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The Juggler Sings

By Eve Wolynes

The beginning of the 20th century was a golden age for opera. French composer Jules Massenet, in particular, drew inspiration for his operas from medieval themes, stories and aesthetics. In 1902, Massenet premiered Le Jongleur de Notre Dame in the opera house of Monte Carlo, Monaco, basing his version on the original Juggler story and Anatole France’s adaptation. The piece became a worldwide hit. Its success in the United States was due in part to the fame of its star, Mary Garden, who had convinced Massenet to rewrite the male role for a female voice.

Massenet’s rendition of the Juggler into operatic form inspired others to give the tale a musical twist. Perhaps the tale’s first origins as a French poem particularly lend it to song, and the imagery of tumbling, juggling and dancing easily transforms into performance. All in all, some 15  other adaptations followed Massenet’s as operas, ballets, cello solos and choral musicals, everywhere from Germany to Jacksonville, from Chile to Chicago.

In 1956, Ulysses Kay, a Black American composer, created his own opera version. Kay was a nephew of classical jazz musician King Oliver, who mentored Louis Armstrong — but Kay resisted the familial pull to jazz in favor of opera. The Juggler of Our Lady was the first of five operas he produced, but his work did not make it to a stage in earnest until 1962, when it was performed in New Orleans by the Xavier University Opera Workshop, and again a decade later by Xavier University with Opera/South, an all-Black opera company led by one Sister Elise, an opera singer-turned-nun-turned-music director, in Jackson, Mississippi. Unfortunately, while sheet music is available, no recording of Kay’s opera is widely available at this time.

Among those who put their own spin on the Juggler’s tale in the 20th century, we can count W.H. Auden, a prolific British poet best known for his left-wing political plays and religious poetry. He, T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats are often considered the three greatest mid-century British poets, and Auden is sometimes described as the first postmodern poet. He dabbled in medievalism, including translations of Old Norse poetry, and wrote an entire Ode to the Medieval Poets. He wrote his retelling of the Juggler at the request of a friend, Charles Turner, who taught at the Wykeham Rise School for Girls in Washington, Connecticut. The students set Auden’s words to music. Turner also commissioned Edward Gorey — perhaps best known today for his morbid rendition of children’s gruesome fates in The Gashlycrumb Tinies — to design the cover of the printed version of the music and lyrics. The piece was performed in 1969 at Wykeham and was published first as sheet music and then in the New York Review of Books. The music can be read in full, digitized here.

The world premiere of a new original composition, “Barnaby’s Gift,” will be held at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 21, in Sears Recital Hall at the University of Dayton. Composed by Scott Gendel and featuring UD faculty members Andrea Chenoweth Wells (soprano), John Benjamin (piano) and Jerome Yorke Jr. (as the beloved clown), this new piece was commissioned by the Marian Library for this exhibit. The performance will be contextualized with discussion and demonstrations of previous musical renditions. The event is free. Tickets and parking passes are not required.

— Eve Wolynes is a Library Assistant in the Marian Library.

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