The Juno of Handel’s Semele is best considered as the ancient Greek goddess Hera. As the Greek and Roman cultures came into contact with one another, these two great goddesses became so associated with one another as to be almost indistinguishable. Since the myth of Semele has Greek origins, however, Hera is undoubtedly the proper name of the divine queen who stands as Handel’s antagonist.
In her role as Queen of the Gods, Hera is said to rule over marriage, women, childbirth and family. Hera is occasionally portrayed as a warlike deity, which may be tied to her association with the lion, but her symbols additionally include the cuckoo, peacock and cow.
Hera and Her Children…
Although she is a goddess of marriage and childbirth, Hera is less notable as a mother. Being disgusted with the ugliness of her son Hephaestus (god of metalworking and masonry), Hera is said to have thrown him from Mount Olympus, making the god a cripple. In order to revenge himself on his mother, Hephaestus crafted a magical throne, which would not allow Hera to stand back up once she sat on it. Hephaestus only released his mother once she presented him with Aphrodite (goddess of love and beauty) as his wife.
During the Trojan War, Hera and her son Ares (god of war) found themselves supporting different armies. Noticing that Ares was actively assisting the Trojans, Hera convinced Zeus and Athena (goddess of wisdom and war) to drive Ares away from the battlefield. Zeus granted his permission and Athena helped to drive a spear into Ares’ body, causing him to flee to Mount Olympus.
Hera’s Famous Jealousy
The jealousy that Hera feels for Semele, Zeus’ new lover, is one of the key forces which drives the plot of Handel’s opera. In fact, the jealously of the goddess was often believed to have played a role in the outcome of much larger events, such as the Trojan War. Yet the goddess and her fellows on Olympus are perhaps better remembered for their vanity, best illustrated in the following story:
When the hero Peleus married the nymph Thetis, all the gods and goddesses were invited to the wedding, as well as important mortals. Eris, however, the goddess of discord, had not been invited. Being justifiably annoyed at this turn of events, Eris took a golden apple inscribed with “to the fairest” and threw it among the goddesses at the wedding. The three most prominent goddesses, Aphrodite, Hera and Athena, all believed herself to be the fairest, and thus the rightful owner of the apple. Requiring a way to settle matters once and for all, the trio of goddesses turned to Zeus, asking him to be the judge of their beauty. Seeing the danger in the choice before him, Zeus passed the matter on to the Trojan prince, Paris. Even after seeing each of the goddesses unclothed, Paris was unable to make a choice between them, prompting the goddesses to offer various bribes. Hera, as Queen of the Gods, promised to grant Paris control over all of Europe and Asia. As the goddess of wisdom and war, Athena pledged wisdom, fame, and glory in battle. Ruling over sexuality and love, Aphrodite offered Paris the most beautiful woman in the world as a wife, the famous, or perhaps infamous, Spartan Queen Helen. Persuaded by Aphrodite’s offer, Paris named her the rightful owner of the apple, simultaneously enraging the other two goddesses. Consequently he sparked the Trojan War by kidnapping the Spartan Queen.
April 8, 7:30 p.m. | April 10, 2 p.m.
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Although referenced as Jupiter in Handel’s Semele, the character should properly be called Zeus, the Greek god affiliated with Roman Jupiter due to the adoptive nature of pantheism. In fact, the entire plot of Handel’s opera is based on that of Greek myth. Here is a quick introduction to Zeus, or Jupiter, to aid your understanding of the character in Handel’s Semele.
In ancient Greek religion, Zeus was regarded as a sky and weather god, as well as the chief deity of the Greek pantheon. As mentioned, he is often associated with the Roman sky god, Jupiter, and occasionally the Hindu sky god Dyaus. The thunderbolt with which Zeus is often depicted is symbolic of his role as the sender of thunder and lightning. Symbolic as his status as chief of the gods, the eagle is also included in a great deal of Zeus’ imagery. It was thought that Zeus used his position as king of the gods, and his position atop Mount Olympus, to omnisciently watch over the affairs of men and to reward or punish mortal conduct. In this respect, Zeus was also a god of justice, as well as a protector of cities, homes and humankind.
With his sister and divine consort Hera (Roman Juno), Zeus was believed to have fathered the gods Ares, Hebe and Hephaestus. Through his affair with the goddess Leto, the gods Artemis and Apollo were born, and a union with his sister Demeter resulted in the birth of the goddess Persephone. But by no means should we believe that Zeus’ amorous escapades stopped there!
The nymph Callisto was a member of the goddess Artemis’ retinue and openly refused to be with anyone besides her beloved goddess. Knowing this, Zeus disguised himself as Artemis in order to seduce Callisto. When news of the affair reached Hera, she became extremely jealous and in her rage transformed Callisto into a bear. The constellations of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (the big- and little-dipper) are thought to be Callisto and her son.
