Sequence of rakes

CU presents three versions of ‘Rake’s Progress’

An engraving from William Hogarth\\\'s 18th-century series
Peter Alexander | Boulder Weekly

Igor Stravinsky: mashup artist?

Indeed, the great Russian composer was mixing up styles long before the term “mashup” was invented. And one of the best examples of his eclectic mixing is the opera The Rake’s Progress, which is being presented by the CU Opera this weekend (performances Friday and Sunday in Macky Auditorium:

Based on a series of engravings by the 18th-century satirical artist William Hogarth, the opera chronicles Tom Rakewell’s descent from rural pleasures into the decadence of London society, lured along by the satanic Nick Shadow, ending in madness and despair.

Reflecting the story’s origins, Stravinsky places 18th-century musical forms and styles in a 20thcentury matrix. Oblique quotes from composers as diverse as Henry Purcell, Mozart and Verdi are incorporated into the score, providing an extra layer of meaning to anyone who manages to find them.

Taking a cue from Stravinsky’s musical mashup, the CU production team is drawing on the “steampunk” aesthetic — combining elements from the Victorian era to the present and a sci-fi future, as in films such as Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.

Michael Aiello as Nick Shadow and Christian Sanders as Tom Rakewell in CU’s production of The Rake’s Progress. | Photo courtesy of Casey A. Cass and the University of Colorado

The opera is the centerpiece of an interdisciplinary effort that includes a conference presented by the CU Center for British and Irish Studies; and Hockney and Hogarth, an exhibition at the CU Museum of Art that includes the eight prints of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress (

The project started with the conference, focused on Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress, organized by the director of the Center for British and Irish Studies, Jeremy Smith.

“I said, how fun would it be to do the Stravinsky and have the Hogarth?” Smith explains. “At that point all we were going to do is just do a conference.”

The CU Art Museum already had David Hockney’s A Rake’s Progress, an autobiographical series from the 1960s, but not the Hogarth Rake. When museum director Lisa Tamiris Becker discovered that she could purchase the Hogarth prints for the museum, the stage was set to pull two different Rakes together for the conference.

Smith then approached the opera department.

“I wanted to do this production,” says CU Director of Opera Studies Leigh Holman, “but I was frankly afraid to do it. It’s a very difficult piece. [Music Director Nicholas Carthy] and I talked about doing it and we were dying to do it. Both of us love the piece.”

“We decided that this was just too much of a wonderful opportunity to turn down,” Carthy says. “And so we arranged to do it.”

“The original art is set in the 1700s, and we thought about setting this in that time period, but I moved away from that idea,” Holman explains. “A lot of operas we do are set in that time period, so we thought we’d do something different. This is a story that is really timeless, because it’s about the dark side of us.

“We decided to set it in sort of a once-upon-a-time time. We’re using the idea of the popular film style called ‘steampunk’ that we see a lot now. That has been really liberating for us, because it has this feeling of from a long time ago, yet present, yet future. We’re not tied into certain body movements, [and] we can use a lot more modern expressive tools in our gestures.”

Carthy explains that The Rake’s Progress, first performed in 1951, was the climax of Stravinsky’s fascination with neo-classicism.

“Neo-classicism was a reaction against the over-emotionalities of the Romantic period,” he says. “Stravinsky very much embraced neo-classicism. He was a magpie, he would steal the jewels of others just to make them shine more brightly in his own firmament.

“So there are dozens and dozens of quotes, but it’s not just quotes from classical music. It’s styles. There’s the Baroque da capo aria with its variations, there’s the harpsichord used for the recitatives, there’s the (19th-century) bel canto aria, and then right at the end he reaches way back into Greek drama, where the chorus is the collective commentator on the proceedings.

“The whole thing is enormously clever,” Carthy sums up. “This is a fantastically complex, wonderful piece. It has great words, great music and a great story — and it’s a spectacle, as opera should be.”

Full list of events:

The Rake’s Progress by Igor Stravinsky

CU Opera, Mackey Auditorium

7:30 p.m. Friday Oct. 26 and 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 28


Lunchtime Preview at etown Hall

Noon, Friday, Oct. 26


Interdisciplinary Conference

10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 26

10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 27

Room M549, Norlin Library


Hockney and Hogarth: Selections form the CU Art Museum’s Collection of British Art
Through Saturday, Oct. 27

CU Museum of Art