Monday, January 28, 2008

An Old Viola Joke

There are many potential topics to come from this past weekend's opera scenes, but I was particularly delighted by one little discovery, something I'd always overlooked. Our longest and most ambitious undertaking was the 30-minute opening scene of Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring. I could go on and on about this opera, and intend to at some point, but I'll start with this small detail which others must have noticed and mentioned, but which has not shown up in my exhaustive scholarly Google search.

I've heard several times that many of the characters' names in this comedy about small-town life were taken from real-life characters known to Britten and Eric Crozier, the librettist. Well, at the very top of the show, Florence Pike, assistant to the imposing Lady Billows, is running about trying to keep up with a bizarre array of orders from her ladyship. Florence's first words are, "Doctor Jessup's midwife . . . mustn't touch legitimates; Advert in chemist's window, indecent - tear it up!; Call at Primrose Cottage . . must stop William making such . . . rude noises or else!; Buy a breakfast cup." It only dawned on me last week that the rude William must be a reference to William Primrose, a Scottish violist who is probably the most famous performer on that instrument. He would have been at the peak of his career when Herring was written and, great artist that he was, it can't be a coincidence that he's accused of making rude noises - he was a violist!

I don't know how far back viola jokes go, but I think we can safely say this one from 1947 fits the bill.



Johanna Peters as Florence Pike (Britten conducting)

[More Albert Herring discoveries in this post from the past.]

[CORRECTION: for no good reason, the first line of the opera always wants to be "Doctor Jessup's housewife" in my head, even though it's supposed to be his "midwife." So, naturally I typed it up wrong the first time, but it's now been corrected.]

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