How the Performance of a French Opera About a Neapolitan Revolt Sparked a Belgian Revolution

Egide Charles Gustave Wappers, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Egide Charles Gustave Wappers, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

In the summer of 1830, King William I of the Netherlands scheduled a multi-day birthday bash in Brussels, and he expected everybody in the city to join in the fun. The celebration, however, would not go as planned: Political turmoil, which had been brewing in the city for months, would cause two public events—a fireworks display and a procession—to be canceled. One of the few public events to remain on the schedule would be an August 25 performance of the opera The Mute Girl of Portici, by the French composer Daniel Auber.

Like the other events planned that week, the show would experience a few hiccups.

In the mid 1830s, tensions in the United Kingdom of the Netherlands were at a boil. In the north, most citizens (King William I among them) were Dutch Protestants. In the south, most people were French-speaking Roman Catholics—and they were demanding independence.

Considering this growing atmosphere of discontent, King William I's choice of opera was a questionable one. The plot of Portici's fiery libretto revolves around the Neapolitan revolts of 1647, telling the tale of Masaniello, the real-life Italian fisherman who led an uprising against the rulers of Naples. (The opera itself was revolutionary, too: Among the first of its kind in the genre, this "French grand opera"—called La Muette de Portici in its native language—was a lavish and large-scale spectacle that, most notably, had integrated ballet and mime into the performance.)

One could say the opera's place in history was preordained: It was one of the final public events for King William I's celebration and, after the cancellation of the fireworks and the procession, one of the few events locals could openly protest. Days before the show, the newspaper Courrier des Pays-Bas suggested that concertgoers should leave the performance at the fifth act. Many of the attendees, however, were so moved by the opera's nationalistic music that they left much earlier. During a second act duet, called Amour Sacré de la Patrie—or "Sacred Love of the Fatherland"—the crowd began to cheer so wildly that the performers reportedly had to stop singing and start over.

Eventually, the performers reached the peak of the piece's lyrics—singing Aux Armes, that is: "Call to Arms"—and dozens of spectators stood from their seats and ran to the streets. When the fifth act arrived, audience members began to loudly boo in an attempt to stop the show and incite a riot. "The delirious crowd [hurled itself] out of the hall—and into history," wrote 20th-century French composer Lionel Renieu. "Welcomed by the other crowd which waited outside, it joined in the demonstrations which loosed the revolution of 1830."

Indeed, the musical performance had invigorated the crowd. The audience passionately chanted patriotic slogans, stormed into government buildings, and began destroying factory machinery. Within days, they were flying the flag of Independent Belgium, which was tied to a standard with shoelaces.

The dissent in Brussels was powerful enough to attract the attention of other disaffected working class people in the south, and soon thousands more would join the cause. According to the History Channel, just one month later, "the city fell into bloody street battles between the military and the rebels, who were eventually victorious. They drafted a Declaration of Independence on 4 October, and on 20 December the London Conference declared the United Kingdom of the Netherlands was dissolved." Soon, Belgium was its own independent country.

Years later, in 1871, the German composer Richard Wagner—who had met the elder Auber numerous times and had conducted a production of Portici himself—wrote in his book Reminiscences of Auber, "[S]eldom has an artistic product stood in closer connection to a world event."

13 Fascinating Facts About Nina Simone

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Nina Simone was known for using her musical platform to speak out. “I think women play a major part in opening the doors for better understanding around the world,” the “Strange Fruit” songstress once said. Though she chose to keep her personal life shrouded in secrecy, these facts grant VIP access into a life well-lived and the music that still lives on.

1. Nina Simone was her stage name.

The singer was born as Eunice Waymon on February 21, 1933. But by age 21, the North Carolina native was going by a different name at her nightly Atlantic City gig: Nina Simone. She hoped that adopting a different name would keep her mother from finding out about her performances. “Nina” was her boyfriend’s nickname for her at the time. “Simone” was inspired by Simone Signoret, an actress that the singer admired.

2. Nina Simone came from humble beginnings.


Getty Images

There's a reason that much of the singer's music had gospel-like sounds. Simone—the daughter of a Methodist minister and a handyman—was raised in the church and started playing the piano by ear at age 3. She got her start in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina, where she played gospel hymns and classical music at Old St. Luke’s CME, the church where her mother ministered. After Simone died on April 21, 2003, she was memorialized at the same sanctuary.

3. Nina Simone was a star student.

Simone, who graduated valedictorian of her high school class, studied at the prestigious Julliard School of Music for a brief period of time before applying to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Unfortunately, Simone was denied admission. For years, she maintained that her race was the reason behind the rejection. But a Curtis faculty member, Vladimir Sokoloff, has gone on record to say that her skin color wasn’t a factor. “It had nothing to do with her…background,” he said in 1992. But Simone ended up getting the last laugh: Two days before her death, the school awarded her an honorary degree.

4. Nina Simone had several honorary degrees.

Simone—who preferred to be called “doctor Nina Simone”—was also awarded two other honorary degrees, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Malcolm X College.

5. Nina Simone's career was rooted in activism.

A photo of Nina Simone circa 1969

Gerrit de Bruin

At the age of 12, Simone refused to play at a church revival because her parents had to sit at the back of the hall. From then on, Simone used her art to take a stand. Many of her songs in the '60s, including “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Why (The King of Love Is Dead),” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” addressed the rampant racial injustices of that era.

