9️⃣ MCO at Home, vol. 9



Recitatives: the nerve-wracking part of operas no one talks about (Cellist Guy Fishman and Anne Manson discuss) 

Even those whose classical music education is limited to Bugs Bunny and Saturday morning cartoons can probably name or hum at least a few duets, arias and opera choruses. Almost everyone knows the tune to the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves or Habanera, but respectfully, I challenge Winnipeg’s musically learned audience to recall the melody of even a single recitative. 

Or even, for that matter, explain what recitative is! In case that’s unknown: recitatives are those sections in operas between arias and choruses, where the singers seem to ‘sing-talk’ their way through the dialogue over sparse musical accompaniment.

At face value, the fact many music-lovers give little thought to recitatives seems surprising. After all, they are just as integral to operas as arias and choruses – as the musical sections that absorb most of the story’s action, they are possibly more important dramatically speaking. On the other hand, recitatives generally aren’t, as they shouldn’t be, the most musically memorable sections of opera. Being where most of the talking and arguing get done, recitatives imitate the rhythms and delivery of ordinary speech, so by design aren’t that tuneful compared to arias and choruses.



That doesn’t make them musically dull or simplistic however: cellist Guy Fishman, who discusses recitatives with Anne Manson in the video above (click the image to watch), goes so far as to describe them as “one of the highest forms of chamber music playing.” One thing that makes recitatives so challenging for players is the knotty relationship between phonetics and music. A story an Anglophone singer-songwriter friend of mine tells helps convey this relationship. Struggling to write lyrics whose sounds gelled with the many long, resonant notes in his song’s melody, he asked his teacher for advice. “Simple,” she replied, “write all your songs in Italian. They have fewer words that end in consonants than English.”

The point is that most phonemes, most units of verbal sound, pair better with some kinds of musical sounds than others. This is a problem not just for composers, but also for musicians interpreting a piece, especially in the Baroque repertoire where articulation is largely left to the discretion of the player. Guy observes that when playing along with a singer, he would treat a word like “put” very differently than “love”, even deliberately placing his note late on “love.” Hear him explain why and talk more about the strange, unsung challenges of recitatives in the video above.

Conrad Sweatman

More MCO listening and viewing treats…  


The great English composer Benjamin Britten based his beautiful Simple Symphony on bits of score he’d written as a teenager. Hear the MCO perform the work from our April 2019 concert. –>

The concert world loves its prizefighters, and with the Chooi brothers we have two soloists on their way to heavyweight status. Hear them tag-team in this archival MCO concert recording.

Here’s more from Guy Fishman’s talk with Anne Manson, where they discuss why CPE Bach, now much more rarely performed, was once more famous than Papa JS.  Click the thumbnail to watch.–> 

Listen to years of stellar MCO albums on Spotify 

Did you know that you can listen to seven of the MCO’s albums including collaborations with Philip Glass, Measha Brueggergosman, and Dame Evelyn Glennie  for free on Spotify? Click here to access on our channel. Unsure how to use Spotify? (One of the Millennial editors of MCO at Home was unsure, so no shame.) Here’s an instructional video on Spotify



A message from one of our community partners 

McNally Robinson informs the public that

“Our bookstores are once again open to the public! You’re welcome to come inside and browse, or if you’d prefer to stay outside we continue to offer curbside pickup and delivery within Winnipeg. And we’re pleased to announce Prairie Ink Restaurant will be reopening on Monday, June 1st, for dine-in service! Please visit mcnallyrobinson.com for details on how we’re operating during the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

The MCO gratefully acknowledges support from the following:


Canada Council for the Arts

Manitoba Arts Council

Winnipeg Arts Council

Richardson Foundation

The Winnipeg Foundation

Canada Life



Christianson Wealth Advisors


Sun Life Financial

Header images: OXO grater: argos.co.uk; Ozark jaw harp: bavasmusic.com.au; Sony headphones: costco.ca; fidget spinner: bobhq.com; John Packer bassoon: jpmusicalinstruments.com; 2001: A Space Odyssey: amazon.com; Spalding basketball: amazon.ca; baton: overstock.com; Moog Subharmonicon: sweetwater.com; slotted spoon: restonlloyd.com; parsley: prairieherbfarms.com; Japanese knife: rakuten.com.

Copyright © 2020 Manitoba Chamber Orchestra

Our mailing address is:
Unit Y300, Portage Place, 393 Portage Avenue, Winnipeg MB R3B 3H6

Our phone number:
204.783.7377

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