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.
To Be Or Not To Be: Dean's Hamlet
“To be or not to be, that is the question.” It’s hard to think of a more famous line from a more famous play. In this iconic speech from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the troubled Danish prince asks whether this whole life thing is even worth it. But “to be or not to be'' is not the only question we’re asking this week.
When everyone knows this line so well, how do you make it fresh again? How does adapting Shakespeare’s play into an opera change our understanding of the text? In this episode, host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore one of the most famous speeches in literature, its transformation into opera, and why Hamlet’s brooding soliloquy continues to intrigue artists and audiences four centuries later.
Tenor Allan Clayton created the role of Hamlet in Brett Dean’s opera at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2017. Dean wrote this vocally and dramatically challenging part specifically for Clayton: he would have him read monologues from Shakespeare’s original in order to get a sense of his voice and once even emailed him changes during an intermission.
Opera dramaturg Cori Ellison worked closely with composer Brett Dean and librettist Matthew Jocelyn throughout the development of Hamlet. She was the staff dramaturg at the Glyndebourne Festival from 2012 through 2017, where Hamlet premiered, and has worked with opera companies around the world, including as a staff dramaturg at New York City Opera and Santa Fe Opera.
Actor and director Samuel West has worked across theater, film, television, and radio, but he was obsessed with Shakespeare's Hamlet. He starred as the Danish prince (whom he describes as “a floppy-shirted noodle”) for one year and three days with the Royal Shakespeare Company. But who’s counting?!
Jeffrey R. Wilson is a faculty member in the Writing Program at Harvard, where he teaches a course called “Why Shakespeare?” He feels that Shakespeare is still so popular because of the deep and varied problems his plays present: textual, theatrical, thematic, and ethical problems. He is the author of three books, including Shakespeare and Trump and Shakespeare and Game of Thrones.
Potion, Emotion, Devotion: Wagner's Tristan und Isolde
When we talk about “falling in love,” we talk about it like it is something that just happens. Suddenly the ground opens up and we are falling for somebody, as if there is no choice in the matter. This is everywhere -- in movies, TV shows, novels, and of course, in opera. Take Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde - while Tristan is bringing her across the Irish sea to marry his uncle Marke, King of Cornwall, they both drink a love potion and fall instantly, madly in love with each other.
But Isolde is still betrothed to King Marke, who catches them in a passionate night of love, and one of his men stabs Tristan, who later dies from the wound. Standing over his lifeless body, Isolde sings of her love for Tristan in her final climactic aria, the “Liebestod,” as their love triumphs over even death itself. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore forbidden passion, agonizing desire, and what it means to “fall” in love.
Soprano Jane Eaglen is known for her portrayals of Wagner’s most commanding heroines, including Brünnhilde and Isolde. She actually met her husband during her first-ever production of Tristan und Isolde at Seattle Opera, and she would find his seat in the audience each night and sing to him from the stage. She is on the voice faculty at the New England Conservatory.
Alex Ross is the music critic for The New Yorker and author of The Rest is Noise and Listen to This. He spent nearly a decade writing his most recent book, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, which explores Wagner’s wide and complicated influence on art and politics. When he first heard Wagner’s music, he thought it was “messy, unsteady, and confusing,” but Tristan und Isolde was the opera that changed his mind.
Mandy Len Catron has been studying and writing about romantic love for ten years. She wrote the essay, “To Fall In Love With Anyone, Do This,” for The New York Times “Modern Love” column about how she and a friend fell in love by answering 36 questions and staring into each other’s eyes--almost like a modern-day love potion. The essay went viral shortly after its publication in 2015. She has also written the book How To Fall in Love With Anyone: A Memoir In Essays. To spice things up, she’s currently working on a book about loneliness.
