‘Aria Code’ Explores the Meaning Behind the Music

Milly Claudio

For many fans, the highlight of any opera is a standout aria, like “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” or “Vesti la giubba” from Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.” But there’s more to these works than one intense tune, and many listeners are turning to opera-themed podcasts to better understand the […]

For many fans, the highlight of any opera is a standout aria, like “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” or “Vesti la giubba” from Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.”

But there’s more to these works than one intense tune, and many listeners are turning to opera-themed podcasts to better understand the layers of this emotion-filled art form.

One such podcast among many is “Aria Code,” a collaboration by the classical music radio station WQXR and the Metropolitan Opera in New York and hosted by Rhiannon Giddens. A singer, composer and musician originally from North Carolina, Ms. Giddens studied opera at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and helped found the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a string band in which she sang and played fiddle and banjo.

“Aria Code” uses the tagline “The magic of opera revealed, one song at a time” and humorous episode titles like “Once More Into the Breeches: Joyce DiDonato Sings Strauss” and “Breaking Mad: Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.”

The series has expanded its audience in this, its third season: Downloads of the podcast have increased more than 20 percent from season 2, according to its co-creator and lead producer, Merrin Lazyan.

The podcast has also helped the Met reach its audience while the opera house was shut down for nearly 18 months by the Covid-19 pandemic. (The opera officially reopens on Monday, although it played host to an audience on Sept. 11 for a live performance of Verdi’s Requiem.)

Gillian Brierley, assistant general manager of marketing and communications at the Met, said by email that the podcast was one way the Met was “reaching out not only to opera lovers but also to new audiences, bringing to life the range of emotions in opera through vivid storytelling and interviews as well as treasured recordings from our audio archives.”

The seed of the idea for “Aria Code” came from Ms. Lazyan, who studied classical voice performance at the Royal College of Music in London. At WQXR in 2017, she suggested a segment in which a Met artist would explain the “Queen of the Night” aria from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” scored using the Met’s archival recordings. But colleagues saw wider potential, proposing a series “that could potentially open up an art form that comes with a fair bit of baggage to a wider audience,” she wrote in an email.

Credit…Rick Stockwell

As the format evolved, Ms. Lazyan said, a team from WQXR and WNYC Studios (the podcast division of New York Public Radio) hit upon including multiple guests and people from outside the opera world to make the topics more relevant to modern lives. (Episodes conclude with a recorded Met performance of the selected aria.)

“We realized that the best version of this show would be one that delights existing opera fans, but is also accessible to an audience that’s new to opera, or perhaps even skeptical of it,” she said. “We didn’t want to water it down, but we did want to break through the barriers.”

In choosing an aria for an episode, Ms. Lazyan works closely with the Met. “Prepandemic,” she said, “all of the selected arias and artists were featured in the Met’s current onstage season, and we did our best to align episode releases with their production schedule. This year, we chose arias from both their canceled and upcoming seasons.”

To keep “Aria Code” interesting, producers aim for a mix of well-known operas and what Ms. Lazyan called more obscure gems, along with a variety of voice types and even languages.

“When it comes to the other guests on the show — the musicologists and dramaturges, the scientists and doctors, the athletes and writers and more — I choose them,” she said, sometimes with input from Ms. Giddens and others.

Finding the right host was also key, she said, calling Ms. Giddens a “dream host for so many reasons.”

“It was important to us to find someone who understands and appreciates this music, but is not necessarily an opera insider,” Ms. Lazyan said, but a guide for “lifelong opera lovers, people who are curious but have only dipped a toe in, and people who thought it was all a bunch of senseless caterwauling.”

Ms. Giddens’s “focus in her own music is on excavating the past and telling bold truths about our present,” Ms. Lazyan said, “which is exactly what ‘Aria Code’ aims to do as well.”

Ms. Giddens said she jumped at the chance to host in part because of “the sheer universality of opera — these deeply emotive stories reflect the best and the worst of human nature, done with mind-bending talent and artistic collaboration.”

She added that she has always been interested in equal access to the arts. “If given the chance,” she said, “people who hate the idea of opera could actually love it, if exposed to it in the right way.”

That’s not always easy. “Helping listeners connect to the emotion within opera can be a challenge offstage,” Ms. Lazyan conceded.

“For some arias, the sheer athleticism of opera performance is front and center,” she said. “Singing is such a personal and internal process, and it can be difficult to verbalize the nuanced inner workings of an artist’s technical and interpretive approach.

“But hearing a singer describe how hitting the high note at the end of an exuberant coloratura passage feels like being up in the heavens among the stars, and simultaneously hearing that final high note ring out like a bell as the singer is talking about it, makes this process immediate and thrilling for listeners.”

Other arias “welcome a much more personal and intimate kind of storytelling,” Ms. Lazyan said. “For those, I seek out guests with a personal experience that parallels the events or the emotional heart of the music.”

For “Madama Butterfly,” the psychotherapist Kyoko Katayama “told the story of her mother, whose love affair with an American G.I. who abandoned her, pregnant, in Japan was an uncanny parallel to the abandonment and betrayal of Cio-Cio San in the opera,” Ms. Lazyan said.

“Throughout the episode, you hear Kyoko’s story in parallel with the ‘Butterfly’ story. You hear how deeply personal it is, and that really opens the door to a different way of feeling the power of this music.”

While the music and its composer can be the main draw, what about the librettists who fashioned the words?

“Aria Code” certainly doesn’t ignore them, but the opera director Keturah Stickann, based in Knoxville, Tenn., puts them squarely in the spotlight in another podcast, “Words First: Talking Text in Opera.” She highlights librettists, she said by email, “because I feel like they sort of disappear when talking about a work. I like to make sure we say their names.”

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