First, we have probably the most famous aria in operatic history: "Vesti la Giubba" ("Put on the Costume"), from Ruggero Leoncavallo's opera Pagliacci ("The Clowns"), first performed in 1892. The opera portrays love and betrayal in a theatrical troupe, with the unstated premise being Shakespeare's proposition that "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players." In "Vesti la Giubba," the clown "Taddeo" mourns the fact that his beloved co-player, "Columbine," has been two-timing him with another player, "Harlequin." That's all you need to know, and that's plenty. The lyric changes slightly with various artists; the translation below is of Pavarotti's version:
Go on stage, while I’m nearly delirious?
I don’t know what I’m saying or what I’m doing!
And yet, chin up! I’ll try harder. Bah, you think you’re a man?
You are just a clown! on with the show, man,
And put on your white-face.
The people pay you and you must make them laugh.
And if Harlequin should steal your Columbine, laugh,
You’re pagliaccio, and the world will clap for you!
Turn into banter all your pain and sorrow,
And with your clowns’ face hide grief and distress...
The "laugh, clown, laugh" idea has, since Pagliacci (if not before then) become something of a cliché: scores of songs have made use of the idea, such as the country singer Eddie Rabbit's "Laughin' on the Outside, Cryin' on the Inside." But perhaps no one so blatantly associated it with Pagliacci than the brilliant Smokey Robinson, who even mentioned "the clowns" in his delightful 1970 record, "The Tears of a Clown." Incidentally, for all the success of Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, this was his only #1 hit. I think Leoncavallo would have approved.