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Volpone and What's in a Name

“What’s in a name?” The Dresser summons William Shakespeare, a rival of Ben Johnson who was author of the black comedy Volpone, to discuss the contemporary opera Volpone by librettist Mark Campbell and composer John Musto.


Let it be known that the Dresser enthusiastically enjoyed the June 22, 2007, performance in the second production of Volpone playing at the Barns of Wolf Trap by the Wolf Trap Opera Company. The Dresser's concerns about Campbell’s text lacking VAL0079.jpg
Joshua Jeremiah as Volpone

the poetry and metaphor of Ben Johnson’s original work were sucked back into the critic’s black hole of I-can’t-put-my-finger-on-the-problem-but-something-is-blocking-the-transfer-of-work-that-is-well-conceived-and-will-succeed.

Just for the record, the Dresser trots out the opening lines of the Volpone script by Johnson:

The Argument

Volpone, childless, rich, feigns sick, despairs,
Offers his state to hopes of several heirs,
Lies languishing: his parasite receives
Presents of all, assures, deludes; then weaves
Other cross plots, which ope themselves, are told.
New tricks for safety are sought; they thrive: when bold,
Each tempts the other again, and all are sold.

versus the opening of the libretto by Campbell:

Our beloved master
May not, alas, outlive this day.
Angels hover near him
To bear his spirit Heaven’s way,
Dear God, we importune
That thou receive him soon—
In death he’ll find relief
Though brief his pain and woe,
The same will ne’er be so
For our undying grief.

Without trying to build a fire, the Dresser quietly notes that the first letters of the opening lines of Johnson’s Argument form the word Volpone and is what is known in the world of poetry as an acrostic. Johnson is heavy on rhyme with end words rhyming in close proximity and the lines are packed with details. In other places in his play, Johnson uses poetic form labeled turn, counterturn, and stand to advance his moralistic messages. Having no intention of competing with Johnson and focused on entertaining and not educating his audience, Campbell produces a looser, less heated rhyme scheme, attentive to the singer’s breath. Whoosh, that last flame of contention is now blown out.


In complete disclosure, the Dresser points out that Campbell and Musto make it clear that their opera is “unfaithfully adapted from Ben Johnson’s eponymous comedy” and that operas usually demand fewer words because musical setting extends how much time it takes to deliver text into the heads of the listeners. Also, the Dresser insists that a minute be spent on the word eponym, which means the name of a person real or imagined whose name is the source of another name of particular place, tribe, discovery, or other item. So for example in American history, William Penn’s name was used to create the name for the state Pennsylvania.

In Volpone, Johnson named most of his characters with Italian words that were the names of animals: Volpone—old or sly fox, Mosca—fly, Voltore—vulture, Corvina—raven-black, Cornaccio—carrion crow. Campbell added the character Erminella, the ermine, a seductively beautiful animal that belongs to the weasel family. Scratching her head, the Dresser thinks the word eponym fits with the idea that Johnson’s play was a reinterpretation of the medieval morality play where characters were not flesh and blood but stand-ins (or personifications) for human behavior involving greed, hate, love, etc.


When the Dresser saw the original 2004 production of the Musto-Campbell opera Volpone, she knew it would be successful but something riled her up about the production, which was highly polished and crowd-pleasing. In Leon Major’s interpretation of this opera, all the characters progressively turned into the animals their name suggested. Peter Kazaras in the new production follows a more traditional character development approach, such that while the personalities of characters might be eccentric or exaggerated, the characters don’t transform either into morality, mythic, or animalistic forms. The Kazaras vision fleshes out the characters as human beings with a lot of baggage.

Nosing around on the Internet, the Dresser found an interview on the Seattle Opera website with Peter Kazaras, who is a tenor turned director. In this interview, Kazaras said,

“I developed a technique which involves stripping the text from the music and really looking at what it says. Once you do that, whether it is poetry or a libretto or a play set to music, you suddenly find meaning. And once you as a performer start to find meaning, then you are getting into the mind of a composer who worked very diligently to create something meaningful. In the past eight years of teaching, I’ve seen amazing things happen when you get people to connect with what the words are, with what is actually going on. And then when you add fantastic music, whether it’s by Verdi, Puccini, Blitzstein, or whomever, you’re suddenly able to go someplace you never believed possible.”


At intermission when the Dresser and her seatmate composer Janet Peachey found Mark Campbell to say how much we were enjoying the production, the Dresser also quizzed the librettist about what was different. Although the Dresser knew this production had lost the animal interpretation and that the set was new, she wondered if anything, like possibly the orchestration, had changed. Campbell said no, nothing had changed except the set and direction. When Janet Peachey said she liked this production better, Campbell practically levitated into the beautiful June night.

The Dresser is now convinced that Leon Major’s interpretation came too early in the production history of this work. She believes that the imaginative transformation of the characters into animals interfered with what Gertrude Stein called the syncopation of the work. According to Stein, syncopation is the gap between a player delivering a line and the audience receiving that line. Until Volpone has more productions and becomes better known, the Dresser believes extra layers of interpretation will only hinder the understanding of this new work which has hum-able tunes and complexly layered ensemble numbers in the style of Mozart. VAL3172.jpgAnne-Carolyn Bird as Celia; Steven Sanders as Bonario; Lisa Hopkins Seegmiller as Corvina; Jeremy Little as Mosca; Museop Kim as Voltore

The good news is that the new production of Volpone will move to the young artists program of the San Francisco Opera in 2008.


About this production, the Dresser applauds the performers, players and musicians alike. She was particularly pleased with Jeremy Little as Mosca. Little gave Mosca a boyish edge that was offset by Joshua Jeremiah’s manlier ruffian portrayal of Volpone. VAL0169.jpg
Faith Sherman as Erminella; Jeremy Little as Volpone's Valet, Mosca; and Joshua Jeremiah as Volpone (in disguise)

Little created the lead role in Lowell Liebermann and J.D. McClatchy's Miss Lonelyhearts and although the Dresser thought Little’s performance was fine in that Juilliard Opera Center production, she found the music and text as hard to take as a nail scraping a chalkboard. In Volpone, the Dresser also grooved on Lisa Hopkins Seegmiller’s interpretation of Corvina, a red-haired whack job reminiscent of the antic late Lucille Ball. Seegmiller’s mannerisms were comically apt for a character overly eager to feed on her prey. From 2002-2003, Seegmiller appeared as MImi in Baz Luhrmann's Broadway production of La Bohème, a role for which she shared the special ensemble Tony award. Another element that Dresser admired greatly was the choreographed group moves, particularly in the courtroom scene.

Erhard Rom’s set for both productions of Volpone were visually engaging. In the current production, the centerpiece of the set is a platform with drawers. Periodically, the players turn the platform, transforming it from Volpone’s bed (with it’s trapdoor leading to his gold) to a bridge in the middle of Venice where Volpone lives.

So indeed if everyone ever involved in Musto and Campbell’s opera Volpone wandered in to the Mermaid Tavern in an anachronistic warp of time and ran into Ben Johnson and Bill Shakespeare, the subject of the importance of names would surely arise. Miles David Moore and Hilary Tham aptly addressed the problem of names as they relate to Moore’s recurring poetic character Flatslug.


My dear boy, never mind dieting!
You must change your name.
Such an unlucky name entraps

the spirit, attracts hungry ghosts.
They’ll move in. You will eat and eat
and never fill their stomachs.

Good things come to a good name,
even love, which gods know, is a picky phoenix
wanting handsome, inside and out.

Be glad, as the laughing Buddha, to be
alive and that suicidal bird will come to your hand.
People, like gods, love tasty, love sunny.

Don’t salt your meals with guilt. The tangiest
General Tsao’s chicken isn’t good eating in the grave.
And that’s a trap no one escapes.

by Hilary Tham
published in Buddha Isn’t Laughing

(when she tells him to change his name)

Dear Mrs. Wei, you are very kind,
and you mean well. But you misunderstand.
Fatslug is not a name you choose for yourself.
Nor can you choose to relinquish it.

If you are meant to bear the name of Fatslug,
there are five thousand ways it clings to you
from birth--ten thousand: the complaint of springs
in chairs and beds, of floorboards which thought
they would stay pines forever, and never counted
on having to bear your weight. The wind
whispers Fatslug, dogs bark Fatslug, but most
of all, the glances of people say Fatslug.
You say love, and they say Fatslug.
You say beauty, and they say Fatslug.
You say I’m not Fatslug, and they laugh out loud.

And why should Fatslug get General Tsao’s Chicken?
Those who are not Fatslug will tell you
you do not deserve rich meats of the table,
not even dry crackers or lettuce leaves,
but only what the small intestine makes of them.

Even Buddha didn’t laugh most of the time.
You cannot escape the world. But your
religion--and mine--say you escape the grave
somehow, someway. Perhaps Marvell was half right
and the grave is fine, but not private. Perhaps
when your descendants come to spread
General Tsao’s Chicken and succulent pork
for your delectation in the afterlife,
I will drop by with whatever bouquets
my descendants leave for me, as the centerpiece
for your table, and we will feast together.
And all the other skeletons in the graveyard,
stripped of beauty and arrogance along
with flesh, may join us.

by Miles David Moore
from Buddha Isn’t Laughing

Copyright © 2007 Miles David Moore

Photos courtesy of Wolf Trap


Comments (1)

Enjoyable, entertaining, witty, infomative. Some fascinating encryptions about language and art and how they hold hands well together.

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