Born: April 27, 1812 in Teutendorf
Died: January 24, 1883 in Darmstadt
One of the more successful operatic composers in mid-19th century Germany, Friedrich von Flotow was a familiar name in opera houses well into the 20th century. His work shows the strong influence of Italian opera as well as French opera comique. Friedrich was born into an aristocratic family, and his father, a captain in the Prussian hussars, had planned a career in government and the diplomatic service for his son until the boy's musicalRead more aptitude became apparent. He studied piano and composition at the Paris Conservatory, and while living in Paris, he was exposed to the works of Rossini, Meyerbeer, Donizetti, and Adam, all of which had a powerful effect on his own approach to composition. He also established what ultimately proved to be close friendships with Gounod and Offenbach.
Flotow's first opera, Pierre et Catherine, dating from the 1830s, was drawn from the same story material that Albert Lortzing used for his Zar und Zimmerman, except that Flotow's work wasn't nearly as enduring. He struggled for recognition in Paris for much of the 1830s, and finally achieved some success with Le Naufiage de la Meduse, which received over 50 performances in Paris -- alas, fire destroyed the manuscript, and Flotow rewrote the entire opera as Die Matrosen before a scheduled premiere in Hamburg. Another of his operas, Lady Harriette, was conducted by no less a figure than Franz Liszt at its premiere. His biggest success came in the middle of the 1840s, first with his opera Alessandro Stradella (1844) and then, three years later, with his most enduring work of all, Martha (1847). Although a number of his works into the 1850s and beyond were modestly successful, none approached the popularity of Martha, either in Germany or around the world.
In the years following Martha, Flotow's personal life was marred by tragedy and instability. His first wife died in 1851 giving birth to their son, who only survived for a matter of weeks. Two years later, he married a 20-year-old dancer, and that marriage produced two children, but in 1867 he divorced his second wife, now age 36, and, barely a year later, married her 20-year-old sister.
Flotow's music is best represented by Martha, which was widely performed from the late 1840s right into the mid-20th century. A favorite with mass audiences as well as opera-goers (possibly because of its very effective use of the traditional Irish tune "The Last Rose of Summer"), Martha was the particular province of Enrico Caruso, who defined the part of Lyonel (translated into Italian) and made the aria "M'appari" (originally "Ach So Fromm") a centerpiece of his repertory. This aria became so popular and familiar -- even among audiences that knew nothing about opera -- that it was parodied in at least one Popeye cartoon of the 1930s (sung by Pinto Colvig, better known as the voice of Goofy, as Bluto) in a sort of operetta-with-fisticuffs. Although Martha has fallen off in popularity even within Germany since the middle of the 20th century, partly owing to its light romantic nature (compared with Wagner and Weber), that aria is still considered fair game for any tenor worthy of a solo career more than 150 years after it was written. Additionally, five recordings of the opera exist, ranging from a delightful 1944 Berlin performance to productions from the late 1970s. Read less
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