Monthly Archives: November 2014

Long Ago and Far Away

The roadkill opera journey began on a cold night in Chicago.  When I moved to Evanston, Illinois, for college, I brought my Onkyo receiver and my cassettes.  No classical in my collection, though, as I relied on my father’s albums when home in Nashville. To fill the gap, I began recording off the FM classical station, simply recording over the stuff I didn’t like.

Photo of winter scene, a snowy courtyard of a traditional college quad
View from my room as I recorded the mystery music in the winter of ’79.

This triage resulted in the survival of a mystery opera–one I assumed to be Mozart that ultimately was identified for me in 2003 as the work of Ferdinando Paer. Paer was the first to respond to the repeated requests of the Empress of Austria, Marie Therese, who wanted a new musical setting for her favorite libretto, Leonore, a 1798 escape drama written by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly and set to music by Pierre Gaveaux.

Graphic showing the 7 generations of the Leonora/Fidelio opera, culminating with A Roadkill Opera.
Paer’s 1804 Leonora was the second version of the story set to music. Beethoven’s Fidelio was three of the six versions. Parker kept Paer’s music and wrote a new story and libretto to it.

In that winter of 1979-1980, I had no idea who had written the music and I had no clue as to the story–all I knew then (and for the next 24 years) was that the music was highly melodic and had infectious hooks. What I learned later–much later–was that the Empress’s wish was met not once, not twice, but three times: by Paer, by Johann Simon Mayr, and by Ludwig van Beethoven, for whom it was his only opera–Fidelio.

photo of cover of A Roadkill Opera CD
A Roadkill Opera resets Ferdinando Paer’s music from his 1804 Leonora to a new story (in English) set in 1988 Jackson Hole, Wyoming–opening night for the Roadkill On A Stick Frozen Foods Theatre Company, a comedy improv troupe

The 1804 Paer Leonora that so caught my ear was–and remains–the only commercial recording released. The album I heard was released in 1979 and was not issued on CD until after we went into the studio to record A Roadkill Opera.

Cover of 1979 album Leonora
The 1979 release of Ferdinando Paer’s 1804 Leonora was a passion project for conductor Peter Maag. He recorded it with the Bayerisches Symphonieorchester, Ursula Koszut, Siegfried Jerusalem, Giorgio Tadeo, Edita Gruberova, Wolfgang Brendel, Norbert Orth, and John van Kesteren.

After workshopping A Roadkill Opera at Artomatic 2012 in June, in December I re-visited the shop in Vienna, Austria, that had first identified the recording for me; the staff confirmed that Leonora was still out of print. So, in January 2013, Maestro Jeffrey Dokken and I reassembled most of the workshop performers to record A Roadkill Opera.

One of the things I learned from John Rice’s excellent book Empress Marie Therese and Music at the Viennese Court, 1792-1807, was that Paer had been a regular performer in the Empress Marie Therese’s house concerts–that is, her performances put on only for her own amusement in her palace chambers. When Paer was composing Leonora for the Empress, I am sure the had in mind both his ambition to have the opera performed in public with full orchestra (as reflected in the 1979 Maag recording) and the likelihood that the Empress would perform the work in chambers with a smaller ensemble. Our workshop and recording of A Roadkill Opera reflect how Paer likely anticipated the Empress would hear and perform the work.

Cover of the book Empress Marie Therese and Music at the Viennese Court, 1792–1807
John RIce detailed the ambitious musical appetite of Empress Marie Therese, and laid bare the reason there were three new versions of her 1798 favorite libretto Leonore produced in 1804-1805.

After we laid down the orchestral tracks and the scratch tracks for the vocals in January 2013, I found out that the music that had first inspired me had been released for the first time on CD.  The Decca Eloquence label in Australia released Leonora on a two-CD package that includes the libretto. You get the lyrics in English translation as well as the original Italian.

Cover of 2013 CD release of Paer's Leonora
In February 2013, Decca released Leonora on CD for the first time. A Roadkill Opera was already halfway through its studio recording.

