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."

Unraveling the Many Mysteries of Neil Diamond's 'Sweet Caroline'

Keystone/Getty Images
Keystone/Getty Images

The story of Neil Diamond’s "Sweet Caroline" has it all: love, baseball, Kennedys, Frank Sinatra, Elvis, and the triumph of the human spirit. It’s pop’s answer to the national anthem, and as any karaoke belter or Boston Red Sox fan will tell you, it’s way easier to sing than "The Star-Spangled Banner." As the song celebrates its 50th birthday this year, now’s a good time—so good, so good, so good—to dig into the rich history of a tune people will still be singing in 2069.

"Where it began, I can’t begin to knowing," Diamond sings in the song’s iconic opening lines. Except the "where" part of this story is actually pretty simple: Diamond wrote "Sweet Caroline" in a Memphis hotel room in 1969 on the eve of a recording session at American Sound Studio. By this point in his career, Diamond had established himself as a fairly well-known singer-songwriter with two top-10 hits—"Cherry Cherry" and "Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon"—to his name. He’d also written "I’m a Believer," which The Monkees took to #1 in late 1966.

 

The "who," as in the identity of the "Caroline" immortalized in the lyrics, is the much juicier question. In 2007, Diamond revealed that he was inspired to write the song by a photograph of Caroline Kennedy, daughter of John F. Kennedy, that he saw in a magazine in the early ‘60s, when he was a "young, broke songwriter."

"It was a picture of a little girl dressed to the nines in her riding gear, next to her pony," Diamond told the Associated Press. "It was such an innocent, wonderful picture, I immediately felt there was a song in there.” Years later, in that Memphis hotel room, the song was finally born.

Neil Diamond sings the National Anthem prior to Super Bowl XXI between the New York Giants and the Denver Broncos at the Rose Bowl on January 25, 1987 in Pasadena, California
George Rose/Getty Images

Perhaps because it’s a little creepy, Diamond kept that tidbit to himself for years and only broke the news after performing the song at Kennedy’s 50th birthday in 2007. "I’m happy to have gotten it off my chest and to have expressed it to Caroline," Diamond said. "I thought she might be embarrassed, but she seemed to be struck by it and really, really happy."

The plot thickened in 2014, however, as Diamond told the gang at NBC’s TODAY that the song is really about his first wife, Marsha. "I couldn’t get Marsha into the three-syllable name I needed,” Diamond said. "So I had Caroline Kennedy’s name from years ago in one of my books. I tried ‘Sweet Caroline,’ and that worked."

It certainly did. Released in 1969, "Sweet Caroline" rose to #4 on the Billboard Hot 100. In the decade that followed, it was covered by Elvis Presley, soul great Bobby Womack, Roy Orbison, and Frank Sinatra. Diamond rates Ol’ Blue Eyes’ version the best of the bunch.

"He did it his way," Diamond told The Sunday Guardian in 2011. "He didn't cop my record at all. I've heard that song by a lot of people and there are a lot of good versions. But Sinatra's swingin', big-band version tops them all by far."

 

Another key question in the "Sweet Caroline" saga is "why"—why has the song become a staple at Fenway Park in Boston, a city with no discernible connection to Diamond, a native of Brooklyn?

It’s all because of a woman named Amy Tobey, who worked for the Sox via BCN Productions from 1998 to 2004. During those years, Tobey had the wicked awesome job of picking the music at Sox games. She noticed that "Sweet Caroline" was a crowd-pleaser, and like any good baseball fan, she soon developed a superstition. If the Sox were up, and Tobey thought they were going to win the game, she’d play the song somewhere in between the seventh and ninth innings.

"I actually considered it like a good luck charm," Tobey told The Boston Globe in 2005. "Even if they were just one run [ahead], I might still do it. It was just a feel." It became a regular thing in 2002, when Fenway’s new management asked Tobey to play "Sweet Caroline" during the eighth inning of every home game, regardless of the score.

At first, Tobey was worried that mandatory Diamond would lead to bad luck on the actual diamond. But that wasn’t the case, as the Sox won the World Series in 2004, ending the "Curse of the Bambino" and giving Beantown its first title since 1918. In 2010, Diamond made a surprise appearance at Fenway to perform "Sweet Caroline" during the Red Sox's season opener against the New York Yankees. He wore a Sox cap and a sports coat emblazoned with the message "Keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn."

 

A different mood greeted Diamond when he returned to Fenway on April 20, 2013, just five days after bombings at the Boston Marathon killed three people and injured nearly 300 others. "What an honor it is for me to be here today," Diamond told the crowd. "I bring love from the whole country." He then sang along with the ‘69 recording of the song, leading the crowd in the "Ba! Ba! Ba!" and "So good! So good! So good!" ad-libs that have essentially become official lyrics. Diamond also donated all the royalties he received from the song that week, as downloads increased by 597 percent.

The Red Sox aren't the only sports team to have basked in the glory of "Sweet Caroline." The song has become popular with both the Penn State Nittany Lions and Iowa State Cyclones football squads and has even crossed the Atlantic to become part of the music rotation for England's Castleford Tigers crew team and Britain's Oxford United Football Club.

Over the last five decades, millions of people have had their lives touched by "Sweet Caroline" in one way or another. The enduring popularity must be a pleasant surprise for Diamond, who had no idea he’d written a classic back in 1969. "Neil didn't like the song at all," Tommy Cogbill, a bass player at American Sound Studio, said in an interview for the 2011 book Memphis Boys. "I actually remember him not liking it and not wanting it to be a single."

Elvis Presley’s Lincoln Limousine "Family Car" Is Hitting the Auction Block

Elvis Presley not only liked peanut-butter-bacon-and-banana sandwiches, he also loved cars. The King owned more than 100 automobiles, including several limos. Whereas most of his cars—and his plane—have been preserved at Graceland, one of Elvis’s lesser-known and most sentimental cars has almost been forgotten. Atlas Obscura reports that Presley’s 1967 Lincoln Continental Executive Limousine by Lehmann-Peterson will hit the auction block in Monterey, California, on August 15, courtesy of Mecum Auctions.

“Colonel” Tom Parker, Presley's manager, gifted the limo to Elvis and Priscilla on their wedding day in 1967. For the '60s, it featured a lot of advanced amenities, like air conditioning, power steering, power brakes, power windows, a power antenna, and a power front bench seat. Over the years, it became known as the Elvis Presley Family Car. Elvis’s imprint is all over it: The limo’s Tennessee license plate reads “1-Elvis,” and comes with a copy of the car’s original title application, with Elvis’s name on it.

But since Presley’s death in August 1977, the car has fallen into disrepair—dust covers the black exterior and interior. In 2014, the car was found in car collector James Petrozzini’s collection after Petrozzini died. As Mecum Auctions states, Petrozzini liked to use the limo to pick up his son and his friends from school while wearing a chauffeur’s hat and white gloves.

If you’re interested in bidding, Mecum Auctions recommends calling for an estimate. For comparison: In 2018 Presley’s 1971 Mercedes-Benz sold for $116,600.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER