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.
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.
Crisis in the Kremlin: Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov
Perhaps no opera better reflects the questions and contradictions at the heart of Russian history than Modest Mussorgsky’s historical epic Boris Godunov. Based on the play by Alexander Pushkin (considered by many to be one of Russia’s greatest writers), it’s a meditation on power and legitimacy, and a portrayal of a pivotal period in Russian history -- The Time of Troubles.
When Tsar Ivan the Terrible dies without an heir, Boris Godunov is elected tsar, casting doubt on his legitimacy. He rules well for a few years, but then all hell breaks loose, with a famine, a revolt, and a pretender claiming to be the real tsar.
As his country’s problems compound, Boris confronts his feelings of powerlessness in the monologue, “Dostig ja vïsshei vlasti.” Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the nature of power, the question of legitimacy, and how an opera can shine a light on a nation’s past as well as its present.
Bass René Pape (A.K.A. “The Black Diamond Bass”) has been singing the role of Boris Godunov for 15 years. Like many of the kings and rulers he’s played on stage, he sees Boris as someone who has all of the power but none of the joy. In addition to his velvety voice, Pape is also known for his collection of rubber ducks, and even has one in his own image, the PapeDuck.
Dr. Simon Morrison is a professor of music history at Princeton, specializing in Russian and Soviet music. He fell in love with Russian music when he was an undergraduate and wrote his dissertation on the life and work of Sergei Prokofiev. His most recent book is Bolshoi Confidential, a history of the Bolshoi Ballet, and he is currently writing a book on the history of the city of Moscow, which finds him studying 11th century documents written on birchbark.
Dr. Shoshana Keller is a professor of Russian, Soviet, Eurasian, and modern Middle Eastern history at Hamilton College. She first became interested in Russia after getting to know the music of Shostakovich and Stravinsky while playing French horn as a kid, and she was fascinated by pictures of Russian onion domes in a social studies class. She loved the Russian language too, but found the grammar devilishly difficult and immersed herself in its history. She has written multiple books, and is working on an experimental mapping project of the nations in Kazakhstan
Only the Good Die Young: Verdi's La Traviata
One of opera’s great heroines is based on one of history’s extraordinary women. The 19th century French courtesan Marie Duplessis was elegant, successful, famous, and gone before her time, dying of tuberculosis at the age of 23. One of her lovers, Alexandre Dumas fils, was so inspired by her that he wrote a novel and a play about her life called The Lady of the Camellias, which in turn inspired Giuseppe Verdi to compose La Traviata.
Verdi immortalized Marie Duplessis in the character of Violetta Valéry, giving us a woman both at the height of her vitality and success, and on her deathbed. Alone, and having loved and lost a man named Alfredo, she sings “Addio del passato.” This aria is a farewell to the past and a plea to God for forgiveness. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the brief, vibrant life of Marie Duplessis and how Verdi captured her plaintive farewell in music.
As a child, soprano Lisette Oropesa saw her mother perform the role of Violetta on stage and was heartbroken by the end! Still, she found the courage to eventually take on this great heroine herself. Lisette has enjoyed learning about the strength, smarts, and tenacity of the real-life Marie Duplessis.
Writer Fred Plotkin is the author of Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera. He has worked in opera since 1972, doing everything but singing, and has written six books on Italian cuisine. Verdi is his hero because he represents all the greatness an artist can achieve both artistically and as a human being.
Writer and journalist Liesl Schillinger translated Alexandre Dumas fils’ novel, La Dame aux Camélias, and discovered in Marie Duplessis an extraordinary, generous, and shockingly modern woman. In Dumas fils, she discovered a man who was critical of the constraints and double-standards that constrained women during the 1800s.
Actor and director John Turturro is known for his roles in over 60 feature films, but perhaps less well-known as a Verdi fan. He sometimes includes operatic music in his films, and he’s even tried his hand at directing Verdi’s Rigoletto. Growing up, he remembers fondly how his dad and uncles would gather around a record player to compare and critique different singers’ performances of a single aria.
Guys and Dolls: Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann
What makes us human? As artificial intelligence becomes more advanced, technology is becoming even more integrated into the fabric of daily life, and better able to simulate real human interactions. But what really separates humans from machines is our ability to love, to dream, and to believe in an illusion.
In Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, the poet Hoffmann thinks he’s finally found love, and he’s so head-over-heels that he doesn’t realize something’s off -- Olympia, the woman of his dreams, isn’t a woman at all. She’s a wind-up doll. But like all of us humans, he can’t help but view his beloved through rose-colored glasses.
In “Les oiseaux dans la charmille,” Olympia sings one of the great arias for a coloratura soprano, and it’s music that’s so difficult it seems like only a machine could sing it. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests find the human angle to this doll’s song, exploring the pitfalls and illusions of love in the time of A.I.
Soprano Erin Morley started singing “Les oiseaux dans la charmille” in her very first voice lesson at the Eastman School of Music. Since then, she’s been searching for just the right balance of human and robot as she sings up into the stratosphere.
Conductor Johannes Debus is the music director for the Canadian Opera Company. He loves the kaleidoscopic range of styles in The Tales of Hoffmann, and how Offenbach seems to explore all aspects of humanity with great sympathy.
Machine-learning research Caroline Sinders looks at technology and society through the lens of design and human rights. She is currently a researcher at the Berggruen Institute, and an artist in residence at Ars Electronica, and previously was a design researcher at IBM Watson.
Dr. Robert Epstein is a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology. He established the first-ever annual Turing Test and is a pro at distinguishing artificial intelligence from human intelligence. But even he is susceptible to wearing rose-colored glasses -- just like Hoffmann, and just like the rest of us.
Strauss's Elektra: Waltzing With a Vengeance
Note: This episode includes descriptions of childhood sexual assault.
The drive for revenge can be all-consuming, especially when you or someone you love has been wronged. Outcast and distraught, the title character in Richard Strauss’s Elektra is obsessed with avenging the murder of her father. And because the story is based on a Greek myth, and Greek myths are full of dysfunctional families, this means that Elektra is hellbent on killing her own mother.
We get our first taste of the darkness inside Elektra’s mind, and the trauma at the heart of her rage, in the monologue, “Allein! Weh, ganz allein.” It's a sort of primal scream accompanied by a huge orchestra, and Elektra plans her revenge in all its gory, graphic glory. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the depths of trauma and the heights of vengeance, both for Elektra and for a man whose own drive for revenge brought him to those very same extremes of elation and despair.
Soprano Nina Stemme thinks there’s some truth to the story that Strauss once told an orchestra to play so loudly that they would drown out the soprano singing Elektra, and she should know -- she’s one of today’s leading interpreters of the role! She invested a lot of herself in shaping this character, and it's one that takes all of her physical and emotional energy to perform.
William Berger is an author and radio commentator. Equal parts opera buff and metalhead, he brings his love of intense storytelling to his work at The Metropolitan Opera, and to his exploration of Elektra. While it's a story of violence and revenge, Berger thinks the real journey is the one of psychological discovery and deep Freudian conflicts bubbling to the surface.
David Holthouse is a writer and documentary filmmaker who spent three years of his life consumed by the desire for revenge. He meticulously plotted to murder the man who raped him when he was seven years old. He tells his story of childhood sexual assault in his first-person essay “Stalking the Bogeyman,” and follows up on his story in “Outing the Bogeyman.”