR, The Metropolitan Opera and WNYC Studios.
Rossini's La Cenerentola: Opera's Cinderella Story
Gioachino Rossini’s operatic version of the Cinderella story may not have any enchanted mice or pumpkins, but there’s plenty of magic in the music. Cinderella (or La Cenerentola, in Italian) has silently suffered the abuse of her stepfather and stepsisters, but in true fairy tale fashion, her fate changes for the better and all is made right by the triumph of goodness over evil.
In the opera’s joyous finale “Nacqui all’affanno… Non più mesta,” Cenerentola looks ahead to a future with no more sadness. In this episode, Rhiannon Giddens and guests explore this universal tale and how it still resonates today. Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato sings the aria onstage at the Metropolitan Opera.
Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato loves the strength and sincerity of this great Rossini heroine. She has performed the title role in La Cenerentola at leading opera houses around the world and believes in its absolute celebration of human goodness.
Writer Fred Plotkin loves opera – all of it! – and he shares this love in his book Opera 101: A Guide to Learning and Loving Opera. He has a special connection to Rossini’s music, which he feels is all about the heartbeat.
Maria Tatar is a research professor at Harvard University in the fields of folkore and mythology. She vividly remembers when her sister used to read fairy tales to her as a child, and believes that we have the right and responsibility to keep retelling these stories in a way that’s meaningful to us today.
Mezzo-soprano Alma Salcedo’s mother tells her she’s been singing since she was nine months old. Her personal Cinderella story began in Venezuela and has brought her to Spain, where she has fought to keep her dreams of being a singer alive.
Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann: Fool for Love
Love is intoxicating, but dating can be hard. In Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, a love-obsessed poet tells fantastical stories of romance gone very, very wrong. Based on the works of 19th-century Gothic horror writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, the opera is a journey through desire and loss – a journey that just might make you feel better about your own dating disasters!
In the aria “Ô Dieu! de quelle ivresse,” the poet-protagonist Hoffmann professes his passionate love to the courtesan Giulietta. In this episode, Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the intoxicating power of romance, and the magically mysterious world created by both E.T.A. Hoffmann and Offenbach. Tenor Matthew Polenzani sings the aria onstage at the Metropolitan Opera.
Tenor Matthew Polenzani has just wrapped up his 22nd season at the Metropolitan Opera, which is one of many places he’s performed the role of Hoffmann. As a happily married man, he can’t quite relate to the poet’s unending heartbreak, but he does believe that all artists should have a touch of crazy in them.
Veronica Chambers is a writer and editor for The New York Times. In 2006, her essay “Loved and Lost? It’s O.K., Especially if You Win” was published in the Modern Love column, detailing her long list of doomed romances. But, like Hoffmann, she kept her heart wide open to the possibility of love.
Stage director Beth Greenberg directed The Tales of Hoffmann for New York City Opera back in 1996. She counts Jacques Offenbach among the greatest composers, in part because of his extraordinary sense of satire. She likes to think of him as “the Mel Brooks of the Champs-Élysées.”
Francesca Brittan is an Associate Professor of Music at Case Western Reserve University. Her work focuses on 19th- and 20th-century music, and her 2017 book Music and Fantasy in the Age of Berlioz details her fascination with the fantasy genre in literature and in music. She loves exploring the secret worlds imagined by E.T.A. Hoffmann and writers like him.
Puccini's Turandot: Bewitched, Bothered, And Beheaded
The pain and fear of trauma can have a dramatic effect on your desire for love and intimacy.
This is true for Puccini’s Turandot, the titular ice princess who cuts off her feelings… and the heads of her suitors. In her first aria, “In questa reggia,” Turandot explains that she will avenge the rape and murder of her ancestress from thousands of years ago, and that she is determined never to be possessed by any man.
In this episode, host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the truth at the heart of this aria: that time doesn’t heal all wounds, and that some are played out and recreated with every generation. At the end of the show, Christine Goerke sings “In questa reggia” from the Metropolitan Opera stage.
Soprano Christine Goerke loves the challenge of playing characters that seem unsympathetic, uncovering their complexity and somehow winning over the audience by the end of the opera. This is one of the many things that draws her to Turandot.
Actor Anna Chlumsky became an opera fanatic after working on the Broadway show Living on Love with co-star Renée Fleming. Turandot is a particular family favorite, and the former “Veep” star enjoys watching Puccini’s grand spectacle over breakfast with her daughters.
Will Berger is the author of Puccini Without Excuses, a funny and informative guide to one of opera’s greatest composers. Berger is equal parts opera buff and metalhead, bringing his love of intense storytelling to his work as a writer and media commentator for The Metropolitan Opera.
