From Cimarosa to Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga (2010)

“Fold em let em hit me raise it baby stay with me.”

Lady Gaga’s song, “Poker Face,” is one of the best selling and most down-loaded singles ever produced. The song, written and composed by Nadir Khayat, has a robotic hook and a clever use of the love-as-card-game theme, and after considering all of its charms, and those of the performer, we might also notice that it points us to an important historical relationship. Gambling and music have always been close kin. After all, gambling forms a crowd, and music turns the crowd into an appreciative audience.

Indeed, in 18th century Italy, a wonderful time and place for music, the governments of various Italian city-states would typically forbid betting on games of chance anywhere within the city limits except within the opera house. Thus, the owners of the house had a monopoly concession, for which they paid the city government a handsome sum. This is why the opera houses from that period have such spacious foyers. They had to leave plenty of room for the gambling!

John Rosselli, a social historian and author of The Opera Industry in Italy from Cimarosa to Verdi (1984), wrote: “This monopoly was abolished at various dates between 1753 and 1788 as ‘enlightened’ principles spread through the Italian states; but from 1802 the new states of Napoleonic Italy revived it as a means of raising badly needed revenue.”

So the private investors paid the municipal government for the monopoly concession, and then won the money back at the tables, in sufficient quantities to afford to pay for the great singers from the Baroque through the bel canto eras.

Singing About Gambling

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky by Nikolay Kuznetsov, 1893

Grand opera, unsurprisingly, came to take note of its surroundings: gambling became an important feature of many of its plots. Consider The Queen of Spades, an opera in three acts by Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky based on a short story by Pushkin. The plot has a ghost appearing to one character (Hermann) and giving him advice. Not only does the ghost tell him to marry his love, Lisa, but it helpfully commands him to place all his money on three cards: three, seven, ace.

In Massenet’s “Manon,” similarly, the male lead, Des Grieux, is driven to gambling in Act IV in an effort to satisfy Manon’s demands. Manon, proudly high-maintenance, sings: “The chink of gold, soft laughter, these I love.”

There’s also a burlesque opera by Jacques Offenbach, “La Belle Hélène,” in which the myths of the Trojan War are re-written to turn the high priest of Jupiter, Calchas, into a gambling cheat.

The underlying business model never went out of style. Las Vegas, after all, has employed the old one-two punch to reach its own pop-cultural centrality. Gambling draws a crowd, then music turns the crowd into an audience. Of course, there’s been no monopoly on the right to gamble in Vegas for some time. But the casino owners, competitive though they are with one another, collectively make life easy for the treasurer of that city, and in return they make it easy for aspiring card counters and system players to lose their money at a variety of different, but well-managed, games of chance.

Singing for Gamblers and Video Games

This pattern was as successful in mid-20th century Nevada as it had been in old Italy, and it gave rise to the famous “Rat Pack,” the group of popular

Rat Pack (1950) Peter Lawford, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Dean Martin

performers who dominated the Vegas scene in the middle of the twentieth century: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford.

As the Rat Packers sang in the lounge, the gambling frenzy that made it all possible continued in the larger rooms outside the door. Did the mid-20th century American performers, like their operatic precursors, take note of their surroundings? Did they sing songs about games of chance? Of course they did.

Indeed, Frank Loesser’s tune Luck Be A Lady, from the gambling-underworld themed musical “Guys and Dolls,” became something of a signature tune for Sinatra in the ‘50s.

Sinatra’s rendition of “That’s Life,” by the way, (a song composed by Kelly Gordon and Dean Kay) would much later be included on the in-game soundtrack for the videogame “Tony Hawk’s Underground 2.”

The Wonder of It All

In the early years of the 21st century, most of the population of the State of Connecticut knew the words to the song “The Wonder of It All.” This was an advertising jingle, done in the style of the old Rat-Pack crooners, used to advertise the Indian-run Casino, Foxwoods, at Ledyard, on Long Island Sound.

Popular culture, popular music especially, continues to exhibit its close ties to the games of chance that have offered it their lush support. Just a couple of years after Foxwoods casino finally retired the tune “The Wonder of It All,” Lady Gaga came out with “Poker Face,” which is where we came in.

“Just like a chick in the casino/ Take your bank before I pay you out/ I promise this, promise this/check this hand ‘cause I’m marvelous.”

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