Thanks to my 5-year old, I often end up watching snatches of children’s films on television. I happened to be watching a segment of Happy Feet Two with him, when I was startled to hear the familiar sound of a Puccini aria, but with the lyrics changed. Everything else seemed intact, though. Its appearance, right in the middle of the film, seemed incongruous at first.

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But the film is meant to be a musical, and if the soundtrack can feature the rock anthem “We are the Champions” by Queen, then why not a ‘modified’ aria from Tosca by Giacomo Puccini? Director George Miller in an interview called it “a strange confection of different genres, from opera to ballads, rap and R&B classics.”

The context? Erik the penguin (he of the Happy Feet) and his dad Mumble are on their arduous journey back to Emperor-Land when they encounter a precarious ice bridge guarded by an elephant seal (“Brian the Beachmaster”) and his two cubs, who refuse to let the penguins pass. It is at this juncture that the sombre clarinet solo is heard, and Erik first commiserates with his father (“After all you’ve done, you really deserve better”) and then proceeds to reprimand their tormentor and the Fates in general: “Where is the honour when a solemn promise is just a pretty lie, and the mighty mock the courage of the humble?” He ends with the advice his father, who although “just an ordinary penguin” had given him: “You don’t need to be colossal to be a great heart. You don’t need to fly to be awesome!” The track is titled “Erik’s opera”.

Al Jonson, who also lifted the melody of this aria for his song ‘Avalon’ in 1920, was not so lucky. His team was successfully sued by G. Ricordi, the publisher of Puccini’s operas, having to pay up $25,000 in damages and all future royalties of the song.

The Puccini aria is titled “E lucevan le stele” (“And the stars were shining”). It is a romanza, and features in Act Three of his melodramatic opera Tosca, composed in 1900 to an Italian libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. It is sung by Mario Cavaradossi (tenor), a painter who is in love with the singer and ‘leading lady’ Floria Tosca, while he awaits execution on the ramparts of the famous Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome.

The opera is set in Rome in June 1800. The play La Tosca by Victorien Sardou, from which the libretto is taken, dates it even more precisely, to the “afternoon, evening and early morning of 17 and 18 June 1800”. These were particularly turbulent times for the “Eternal City”, marking the beginning of fourteen years of domination by the legions of Napoleon Bonaparte. Cavaradossi is a republican sympathizer and helps political prisoner Angelotti escape, precipitating his own arrest, interrogation, torture and trial by the sadistic, malevolent Chief of Police, Baron Scarpia.

Cavaradossi is informed that he has but an hour to live. He asks to write a letter to Tosca, and is overcome by memories, when he sings this poignant aria “And the stars were shining”. Desolate in his anguish, he ends “And I die in despair, And I never before loved life so much”.

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Puccini insisted on the inclusion of the line “I die in despair” (‘muoio disperato’)and felt that the aria’s many admirers, and indeed posterity itself had triple cause to be indebted to him: for composing the music, for the lyrics, and “for declining expert advice to throw the result in the waste-paper basket”.

The theme of the aria is played tutta forze (as loudly as possible) as Tosca leaps to her death.

Some readers might recall the Doordarshan broadcast in 1992 of the historic filming in Rome of the opera, which was shot and aired live in the locations and at the times mentioned: Act I was aired at noon from the church of Sant’Andrea delle Valle; Act II at 8 pm that evening from the Palazzo Farnese; and Act II from the Castel Sant’Angelo the following dawn. It was beamed to 107 countries, making television history. Our own Maestro Zubin Mehta led the forces of the Roma Symphony Orchestra and the Chorus of Italian Radio, with the roles of Tosca, Cavaradossi and Scarpia taken by Catherine Malfitano, Plácido Domingo and Ruggero Raimondi. Although the cast were onsite at the three locations, they were in contact through high-quality miniature radio microphones hidden on their costumes and in their hair as well as camouflaged television monitors and loudspeakers with Mehta, orchestra and chorus, who were far away in a recording studio on the other side of Rome. The musicians had more monitors and individual sets of headphones. The logistic challenges of filming and recording the three Acts were formidable for a whole host of reasons, not least of them the natural acoustic which varied in the three locations: Sant’Andrea della Valle has a nine-second reverberation, while Castel Sant’Angelo is comparatively dry, and the Palazzo Farnese was deemed to have the “perfect” acoustic compared to the other two.

The whole 1992 Tosca broadcast is available to view on YouTube.

“Recondita armonia”, “Vissi d’arte” and “E lucevan le stelle” are some of the great arias in Tosca, contributing to its immense popularity. “E lucevan le stelle” is a favourite with many of the world’s great tenors, with Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, José Carreras and Roberto Alagna to name just a few, making it one of their signature arias. And in the popular realm, Michael Bolton has performed it as well on tour.

(An edited version of this article was published on 22 June 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

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