United States In Los Angeles: Tales of Madness and the Glass Harmonica
Although the name glass harmonica sounds more like an imaginary instrument from a children’s book, it is the very real invention of Benjamin Franklin. During a backstage tour of LA Opera’s upcoming production of Lucia di Lammermoor, Thomas Bloch, a renowned soloist of the glass harmonica, along with conductor James Conlon recounted the story of Franklin’s creation. Having heard a glass instrument composed of thirty-seven cups of water-filled glasses in England in 1761, Franklin conceived a more workable alternative and commissioned a glass blower to construct his design. The result Franklin dubbed the “armonica,” based on the Italian word “armonia,” meaning harmony.
Thomas Bloch will be performing with the LA Opera Orchestra under the baton of James Conlon for the opera’s new production of Lucia di Lammermoor which opens March 15. The glass harmonica is composed of glass bowls of graded sizes attached to a horizontal spindle, and these bowls line up like meat on a kebab skewer, to use one of Bloch’s analogies. The sound produced by fingers dipped in water and chalk and lightly rubbed on the rims of the revolving glasses (a foot pedal turns them) is transparent and otherworldly, a sort of ethereal organ. But playing the instrument in the United States has its challenges. Bloch, who lives in Paris, says that the water here is too soft, prompting the LA Opera to import a case of Swiss bottled water to accommodate the demands of the instrument. And as for the white powdery chalk, Bloch travels with it with in a plastic bag. One can only imagine the nature of his conversations with airport security officials.
With its delicate and supernatural sound, the glass harmonica was an appropriately melancholy companion to some of the musical repertoire of the Romantic period of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Beethoven composed for it, as well as Mozart in his “Adagio in C major” K. 356 and “Adagio and Rondo in C minor” K. 617. Though the instrument fell out of favor around 1830, Richard Strauss used it in Die Frau Ohne Schatten in 1917.
Gaetano Donizetti originally included the glass harmonica in his score for Lucia di Lammermoor – in particular the famous mad scene – but in 1835 on opening night in Naples, the musician who was scheduled to perform refused to play because he was still owed a fee for a prior concert. At the zero hour Donizetti rewrote the passages for flute, and from that day forward, until Thomas Bloch’s performance at La Scala (in the 1990s) of Donizetti’s original scoring, only the flute was heard in Lucia.
The instrument’s association with madness extends beyond Lucia di Lammermoor and, in fact, originally inspired Donizetti to score it for the opera. Players of the device were purported to have gone mad (owing to the lead in the glasses), and Franz Mesmer, the German physician infamous for his theories of animal magnetism, incorporated music played on the glass harmonica in his treatments involving hypnosis.
Today the glass harmonica is enjoying a resurgence, not only in classical performance but also in rock music, theater music, and film scores. Bloch was heard here in Los Angeles in Tom Waits’s music for The Black Rider, and he has performed with bands such as Radiohead and Daft Punk, not to mention the many film scores he has recorded.
And now he is back in Los Angeles to deliver the strains of the ethereal glass harmonica for Donizetti’s gem, Lucia di Lammermoor. According to Maestro Conlon, the opera plans to stage one bel canto opera yearly, and Lucia will mark its fourth consecutive production from the bel canto repertoire. Literally translated, bel canto means beautiful singing, and its golden age gave us operas such as Barber of Seville and Don Pasquale. For an orchestra, the repertory is as difficult as Mozart or Haydn. Composers like Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini demand the greatest discipline from musicians, but the rewards are a seamless interweaving of voice and music. For those of us planning to attend LA Opera’s new production, Lucia di Lammermoor should offer up countless delights.