Pagliacci: From Stage to Hip Hop Track

Sep 14, 2018

Don't miss this iconic production, Pagliacci, at Opera Omaha, Oct 19th and 21st! Tickets start at $19:

Pagliacci, a work of the 2018-19 Opera Omaha season telling the tale of street performers Canio and Nedda and a love triangle, has been cited in seemingly distinct platforms for many years. The work is referenced by a line in the jazz song The Masquerade is Over , first recorded by Larry Clinton and His Orchestra in 1939, and carried on by many other jazz singers, including the well-respected songstress Billie Holiday, which incorporates the lyrics "I guess I'll have to play Pagliacci and get myself a clown's disguise / And learn to laugh like Pagliacci with tears in my eyes." It is popularized even further in the hip-hop world through sampling by artists such as The Notorious B.I.G (1995), Mary J. Blige (1999), Gramatik (2008), and Wu-Tang Clan (2017) . This theme put forth in an Italian opera in 1892 has remained worthy of repetition across multiple time periods and musical genres.

While it is perhaps not how the composer, Ruggero Leoncavallo, envisioned its form would take in the future, part of the modernization of opera is realizing that it is not a lofty and secluded genre, but can spark the imagination of, and be influenced by, other musical forms as well. Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci has remained prevalent thematically on and off stage. Just as Opera Omaha hopes to open doors beyond the strictly formulized operas of the past, Pagliacci presents a clown who withstands the test of time.
Inspiration stemming from the cartoonish tragedy of a clown character has found itself incorporated in many works of art of popular culture. In the realm of music, singer David Bowie also tackles that contradiction of tears streaming down a face caked with white makeup as he sings,

“I’m Pierrot, I’m Everyman. What I’m doing is Theatre and only Theatre...What you see on stage isn’t sinister, it’s pure clown. I’m using my face as a canvas and trying to paint the truth of our time on it. The white face, the baggy pants – they’re Pierrot, the eternal clown putting over the great sadness…” – David Bowie (1976)

Bowie’s Pierrot character is based upon Pierrot the stock character of Italian performance: a naive, clownish, lovelorn pantomime or clown pining after a woman who breaks his heart. While we now often associate clowns with horror films or other pervasive figures of insanity (The Joker from the Batman series, for example), both Bowie and Leoncavallo identify a different characteristic: jovial masks that often hide deep pain. While this plays out violently on stage in the case Pagliacci, the vein of burlesque and drama is certainly not lost on Bowie. What is equally important is the layer beneath the theatrics, which is reality, or the “the truth of our time”. No matter how many years pass, we as audience members, and arts organizations, have an opportunity to project the truth of our time, whether that be 1892 or or 2018, and inject our Pagliacci with new relevance.

As Bowie says, he is a clown, but we are all Pierrot. Leoncavallo, in introducing his verismo tale meant to reflect everyday men and women, is also bringing the audience close enough to see that Canio’s plight is not so removed from their own lives, there is a thin line between comedy and tragedy, and the clown as a metaphor is eternal.

By Lillian Snortland
Opera Omaha Weitz Fellow

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