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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Unseen: Five Invisible Opera Characters

They're still waiting for their cue.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

There are characters in opera who do not necessarily have to appear onstage--or even sing!--to have a dramatic impact on a plot or story-line. Here's a look at five of these "invisible" characters. Without them, these operas would be dead in the water. To be on this list a character cannot have died before the plot of the opera begins. That disqualified Agammemnon (Elektra), Princess Lou-Ling (Turandot) and a long list of others.

The Duchess of Mantua
by Giuseppe Verdi
Those who know Rigoletto know that Verdi's Duke of Mantua is a walking bundle of hormones who sleeps with any girl in a skirt. However, His Dukeness is married, to an unseen Duchess. She never appears onstage, but has a crucial part to play in Act II. When the Duchess sends her page in to give a message to the Duke, the distraught Rigoletto realizes that his kidnapped daughter is in his employer's bedchamber, being ravished by the Duke. He breaks down and eventually swears revenge. Of course, the jester's revenge backfires horribly, but that's in Act III.

Don José's Mother
by Georges Bizet.
Yes, the doomed soldier from Carmen is good to his Mom. Having abandoned his military career for the life of a mountaintop smuggler, José then faces a terrible choice between three women in Act III of Bizet's most famous opera. There is Micaëla, a nice girl from his hometown in Navarre and his childhood sweetheart. In Act III, José's obsessive love for Carmen is stifling the title character. It's almost a relief when Micaëla shows up in the smuggler's camp (risking her life) and tells José that his mother is on her deathbed. He relucantly goes with her--the event that causes him to lose the fickle Carmen to the bullfighter, Escamillo. Although the romance is dead, José cannot stay away. He accosts Carmen outside the bullring, and stabs her to death.

Sir Gawain and Sir Ferris
by Richard Wagner
These two knights of the Holy Grail are mentioned, (but never appear) in Wagner's final opera, Parsifal.. Gawain is an intrepid member of the Grail brotherhood, who leaes the Grail domain to find a cure for Amfortas, the wounded King of the Grail who is afflicted with a wound that refuses to heal. Sir Ferris is a former Grail Knight, corrupted by the temptations of the sorcerer Klingsor and his magic garden. Ferris pays for his sins however--he is one of the many knights killed (offstage) by Parsifal as the young hero bum-rushes Klingsor's castle.

Uncle Greifenklau
Der Rosenkavalier
by Richard Strauss
In the most famous of Strauss's six operatic collaborations with librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the Marschallin exits the action at the start of the first act, mentioning to Octavian that she is on her way to have lunch with her elderly uncle, Griefenklau. Her lunch date serves no major dramatic purpose, except to remove the Marschallin from the action of the opera until midway through the third act. Uncle Greifenklau (the name means "Griffin-claw") isn't especially important. But he is the only character on this list to appear on his own commemorative porcelain plate, a testimony to the continued popularity of this elegant comic masterpiece.

Die Frau Ohne Schatten
also by Richard Strauss
Another character from a Strauss-Hofmannsthal collaboration, and probably the most powerful character on this list. Keikobad is the unseen, god-like father of the Empress in Richard Strauss' Die Frau Ohne Schatten. Ol' Keikobad is the ruler of the fairy kingdom, an omnipotent figure who decrees (through his Spirit Messenger) that the Emperor will be turned to stone unless his wife can cast a shadow. In this complex world constructed by Strauss and his librettist Hofmannsthal, the shadow represents fertility and humanity. As for Keikobad, he's represented by a stomping three-note figure that dominates the listener from the opera's first bars: "KEI-ko-BAD!"

top: Jan Peerce as the Duke in Rigoletto
bottom: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.