Blanchard's Fire Shut Up in My Bones: A Boy of Peculiar Grace
This week we’re decoding with the man who wrote the code - Terence Blanchard, composer of Fire Shut Up in My Bones. Not only is it the work that reopened the Met after its 18-month pandemic shutdown, but it’s also the first opera by a Black composer ever to be performed there. Based on the 2014 memoir of the same name by New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, Fire Shut Up in My Bones is a coming-of-age story about his childhood in a tiny town in northwest Louisiana.
From a young age, Charles knew he was different, not like his brothers or the other boys. After being sexually assaulted by his older cousin, he was consumed by shame, and especially when he began to feel attraction toward boys as well as girls. The South was not the place to be questioning one’s sexual identity as a Black man in the 1970s and 80s. But in the aria “Peculiar Grace,” he puts his questions aside and looks forward to a brighter future. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the experience of feeling like an outsider, and the life-changing path toward self-acceptance.
Composer Terence Blanchard is a multiple Grammy-winning composer and jazz trumpeter. Fire Shut Up In My Bones is his second opera, and it premiered at Opera Theatre of St. Louis in 2019. He has scored countless films, and is known for his many collaborations with the film director Spike Lee, including most recently Da 5 Bloods and BlacKkKlansman. Each was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Score. He credits his father for his love of opera, and he has a particular fondness for Puccini’s La bohème.
Baritone Will Liverman is singing the role of Charles in the Met’s production of Fire Shut Up In My Bones. While he was sitting on his couch during the pandemic, wondering if he’d ever get to sing in front of an audience again, he was invited to send an audition tape and landed the role just a few days later. Will has collaborated with D.J. and artist K-Rico to create The Factotum, a contemporary adaptation of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville for the Lyric Opera of Chicago. He is an alumnus of the Ryan Opera Center at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Dr. E. Patrick Johnson is an artist, writer, and professor of Performance Studies and African American Studies at Northwestern, where he is also the Dean of the School of Communication. He is the author and editor of several award-winning books, including Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South. His research for the book included dozens of interviews with men who were born, raised, and still live in the South, and he later adapted it into a staged-reading, Pouring Tea, as well as a full-length play and a documentary. He has received multiple awards both for his scholarship and his stage work.
Verdi's Nabucco: By the Rivers of Babylon
Psalm 137 depicts the ancient Hebrews, enslaved and weeping “by the rivers of Babylon,” as they remember their homeland, Jerusalem. Those words have inspired songwriters of reggae, Broadway, disco, folk and more, but one of the most memorable versions is featured in Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Nabucco.
The opera retells the story of the Babylonian captivity when Nebuchadnezzar (or Nabucco, in Italian) seizes Jerusalem, destroys the temple, and enslaves the Israelites in his kingdom. At the heart of the opera is “Va, pensiero,” also known as the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, in which the Israelites yearn for their lost home.
It’s this yearning for home by those exiled from their homeland, and of refugees trying to build a new identity in a new land, that has helped make Verdi’s first big hit resonate far beyond the opera house since its premiere. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the experience of refugees and immigrants, the significance of memory and community, and the power of 100 voices joined in song.
Donald Palumbo has been the chorus master at the Met Opera for 15 years. He can remember almost every time he has ever performed “Va, pensiero,” and usually ends up standing in the wings just to listen to it. He previously was the chorus master at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and has taught at Juilliard since 2016.
Professor Mark Burford is a musicologist at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. He specializes in 19th-century Austro-German music, and twentieth century African American music, and is the author of the award-winning book Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field. He previously taught at the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall, Columbia University, and City College of New York.
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg is the Scholar in Residence at the National Council of Jewish Women. She writes books about the messy business of trying to be a person in the world, and about how spirituality can transform that work. She is the author of seven books, including Nurture the Wow and Surprised by God. She’s been named one of the top 50 most influential women rabbis.
Roya Hakakian is an Iranian Jewish writer and the author of two volumes of poetry in Persian. Her family was exiled from Iran following the 1979 revolution, after which they lived as refugees in Europe for a year before immigrating to the United States. Her most recent book is A Beginner’s Guide to America: For the Immigrant and the Curious.