A mortal priestess of the goddess Hera, Io initially rejected Zeus’ lustful advances until her father threw her out of his house due to the advice of oracles. In an attempt to hide his new lover from Hera, Zeus transformed Io into a heifer. When the deception failed, Hera sent a gadfly to continuously bit Io in her cow-form causing the woman to continuously wander the world. Once Zeus had restored her to human form, she gave birth to both a son and a daughter before marrying an Egyptian king.
When Zeus became enamored with the mortal woman Europa, he transformed himself into a white bull and mingled with the herds of the girl’s father. Europa noticed the bull while gathering flowers with her companions. She stroked his flanks and eventually climbed onto his back, whereupon Zeus ran into the sea and swam to the island of Crete, carrying Europa with him. In this way Europa became the first Queen of Crete.
Wife of the Spartan king Tyndareus, the myth surrounding Leda and Zeus is responsible for creating the popular motif of ‘Leda and the Swan’ that appears frequently in Renaissance and later art. Disguising himself as a swan, Zeus fell into Leda’s arms feigning the need for protection from an eagle. The consummation of their affair, on the same night that Leda would lie with her rightful husband, produced two eggs from which hatched the famous Helen, queen Clytemnestra, and twins Castor and Pollux.
In the form of an eagle, Zeus abducted the young Ganymede while the boy was tending to his father’s sheep. On Olympus Zeus made Ganymede the official cupbearer to the gods, and granted him eternal youth and immortality. While the other gods were thrilled to have Ganymede residing with them, Hera jealously regarded the boy as a rival for Zeus’ affections. Unusually, the queen of the gods did not revenge herself on Zeus’ newest lover.
A forbidden tryst between god and mortal attracts the attention of Juno, who sets about to teach her unfaithful husband, Jupiter, and human lover, Semele, a lesson. The mortal princess Semele is unknowingly “out of her league” as she is taken in by Juno’s cunning and attempts to command her lover Jupiter to reveal himself in his godly form, despite his desperate attempts to bring the princess to her senses. Telling the tale of a short and fiery affair, Handel’s Semele will transport audiences to the world of Greek mythology and the larger-than-life personas of its central figures.
Semele opened on February 10, 1744 in London at the Covent Garden Theatre. Given that the production was staged as part of a yearly Lenten concert series, the lack of uplifting, Biblical subject matter came as quite a shock to a number of attendees. Due to its provocative subject matter, Handel’s work received only four performances at this time, although eight months later would see two presentations of a revised version, which omitted some dialogue containing sexual innuendos. The controversial work was forgotten for nearly two centuries until performances of the original score during 1925 and 1954 in England sparked a permanent revival. The 2015-16 season marks the first Opera Omaha production of Semele, although frequent opera-goers will recognize two additional productions of Handel’s operas in the company history: Agrippina (2013-14) and Partenope (1988-89).
Name that Tune
Even though we often refer to Handel’s Semele as an opera, the piece should be more properly classified as a “musical drama.” This is because the work fuses elements of both opera and oratorio, with the traditions of classical theatre, making it difficult to fit the entire composition into the neat box of a single genre. We may ask ourselves, “What was Handel thinking?” but it is clear that the composer himself intended for this ambiguity when he said that the dramatic material should be performed “in the manner of an oratorio.” It might be best to consider Semele as a sort of musical chimera, being built from elements of very different things. Therefore when listening to the piece, be on the lookout for both operatic and oratorio elements including: the spectacular arias and dramatic plot characteristic of opera and use of the English language and large choral moments drawn from oratorio.
A Whole New World
While the story of Handel’s opera presents a world of seemingly endless twists, turns, and divine machinations, the full scope of Greek mythology is much, much more convoluted. The first stop in coming to understand this complicated world of lore is to examine the Theogony, or genealogy, of the Greek gods. The famous Olympian pantheon with which we are familiar can roughly be regarded as the third generation of gods, stemming from the Titans and more primordial deities, such as Nyx (night), Gaia (Earth) and Uranus (sky). In order to secure their place in the hierarchies of divine power, a member of each generation of gods committed a form of divine patricide: Kronos castrated Uranus at the request of his mother, and Zeus led his siblings into battle against the Titans, finally imprisoning them. Although the Olympians did produce their own children, it is with this generation that the cycle of patricide was effectively ended. For this reason the Olympian offspring are often considered to be minor-gods and their parents the major.
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Handel’s Semele, April 8 & 10, Orpheum Theater. For tickets, call (402) 345-0606 or click here.
