With Beautiful Opera and Wine You Can Taste the Music

wine bottle guitar and flower

As the Wexford Festival Opera Season starts to loom on the horizon (19 Oct – 4 November), the excitement and the preparations begin to ramp up here in Green Acres. Like most businesses around Wexford and indeed the SE of Ireland, the Festival plays a very important part of our annual business activity.

For our team it’s a total adrenaline rush as there are extra dinners and lunches, more wine consumed, our deli and bakery team are run off their feet and on top of all that, we have the Wexford Festival Art Exhibition in the Gallery at Green Acres. More of that in a future blog post.

Every year at about this time I reflect on the long and wonderful relationship between opera and wine. And, I always say that I must do some research to see what the story is. Well, I did it this year. Interestingly enough – there is not a lot of previous work in this area.

So here are my personal thoughts on the matter.

As a heading for this article, I considered titles such as Roll Over Barolo or Vino and Verdi. I was even going to borrow one of the Festival’s Opera titles – Dinner at Eight. But no, I thought I’d keep it simple and to the point.

Robert Benchley is quoted to have said: “Opera is when a guy gets stabbed in the back and, instead of bleeding, he sings.” I always smile to myself when I read that quote as you could see an Irish person coming up with that wit. Well, of course, there is a lot of singing in opera, that’s the point, and it is through that art form and the music that the passion of the characters and the composer shines through.

barber-seville-opera

Just as I look forward to experiencing the flavours from a specific style of a Burgundian winemaker, so too I appreciate the glass-shattering pitch of a soprano that conveys raw emotion. In both instances, one can be transported as if by a time machine, into a different time and place.

Some operas are comic and cheerful but to reflect on Benchley’s quote above, he’s right, most are tragedies based on a love story or death. The thing is though – whatever the theme, there always seems to be room for imbibing wine/Champagne.

Passion and Performance

I have written in blog posts before about passion and wine, be it the performance of the grower, the passion of the winemaker, the drive of the owner or the experience of the drinker so I won’t revisit them here. In fact, you could argue that sometimes the wine industry might over-use the word. But my point is that the word ‘passion’ can often be best explained when discussing opera and/or wine.

In my browsing, I found some wonderful arias related to drinking. In fact, a friend of a friend sings ‘Libiamo ne’lieti calici’ as his party piece – everybody joins in the chorus even if hardly anybody knows its origins!  (Libiamone’lieticalici” is a famous duet with the chorus from Verdi’s La Traviata, one of the best-known opera melodies and a popular performance choice for many great tenors. The song is a Brindisi, a lively song that encourages the drinking of wine or other alcoholic beverages).

And there’s more, who knew that Giuseppe Verdi’s favourite wine was a red Pomino, even if his wife wrote about him being a Chianti man, through and through. I also found out that many of the great composers kept cellars full of wine. “Do not bother with these miserable scribblings,” Franz Liszt wrote to Wagner, as Wagner struggled with bad reviews. “Rather drink a good bottle of wine.” Liszt advised (good advice – JOC).

Over the centuries, composers have filled their operas with songs about wine and intoxication. My brief desk-top research on this unearthed some gems – see if you recognise any of them:

  • Carmen’s Toreador song (Votre toast)
  • The drinking chorus in the Flying Dutchman
  • “Son vergin vezzosa” from Bellini’s “I Puritani”
  • “Fin ch’han dal vino” from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”
  • L’elisir d’amore by Donizetti
  • Verdi’s Il Trovatore
  • Offenbach’s the Tipsy Waltz
  • Libiamo ne’ lieti calici in Verdi’s La Traviata

Terroir, Tenors, and Tipples

I suppose in a superficial way both opera and wine do really share some qualities. Both are intoxicating (pun intended), exciting and hopefully memorable. When I taste a wine I look for its character because for me it will tell me something about someone from somewhere (terroir). Similarly, I’m sure that during a dramatic scene, stage directors give a Tenor champagne rather than red blend. Of course, the drink has to match the mood. As someone once said – if you’re going to be dead by Act III, you load up on Champagne in Act I.

In Opera, the wine has to match the mood. As someone once said – if you’re going to be dead by Act III, you load up on Champagne in Act I. Click To Tweet

Opera, Wine and Green Acres

For many years Green Acres has supported the Wexford Festival Opera because we really believe that the two pair together in perfect harmony. With opera, the composer provides the chance for you enter into another world for a few hours through the medium of music. Similarly, to me, wine is also an art form – the grape growing, the winemaking, the ageing etc. Both are an enrichment of the spirit.

My good friend and wine guru Raymond Blake hosts wine tastings at Green Acres during the Wexford Festival Opera each year. Recently when we were planning this year’s schedule, he reminded me of a story that involved a wine bottle and the opera ‘Vanessa’ by Samuel Barber, performed in WFO in 2016.

Music Score - ‘Vanessa’ by Samuel Barber
‘Vanessa’ by Samuel Barber

Raymond went to the dress rehearsal that year and noticed that the bottle they were using in a particular scene was a Bordeaux bottle rather than a Burgundy-shaped bottle (DRC). So what did he do? He popped into Green Acres the following day to get a correctly shaped bottle from Donal Morris (empty, of course).  After presenting same to the opera’s props department, David Agler was delighted that the integrity of the Opera was upheld.

Music Score - ‘Vanessa’ by Samuel Barber 2
‘Vanessa’ by Samuel Barber

And now is the time for me to stick my neck out and recommend some wine pairings with opera. So I’m going to keep this simple – if you’re listening to Puccini or Verdi pair it with something full-bodied such as a cab from Bordeaux. If you’re listening to Donizetti or Mozart maybe something a little more lively like a Chablis or Riesling. And listening to Pavarotti singing any aria – well, of course, anything from a Barolo to a Chianti will suffice.

I’ll finish this short post with a drinking tune that everybody knows. It’s from the 1924 operetta The Student Prince and is titled “Drinking Song” or “Drink, Drink, Drink” It is an exuberant song composed by Sigmund Romberg with lyrics by Dorothy Donnelly. It was a success for tenor Mario Lanza, who performed it in the 1954 movie.

So hopefully we’ll see you during the Wexford Festival be it at the many fringe events, in the National Opera House or here in Green Acres to taste the music and soak up the atmosphere.

As usual, you can contact me if you would like to discuss anything about wines during the Festival – and I know loads of Opera experts as well. Also, if you’d like to receive future blog posts from us, directly to your email, just ‘click’ here.

Enjoy the Festival and we look forward to engaging with you again soon – Cheers, James.

wine bottle and glass silhouette