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ClassicsOnline Home » SALERNI, P.: Tony Caruso's Final Broadcast (E. Fennell, P. Fennell, Risley, Tupay, Monocacy Chamber Orchestra, Jung-Ho Pak)
Paul Salerni’s award-winning opera with a libretto by Dana Gioia takes place in a classical music radio station on the last night of its operations. Its last program, ‘Opera Lover’, is hosted by Antonio Caruso, who remembers his early dreams of artistic fame as the ‘second Caruso’ and is visited by three ghosts—his dead mother, Maria Callas, and a mysterious woman. Praised for his ‘resplendent vocalism’ (American Record Guide) and his ‘lusciously sweet voice, with its ringing, perfectly-tuned high notes’ (Opera Now), the young tenor Eric Fennell sings the title role.
By Ralph V Lucano
American Record Guide
By Stephen Eddins
Paul Salerni (b. 1951)
Tony Caruso’s Final Broadcast (2004)
Opera in ten short scenes on a libretto by Dana Gioia (b. 1950)
Tony Caruso – Eric Fennell, Tenor
The Station Crew
Intern – Jacquelyn Familant, Soprano
Engineer – Jan Opalach, Bass-baritone
Announcer – Henry Fogel, Narrator
The Marketing Trio
Marketer 1 – Vicki Doney, Soprano
Marketer 2 – Val Hawk, Soprano
Marketer 3 – Nancy Reed, Soprano
The Parochial School
Nun – Dísella Làrusdóttir, Soprano
Priest – Keith Phares, Baritone
Young Tony – Rory Lipkis, Boy soprano
The Three Visions
Tony’s Mother – Alison Tupay, Mezzo-soprano
Maria Callas – Phoebe Fennell, Soprano
The Dark Woman – Patricia Risley, Mezzo-soprano
The opera takes place in a classical music radio station on the last night of its operations. (At midnight the station’s new management will convert it to an easy-listening format.) The station’s final program, Opera Lover, is hosted by Antonio Caruso, a failed tenor who has worked on the show for 27 years. The station intern and radio engineer try to comfort Tony for his impending loss. Meanwhile the new management celebrates its marketing plan aimed at the drive-time listener. During the final broadcast, Tony remembers his early dreams of artistic fame and success as the ‘second Caruso.’ In his desperate state, Tony is visited by three ghosts or visions—his dead mother, Maria Callas, and finally a mysterious woman.
Every composer tries to combine personal strengths and aesthetic beliefs to create a unique sound world. This process becomes doubly challenging in collaborative productions such as ballet, film, or opera, for which the composer must accommodate artistic media beyond the music itself. The particular complexity of the collaboration between composer and librettist partly explains why so few new operas work equally well on both a musical and theatrical level. Today’s eclectic art scene, fueled by individualism and experimentalism in a multicultural context, renders unlikely the odds of finding two people from different creative fields who share the same artistic values. In the case of Tony Caruso’s Final Broadcast, these odds are happily overcome.
Paul Salerni’s first encounter with Dana Gioia dates back to 1987, when Salerni’s wife asked him to set to music a poem she had found in The New Yorker magazine. Little did Salerni know that this project would begin a creative partnership that would steer his career in the most unexpected directions over the next two decades. Since then, Salerni has set several of Gioia’s poems in songs, song cycles, and choral pieces, while Gioia has constructed the narratives for the music that Salerni had composed based on two Italian fables. Through these collaborations, the composer and poet have developed an extraordinary symbiosis, each learning to manage the expression of his unique creativity to complement the other’s artistry.
By 1994, Gioia was convinced that Salerni was the only composer capable of writing the music for a oneact opera that he had in mind. Although Salerni had never written an opera, Gioia realized that Salerni’s compositional voice, which often incorporates diverse idioms and styles, would be a crucial advantage in this project. They had previously collaborated on two Italian narrative pieces, The Old Witch and the New Moon and The Big Sword and the Little Broom, which demonstrated Salerni’s facility with the style and gestures of Italian opera. Songs such as Money employed funk and jazz idioms. Salerni has also inherited much of his expressive vocal writing techniques and modern classical approaches, as used in the cycle Speaking of Love, from his late modernist mentor, Earl Kim.
Gioia’s libretto takes full advantage of the composer’s fluency in these mixed styles. In fact, each of the ten scenes in the opera demands a different musical flavor, ranging from commercial jingle, big band, and funk to Latin chant, verismo, bel canto, and gospel music. Though Salerni was comfortable composing in all of these styles, combining them to create a coherent scheme proved a challenge akin to preparing a ten-course meal in which every dish must represent a different type of cuisine featuring a single common ingredient.
Salerni uses a simple motive as one of the binding agents in the opera. While there are several types of motives (harmonic, melodic, intervallic, rhythmic, or a hybrid) throughout, the most evident figure appears in the instrumental part that accompanies the opening soprano melody, sung by the Intern. This series of ascending three-note figures will appear again and again; as a matter of fact, it recurs in each of the following scenes, but not always in the same manner. For instance, in the opening of the second scene, the motive appears in swing rhythm, while at the beginning of Scene 8, the motive’s three notes are played simultaneously as a long sustained chord, paired with an inversion of the same motive on top.
Several other compositional techniques also serve to unify the story. One of the most remarkable examples is the inversion in Scene 9 of the traditional Latin hymn introduced as a flashback in Scene 4, a subtle touch, since the sonority and overall treatment of each melody are entirely different. The tune, Tantum ergo, initially appears in the key of F major, whereas its inversion in Scene 9 is written in G minor. This detail reflects the contrasting circumstances of the main character in the past and present—the positive and promising boy soprano versus the failed tenor in despair during his final broadcast.
This scrupulous musical attention to the libretto’s development of plot and character also creates a satisfying dramatic architecture. Listening to any of Salerni’s works with words one notices his extraordinary skill in capturing human qualities, often playfully. (His paraphrases of several famous themes by Grieg, Mozart, and Bach in Scene 6 are not to be missed!) Gioia’s libretto also allows the composer to explore dark and serious emotions such as in Tony’s aria in Scene 3, which depicts the struggling character’s resentment over the compromises that constitute his life. Salerni’s beautiful evocation of emotions is perhaps partly due to his years of studying, coaching, and performing Earl Kim’s music.
The practicality of Salerni’s writing is also worth mentioning. From his choice of instrumentation to the size of the orchestra to the balance between the voices and instruments, he is a master of theatrical detail as well as larger dramatic structures. As a conductor married to an opera director, Salerni understands the pit, the singers, and the stage. Dana Gioia’s poetic libretto galvanized Salerni’s decision to create a truly experimental opera. A decade of teamwork finally brought Tony Caruso’s Final Broadcast to completion in 2004, when it was premiered unstaged at Lehigh University under the baton of Jung-Ho Pak. Slightly revised, it went on to win the National Opera Association Chamber Opera competition in 2007 and early the next year received its world première in Los Angeles. We shall eagerly await more operas by Paul Salerni and Dana Gioia.
Tae Sakamoto is a composer, pianist, and teacher. She is currently finishing her doctorate in composition at Stony Brook University, where she studies with Peter Winkler
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