Although Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West (La fanciulla del West) is clearly set in the American West, replete with sheriffs and outlaws, the Italian composer never traveled further than New York City during his lifetime. Luckily for him, librettist and playwright David Belasco was born in San Francisco and had personally experienced the California Gold Rush as a boy.
The world premiere of Puccini’s western-themed opera (December 10, 1910 at the Metropolitan Opera) was so successful that it earned a total of nineteen curtain calls for the composer, stage director David Belasco, stars and conductor.
Orchestrating the Wild West
La fanciulla del West is far from the sole piece of orchestral literature, which deals with the American West. In fact, the well-known 20th century composer Aaron Copland created the music for two American ballets: Billy the Kid and Rodeo.
Loosely based on the exploits of the outlaw who gives this ballet his name, the 1938 ballet Billy the Kid explores the numerous landscapes of the American West, sweeping from the Great Plains to a frontier town and on to the desert. Much like Puccini’s Fanciulla, Copland’s work features an opposition of lawful and lawless at its core. In keeping with the western theme of the ballet, Copland utilized a number of cowboy and folk tunes in his composition, most recognizable among these is likely the song “Git Along, Little Doggies”.
Although Copland was initially hesitant to compose yet another western-styled ballet, his Rodeo was an instant hit that received 22 curtain calls at its 1942 premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House and has continued to be performed with regularity across the county. Unlike the earlier ballet, the basis of Rodeo is not historic, but rather romantic. Instead of following the life of an outlaw, this ballet tells the story of an American Cowgirl doing her best to hold her own among the cowboys and to win the heart of the Champion Roper. As with much of Copland’s music, the main theme “Hoe-Down” is based on an American folk-tune, but listeners will also find familiar melodies in every section of the work.
Another point of intersection between orchestral music and the American West is found in the use of Italian composer Gioachino Rossini’s overture to his opera Guillaume Tell, or William Tell. Even those unfamiliar with the work of Rossini will undoubtedly recognize the sound galloping horses evoked by the trumpets and brass in this piece—after all, the overture has been famously featured as the theme music for The Lone Ranger television, radio and film series.
Nicknamed the “Bishop of Broadway” due to his conservative and clerical appearance, David Belasco was an American theatrical producer, director and playwright responsible for creating many of the scripts that Italian composer Giacomo Puccini would use as librettos for his own work. Belasco was born in San Francisco, California in 1853 at the peak of the California Gold Rush to his Sephardic Jewish parents, Abraham and Reyna Belasco. Although he would later come to be one of the most recognizable names in theater at the beginning of the 20th century, David Belasco began his career as a child actor, call boy and script copier with companies touring the California mining camps. He later served as stage manager, actor, and play adapter in a handful of San Francisco theatres before moving to New York City in 1880. Once there, Belasco acted as a manager of both the Madison Square Theatre and the Lyceum, eventually establishing himself as an independent producer and building his own theatre in 1906. His long career (1884-1930) established Belasco as the most well-known theatre personality in New York City, as the man was personally responsible for writing, directing or producing well over 100 Broadway plays. In fact, Belasco claimed to have been connected with the production of exactly 374 plays, most of which he wrote and adapted. With this to his credit, Belasco became the first American producer to attract audiences to the theatre through his name alone, rather than through the actors involved or the title of the play.
Belasco has been credited with setting a new standard for production and bringing a number of groundbreaking innovations to the stage. Foremost among these is his willingness to embrace a sort of naturalism in his scenic and lighting design. This he achieved through a great attention to detail, often building fully functional sets in which he could stage his productions. In his play The Governor’s Lady, for example, Belasco designed a kitchen where actors could actually prepare and cook food throughout the production. In another he is said to have included a fully operational laundromat.
By embracing and experimenting with existing theatre technology Belasco was able to achieve astonishing mechanical effects in his productions. In fact, he employed a permanent staff to care for and design new affects with the machinery, flyspace, hydraulics systems and lighting rigs that Belasco had specially installed in his theatre. This work led to the elimination of footlights in favor of lensed spotlights and more realistic lighting – an innovation which quickly spread to other theatres. Many of the other mechanical innovations developed by the Belasco team were sold to other producers, supplying the producer with an additional source of income and fame.
Belasco and Puccini
Although Belasco and Puccini never met, a handful of the playwright’s works were adapted as librettos for Puccini’s operas. Most significant among these is Madame Butterfly, which Belasco adapted for the stage from a short story of the same name in 1900, and The Girl of the Golden West, which was created by Belasco in 1905. Librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giasoca adapted Belasco’s work for Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, which premiered in 1904, while Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini made use of Belasco’s Gold Rush era play for Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, which premiered in 1910.
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