L.A. Opera’s Haunting Harmonica May Drive Men Mad



Are you ready for some serious drama? Like, stabbings and betrayal and a Scottish castles and a musical instrument that could drive people insane?

L.A. Opera’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor opens next weekend (after Billy Budd closes), and we were lucky enough to get a sneak peak at one of the stars: a bizarre musical instrument known as a glass harmonica. The idea is simple enough: you wet your finger and run it around the edge of a cup, but instead of your finger moving, the cups are on a rotating spindle, each tuned to a specific note.

We have a video of a demonstration at the end, and you’ll truly be amazed by what this weird-looking contraption sounds like when in the right hands.

Gaetano Donizetti originally included a glass harmonica in the score, but changed it to a flute (supposedly because the harmonica player refused to play due to non-payment). But L.A. Opera will honor the original orchestration with this strange, haunting instrument, played by Thomas Bloch.


The story of Lucia is what you might call “soap opera” today. An emotional young woman is torn between love and family, is forced to marry, and descends into an insane murderous rampage. Fun!



The glass harmonica is a perfect match for the story, since it was reputed to cause madness in its time (the 1700s). But don’t worry! It almost definitely does not actually cause insanity, though the sound may vex your dog. One prevailing theory is that players were afflicted with lead poisoning due to prolonged contact with the glass, which at that time would have contained lead.



The story is based on the real-life wedding-night stabbing of David Dunbar by his bride Janet Dalrymple in 1669. She never recovered from the fit of madness and was dead (somehow) within a month. Dunbar survived, only to die years later by falling off a horse. Dangerous times!



Thomas Bloch describes the glass harmonica as “a kebab, only with cups instead of meat.” One of the logistical challenges to playing is that the sheet music gets completely drenched. Also, it’s hard to play with Los Angeles water, since it’s so filtered. The opera had to fly in bottles of European water, which apparently had sufficient particulates to coax notes from the cups.



There are no kilts in the production, through there are two sporrans, which are basically ye old Scottish fannypacks.



And here’s a video of the whole affair: