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.
Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress: I Walk the Line
Almost three hundred years ago, the English artist William Hogarth created a series of paintings called A Rake’s Progress, which tell the tragic story of a man whose life spirals out of control after inheriting an unexpected fortune. He leaves behind a fiancée, and it is her story of devotion that reverberates through Igor Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress and the aria “No Word from Tom.”
In this episode, you’ll visit with Hogarth’s paintings, hear how Stravinsky captured the undying loyalty of the forgotten lover and get an inside look at how unexpected fortune and fame upended the family of Vivian Liberto and Johnny Cash. Yes, that Johnny Cash. And, yes, in this podcast about Igor Stravinsky.
And here’s the best part: the incomparable Dawn Upshaw will sing it for you from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.
Soprano Dawn Upshaw has performed The Rake’s Progress many times and says that some of her happiest moments on an opera stage were when she was singing the role of the devoted fiancée, Anne Trulove.
Tara Cash is the youngest daughter of Johnny Cash and his first wife, Vivian Liberto. When she was growing up, everyone always wanted to hear about her father’s life. Now, she welcomes the opportunity to share her mother’s side of the story.
Joanna Tinworth is the Curator at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, where the original paintings, A Rake’s Progress by William Hogarth, have resided for nearly 200 years. Hogarth’s paintings are among the museum’s most popular exhibits.
Michael Bragg is the Music Planning Associate and Librarian at San Francisco Opera. He gives lectures and talks about opera around the Bay area, and he loves Stravinsky because of the composer’s unique approach to blending old and new styles of music.
Below is the first painting in Hogarth's series A Rake's Progress, entitled "The Heir." You can see the complete set of paintings here, courtesy of Sir John Soane's Museum.
William Hogarth, "The Heir," from "A Rake's Progress" series, the inspiration for Stravinsky's opera.
(Photo: Sir John Soane's Museum, London)
Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro: Count On a Reckoning
Maybe you’ve heard this one before: a powerful man abuses his privilege and wealth to exploit the women in his life. When confronted with the fact that they’re not his playthings, he throws a fit and blames everyone but himself. Sound like your daily news alert? It’s Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, but somehow the world of feudal Spain in the 1700s is still distressingly familiar today.
The aria “Hai già vinta la causa” traces the emotions of the aristocratic and imperious Count Almaviva when he realizes that his wife and servants have been plotting his comeuppance. Filled with rage that they won’t bend to his will, the Count offers up one of the great temper tantrums in opera history. And don’t be surprised if the Count’s anger gives you flashbacks to headline news from the very recent past.
Bass-baritone Gerald Finley spent the first decade of his career playing the wily factotum Figaro, and now he sings the controlling Count Almaviva in opera houses around the world. He loves throwing himself into the fire and fury in this aria, but also holds tight to the belief that the Count is truly repentant in the end.
Professor Sharon Marcus teaches English and comparative literature at Columbia University. When it came to music, her mother insisted that she grow up listening to classical. She first met the Count in The Marriage of Figaro when she was still in grade school.
Laura Bassett is a freelance journalist and an opinion columnist for MSNBC. She originally wanted to be an academic. but the 2008 presidential election convinced her that she needed to be writing stories about the national conversations we're having today. She's written extensively about abuses of power in politics and the instances of sexual harassment that have dominated headlines in recent years.
Rossini's Barber of Seville: On a Wig and a Prayer
Chances are, you know the overture to The Barber of Seville (maybe from Bugs Bunny?!) but Gioachino Rossini’s most famous opera is more than a comedic romp. Embedded in the topsy-turvy tale of young love and silly disguises, there is a story of forced marriage and a woman’s determination to live a life of her choosing.
We meet the heroine Rosina for the first time in the aria “Una voce poco fa,” in which she declares that while she may seem sweet and innocent, she is really not someone to be messed with. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the courage it takes to live life on your own terms and the way this almost absurd story pulled from a centuries-old novel still resonates today. You’ll hear how one guest has her own escape-from-a-forced-marriage story that uncannily matches Rosina’s.The Guests:
Soprano Pretty Yende first sang the role of Rosina in Norway in 2014, and it’s since become one of her favorite roles. She loves playing Rosina because the character is fun, witty, and unlike so many operatic heroines, she gets to hit all the high notes and live happily ever after.
