Aria Code

WQXR & The Metropolitan Opera

Aria Code is a podcast that pulls back the curtain on some of the most famous arias in opera history, with insight from the biggest voices of our time, including Roberto Alagna, Diana Damrau, Sondra Radvanovsky, and many others. Hosted by Grammy Award-winner and MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Rhiannon Giddens, Aria Code is produced in partnership with The Metropolitan Opera. Each episode dives into one aria — a feature for a single singer — and explores how and why these brief musical moments have imprinted themselves in our collective consciousness and what it takes to stand on the Met stage and sing them. A wealth of guests—from artists like Rufus Wainwright and Ruben Santiago-Hudson to non-musicians like Dame Judi Dench and Dr. Brooke Magnanti, author of The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl—join Rhiannon and the Met Opera’s singers to understand why these arias touch us at such a human level, well over a century after they were written. Each episode ends with the aria, uninterrupted and in full, recorded from the Met Opera stage. Aria Code is produced in partnership with WQXR, The Metropolitan Opera and WNYC Studios.

  • 54 minutes 14 seconds
    Love and Other Drugs: Gounod's Roméo et Juliette

    Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is the most famous love story in the Western canon. It’s a tale so embedded in our culture — one that has seen so many iterations and retellings — it might feel hard to appreciate its original pathos, and the way it perfectly distills the intersections of young romance, idealism, and rebellion. 

    In this episode, host Rhiannon Giddens and guests take a fresh look at this classic by focusing on the character of Juliet and her pivotal decision to take the friar’s draught, a concoction that will help her feign death long enough to escape an arranged marriage and run away with Romeo. It’s both an act of tremendous courage and one that sets their tragedy in motion. 

    In Charles Gounod’s operatic retelling, the aria Juliet delivers as she wrestles away her fear is so difficult that it’s often cut from productions. But it’s a pivotal moment, and a testament to Juiet’s agency. Soprano Diana Damrau is up to the task, and delivers a rendition of “Amour, ranime mon courage” — otherwise known as the “poison aria” — from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. 


    Soprano Diana Damrau is among the most celebrated opera singers of her generation. She’s graced the stages of opera houses all over the world, and sung the role of Juliette at both The Metropolitan Opera and La Scala. After her debut as Juliette in 2016, it quickly became a favorite. For her, Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette” is “one of the most beautiful operas ever written.” 

    Yannick Nézet-Séguin serves as music director for the Met Opera orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Montreal’s Orchestre Metropolitain, among many other appointments and collaborations with esteemed orchestras. In his opinion, “Roméo et Juliette” beats out “Faust” as Gounod’s best opera. 

    Emma Smith is a Shakespeare scholar and critic at the University of Oxford. Among her publications is the book “This Is Shakespeare,” which was a Sunday Times bestseller and has been translated into several languages. Smith frequently works with theater companies on their productions of Shakespeare plays and consults for film and television.

    Acclaimed British author and theater director Neil Bartlett, whose novels include “The Disappearance Boy” and “Address Book,” directed “Romeo and Juliet” for the Royal Shakespeare Company in London. He says the experience leaves him feeling “wrung dry with admiration.”

    17 January 2024, 10:07 am
  • 53 minutes 47 seconds
    You Don't Own Me: The Myth and Magic of Bizet's Carmen

    Carmen is maybe the most famous heroine in all of opera. She’s a woman of Romani descent living in 19th century Spain, sensual and self-confident, aware of the power she wields over men — and she enjoys it. In her signature aria, popularly known as the “Habanera,” she describes herself as a bird who can’t be captured. True to her own word, Carmen — and what she represents — is hard to pin down.  

    When “Carmen” premiered in Paris in 1875, it was deemed wildly immoral. Carmen becomes intrigued by a soldier, Don José, who initially pays her no attention. She seduces him, Don José abandons his fiancée to run away with her, and one thing leads to another (this is opera, after all) — he winds up murdering Carmen in a fit of jealous rage. One interpretation is that this is the story of a man giving into temptation and meeting his downfall. A more modern view would position Carmen as a proto-feminist. She’s a woman who refuses to be controlled, and that puts her life in danger.

    But perhaps Carmen’s greatest irony is that she is both a complex character and a full-blown stereotype of Romani women. In this episode, host Rhiannon Giddens and guests unpack the myth and the magic of Georges Bizet’s "Carmen," and Clémentine Margaine brings it home with a performance of “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” from the Met stage.