Unfortunately, her activism wasn't always welcome. Her popularity diminished; venues didn’t invite her to perform, and radio stations didn’t play her songs. But she pressed on—even after the Civil Rights Movement. In 1997, Simone told Interview Magazine that she addressed her songs to the third world. In her own words: “I’m a real rebel with a cause.”

6. One of Nina Simone's most famous songs was banned.

Mississippi Goddam,” her 1964 anthem, only took her 20 minutes to an hour to write, according to legend—but it made an impact that still stands the test of time. When she wrote it, Simone had been fed up with the country’s racial unrest. Medger Evers, a Mississippi-born civil rights activist, was assassinated in his home state in 1963. That same year, the Ku Klux Klan bombed a Birmingham Baptist church and as a result, four young black girls were killed. Simone took to her notebook and piano to express her sentiments.

“Alabama's gotten me so upset/Tennessee made me lose my rest/And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam,” she sang.

Some say that the song was banned in Southern radio stations because “goddam” was in the title. But others argue that the subject matter is what caused the stations to return the records cracked in half.

7. Nina Simone never had a number one hit.

Nina Simone released over 40 albums during her decades-spanning career including studio albums, live versions, and compilations, and scored 15 Grammy nominations. But her highest-charting (and her first) hit, “I Loves You, Porgy,” peaked at #2 on the U.S. R&B charts in 1959. Still, her music would go on to influence legendary singers like Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin.

8. Nina Simone used her style to make a statement.

Head wraps, bold jewelry, and floor-skimming sheaths were all part of Simone’s stylish rotation. In 1967, she wore the same black crochet fishnet jumpsuit with flesh-colored lining for the entire year. Not only did it give off the illusion of her being naked, but “I wanted people to remember me looking a certain way,” she said. “It made it easier for me.”

9. Nina Simone had many homes.

New York City, Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands were all places that Simone called home. She died at her home in Southern France, and her ashes were scattered in several African countries.

10. Nina Simone had a famous inner circle.

During the late '60s, Simone and her second husband Andrew Stroud lived next to Malcolm X and his family in Mount Vernon, New York. He wasn't her only famous pal. Simone was very close with playwright Lorraine Hansberry. After Hansberry’s death, Simone penned “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in her honor, a tribute to Hansberry's play of the same title. Simone even struck up a brief friendship with David Bowie in the mid-1970s, who called her every night for a month to offer his advice and support.

11. You can still visit Nina Simone in her hometown.

Photo of Nina Simone
Amazing Nina Documentary Film, LLC, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

In 2010, an 8-foot sculpture of Eunice Waymon was erected in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina. Her likeness stands tall in Nina Simone Plaza, where she’s seated and playing an eternal song on a keyboard that floats in midair. Her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, gave sculptor Zenos Frudakis some of Simone’s ashes to weld into the sculpture’s bronze heart. "It's not something very often done, but I thought it was part of the idea of bringing her home," Frudakis said.

12. You've probably heard Nina Simone's music in recent hits.

Rihanna sang a few verses of Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. He’s clearly a superfan: “Blood on the Leaves” and his duet with Jay Z, “New Day,” feature Simone samples as well, along with Lil’ Wayne’s “Dontgetit,” Common’s “Misunderstood” and a host of other tracks.

13. Nina Simone's music is still being performed.

Nina Revisited… A Tribute to Nina Simone was released along with the Netflix documentary in 2015. On the album, Lauryn Hill, Jazmine Sullivan, Usher, Alice Smith, and more paid tribute to the legend by performing covers of 16 of her most famous tracks.

This article originally ran in 2018.

When “Weird Al” Yankovic Asked Kurt Cobain for Permission to Parody "Smells Like Teen Spirit"

Erik Voake/Stringer/Getty Images
Erik Voake/Stringer/Getty Images

"Weird Al" Yankovic has gotten plenty of rejections throughout his career. Prince, Jimmy Page, and Paul McCartney have all denied the musical comedian the right to turn one of their hit songs into an irreverent parody. Even so, Weird Al was hesitant to ask for Kurt Cobain's permission to skewer the Nirvana chart-topper "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in the early 1990s.

“I was very nervous, and I didn’t know how he would take my requesting the parody," Yankovic told Loudwire in 2014. The phone call would have been especially nerve-wracking because he wasn't planning to write a spoof that was divorced from the original artist, as was the case with previous hits like "Eat It" and "Like a Surgeon." His parody "Smells Like Nirvana" was going to make fun of the fact that no one could understand Cobain's incoherent singing.

But, as Yankovic recounted decades later, he had no reason to worry. "I explained it’s about how nobody could understand his lyrics. There was probably half a beat on the phone, and he said, ‘Yeah, yeah, sounds like a funny idea.’”

Cobain would have been sympathetic to Yankovic's sense of humor. The Nirvana frontman had a reputation for being a serial prankster, pulling stunts like taping an upside down cross onto the drive-through window of his favorite fried chicken place. Other stories tied to the band's antics involved lighting tour bus curtains on fire, giving out a friend's phone numbers in a live interview, and inviting the audience on stage to escape security.

"Smells Like Nirvana" debuted in 1992 and it was an instant success. It topped the Billboard charts and earned a platinum record, and Yankovic credited the track for revitalizing his career after a brief slump. You can watch Weird Al channeling Cobain in the music video below.

[h/t Loudwire]

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