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Nights (and some sunday afternoons) at The Opera

May 7, 2012

I like opera. I like seeing it live more than listening to it. Opera is music, poetry, narrative, acting and design all in one eye-popping, ear-filling, mind blowing experience. It is also a little bit absurd, but I like that too.

Best ever opera experience: Aida by the cash-strapped Opera Company of Boston with Shirley Verrett singing the role of the Ethiopian princess for the first time.

Aida is the grandest of grand opera. The “Triumphal Scene” (Act II, scene 2) depicts the return of the victorious Egyptian army to Memphis as a ballet. Hundreds of soldiers parade past a crowd of a thousand spectators plus Pharaoh and his court in all their finery. They present the spoils of war, captured treasure, weapons, animals and many score POWs. There are 3 choruses, 6 soloists and a bunch of 3-foot long trumpets all going like mad.

The production of Aida I saw wasn’t as big and opulent as Franco Zefferelli’s for Teatro Massimo de Palermo, but it sure felt like it was.

How was Sarah Caldwell going to put all this on stage with her shoestring budget? She doubled the pace of the ballet music. It went by so fast there wasn’t time for the usual circus. After this breathless opening came the emotional reversals that befall the lead characters—heartbreaking melodies all sung to perfection. The spectators praise the hero, the priests praise the gods, the POWs praise pharaoh; the soloists sing about love, fate and vengeance and those stupendous herald trumpets come back tatta T-tatta T-tatta T-tatta  T-ta Ta Ta TA DAAM! The stage goes black and there is not a sound. The audience is absolutely stunned. The lights come back up on the tableau, and the theatre erupts. We are on our feet as one clapping and cheering and shouting bravo, bravo! Triumphal indeed.

Markella Hatziano as Amneris and Shirley Verrett as Aida in Sarah Caldwell’s unforgettable production.

Let the music do the talking

Music is the art that has the most direct affect on the emotions. Who knows why (some psycho-neurologists probably). But it is true. A song will make you smile or cry or pump your fist in the air faster than reading words, watching actors or looking at a picture. And that is the key to opera’s power. The music gives you immediate access to the character’s emotion. The tenor may sing “I’ll love you forever,” but it’s the music that tells you whether or not he means it; if the soprano believes him and whether the baritone likes it or not. And do you hear that oboe and the cellos playing descending arpegios? That’s Fate laughing at them all.

La Traviata II.1. Violetta leaves Alfredo alone with his father. She says “see you later.” The music says “good bye forever.”

This is not to say that the singing actor can just coast along. People respond to people. Instruments get our sympathy; singers get empathy. Phrasing, intonation, dynamics and pacing make the difference between a good performance and a great one because they convey character and individuality. At the end of La Traviata Violetta knows she is dying, but where on the Kubler-Ross progression is she—denial, bargaining, acceptance? Every soprano while singing the same notes as the others is able to give a different performance. That is why it is possible to produce the same operas over and over again and still attract an audience. The story is the same, but the emotional journey for the spectator is different. That can’t happen with a movie.

Don Carlo I.1 (II.1 in France). Don’t understand the words? You can tell from the tune they are singing something to do with honor and destiny and changing the world.

Opera is enjoyable simply for being good music. Big arias were the pop tunes of their day. The most popular music dramas are chock full of good tunes. There are bits you want to see over again because they are just so pleasurable:

Favorite Singers: Sherrill Milnes, one of the all-time great baritones (in costume as Rigoletto). Most of his roles were villains; all his characters had charisma and a touch of humanizing vulnerability.

I dare you to say that again, you Wagnerian SOB!

Declaring “I like opera” is not the same as saying “I’m an elite snob.” The myth that opera is elitist and snooty comes from, I think, two sources—the ticket price and the misnomer that it is intellectually taxing. Both are true, but not.