    French mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine first performed in “Carmen” as a member of the children’s chorus. Shortly after graduating from the Paris Conservatory, she joined the ensemble of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, where she sang her first performances in the title role. Since then, she’s performed Carmen at opera houses all over the world. 

    Susan McClary is a pioneer in feminist music criticism. She’s a musicologist at Case Western Reserve University whose research focuses on the cultural analysis of music, both the European canon and contemporary popular genres. She’s authored 11 books, including "Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality" and the Cambridge Opera Handbook on “Carmen.”

    Ioanida Costache is an assistant professor of ethnomusicology and an affiliate of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University. She is of Romanian-Roma descent, and her work explores the legacies of historical trauma inscribed in Romani music, sound, and art. Her family likes to pass on the story of the time her great-grandfather performed the cimbalom for President Roosevelt at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. 

    Rosamaria Kostic Cisneros wears many hats. She is a professional dancer, dance historian and critic, Romani studies scholar, Flamenco historian, as well as a sociologist, curator and peace activist. A research-artist at Coventry University’s Centre for Dance Research, she works to bring arts and culture to vulnerable groups. She was introduced to flamenco by her Spanish-Roma mother during their frequent trips to Seville.

    3 January 2024, 9:00 am
  • 27 minutes 11 seconds
    Revisiting Mozart’s Queen of the Night: Outrage Out of This World

    When the Voyager spacecraft set off to explore the galaxy in 1977, it carried a recording to represent the best of humanity. The “Golden Record” featured everyone from Bach to Chuck Berry, but there was only one opera aria: the rage-fest and coloratura masterpiece from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”

    As Kathryn Lewek reprises her role as Queen of the Night in this season’s holiday presentation of “The Magic Flute” at The Metropolitan Opera, we’re revisiting this episode. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests consider why the Queen of the Night’s big moment – “Der Hölle Rache” – is an out-of-this-world achievement, how Mozart created a profound fairy tale for adults and what it takes for a soprano to reach the stratosphere. You’ll witness Kathryn Lewek hit all those high notes onstage at the Met Opera and hear from Timothy Ferris, the man who produced NASA’s “Golden Record.”

    The Guests

    Soprano Kathryn Lewek describes singing “Der Hölle Rache” as throwing darts with your eyes closed. But after performing the part more than 200 times, she certainly knows how to hit the bullseye.

    Harvard University professor Carolyn Abbate once took her son to see The Magic Flute and he declared it to be “bad, but not in the way I expected it to be bad.” Her latest book is A History of Opera: The Last Four Hundred Years.

    Composer and author Jan Swafford was a graduate student when he spent his last $50 to buy a copy of The Magic Flute and immediately regretted it: He hated the opera. To say he’s warmed to Mozart over the years would be a wild understatement.

    Timothy Ferris produced the Golden Record that went up with NASA’s Voyager space probes in 1977. It was the only record he ever produced, but he's written many books including Coming of Age in the Milky Way, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

    13 December 2023, 9:00 am
  • 52 minutes 54 seconds
    Love Takes Flight: Catán's Florencia en el Amazonas

    It’s the early 1900s, and the steamship El Dorado makes its way along the Amazon River towards Manaus, a city in the heart of the Brazilian rainforest. Onboard is the world-famous opera singer Florencia Grimaldi. She’s got a gig at the opera house in Manaus, but that’s just a cover. She’s actually hoping for a reunion with her long-lost love, the butterfly catcher Cristóbal.

    But on the journey, Florencia learns that Cristóbal went missing in the rainforest while in pursuit of a rare butterfly. From the deck of the ship — and now in quarantine due to a cholera outbreak — she delivers her final aria, calling out to him, the river and the rainforest that surround her: “Escúchame.” Hear me, listen to me. “From you my song was born,” she affirms — and in embracing her love for him, she is released and reborn.

    Daniel Catán’s lush and lyrical score has become a staple of contemporary operas, and its staging marks the Metropolitan Opera’s first Spanish-language production in nearly 100 years. In this episode, host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests take us on a journey through natural wonder, transcendent love, and self-discovery.


    Soprano Ailyn Pérez makes her Metropolitan Opera debut in her native language of Spanish as Florencia Grimaldi. She identifies with Florencia and the sacrifices that are sometimes necessary to pursue an artistic career.

    Andrea Puente-Catán is a harpist, director of development at Ballet Hispánico, and the widow of “Florencia” composer Daniel Catán. She met Catán when she was 17 years old. Decades later, playing harp in that opera’s production at Palacia de Bellas Artes brought them back together.  

