All About the Music
A closer look at and companion to the music we play on the show, written by the Prairie Home music librarian, Kathryn Slusher.

Classical Parodies
By Kathryn Slusher

April 2003

If you have listened to even one show, you know that virtually everything is fair game for parody on A Prairie Home Companion. So, it should come as no surprise that serious musical expression—operas and symphonies—has been on the receiving end of more than a few jokes over the years. In fact, some of the funniest bits on APHC have been spoofs of classical works of music.

History tells us that many of the great composers weren't exactly appreciated during their lifetimes. But perhaps they'd enjoy knowing that, hundreds of years later, their melodies continue to flourish—even in ways they might not have anticipated.

Here are a few examples of some recent APHC classical parodies:

For our December 21, 2002 broadcast from New York City, Garrison wrote lyrics for the formerly mute "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker Suite. We all probably know The Nutcracker as an annual favorite holiday tradition, and the music evokes sweet Christmas memories. But let's face it, the dream-like fantasy plot can be a bit saccharine, and the characters—especially Clara—are a little melodramatic. The whole thing is so sweet and frothy that it could give you cavities, and that is what Garrison was getting at in this parody, performed by the Singers and Players of Musica Sacra.

Listen | Lyrics

George Friderich Handel's Messiah oratorio is another holiday tradition. It is certainly more sophisticated than The Nutcracker, but no less susceptible to caricature. Here, the Singers of Musica Sacra sing Garrison's reworking of "O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion" from the oratorio. The new lyrics, also performed on the December 21, 2002 show, celebrate the garbage disposal repair-people who are there to rescue us in our times of need.

Listen | Lyrics

Sometimes Garrison will spoof classical music by putting it in a commercial. Last summer, tenor Mark Thomsen played an amorous pizza delivery guy, singing new words to the celebrated song "O Sole Mio". Eduardo di Capua composed this music for Giovanni Capurro's text, an "ode to the sun", in 1898. Garrison used it to advertise the fictional pizza place Bella Amorosa, the "pizza of passionate romance" on our June 8, 2002 broadcast

Listen | Lyrics

and Mark reprised his role on the June 22, 2002 broadcast.

Listen | Lyrics

In Garrison's version of Franz Joseph Haydn's Surprise Symphony, performed by GK himself on July 1, 2000, he tells an all-too familiar story of an orchestra patron trying to enjoy a performance while being distracted by the fidgeting, snoring, and coughing of audience members. Who hasn't wanted to turn around and threaten to shove a program up the nose of a particularly loud patron at a concert?

Listen | Lyrics

In June 2002, tenor Mark Thomsen and pianist Sonya Thompson performed an aria, "Che Gelida Manina" from Giacomo Puccini's renowned opera La Boheme.


This is the real thing, not a parody. La Boheme is about four impoverished Bohemian artists struggling to survive in nineteenth century Paris. The scenes range from triumphant defiance and romance, to incredible poverty, grief, and death. In one scene, Rodolfo, a poet, meets Mimi, his seamstress neighbor, in the cold, when her candle goes out. He soon professes his love to her, in the aria "Che Gelida Manina," where he tells her "Two thieves stole the jewels out of my safe, two pretty eyes. They came in with you now, and my lovely dreams melted into thin air. The theft doesn't anger me, for their place has been taken by hope!"

Garrison used "Che Gelida Manina" as the musical setting to his "Jello Aria," first performed by soprano Maria Jette on our October 13, 2001 broadcast.

Listen | Lyrics

In the "Jello Aria," the Soprano sings of her love for not only Christina's special gelatin, made with fruit and walnuts, but also her love for the simple, lovely things in life, and summer evening memories.

Garrison used music from another Puccini opera, Turandot, as inspiration for his own opera Mr. and Mrs. Olson, which premiered in St. Paul during the spring of 2002. Specifically, Garrison reworked the aria "Nessun Dorma", traditionally a showpiece in every tenor's repertoire, as a soprano aria.

For those unfamiliar with the opera, Turandot is set in Peking during legendary times and was first performed in 1926. The gist of the plot is that the central character, Turandot, is an alluring, albeit compassionless, temptress: self-described as "like ice, but burns." Men fall under her enchanting spell, but soon find out that anyone who dares to want to marry her has to pass a test of three riddles. If the riddles are answered correctly, the suitor is awarded Turandot as his wife. Unfortunately, if he answers the riddles incorrectly, he is beheaded. One of these guys, Calaf (the "Unknown Prince") declares his intent to marry Turandot and even answers the riddles correctly in Act II. Turandot begs her father not to force her to marry Calaf, but her father won't have it. At the end of Act II, Calaf gives her one last chance to get out of the marriage- if she can learn his name (at this point she only knows him as "The Unknown Prince") by dawn, he will accept the beheading. He's confidant she will not learn his name, and that the whole thing will eventually lead to her falling deeply in love with him, which actually does happen, after another of Turandot's petty, bloody, tantrums, but that's neither here nor there. The point is, at the beginning of Act III, Calaf hears that Turandot has issued a warning to the villagers that "no one sleeps" until the unknown prince's name is revealed to her, because though she doesn't want to marry him, she does want to chop his head off. The aria "Nessun Dorma" (literally translated, "no one sleeps") is where Calaf expresses his certainty that Turandot will be his wife, as he repeats the gloomy chorus "no one sleeps".

Garrison took the music for "Nessun Dorma", modified the key to fit into the soprano's range, and changed the words and intent of the song. The end result was "Norman Olson," performed by Maria Jette on our July 7, 2001 broadcast. This version of the song features the soprano fondly remembering her high school sweetheart, Norman Olson, and the summer night he placed his hand upon her knee, and then the moment passed and they drifted apart.

Listen | Lyrics

A later version of the song (with Norman now the college sweetheart- turned husband of the soprano, Mrs. Olson) appears in Garrison Keillor's opera Mr. and Mrs. Olson.

Make sure to tune in on April 19 when we broadcast from Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. I promise bona-fide art music, in its original form, performed by one of America's leading symphony orchestras. There may be even room for some more parodies—we will all have to wait and see.

Past Articles
  • Winding Down at Wolf Trap (5/27/04)
  • Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew (3/26/04)
  • California, I'm Coming Home (11/26/03)
  • The Songs of Johnny Cash (10/23/03)
  • The Music of Lennon and McCartney (07/01/03)
  • A Tanglewood Lollapalooza (06/01/03)
  • Marvin and Mavis Keep Smilin' (05/01/03)
  • Classical Parodies (04/01/03)
  • Good Cookin': the Songs of Memphis Minnie (03/01/03)

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