Conductor James Conlon is Music Director of the Los Angeles Opera. He first heard The Barber of Seville when he was 11 years old and fell in love on the spot. Later that summer, he made his debut as director, producer, and Count Almaviva in his friend’s garage, with a very appreciative audience lined up in the driveway.
Activist Jasvinder Sanghera is a survivor of forced marriage. She has spent the last four decades advocating for women, children, and men silenced by domestic abuse and forced marriages, and founded the award-winning charity Karma Nirvana in 1993.
Verdi's Aida: There's No Place Like Home
They say you can’t go home again, and Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida knows it all too well. Captured from her homeland of Ethiopia and enslaved in Egypt, she falls in love with an Egyptian warrior. Aida is torn between her love for this man and her love for her home and, because it’s opera, she ultimately chooses the tenor.
In “O Patria Mia,” Aida stands on the banks of the Nile and says goodbye to Ethiopia. In this episode, host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore what home means, and what it means to leave it behind.
Soprano Latonia Moore has sung the role of Aida more than a hundred times. She made her Met debut in the role with a day and a half’s notice, and it launched her international career. As a Black soprano, she feels like she has joined the club of great singers who have taken on the role.
Naomi André is a professor of Afro-American and African Studies and Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Michigan. She wrote her dissertation on Verdi’s operas and was blown away the first time she saw Aida at the Met. She thinks it’s amazing that a story about ancient Egypt still resonates today, and she still finds something new in the work every time she sees it.
Poet and visual artist Mahtem Shiferraw is from Ethiopia and Eritrea, but now lives in Los Angeles. Coming to the U.S. as an adult, she had to completely rebuild her sense of identity and belonging, and her understanding of home. Growing up in Ethiopia, she went to an Italian school and acted in a non-opera production of Aida.
Puccini's Turandot: Hope Never Sleeps
Sometimes, the only thing that gets us through the darkest moments is knowing that the sun will rise again on a new day. Puccini's final opera, Turandot, is about courage in the face of adversity, and love triumphing over fear. In other words, it is exactly what the world needs right now.
The aria “Nessun dorma” is Prince Calaf’s declaration of love and resounding victory cry. In this episode, host Rhiannon Giddens and three guests explore what makes this aria so popular even beyond the opera house, and how it became an anthem of resilience and hope during the COVID-19 pandemic. This episode features Italian tenor Franco Corelli in a Metropolitan Opera performance from the Before Times (a.k.a. 1966).
Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin is the Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera, Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal. He loves conducting Puccini’s biggest, most majestic opera, but his favorite moments are the intimate arias like “Nessun dorma.”
Writer Anne Midgette is the former classical music critic for The Washington Post. She first heard the aria on a Book of the Month Club cassette tape in college, and thinks the secret sauce for “Nessun Dorma” is in its climactic underdog declaration of “Vincerò” -- “I will win.”
Dr. Michael Cho is a pulmonary and critical care physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and has been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s also a violist, and has been playing with the Longwood Symphony Orchestra for more than 15 years. Recently, he joined the National Virtual Medical Orchestra, a group that formed during COVID to give people in the medical field a chance to play together. Watch their performance of "Nessun Dorma" below.
In April of 2020, 700 children across Europe sang a virtual performance of "Nessun dorma" as a message of hope and solidarity, from Europa InCanto. You can meet two of the stars in this episode, and watch their performance below.
Aria Code Is Back and Bigger Than Ever!
The third season of the critically-acclaimed podcast is more expansive than the previous two, with a total of 18 new episodes released bi-weekly, starting March 10, 2021.
Just like a full season at the opera house, the podcast season will cover a staggering range of music, artists, and voices -- from early works by Handel all the way to the contemporary work of American composer and jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard. We'll cover fan favorites by Verdi and Puccini, as well as lesser-known gems by Stravinsky and Mussorgsky.
Hosted by MacArthur Fellow and Grammy award-winning musician Rhiannon Giddens, and featuring master artists and other guests representing diverse voices and perspectives, the podcast connects opera to the experiences at the center of our humanity and the issues at the center of our lives. NBD.
Aria Code is produced by WQXR in partnership with The Metropolitan Opera.
I look forward to every post. She is clever and a wonder. Thank you.
For the Stravinsky. I am overjoyed that the pros are now handling this.
Michael Bragg is the man.
I imagine we could use more over-privileged men throwing temper tantrums. Seriously, knock yourself out.
I’ve been known to have simple and unrefined tastes in art, music, culture, and food. Aria Code has given me a better appreciation of the few operas I have attended and will attend more as a result.