    Author, filmmaker, and fearless traveler Alycin Hayes knows a thing or two about Amazonian adventures. When she was 21, she hitchhiked from her home in Canada to South America, where she met up with other roving internationals to paddle along the Amazon River in a dugout canoe. She describes her adventures in her recent memoir "Amazon Hitchhiker."

    Paul Rosolie is conservationist, writer, and wildlife filmmaker whose memoir “Mother of God” details his extensive work in the Amazon. He’s the founder and field director of Junglekeepers, a conservation outfit based in Peru, and he joins the show via a remote interview taped in the jungle.

    29 November 2023, 9:00 am
  • 45 minutes 50 seconds
    Davis’s X: The Life and Legacy of Malcolm X

    Malcolm X led many lives within his 39 years: as a bereaved but precocious child; as an imprisoned convict; as a firebrand spokesperson for the Nation of Islam and Black nationalism; and ultimately as one of the most pivotal figures of the Civil Rights movement. Today, he continues to inspire passion and controversy, his legacy as nuanced as the man himself.

    Anthony Davis’s opera “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” seeks to gather Malcolm X’s many identities and hold them together in the way only an artistic work can. When the piece was premiered by New York City Opera in 1986, it broke ground not just for its unique melding of jazz and blues idioms with contemporary classical traditions, but also for the choice made by Davis and his cousin, the librettist Thulani Davis, to situate recent history on the operatic stage.

    It turns out that a life as dramatic and urgent as Malcolm X’s is ripe for opera. In the aria “You Want The Story, But You Don’t Want To Know,” Anthony and Thulani Davis take the occasion of a police interrogation to let Malcolm X’s character reflect on the tragedies and injustices that have shaped his life up to that moment — and, in his refusal to deliver “easier” narratives, to presage the often tumultuous search for truth and righteousness that would direct his life in years to come. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the drama and the passion of Malcolm X’s life and its inherent musicality upon the Metropolitan Opera’s premiere of this modern classic.


    It may have taken nearly forty years for composer Anthony Davis to see the Metropolitan Opera stage “X,” but he’s kept himself busy in the interim. This prolific composer, which The New York Times described as “the dean of African-American opera composers,” is also known for “Amistad,” “Wakonda’s Dream,” and “The Central Park Five,” the latter of which won him a Pulitzer Prize in 2020. If anyone was born to be a musician, it’s Davis: People tell him that the first time he played the piano was as a baby sitting in the lap of jazz pianist Billy Taylor.   

    Grammy Award-winning baritone Will Liverman was described by The Washington Post as a “voice for this historic moment.” Portraying Malcolm X in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” is only his most recent artistic triumph. Others include his breakout performance as Charles in Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up In My Bones” and the premiere of “The Factotum,” an opera he both starred in and co-created. His hope for “X” is to help “kill some of the preconceived notions about who Malcolm X was and find the humanity in him.”

    Zaheer Ali is the executive director of the Hutchins Institute for Social Justice at the Lawrenceville School and something of a Malcolm X expert (a Malcolm X-pert?). He served as the project manager of the Malcolm X Project at Columbia University and his work on the Civil Rights icon has been featured in documentaries like Netflix’s “Who Killed Malcolm X?” and CNN’s “Witnessed: The Assassination of Malcolm X.” He traces his fascination with Malcolm X back to an assignment given by his eleventh-grade English teacher.

    15 November 2023, 9:00 am
  • 32 minutes 55 seconds
    Revisiting Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice: Don’t Look Back in Ardor

    If a loved one were to die, how far would you be willing to go to bring them back? Orpheus, the ancient Greek musician, goes to hell and back to have the love of his life, Eurydice, by his side again. The gods cut a deal with Orpheus: he can bring his love back from hell, but all throughout the journey, she has to follow behind him and he is not allowed to look back at her. Unable to resist, he turns to see her,  and the gods take her for a second time. In a moment of overwhelming grief, Orpheus asks, “What will I do without Eurydice?” 

    Ahead of this season’s production of "Orfeo ed Euridice" by the Metropolitan Opera, we’re revisiting this episode, in which host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests reflect on Christoph Gluck's operatic adaptation of the Orpheus myth and the all-encompassing nature of both grief and love. At the end of the show, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton sings “Che farò senza Euridice?” from the Metropolitan Opera stage.

    The Guests

    Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton grew up in a musical family, with days full of bluegrass, classic rock, and music history quizzes about the Beatles. In her role debut as Orfeo, she searches for this hero’s vulnerability, dramatically and vocally, and figures out how to embody a version of this character that’s modeled on Johnny Cash. 

