Case Study 5: Rubaiyat Opera

Thou and a jug of wine: Rubaiyat opera

Rubaiyat_logoWoodbridge Museum in Suffolk is home to a collection of artefacts about its most famous son, Edward FitzGerald, translator of “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayaam”.

To celebrate the museum’s anniversary anniversary, the volunteer committee commissioned Hatstand to create a show on the famous poetic verses.

We started with the verses, pulling themes from them, and one major one was … wine. Now with all our operatic wine tasting experience (Music of the Vine) this was something we already has music to match to. It’s easy to spot major themes like this, but it doesn’t always reflect the intent of the overall work.

So we looked closer. Where is the poet leading us? What did he actually mean by a verse? Is there an emotion expressed or implied? We selected the verses that spoke most strongly to us, and thought of music to match. As usual, we selected far too many verses and far too much music, and our greatest debate was what to leave out!

The search for musical settings
Actual musical settings of the verses themselves proved to be thin on the ground, but the major one, “In a Persian garden” by Lisa Lehmann, proved to be an unexpected gem! After finding on the web an original recording from the early 1900s with the composer herself directing, the music sounded thin and melodramatic. However, put it in front of our wonderful pianist Jeremy Fisher, and it began to sing and dance before our ears. There was a lovely home link here too; Lehmann composed the work in Pinner, only two miles from our old offices in South Harrow.

The poet himself, Omar Khayyam, was a treasure trove of fascinating information. Better known in modern Iran as a mathematician, he accurately measured the length of a year in 1079 AD. Not that I could get a musical link to that fact, but we did include snippets of information during the show, simply because it was all so interesting!

An unexpected bonus
Our final delight was discovering that the Rubaiyat has many paradies, copying FitzGerald’s pattern of three rhyming lines and one blank, with approximately ten syllables per line. My favourite had to be “The Rubaiyat of a Persian Kitten” by Oliver Herford, which has the immortal verse:

“Myself when young did eagerly frequent
The backyard fence and heard great argument
About it, and about, and yet evermore,
Came out with fewer fur than in I went.”

And what did we sing for that? Rossini’s “Cat Duet”, of course!

If your museum or society or art gallery has a special celebration or exhibition, just contact us and we’ll make something special happen in your venue! We’ve created an Alice in Wonderland programme (Opera through the Looking Glass) for the Lewis Carroll Festival in Guildford, and The Opera Grand Tour for the painting collections at the Courtauld Gallery and the National Gallery’s Impressionist collection.

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