Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Why Opera! An Apology.

Dear Conversely,

I have been thinking about our conversation regarding opera. I understand that on the first listen an opera can be disconcerting and sometimes less than viscerally enjoyable. However, I wanted to explain why I love it so, and even if you don't become a fan, I know you will understand the basics of the attraction.

Opera, for me is more than a music genre. It doesn't exist, in my mind, as a contrast to Rock, Blues, Jazz, or Country (some of which I like). It exists, instead, as a higher form of art, and one that stands on a special plane because it combines so many things. Opera incorporates poetry and literature in the libretto, the highest form of vocal music, orchestral music, drama, as well as all the artistic accoutrements of extensive stage production with lighting, costuming, sets, even special effects.

As I listen to opera, I experience the same kind of heart-pounding awefilled response that one gets when reading a climactic line in a poem. The thing is, you get that, over and over, first through the libretto, then through a musical motif, then through fine acting, then through the profundity of the set design. And as with all good art, the more you see a particular opera, the better it gets. You begin to anticipate moments, saying in your mind, "How will this soprano treat the mad aria in I Puritani," or "Will they use the full dramatic effect of the orchestral interlude in the scene where Tosca murders Scarpia?"

Opera does take work to be able to enjoy it fully. Before I listen to an opera for the first time, I study a synopsis of the plot line. If I can, I find one with the musical motifs so I can play them on my piano and begin to familiarize myself with the sounds. After I have heard an opera several times, sometimes I get hold of a libretto to read the lyrics.

I have to say, our culture and educational system has done too little to train the ears of the general public for the appreciation of the higher forms of music in general and opera in particular. When I attend the opera here in Knoxville, I am always stunned that it is an event for the white hairs. I look around the still-crowded audience and see that it is composed of people my age or older, with a scattering of students. "My," I say to myself, "what they are missing." The Metropolitan Opera from NYC, in the last couple of years has been doing a great thing broadcasting a limited (and very fine) venue to high definition theaters. I think, actually, it may be rescuing opera for the next generation.

I was just a little younger than you when I first began listening to, and then, enjoying opera. What did I see first? Hm.m.m, I can't recall. I suppose I don't remember the early ones so much because it was work, and not so enjoyable. I do remember a Tosca (by Giaccomo Puccini) at the Met after I was first married, probably in 1976. The soprano wasn't vocally at the top of her career. But I remember the drama as she placed candles, first at Scarpia's left shoulder, then at his right shoulder, rose, turned to face the audience with a confessional stare, and then fled the stage. The enormous audience was silent, speechless, and then erupted with applause, and bravos, hoots, and flowers. A strange man a few seats from us, waved his beret and shouted, "She's the only Tosca, she's the only Tosca." Those moments become unforgettable.

And I remember my first Peter Grimes. That's an opera by Benjamin Britten. The set was stark. The thing I remember most was a fishing boat in the the center of the stage.

That set was designed to communicate the existential loneliness of Grimes. More recently I saw a Grimes setting that was designed to emphasize a totally different aspect of the opera. The main feature of the set was a wall of buildings symbolizing the town and the barriers it had built in relation to Grimes, who could never gain access to the heart of the community.

My family used to watch Met Broadcasts on television. We would listen for the credits at the end to hear the regular reference to the man who handled the lighting for years, Gil Wechsler. I don't know what made us diehard Gil Wechsler fans, but we were. Excellence in the details of such things as lighting, is the kind of thing that takes a fine opera performance and turns it into a work of art.

So, that is a little bit of "Why Opera?" I could go on and on. But I will leave it at that for now, hoping, a little bit, that you will give it another try. (I think I'd recommend Puccini---Tosca, La Boheme, or Turandot.)

In the comments section I will add some links to good examples of some of the other things I like about opera.



cadh 8 said...

As a child of such an opera fan, I have some interesting and cherished memories of a few opera's myself.

First, a line from Pucchini's La Boheme (forgive my misspellings, as I know there may be some when dealing with these strange words). Anyway, the line is "You're hand is cold, let me warm it in my own" It is from a very famous musical part of the opera, but of course the opera is in Italian. However, when I saw the opera, I was so fucused on the subtitles that when I hear the music, I can sing the English to that line. That is certainly my favorite of all operas. Pucchini is easy to listen to.
An early memory was video taping the "Ring Cycle" and mom and her best friend watching what seemed like an endless performance of strange German singing, Valkerie type costumes, a strange creature living in the ocean and a ring. We kids just enjoyed the fact that we got to play with our friends while our mothers watched.

Another memory was going to see an opera, Tosca I think, in high school with my mom and a friend.

Finally, in college when I was VP of Academic life in our student government, I decided to plan a trip to the opera. Madame Butterfly this time. It was neat to sort of lead the charge of a group of college students who thought they were so cultured going to the opera, most for the first time.

My final important memory about opera is that, although it is called the "Phantom of the Opera", none of the works of Andrew Lloyd Webber are actually operas!! :)

brd said...

Although I don't remember my own first opera, cadh 8, I think I remember yours. It was on TV and we watched together in the farmhouse where we lived when you were born. The opera was Cenerentola, or Cinderella, by Rossini.

It is a fun opera with a wonderful sextet. I will try to find a link to a youtube video of the sextet and post that if I can.

brd said...

La Cenerentola Sextet "Voi prence siete?" with Marilyn Horne.

brd said...

One of the things I love about opera is the physical vocal virtuosity. It is amazing at times to hear a great soprano or tenor reach for the high and difficult notes and really nail them. The other night I went to the La Scala movie presentation of La Traviata and listened to Angelina Gheorghiu sing the Violetta role. There is a scene which is very emotional and virtuosic. The aria is entitled Sempre Libera. Take a listen.

I guess this has gotten me thinking about virtuosity. I went to You Tube and found a nice set of contests put on by "LindoroRossini" who has posted comparisons of arias from many of the historically great sopranos. The wonder of You Tube and the wonder of these great voices. I recommend listening to these comparisons in close aural proximity. As I listened, I began to see how very different and wonderful each unique voice can be. My link is to one version of Son vergin vezzosa sung by Maria Callas who is thought to be one of the greatest coloratura sopranos of the 20th century.