    Author Ann Patchett stumbled upon her love for opera while writing her book “Bel Canto.” But the Orpheus myth has been part of her life — and has influenced her writing — for a lot longer.  She’s fairly certain that she would travel to the depths of hell to save her husband of 29 years. 

    Jim Walter lost his wife to cancer in 2015. He cared for her through some very difficult years, and kept hope alive even when things looked hopeless. He says that nowadays his grief usually isn’t as immediate and gut-punching as it once was, but he is still sometimes overcome with sadness at unexpected moments.

    1 November 2023, 8:00 am
  • 42 minutes 9 seconds
    Good Things Come to Those Who Weep: Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore

    “L’Elisir d’Amore” — “The Elixir of Love” — is what’s known as an opera buffa, or comic opera. That means that we’re in for a happy ending.

    But Donizetti knows that the payoff is only earned through the suffering of his protagonists. In one pivotal moment, our hero Nemorino glimpses his beloved shedding a single tear — and he concludes (crazily, but correctly) that it can only mean that she loves him back. The aria Nemorino delivers here — one of the most famous in the history of opera — expresses the singular moment when the agony of unrequited love shifts to the certainty of a blissful future.

    In this episode, host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests unpack the potential for heartbreak that lies within every happy ending and why Donizetti might be one of the most underrated opera composers. Tenor Matthew Polenzani brings it home with a rendition of “Una furtiva lagrima” from the Met stage.


    Over the course of a career spanning more than 30 years, tenor Matthew Polenzani has sung the role of Nemorino on opera stages all over the world. He has a family of barbershop quartet singers to thank for his introduction to music.

    Fred Plotkin is the author of “Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera.” As a proud Donizetti fanboy, he believes that the psychological insight Donizetti brings to his characters is nearly unmatched in the work of other composers.

    When she’s not teaching French at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, Laine Doggett is brushing up on her medieval lore. As the author of “Love Cures: Healing and Magic in Old French Romance,” she knows a thing or two about magical elixirs.

    Judith Fetterley is a former professor, master gardener, and writer. She’s got a love story of her own that involves elixirs. You might have read it in the New York Times’ “Modern Love” column under the title, Was She Just Another Nicely Packaged Pain Delivery System?

    18 October 2023, 8:00 am
  • 44 minutes 58 seconds
    Death, Faith, and Redemption: Heggie’s Dead Man Walking

    What does redemption mean to a man sentenced to death? Is capital punishment justice or vengeance? Could anyone ever forgive a murderer?

    These are just some of the questions behind the true story of the nun who became a spiritual adviser to men on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Dead Man Walking was first a 1993 memoir by the Catholic nun and fervent death penalty abolitionist Sister Helen Prejean; later, it was adapted into an Oscar-winning movie. Sister Helen’s story inspired a national conversation around the death penalty — and the opera duo Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally. Their adaptation of Sister Helen’s story has become one of the most celebrated operas of the 21st century, and, with the last federal execution taking place as recently as 2021, feels as timely as ever.

    In her aria “This Journey,” Sister Helen’s character reflects on her religious calling as she makes her way to the Angola prison for the first time. In this episode, host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests take us deeper into the true story that inspired the opera and the experiences that continue to inform Sister Helen Prejean’s ministry.

    The Guests

    The Metropolitan Opera’s 2023 production of Dead Man Walking marks the fifth time mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato has sung the role of Sister Helen. She describes the role as one that’s impossible to emerge from without feeling changed. Having embodied Sister Helen so many times, DiDonato feels “much less comfortable turning a blind eye to things.”

    American composer Jake Heggie is best known for Dead Man Walking, the most widely performed new opera of the last 20 years. In addition to 10 other full-length operas and numerous one-acts, Heggie has composed more than 300 art songs, as well as concerti, chamber music, choral, and orchestral works. When librettist Terrence McNally proposed adapting Dead Man Walking into an opera, Heggie’s “hair stood on end” and he immediately “felt and heard music.”

    Sister Helen Prejean is a Roman Catholic nun, the author of the memoir Dead Man Walking, and a leading voice in the effort to abolish the death penalty. She’s served as a spiritual counselor to numerous convicted inmates on Death Row as well as to families of murder victims and survivors of violent crimes. Despite her wisdom, Sister Helen claims to know “boo-scat” about opera.

    4 October 2023, 4:00 am
  • 2 minutes
    Aria Code Returns for Season 4!

    At last! After much anticipation, Aria Code returns! We’re guiding listeners through highlights from the Metropolitan Opera’s 2023-2024 season, pairing beloved classics with investigations into modern masterpieces.


