Oct. 6, 2023

Born To Laugh

Verdi’s great comedy, Falstaff, demands a full roster of stars.
Falstaff is a classic ensemble opera, with many roles that contribute something vital to its hilarity. Photo credit: Karen Almond

Falstaff is one of the happiest operas imaginable, a real musical miracle, but it has never enjoyed the deeper popularity of some of Verdi’s other operas, like Aida or La traviata. Why?  

Think about the difference between Olympic team sports and a solo sport like diving. In diving, your competition is solely your own personal best, and it is very possible that during the Olympics there will be diving stars—but how many people can name an entire swim team? Therein lies the essential difference between Falstaff and La traviata.  

Falstaff is a classic ensemble opera, and opera audiences have generally gravitated toward operas that are star vehicles. It certainly isn’t that Falstaff doesn’t have starring roles—it actually has several extraordinary ones, especially the title character, played this fall at HGO by Reginald Smith, Jr.—but it has many smaller roles that each contribute something vital to its hilarity.

True ensemble operas are conceived by their composers so that no one singer carries the entire performance. No one would classify La traviata, Madame Butterfly, or Norma as ensemble operas, because their success is so dependent upon the gifts of one singer. These operas do require many other singers with difficult roles, plus choruses and orchestras all working in beautiful ensemble, but an audience can still have a fulfilling experience with them even if some other element is uneven. Not ensemble operas, which are a full team sport, so there can be no weak links.  

The great ensemble operas tend to be comedies, unsurprisingly, as the same is true of plays and films. There are some dramatic standouts in films, like 12 Angry Men or The Big Chill, but largely the great ensemble films are comedies like Ocean’s 11, or one of the most unforgettable ensemble efforts, Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World 

In opera, The Marriage of Figaro and Falstaff are the two standout ensemble works, though both have a string of great starring roles as well. But there are others: Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi may be the single greatest ensemble hour in opera, and it works like a giant cackling clock. Structurally, Gianni Schicchi, composed in 1917-18, handed the movies the perfect template for the popular screwball comedies of cinema’s beginnings. You can see opening credits roll when hearing the opera’s first moments, even though it was composed almost a generation before film soundtracks.  

That Falstaff was the work of a 19th-century octogenarian, which was itself a rarity, makes it all the more miraculous. Most people thought Aida, composed in 1871 when Verdi was 57 years old, was at least the beginning of his retirement, if not the finale of his career. He was, by the time of Aida, enormously wealthy, internationally famous, and a hero in newly united Italy. He had nothing more to prove.  

Nevertheless, 15 years later he presented, to enormous surprise and delight, his Otello at La Scala, having been convinced to compose again by the young and enterprising composer/poet Arrigo Boito. It would be difficult to imagine the impact made by the firework of Otello exploding onto the world in 1887, with all operatic talking then being Wagnerian (the Bayreuth Festival had opened in 1876) or about Massenet, who was almost Verdi’s equal in the public’s mind while he was alive, though history has not placed him on nearly the same pedestal as Wagner and Verdi.  

Surely then, it was thought, Otello would be Verdi’s last opera. Verdi spent the year following Otello at his country estate Sant’Agata, between Bologna and Modena, where he was also involved in endowing a hospital that he took a great hand in designing. It was two years later, in 1879, that Boito handed him the proposed scenario of Falstaff, knowing that if anything could tempt Verdi out of retirement, it was a comedy.  

Verdi had not written a comedy since his youth in 1840, when his second opera had been the unsuccessful Un giorno di regno (“A one-day reign”), which was composed in an unrecognizably different world from the late 19th century world in which he would compose Falstaff.  

Falstaff was composed in secrecy in case Verdi didn’t live to finish it. Very few composers had the length of life that he had, and very few exhibited such extraordinary changes in their musical style. Verdi’s music, always both effervescent and full of dramatic perfection, spanned the 19th century. His early operas were Italian historical pageants, sometimes in the guise of settings in other countries, and always in the mold long-established by Rossini and Donizetti. By the time of Falstaff, his style had totally altered, and it remains in a singular place in opera, as an exemplar of what the greatest operatic comedy could be.  

Verdi liked to cultivate a public image of being a country man who was never fully comfortable in sophisticated urban centers of intellect and art. But this was a construction. Verdi was one of the deep souls of western art, consumed with literature, especially Shakespeare, Schiller, and his fellow Italians like Manzoni, to whom he dedicated his extraordinary Requiem. Verdi had a rare ability to listen to life and recreate it in music, absorbing into his art what others only heard as silence. Falstaff is perhaps Verdi’s most human work for the theater, just as the title character was one of Shakespeare’s most humane, funny, and empathic characters. We all already know him, because everyone’s life has a Falstaff in it somewhere.  

The opera is ostensibly based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, but it includes character references from the other two enormous plays in which the character of Falstaff appears, Henry IV and Henry V. What Boito and Verdi arranged and re-wrote is a much better drama than Shakespeare’s Merry Wives, an enjoyable play full of dramatic holes, and together they wrote a comedy that dances along with sweet thrilling music and complex linguistic play and rhyming jokes.  

Falstaff was completed in the fall of 1892 and was in rehearsal by the early months of the following year, opening in February 1893, several months shy of Verdi’s 80th birthday that October. In an era when only the privileged saw 80 at all, to have written such a brilliant smiling work at that stage of life was, and remains, one of the astonishing accomplishments of his era. The explosive final C Major fugue that closes Falstaff is one of the great epitaphs of any artist who ever lived.  


Andrea Carroll as Leïla in Houston Grand Opera's 2019 The Pearl Fishers. Photo Credit: Lynn Lane

Pertinent to
Falstaff, the Butler Studio at HGO is a major ensemble builder. Studio artists are brought to Houston only after rigorous competition, and the overarching brief of the Studio is to train the next generation of leading operatic singers. But for all of the emphasis on their individual talents, the experience of being in the Studio is an ensemble one. There is no need for more intemperate and capricious artists in the world, no matter how titillating their antics momentarily may be. The future of the art, we believe, depends on an industry filled with good artistic citizens.  

Being a musician is very solitary, what with the hours of technical practice it takes to become proficient at any instrument. Approximately 10,000 hours are required for basic mastery of any art, according to Canadian author and statistician Malcolm Gladwell, and musicians who heard or read his assessment instantly recognized it as a truth. We’ve never studied it, but I imagine it correlates quite well to the years spent in the Butler Studio.  

Several generations of former Butler Studio members return to their home company in Falstaff, and they are joined by colleagues who have been in similarly high-profile young artist programs elsewhere. This Falstaff cast represents several generations of opera stars, from the veteran to the newcomer. They also each represent the artistic qualities around which we have slowly and steadily built the Studio and the company for many years: radiant vocalism, imagination, integrity, and high work ethic. 

What the Italian musical titan Arturo Toscanini dreamed for La Scala in the 1930s, before the horrors of war halted all dreams, was an “ensemble of stars.” Post-pandemic, in a fully changed opera world, and nearly a century later, Houston Grand Opera can share Toscanini’s dream, and with casts like ours for Falstaff we can finally realize that his dream is within sight.   

about the author
Patrick Summers
Patrick Summers is the Artistic and Music Director, Sarah and Ernest Butler Chair, at Houston Grand Opera.