Opera tickets cost the same as major league sports. That is, good seats are equally unaffordable. As for snobbishness, let me say that I never saw anyone get heckled for wearing the wrong clothes at an opera house. Wearing the wrong jersey at a stadium could get your killed. I’ve also never gotten anything spilled on me at the opera. And a split of champagne at Sarasota Opera House is cheaper than a beer at Tampa Bay Times Forum. So no, sports are not more egalitarian than performing arts. What makes sports more popular than opera is the size of the venues and the length of the season. The Metropolitan Opera House holds 3,625 people. Yankee Stadium, 52,325

And just because sports are “popular” does not mean they are not intellectually demanding. Football is not a simple game. Doing your brackets is hard work. There are many fans who can discuss the intricacies of management strategy vs. field tactics—with facts to back them up—as intensely as physicists at a string theory seminar. That’s elitist behavior—even if you are drinking Bud Lite.

American mezzo Jessye Norman has a voice like a dark fire inside a ruby. It encompasses all the experience of humanity since our exile from Eden. I have heard her 3 times in recital and twice in concert. (picture credit: Carol Feldman)

I don’t go in for the intellectual approach, because opera is not complicated. In fact it is the very “operaticness” of opera that makes it easy to follow. Singing takes longer than talking, so operas have many fewer words than spoken shows. There are fewer characters and much simpler plots. Between the supertitles, the mood of the music and the acting it is pretty easy to tell what is going on. So you don’t need to study every plot twist in advance. I mean, you don’t read up on the complete plot of a movie before you see it, right? The shock is more fun. Because I didn’t read the synopsis of La Rondine, I was the only auditer to gasp when Lisette’s secret lover revealed himself.


Giving further lie to the elitism charge—Opera was part of popular culture not so long ago. The Marx Brothers used it. So did the Three Stooges in “Micro Phonies,” “Brideless Groom” and “Squareheads of the Round Table.” And of course there are the Bugs Bunny classics  “Rabbit of Seville” and “What’s Opera Doc?”

Il Trovatore didn’t need Groucho to be completely absurd. (It’s The Opera the brothers have their Night At).

Did she really just say that?

One more aspect I enjoy about opera is its absurdity. I don’t mean people singing instead of talking, although it does get really silly. For instance, at the end of Attila the famous Hun is confronted by 4 would-be assassins. While they stand around singing about how much they hate Attila and who has the right to the first stab, their victim could just walk away.

Il Trovatore has a really stupid plot. That of Vanessa makes no sense at all (the whole libretto should be thrown out). In Aida 3,000-year-old Egyptians act like mid 19th C bourgeoisie. Gilda (daughter of Rigoletto) gives her life for the sake of a man who: lied to her in Act 1; raped her in Act 2; and goes to a brothel in Act 3. Really?

Soprano Lina Tetriani (nee Tetruashvili in Tiblisi) is soon to be a great international star. She brings heartbreaking immediacy to tragic heroines such as Violetta, Mimi and Nedda who die on stage, as well as those forced to live on such as the Magdas of The Counsel and La Rondine.

I haven’t the privilege of witnessing anything as awesome as that first Aida, but I have had many other memorable evenings at the opera.

  • New Year’s Eve at the Met with Marilyn Horne sparkling like champagne in Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers.
  • My first Turandot (also Sarah Caldwell’s OCB) made me cry.
  • Fidelio (my favorite piece), in Toronto, was full of thrills. During the finale it felt like the top of my head had come off and pure light was pouring into it.
  • There was a Salome where the full-figured and brave soprano danced “The Dance of The 7 Veils” herself and flashed the audience twice as the veils came off in the wrong order.
  • Another Fidelio given at El Palau Música Catalana after the Gran Teatre del Liceu had been gutted by a suspicious fire. The Liceu orchestra played “Leonora Overture #3” in the interval before the last scene (although no scenery change took place). When that brazenly heroic music was through a woman shouted out (in Catalan) “Rebuild the Liceu!” and everyone cheered. Opera and politics mix.

Even Stooges love opera. Mr. Howard, Mr. Fine, Mr. Howard and friends in “Squareheads of the Round Table.”

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