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Behind the Scenes: San Diego Opera's 'Pagliacci'

January 24, 2014 6:10 a.m.

KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando goes behind the scenes of San Diego Opera's "Pagliacci" to explore horror in opera.

Related Story: Behind The Scenes: San Diego Opera's 'Pagliacci'


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ANCHOR INTRO: San Diego Opera kicks off its 2014 season with “Pagliacci.” KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando says the story plays out like a classic horror film.

TAG: San Diego Opera’s production of “Pagliacci” opens Saturday and runs through February 2 at the Civic Theater.


Opera can be scary.

CLIP Music

Imagine being the first audience to see “Pagliacci” in 1892 and wondering if the tenor losing his temper on stage was losing it for real or just as the character of Canio.

NICOLAS REVELES: One of the cool things about this play within a play in “Pagliacci” is the fact that we also watch the onstage audience, the villagers, who are enjoying or supposedly trying to enjoy this play, see Canio begin to break character and they’re not quite sure whether it’s part of the performance or whether it’s really him.

Nicolas Reveles does educational outreach for San Diego Opera. He’s also a horror fan who wanted to discuss “Pagliacci” with Miguel Rodriguez, director of Horrible Imaginings Film Festival.

MIGUEL RODRIGUEZ: That’s where the horror element comes in…
NICOLAS REVELES: Emotions are so huge that it frightens us, we back away from it and yet we’re attracted, I think because we know that deep down we feel those things.

“Pagliacci’s” story of Canio the clown flying into a jealous rage over his wife’s infidelity was supposedly ripped from the headlines. But audiences were not yet accustomed to “verismo” [ver-reez-mo] or realistic operas in which the characters were ordinary people just like the ones in the audience.

MIGUEL RODRIGUEZ: The fact that this could really happen possibly, that’s what /starts to get people feeling fear and terror.

Add to that composer Ruggero Leoncavallo’s use of the ominous tritone, which tenor Frank Porretta says was once forbidden from use in religious compositions because it was thought to be of the devil.

FRANK PORRETTA: The music in this is incredibly tense to begin with, it starts with incorporating the tritone, and they called the tritone the Devil’s pitch because it sounds… [sings example] tense… wants to resolve… that kind of thing is like very ominous sounding and so yeah, the music the score really lends itself to tremendous tension in this because it displays that emotional content.

Opera is especially good at heightening that emotional content precisely because it is driven by music says Reveles.

NICOLAS REVELES: It makes the fright, the horror, the comedy, the drama, all that more clear to an audience and all that more powerful.

CLIP Music

Porretta points out another scary element in “Pagliacci” – clowns. The horrific ending comes when the main characters are dressed as clowns and performing a commedia dell’arte [ka-med-de-uh dell art a] show meant to entertain the villagers.

FRANK PORRETTA: There is this underlying fear of clowns, out in the world today and I think a lot of that comes from the idea of the innocence of of the idea of a clown, it’s a childhood thing, it’s supposed to be fun and funny and cute and lovable and the idea that something dark can come out of that is grossly terrifying because you are open to the fun and love and so you put your defenses down and the clown comes in, if something aggressive comes out of that then that is probably more scary because you’ve disarmed yourself.

Opera thrives on tragedy and characters in extremis, which prompts this comparison from Rodriguez.

MIGUEL RODRIGUEZ: I would say that tragedy is very similar to horror and that starts to expand my definition in a way of what horror is, what it’s purpose is, what it can do.

Porretta says blood and gore may not be what opera generally serves up but horror can be a key component of a show like “Pagliacci.”

FRANK PORRETTA: When you talk about horror like Psycho, like some of the classic horror films, the kinds of stress and tension that you experience where you can feel palpitations and maybe you break a sweat in a moment while you are watching, yeah you can have that in opera absolutely.

“Pagliacci” takes characters in the throes of jealousy and passion, places them in a public setting at the moment they are about to crack, and plays it all out in near real time. It’s the kind of story Reveles loves.

NICOLAS REVELES: I mean that to me is a great formula for horror.

And perhaps that’s why people keep coming back to see “Pagliacci,” it speaks to something very primal and universal.

Beth Accomando, KPBS News.