The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess: Rise Up Singing
The most famous American opera opens with one of the most famous American songs: “Summertime.” The Gershwins’ haunting lullaby from Porgy and Bess is a simple tune with a complex story.
In this episode, host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore not just the lyrics and music, but how Porgy and Bess came into being and the way it draws on the culture of the Gullah Geechee, descendants of formerly enslaved people living in and around South Carolina. Decoding two arias – "Summertime" and "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'" – the show finds uncomfortable contradictions as well as uncanny parallels between the real lives of the Gullah people and the characters onstage.
Soprano Golda Schultz debuted as Clara at the Met earlier this year, her first time singing in the U.S. with a cast full of people of color. She believes that when telling stories from underrepresented groups, they must be told from places of joy and not only areas of pain.
Naomi André knows better than most about the complicated racial history of Porgy and Bess. Still, the University of Michigan professor and author of Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement believes the show can be timely, relevant and moving.
Victoria Smalls is a Gullah woman who grew up on St. Helena Island off Charleston, South Carolina. She works as the Director of Art, History, and Culture at the Penn Center in South Carolina, an institution dedicated to promoting and preserving African American history and culture. She's also a federal commissioner for the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.
Bass-baritone Eric Owens was initially reluctant to start singing Porgy, since so many African American singers have a hard time breaking out of that role. But even while reckoning with some of the controversial aspects of the Gershwins' opera, he has now sung the role for a decade and believes it is some of the most beautiful music written in the 20th century.
Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier featuring Renée Fleming: Here's To You, Mrs. Marschallin
It’s not easy to accept the changes that come with time and age. For Richard Strauss’s Marschallin, the trick is simply learning to let go. When the curtain comes up on Der Rosenkavalier, she is having an affair with the young Count Octavian, but she quickly comes to realize that she will one day lose him to a woman his own age. Throughout Act I, she reflects on her lost youth, her desire to stop all the clocks, and on the fleeting nature of beauty and love.
In this episode, host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests ruminate on the passage of time as the Marschallin learns to let go of her younger lover, and her younger self. At the end of the show, soprano Renée Fleming sings, “Da geht er hin” from the Metropolitan Opera stage.
Soprano Renée Fleming made the Marschallin one of her signature roles. Over the years, she explored many facets of this complex character, from her youthful impetuousness to her world-weariness. In her final performance of the Marschallin at the Met in 2017, Fleming expected to feel sadness, but instead, she was overcome with joy and gratitude.
Writer Paul Thomason is currently writing a book on the music of Richard Strauss. He is in love with the music in Der Rosenkavalier, calling it “deep soul music.”
Wendy Doniger is a writer and retired professor from the University of Chicago who shared a special love of opera with her mother. In fact, opera was more or less their form of religion, and Der Rosenkavalier was a particular favorite.
Dara Poznar is a life coach with her own story to tell about a relationship with a younger man, as well as her process of coming to terms with their age difference. In writing about this experience, she received an outpouring of camaraderie and support from other women who were also asking themselves the same questions about how their age would affect their relationships.
Gluck's Orpheus: Don't Look Back in Ardor
When someone you love dies, how far would you be willing to go to bring them back? Orpheus, the ancient Greek musician, goes to hell and back to have a love of his life, Eurydice, by his side again. The gods cut a deal with Orpheus: he can bring his love back from hell, but all throughout the journey, she has to follow behind him and he is not allowed to look back at her. Unable to resist, he turns to see her, and the gods take her for a second time. In a moment of overwhelming grief, Orpheus asks, “What will I do without Eurydice.”
In this episode, host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests reflect on Christoph Gluck's operatic adaptation of the Orpheus myth and how grief can be all-encompassing, but so can love. At the end of the show, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton sings “Che farò senza Euridice” from the Metropolitan Opera stage.
Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton grew up in a musical family, with days full of bluegrass, classic rock, and music history quizzes about the Beatles. In her role debut as Orfeo, she searches for this hero’s vulnerability, dramatically and vocally, and figures out how to embody a version of this character that’s modeled on Johnny Cash.
Author Ann Patchett stumbled upon her love for opera while writing her book Bel Canto. But the Orpheus myth has been part of her life -- and has influenced her writing -- for quite a lot longer. She’s fairly certain that she would travel to the depths of hell to save her husband of 25 years.
Jim Walter lost his wife to cancer in 2015. He cared for her through some very difficult years, and kept hope alive even when things looked hopeless. He says that nowadays, his grief usually isn’t as immediate and gut-punching as it once was, but he is still sometimes overcome with sadness at unexpected moments.