Massenet (and Laurie Anderson)

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Saturday, November 30, 2019

On today’s date in 1885, the Paris Opera gave the first performance of “Le Cid,” the 11th opera written by the French composer Jules Massenet.

“Le Cid” is set in medieval Spain and tells the story of Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar, a legendary hero who defended his country against the Moors. The same story inspired a 1961 movie titled “El Cid,” starring—who else?—Charlton Heston.

But back in 1890, Massenet’s opera was introduced to American audiences by the New Orleans Opera and reached New York City in 1897, serving as a vocal showcase for turn-of-the-century superstars of the early Metropolitan Opera. Enrico Caruso made a famous recording of the opera’s most famous excerpt—Rodrigo’s Act III aria, “O souverain, o juge, o pere,” which translates as “Oh Lord, Oh Judge, Oh Father.”

Unlikely as it may seem, this aria inspired a pop hit in 1981, when composer and performance artist Laurie Anderson translated its opening line as “O Superman, O Judge, O Mom and Dad.” As a credit to the French composer, Laurie Anderson‘s “O Superman” is even subtitled “For Massenet.”

Trained as a classical violinist with the Chicago Youth Symphony, Laurie Anderson soon shifted to a variety of electronically-altered fiddles, and one of her albums is titled, appropriately, “Life on a String.”