Once More Into the Breeches: Joyce DiDonato Sings Strauss
The young Composer in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is one of opera’s great trouser roles -- a female singer playing the part of a young man. He is set to premiere his new opera at the home of the richest man in Vienna, only to learn moments before the performance that a bawdy comedy troupe will be performing at the same time.
As his plans collapse around him, the Composer falls in love with Zerbinetta, the leader of the commedia dell'arte troupe, and his whole world changes in a flash. In his aria “Sein wir wieder gut,” he sings about how he now sees everything with new eyes. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the transformational power of love, music and putting on a pair of pants.
Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is a multi Grammy Award-winner and a fierce advocate for the arts. She’s also kind of a hero, bringing her talents to classrooms, prisons, and refugee camps, and sharing the transformative power of music. She loves playing trouser roles, and finds singing the Composer in particular to be an experience of discovery and total joy.
Writer Paul Thomason is a die-hard Strauss fan and is writing a book about the composer. He sees Strauss as the great humanist among composers, because he presents his characters exactly as they are. He studied conducting and worked with maestros Thomas Schippers and Peter Maag. He has also appeared on the Met Opera’s intermission quizzes during their Saturday broadcasts.
Mo B. Dick is a founding father of the drag king movement. He started performing in drag in 1995 and founded Club Cassanova, the first weekly party dedicated to drag kings, and has made appearances in movies and television. He is also one of the cofounders of the website dragkinghistory.com, which archives the history of drag kings and crossdressers dating all the way back to the Tang dynasty.
Breaking Mad: Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor
People who go to see Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor spend the entire evening waiting for the famous Mad Scene, to hear the soprano’s incredible acrobatics, and to feel her intense emotional changes over the course of the lengthy showstopper. But the Mad Scene is more than a vocal showpiece: it’s a window into what it means to lose touch with reality and the ways women’s real-life challenges can go ignored or, even worse, pathologized as illness.
In the opera, Lucia has no control of her life; her brother betrays her and forces her to marry a man she doesn’t love. Alone and out of options, Lucia escapes in the only way she can: she murders her new husband and descends into madness. But how do we understand her crimes and hallucinations? And what can Lucia teach us about how we diagnose and treat mental health conditions today? Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests dive into the history of women and madness, as well as the story of a woman living with bipolar disorder today.
Soprano Natalie Dessay had a thriving career as a coloratura soprano before cashing in her opera chips and turning her talents to theater and jazz. When she sang the role of Lucia at the Met in 2011, she approached it a bit like a circus performer, adding physical challenges to match the vocal ones.
Dr. Mary Ann Smart is a professor of music at UC Berkeley. As a grad student, she wrote her dissertation on mad scenes in 19th century opera, and she has since authored multiple books, including Siren Songs: Representations of Gender and Sexuality in Opera. One of the things that she finds most poignant about Lucia’s Mad Scene is the fact that Donizetti spent the end of his life being treated for physical and mental illness.
Activist and writer Dr. Phyllis Chesler has written more than 20 books, including the seminal work, Women and Madness. Her work deals with freedom of speech and freedom of thought. Her recent books include Requiem for a Female Serial Killer, and her memoir An American Bride in Kabul. She believes writing is most definitely a form of madness.
Author and attorney Melody Moezzi wrote Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life in order to capture her experiences as an Iranian-American Muslim woman with bipolar disorder, and to help others with this condition feel less alone. She is an advocate for destigmatizing mental health conditions, and she believes that sometimes, what looks like madness can actually be a rational response to an irrational world.
The Aria Code
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I know next to nothing about opera but absolutely love this podcast. The format, host and current relevancy has me playing episodes over and over to garner more understanding. Thank you!
Bravo, Aria Code!
Wonderful podcasts by a great host with marvelous contributors! Great format with singers to match!