Did Richard Wilbur Write the Lyrics to “Glitter and Be Gay”?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to opera and operettas and whether they are true or false.

OPERA URBAN LEGEND: Richard Wilbur, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for Poetry and the second United States Poet Laureate, actually wrote the lyrics to a number of songs from Candide, including “Glitter and Be Gay.”

Richard Wilbur (born in New York City in 1921) is one of the very best poets of the second half of the 20th Century, and even in the 21st Century he has continued his same, steady delivery of excellent poetry.

Wilbur, like most of the men in his generation, fought in World War Two. Wilbur served in the Army during the war and saw quite a bit of action in Europe from 1943 until the end of the war. His war experiences clearly influenced his poetry dramatically, as much of his most celebrated early work concerned itself with putting order to a chaotic post-War world.

Wilbur’s work, while beautiful, is written in a traditional style, similar to the work of Robert Frost. During the second half of the 20th Century, however, a more non-formalist style became the more celebrated style of poetry among critics, like the confessional poets Slyvia Plath, Robert Lowell and John Berryman (all peers of Wilbur, but all three killed themselves decades ago while Wilbur is still alive today).

Because of this, Wilbur sometimes almost seems to be overlooked in poetry history, as his work does not leap out as much stylistically, but he has significant amounts of accolades. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1957 and 1989 and he was named the second Poet Laureate of the United States in 1987 (the position existed for many years before 1987, it just wasn’t CALLED that until 1986).

However, one facet of his career that really has been overlooked is he actually did song lyrics for an operetta!!
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Did a Famous Opera Singer Convince a Group of Reporters That a Long Dead Composer Had Just Complimented Him?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to opera and operettas and whether they are true or false.

OPERA URBAN LEGEND: The great opera singer Leo Slezak once convinced an audience of reporters that he had just received a compliment from Christoph Willibald Gluck.

Leo Slezak is one of the most popular tenors in the history of opera.

Born in what is now the Czech Republic, Slezak rose to prominence in the late 19th Century before settling into a regular spot in the Vienna State Opera’s ensemble, where he became a bit of a folk hero in Germany and Austria.

In 1909, he began a three-year run at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. It is his time there that we discussing today.

Slezak was a humorous fellow and he was well known to take any opportunity to crack a joke.

A very popular story tells of a time that Slezak was performing Armide.

Armide was a very popular opera first written by Jean-Baptiste Lully in 1686. It tells the tale of a sorceress (Armide) who fights a Christian knight named Renaud and uses her spells to ensnare him, but before she uses her dagger to kill him, she instead falls in love with him (what are the odds?). She uses her spells to make him love her, but two of his fellow knights show up and save him.

The legendary opera composer Christoph Willibald Gluck wrote his own version of Armide that was performed in 1777.

So as the story goes, Slezak was performing Armide at the Met when, during the curtain calls, he would bring an old, bearded man out from backstage and Slezak would genuflect in front of him.

After the show, as you might imagine, reporters wanted to know who he was. So at the post-show “press conference” (using the term loosely), Slezak would tell them, “That was Gluck, the composer of Armide. He told me that never in his life has he heard his opera sung as magnificently as I have sung it tonight.”

The statement made all the newspapers the next day, all, of course, missing the fact that Christoph Gluck died in 1787, over a hundred years before the performance.

It’s a great story, but the only problem is this Continue reading “Did a Famous Opera Singer Convince a Group of Reporters That a Long Dead Composer Had Just Complimented Him?”

Were the “Pirates” of the Pirates of Penzance Named After Copyright Piracy?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to opera and operettas and whether they are true or false.

OPERA URBAN LEGEND: The Pirates of Penzance was named as such after copyright piracy.

Librettist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan formed one of the most famous musical partnerships this side of Rodgers and Hammerstein with their operas in the late 19th Century.

After a few modest hits with their operettas Trial By Jury (1874) and The Sorceror (1877), Gilbert and Sullivan had their first international smash hit with their operetta H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), which was a comic opera about the danger of incompetent people rising to high positions (while having some fun with the British Navy, as well).

The problem with having an international hit in 1878 was that British copyright laws, naturally, did not extend into the United States of America, so American productions of the opera took place without the permission of Gilbert and Sullivan (and certainly without any payment to the pair).

In fact, the first Copyright statute in the United States specifically stated:

nothing in this act shall be construed to extend to prohibit the importation or vending, reprinting or publishing within the United States, of any map, chart, book or books, written, printed, or published by any person not a citizen of the United States, in foreign parts or places without the jurisdiction of the United States. . . .

That basic law was still in place by the end of the 19th Century.

So naturally, Gilbert and Sullivan were quite irritated that their success did not translate into extra money from America.

They brought an “official” production to the United States in 1879, but still, they were so angered by the “piracy” of their work that they specifically wrote their next opera as a response to those pirates.

That opera was called, of course, The Pirates of Penzance…


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