Gioacchino Rossini: feminist crusader
by Angela Usobiaga for Vocal Area Network
Posted May 14, 2012

Gioacchino RossiniOn June 2 and 3, Taconic Opera will offer performances with full orchestra of the Petite Messe Solennelle by the famed composer Gioacchino Rossini, widely known for his comedic operas like The Barber of Seville and, of course, the universally recognizable overture from his opera William Tell. However, this is not just any Mass: it has a very remarkable historical component that would be of interest to both music historians and women everywhere.

The Petite Messe Solennelle (Small Solemn Mass) was originally written to feature Rossini's two favorite female artists, the sisters Carlotta and Barbara Marchisio, who had debuted the wonderful duets in his opera Semiramide. However, the composer ended up in a battle with the Pope of Rome. At the time he composed the work in 1863, the Catholic Church did not allow women to sing in church. This practice dated back to the Middle Ages when men and women were separated in the religious setting, and women in general were considered inferior, even in the act of singing. Over the course of centuries, women had finally been allowed to perform in public but still not in religious settings. Rossini's original composition was scored for two pianos and harmonium and lent itself to intimate concerts in non-church venues, thereby making it possible for his favorite soprano and contralto to perform the stunning solos, duets and trios he created for this masterpiece.

Rossini at first refused to compose a full orchestration of the work because he knew it would create pressure to have it performed in church, which would have resulted in the replacement of the female leads and female choir members with male singers. This was unacceptable to the Maestro because the qualities of the female voice are simply not interchangeable with that of the male voice, even if the same notes are being sung in the same register. He knew that the exquisite beauty of the piece, particularly the solos and duets for women's voice, would simply not be attained. In his own words, without the women's voices, "…it is impossible to sing the glories of the Lord." At last, realizing that he was nearing the end of his life and not wanting anyone else to orchestrate his work, he finished the full orchestration. He then began a number of pleas with Pope Pius IX, but the Pope refused to allow the two women to sing the work in a religious setting. In defiance, Rossini took both versions of the Petite Messe Solennelle and hid them away, affirming that they would never be performed unless the Vatican allowed women to perform in church. This did not happen in his lifetime. How amused would the Maestro be today to learn that today's church choruses are composed mostly of women.

In French, the composer's play on words written in the autograph is a testament to his wit: "Good God, behold, created this poor little Mass--is it indeed sacred music [la musique sacrée] or merely some damned music [la sacré musique]." Controversial in its day because of its uniqueness as a piece of "sacred" music, Napoleon III is apocryphally reported to have said it was neither little (petite) nor solemn (solennelle). But one thing everyone agreed on at the time and continue to affirm today is that it is a master work of exquisite composing and a musical gift for the ear and soul.

Taconic Opera will be presenting the rarely-performed fully-orchestrated version of the Mass with professional lead soloists (women included!) and orchestra on Saturday, June 2 at 7:30 PM and on Sunday, June 3 at 3:00 PM at the United Methodist Church of Ossining on the corner of Emwilton Place and Route 9. Tickets can be purchased online at www.taconicopera.org or by calling Taconic Opera's box office at 855-886-7372.

Taconic Opera is a not-for-profit opera company, currently in its 14th season. It was recently awarded the 2012 ArtsWestchester Arts Organization of the Year Award. In addition, it has been among a handful of local opera companies to receive a prestigious National Endowment for the Arts grant for Artistic Excellence which is usually reserved for large, city-based opera companies. We hope that this article will inspire readers to experience first-hand this gorgeous piece of music at a live performance in June and to appreciate its place in history.

Angela Usobiaga handles publicity for Taconic Opera.
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