Sydney Opera House

What the Fonica

Those who attended our recent season of Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West and possessed of keen ears may have chanced to hear an interesting aural effect in the last three bars of Act I, a shimmering, tremulous metallic chord emanating from behind the scenes as the curtain descends on the love duet of Dick Johnson and Minnie.

One of the many gifts of possibly the greatest opera composer of his generation was Puccini's exceptional skills as an orchestrator. His tonal palette is instantly recognisable from the first bars of any of his works and his idiomatic sense of colour paved the way for the next generation of composers for the theatre and, significantly, the nascent film industry that was burgeoning in the last decade of his life.

On first hearing, the "Hollywood" moments of La fanciulla are quite striking until one remembers that its first performance in 1910 it predates by some decades the classic movie scores of Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Franz Waxman. (Broadway too, owes a debt of gratitude).

At the end of Act I, seeking to express both the state of mind and 'angelic' character of the heroine Minnie, Puccini writes a simple three-note chord (B, E, B) for an instrument he calls the Fonica. Now, Fonica is not an instrument as such, simply Italian for 'acoustic', so although Puccini knew what he had in mind it was a case of finding someone who could turn his concept into reality.

Enter Romeo Orsi, a prodigious talent from Como who gained his diploma from the Royal Conservatory of Milan at age twenty and went on to play clarinet at La Scala. In around 1880 he joined forces with Paolo Maino to develop an instrument factory, (still in existence today), specialising in woodwind instruments but also becoming a noted inventor and instrument builder for the composers of the time when they needed special effects. As well as Puccini, Verdi, Giordano, Mascagni and Leoncavallo were amongst those to call on his services.

In the autograph score of La fanciulla Puccini describes the Fonica as "tubular bells behind the scenes, struck electrically with sponge-headed sticks". (The reference to electricity may be striking but Puccini had a great love of mechanical gadgetry, from motor cars to the automated lawn sprinkler system on his estate). Practical difficulties with this idea may well have played a part, but in the event the instrument Orsi developed is nothing like the above description.

Instead, Orsi built a box approximately 3 feet long by 18 inches wide with six metal bars equating to the three pitches specified (two of each). Above this a crank-operated arm suspends six felt-covered beaters. When the crank is turned the beaters strike the bars alternately to create a tremolo. The effect is very much like our modern percussion instrument the Vibraphone, and indeed, in all but one opera house in the world this is today’s customary substitute and what Opera Australia audiences heard this Winter.

All but one because by the greatest good fortune the sole remaining Fonica, (Orsi apparently built two), was discovered some years ago in the bowels of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden by then Principal Percussionist Michael Skinner; 'The Garden' is the only place you will now hear this percussive curio in the form that Puccini himself would have recognised.

Sadly, Puccini left us none of his thoughts on the Fonica, its inspiration, creation, or whether indeed he even liked the resulting sound - a report from the time describes it as "not pleasing". La fanciulla itself was not a great hit; he returned from its New York premiere to the domestic strife of his alleged affair with Doria Manfredi, a strained relationship with publisher Giulio Ricordi and the looming disaster of the Great War.

You can see a 30 second clip of the Covent Garden Fonica in action here.

- David Clarence, Australian and Opera Ballet Orchestra

With thanks to Nigel Bates, former Principal Percussion of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden for his invaluable assistance. Photo and webclip courtesy of Nigel Bates.