Despite Leoncavallo’s extensive musical output, Pagliacci stands out as his defining work. Why? What is the allure of one-hit wonders? This month, Rob explores these questions and more in his Rob’s Ramblings. Get ready for all the feels as he shares some skin-tinglingly good music and his insights about the timeless appeal of Pagliacci, from its iconic aria “Vesti la giubba” to its masterful ability to immerse the audience in the drama unfolding on stage. Want to dive into that music right now? Click here for the entire playlist!

A piece that defines

There’s something magical about ‘one-hit wonders.’ I’m fascinated by these pieces—something about them just gets stuck in our cultural craws. Think of Pachelbel’s Canon (innumerable brides have walked up the aisle to this), Carmina Burana (“awesome” as a theme tune), or The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (the Mickey Mouse moment in Fantasia). It’s not that Pachelbel, Orff, and Dukas didn’t write any other great music—they wrote plenty—it’s just that these pieces came to define them. It happens all the time in pop music: where would pop culture (and many a wedding!) be without “Come on Eileen,” “The Eye of the Tiger,” and “Who Let the Dogs Out”?

Leoncavallo’s fame largely rests on Pagliacci alone. He wrote many other operas, both as a composer and as one of the most respected librettists of his time (Pagliacci’s libretto is his own, as is some of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut). Nevertheless, other than rare stagings of his “not the Puccini” version of La bohème and the occasional aria in concert, only Pagliacci really sees the light of day.

More than a one-hit wonder

But boy, oh boy, could he write a good tune—each one designed to exploit the raw power and beauty of the human voice at full tilt.


“Mattinata” was the first song ever to be explicitly written to be recorded—in effect, the world’s first ‘hit single,’ eventually going on to sell over a million copies worldwide. 120 years later, it’s quite hard to hear the accompaniment, but the recording below from 1904 features Leoncavallo himself on the piano.

“Mattinata” – Leoncavallo

Have a listen to these other delicious Leoncavallo arias you may not have heard before:

“ARIA DE MUSSETA” – Leoncavallo

“zazÁ” – Leoncavallo


And yet, this is the one you all know:

“Vesti la giubba” – Leoncavallo

Even the great Smokey Robinson (talk about a natural tenor!) wrote a song about it: 

“tears of a clown” – Smokey Robinson & The Miracles

Did you catch that? “Just like Pagliacci did, I try to keep my sadness hid…”

This defining moment in Pagliacci—“Vesti la giubba”—is one of the most iconic in all opera, so great in fact that it was worth ‘commercializing’:

Pagliacci, like these one-hit wonders, is somehow greater than the sum of its parts—it never fails to take your breath away. Seinfeld did a whole episode about it (and a very good one it is!)

So what happens when you take one of the most heart-pounding, gut-wrenching dramas ever composed and make it a campus-wide, immersive experience? I don’t know yet, but we’re going to find out this summer…

Presented as only Glimmerglass can

Pagliacci is stunningly effective because it cleverly removes the ‘fourth wall’ we talk about in theater all the time. It makes us feel like we are a real part of the action, not just spectators. In the second half, we watch an onstage audience react in real time to a performance that seems impressively lifelike, only to realize too late that it has completely derailed. The show begins with a character speaking directly to us, as audience members, reminding us that actors are just people: made of flesh and blood, breathing the same air we do. Why shouldn’t their emotions be real? What difference does it make if they are wearing a costume?

Apparently, the opera was based on a real-life criminal case for which the composer’s father was the presiding judge. What would it feel like to have been in that audience? Well, if you arrive on campus an hour early, we’ll help you get into character…

The classical appearance of the Harlequin stock character in the commedia dell'arte of the 1670s, complete with batte or "slapstick", a magic wand used by the character to change the scenery of the play (Maurice Sand, 1860)
The classical appearance of the Harlequin stock character in the commedia dell’arte of the 1670s, complete with batte or “slapstick”, a magic wand used by the character to change the scenery of the play (Maurice Sand, 1860)

The players in Pagliacci are commedia dell’arte performers, a traveling troupe of street performers who specialized in what we now call ‘devised work’—a framework that is improvised and developed over the course of rehearsals, filled with the actors’ favorite song and dance numbers, and recreated afresh each time it is performed. Often described as ‘circus with a plot,’ anything could happen and often did in these live performances, designed to push the actors to the limits of their fantasy. If you want a more detailed reminder of the characters involved in a traditional commedia performance, this video from the National Theater is very helpful.

We’re combining many of those elements right here on campus before each Pagliacci performance—an outdoor stage, great singers performing their favorite songs, dancers, clowns, and costumes. The only missing pieces are some weather suited to the Italian countryside, plus you and all your friends! Free and open to the public, we’re calling these shows “Lyrics on the Lawn,” and you can enjoy them just as picnic entertainment, but sneakily, they’re an actual part of our Pagliacci production and will enhance your experience of the show itself.

This feeling of being part of the action is something I want all our Festivalgoers to experience in the broadest sense. Our staff and artists become a vital part of the community for the time they spend here; you will run into them at coffee shops and restaurants, in town, and at the gym. Not only that, but over half of the chorus members of Pagliacci this season are local singers and children from the area. In a sense, we are already watching ourselves in this production.

Glimmerglass on the Grass | 2021 Festival | Photo by Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

At their best, opera and theater leave us transformed—forever changed by what we witnessed, often with a new understanding of the power and possibility of art. An average night at the theater stays with us much longer than most other nights out, but performances here at Glimmerglass are so memorable because of the perfect intimacy of our theater and the unmatched beauty of the setting. This Pagliacci does it all in the way only Glimmerglass can.

2 Thoughts on “Rob's Ramblings - A One-Hit Wonder, Glimmerglass style”

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  1. Once again from a chorus emeritus: please include a Glimmerglass Chorus credit in the program book. It might be a complete list of all the YAPs with locals and/or a show by show listing. In any event, please do not repeat the look it up on the website as was done last year. I’ll really try to make it to Pirates. My Eduard was a signature role.

  2. More: Was it Spike Jones that did it as Ridi Paliacci, I feel itchy and scratchy? Perhaps the Simpsons source?

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