    So get ready for a night at the opera — from the comfort of your own home. (Or wherever!) Arias from the likes of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking and Anthony Davis’s X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X will tackle some of the most complex social and ethical questions head-on, while classics like Bizet’s Carmen and Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette plunge us into the thick of opera’s favorite themes of desire, love, and longing.


    Hosted by Grammy Award-winner, MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, and (most recently) Pulitzer Prize-winning musician Rhiannon Giddens, each episode features a signature combination of music and riveting storytelling, paired with Met Opera performances by world-renowned opera stars, including Joyce DiDonato, Matthew Polenzani, Will Liverman, Clémentine Margaine, Diana Damrau, and Ailyn Pérez.   


    Aria Code is produced by WQXR in partnership with The Metropolitan Opera. This season, we’ll be releasing episodes on a biweekly basis, starting October 4.

    28 September 2023, 4:00 am
  • 51 minutes 13 seconds
    P.S. I Love You: Renée Fleming Sings Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin

    Saying “I love you” for the first time takes courage, especially when you don’t know the response you'll get. But being open with your emotions and putting yourself out there can change you in unexpected ways.

    In Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, it’s the 16-year-old Tatyana who pins her heart on her sleeve. Young and naive, but also fiercely confident, she pours out her feelings for the visiting Eugene Onegin in one night of impassioned love-letter-making. His answer defines the rest of her life, and the course of the opera. 

    Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore Tatyana’s famous Letter Scene and what it tells us about Tchaikovsky, Russian society, and the nearly universal experience of unrequited love.

    Soprano Renée Fleming is one of the most acclaimed singers of her generation, singing across genres from classical to Broadway to jazz and more. Of all the roles she’s performed, the shy and soulful Tatyana is the one she relates to best. She loves the Letter Scene because it allows her to act out the intense emotions of a teenager who’s fallen in love for the very first time. 

    Dr. Philip Ewell is a professor of music theory at Hunter College of the City University of New York, where he specializes in Russian music, 20th-century music, race studies in music, and more. He trained as a cellist in Russia during and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and has spent seven years total living there. He loves to teach Eugene Onegin to his Russian opera seminar through the lens of Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8er Boi.” (Trust him, it works!) 

    Tim Manley is a writer, illustrator, storyteller, and educator. He performed his story “I Need You To Know” with The Moth in 2015, where he now leads storytelling workshops. He found that opening up about his feelings in front of an audience transformed his life. Tim also created the web series The Feels, which was nominated for an Emmy. He is currently working on a young adult novel.

    1 December 2021, 5:00 pm
  • 41 minutes 58 seconds
    To Be Or Not To Be: Dean's Hamlet

    “To be or not to be, that is the question.” It’s hard to think of a more famous line from a more famous play. In this iconic speech from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the troubled Danish prince asks whether this whole life thing is even worth it. But “to be or not to be'' is not the only question we’re asking this week. 

    When everyone knows this line so well, how do you make it fresh again? How does adapting Shakespeare’s play into an opera change our understanding of the text? In this episode, host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore one of the most famous speeches in literature, its transformation into opera, and why Hamlet’s brooding soliloquy continues to intrigue artists and audiences four centuries later.

    Tenor Allan Clayton created the role of Hamlet in Brett Dean’s opera at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2017. Dean wrote this vocally and dramatically challenging part specifically for Clayton: he would have him read monologues from Shakespeare’s original in order to get a sense of his voice and once even emailed him changes during an intermission.

    Opera dramaturg Cori Ellison worked closely with composer Brett Dean and librettist Matthew Jocelyn throughout the development of Hamlet. She was the staff dramaturg at the Glyndebourne Festival from 2012 through 2017, where Hamlet premiered, and has worked with opera companies around the world, including as a staff dramaturg at New York City Opera and Santa Fe Opera.

    Actor and director Samuel West has worked across theater, film, television, and radio, but he was obsessed with Shakespeare's Hamlet. He starred as the Danish prince (whom he describes as “a floppy-shirted noodle”) for one year and three days with the Royal Shakespeare Company. But who’s counting?!

    Jeffrey R. Wilson is a faculty member in the Writing Program at Harvard, where he teaches a course called “Why Shakespeare?” He feels that Shakespeare is still so popular because of the deep and varied problems his plays present: textual, theatrical, thematic, and ethical problems. He is the author of three books, including Shakespeare and Trump and Shakespeare and Game of Thrones.

    17 November 2021, 5:00 pm
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