Before Pennywise, there was “Pagliacci.”
OK, so Stephen King’s mega-selling horror book and movie franchise “It” and Italian composer Ruggero Leoncavallo’s 1892 operatic masterpiece don’t actually have much in common, other than the unnerving trait of associating malevolent clowns with murder.
According to NPR music writer Ted Libbey, “Pagliacci” exemplifies the verismo style of opera, an 1890s Italian take on gritty realism that focuses on lower class struggles and crimes of passion. Leoncavallo reportedly based his story on a real crime involving an actor who murdered his unfaithful wife during a live stage performance.
Another, more serious commonality between King’s story and Leoncavallo’s concerns the portrayal of unhealthy, abusive relationships.
Sara Duchovnay, the soprano who will sing the part of Nedda, the ill-fated wife, volunteers with One Love Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching youth about healthy relationships and curtailing partner violence and abuse. It was founded to honor the memory of Yeardley Love, a 22-year-old University of Virginia senior murdered in 2010 by an abusive ex-boyfriend.
“Pagliacci is a story about a woman in an abusive marriage who is murdered by her husband when he finds out that she is having an affair,” Duchovnay wrote. Statistics that show nearly half of female homicide victims in the U.S. are killed by male partners demonstrate that “Pagliacci” remains relevant more than a century after its premiere. “This kind of abuse is extremely harmful and can be difficult to identify because it is so often normalized or even romanticized in movies, books, TV shows...and yes, in operas.”
As part of a partnership between the foundation and Opera Roanoke, Duchovnay visited William Byrd High School, Salem High School and Northside High School last week to speak about how the plot of “Pagliacci” remains distressingly relevant today and how to recognize unhealthy relationship behaviors.
On her blog, she wrote about the experience. “When it comes to our own relationships, the most important thing to remember is that no matter what happened in someone’s past, there is never a justification for physical or emotional abuse. It is never okay. If you’re with someone who treats you badly, it is neither your responsibility, nor is it within your power to ‘fix’ them. You do not deserve to be treated this way and there is nothing you can do to make that person change their behavior.”
“Pagliacci” continues to be performed in the 21st century not just because of its storyline but because of its music, especially “Vesta la giubba,” a first act aria known as a spectacular tenor showcase, in which cuckolded husband Canio sings that, despite learning he has been betrayed, the show must go on.
The tenor playing Canio is Duchovnay’s real life husband Clay Hilley. The couple travels the country performing opera, but they’re not always cast in the same productions. “We’re really excited to have the chance to work together on this opera!” Duchovnay wrote.