There may not be many connections between 21st-century, American country music and 19th-century, Italian opera. But, as it turns out, there is a link between Gaetano Donizetti's Maria Stuarda and, of all groups, the Dixie Chicks.
During a 2003 concert in London, the Dixie Chicks' lead singer made some unflattering comments about the American adminstration's Iraq policies -- and about President George W. Bush himself. Immediately, the band found itself in political -- and musical -- hot water. Many radio stations stopped playing their songs. Former fans urged a boycott of the group's music. A few outraged music lovers even gathered up Dixie Chicks CDs to be smashed by a bulldozer. All the while, there was little support from the music industry and the group's popularity sagged.
Three years later, the Dixie Chicks came back firing -- with the album Taking the Long Way, featuring a pointed song called "Not Ready to Make Nice." Many fans were still leery, and the disc didn't get much airplay -- but it did top 3 different Billboard charts, and won five Grammies.
As it happens, more than 175 years earlier, Gaetano Donizetti and one of his lead singers found themselves in a similar controversy when politics mixed with music in Maria Stuarda -- an opera about two chicks who also weren't ready to make nice, starring a performer in no mood to back down in the face of authority.
That drama, from late in 1834, centers on the historical conflict between Queen Elizabeth I of England and her cousin Mary Stuart, also known as Mary Queen of Scots. In the opera, the two royal women engage in some less than aristocratic behavior. Elizabeth sets the tone by referring to Mary as "treacherous." Mary then ramps up the rhetoric by calling the Elizabeth a "vile bastard" who "defiles the soil of England."
As the story goes, when the opera was about to be launched in Naples the singers playing the two lead roles actually came to blows during that climactic scene. The authorities caught wind of this, had a look at the opera's libretto, and the king promptly banned the piece for its unflattering portrayal of royalty.
Donizetti decided to take his opera to Milan. He made a few changes, as demanded by the Milanese censors, and premiered the opera there. And that's where his lead singer joins the story. The role of Mary was sung by the immensely popular mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran. She didn't much like bending to the will of the censors, and apparently felt that Donizetti's original version of the opera was fine just as it was. So that's exactly what she sang, defying the censors in the process. Upper-crusters in the audience reacted badly, and the opera was banned all over again.
Still, like the Dixie Chicks, Donizetti and Malibran were already stars. And in the long run, a bit of controversy over rudely portrayed political leaders may have made the composer and diva even more popular than they were before.
On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Maria Stuarda from the same city where much of the history it portrays actually took place. It's a production from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in London. The stars are mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato in a stunning performance of the title role, and soprano Carmen Giannattasio as Elizabeth.