We pressed on with our recording of A Roadkill Opera. In the do it yourself punk spirit of the Chicago music scene I grew up in, by the end of 2013 I also published the sheet music so you can follow along, play along or put on your own chamber performance. You can find the album and sheet music for A Roadkill Opera on Amazon; the recording is also available on iTunes and CD Baby.  If you are looking for an unusual holiday gift, I can about guarantee they don’t have this!

Not That Kind of Opera

There are all kinds of operas. What you think of the form really depends on what you’ve been exposed to.

The first opera DJ and I went to see together was at the Metropolitan in New York–the Met. We saw a modern production of Salome. The plot involves a young princess who asks for a man’s severed head–when she gets her wish, she dances around with it. Ew.

Last Saturday night, DJ and I attended the opening concert of the Symphony Orchestra of Northern Virginia (SONOVA), Premiered at the opera house. The first half of the show include some very popular pieces, such as the William Tell Overture. After halftime, the Metropolitan Chorus was featured in the opera Carmina Burana.

Photo of the Metropolitan Chorus and Symphony Orchestra of Northern Virginia performing Carl Orff's Carmina Burana on November 8, 2014. Soloist Jeffrey is visible at front.
Maestro Jeffrey Sean Dokken, music director and conductor for the Symphony Orchestra of Northern Virginia, took a rare turn as tenor soloist under the baton of the Metropolitan Chorus’s artistic director and conductor Maestro Barry S. Hemphill. Dokken sang in Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana November 8-9, 2014, at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia. 

I had heard of Carmina Burana, but I didn’t know the story. Neither did DJ. My method of watching an opera that I don’t understand — sung in other languages, as in this case, in Italian — is to make up lyrics in my head that have nothing to do with the story of the opera. For Carmina Burana, the story in my head essentially had every character with a solo singing a lament of “who moved my cheese.” I found it highly entertaining.

I had used the same technique to turn the first act of Ferdninando Paer’s Leonora into A Roadkill Opera. It is not that kind of opera–it deals with the stage fright and such of a small town improv troupe in the hour before their first professional gig in 1988 Wyoming, set to Paer’s 1804 music. But I digress…

Maestro Dokken informed me after the show that he was singing the role of a swan–a swan that is singing as it is being boiled alive. Yikes. Turns out the story of swan’s singing just before they die is as old as Greek myth and music. There is nothing new under the sun…

The story got me thinking of other opera moments that have a larger presence in popular culture. With the World Series just behind us, who can forget “it’s not over ’til the fat lady sings”? Stories of the origin vary, but many ascribe it to the singing of Brünnhilde’s final aria from Die Walküre or Götterdämmerung

And then there is the Grand Ole Opry. According to Wikipedia (retrieved November 10, 2014, from


On December 10, 1927 the phrase ‘Grand Ole Opry’ was first uttered on-air.[10] That night Barn Dance followed the NBC Red Network’s Music Appreciation Hour, a program of classical music and selections from Grand Opera presented by classical conductor Walter Damrosch. That night, Damrosch remarked that “there is no place in the classics for realism,” In response, Opry presenter George Hay said:

“Friends, the program which just came to a close was devoted to the classics. Doctor Damrosch told us that there is no place in the classics for realism. However, from here on out for the next three hours, we will present nothing but realism. It will be down to earth for the ‘earthy’.”

Hay then introduced DeFord Bailey, the man he had dubbed the “Harmonica Wizard”, saying:

“For the past hour, we have been listening to music taken largely from Grand Opera. From now on, we will present the ‘Grand Ole Opry’.”

Bailey then stepped up to the mic to play “The Pan American Blues”, his song inspired by the Pan American, an L&N Railroad express/passenger train.[10][11]


So there you have it. Carmina Burana, A Roadkill OperaDie Walküre or Götterdämmerung, and the Grand Ole Opry.

You’re welcome!