Admitting that you like opera is like putting on your own personal dork suit. It’s just not done, the same way you don’t pour acid on yourself or step out in traffic. But I wear the suit regularly. And I rock it.
I have liked classical music, and by happy extension, opera, since I was young. I also listen to The Who, Nickleback, Frank Sinatra, Thelonius Monk, Alison Krauss and The Hold Steady, among many others — a fact which makes a lot of my friends scratch their heads with the hand they’re not using to slap some sense into me.
Still, opera feels like a reward to me. The other day, I finished up a memo I had been working on patiently for some time. As I closed my computer, I thought, “Alright then. I have earned my art.” And that evening, I treated myself to a Metropolitan Opera Live in HD movie-theater broadcast (a re-air, in this case) of Massenet’s Manon. It was outstanding.
Its naysayers analyze their dislike of opera into various percentages of screechiness, highfalutin snobbery, “oldness” (perhaps the biggest sin in this day and age), and inaccessibility. I know better. Given the chance, many of opera’s detractors would react like Julia Roberts’ character in Pretty Woman, who admitted that women in her profession (the oldest) had not had much exposure to the arts. After the Richard Gere character took her to a performance, she reported to a lady who asked whether she enjoyed it, “It was so good I almost peed my pants!”
In pursuit of an only slightly more refined version of that reaction, here are my chief reasons why opera is fantastic. Notice I didn’t say cool. I said fantastic.
It’s More Than the Sum of Its Parts. Theater — the word we use nowadays when we mean plays — is very good. Whole worlds created in the space of 70 or 80 feet make the audience forget that it’s drywall and chicken wire; people playing a grown-up version of make-believe convince us that they are Mozart or Willy Loman or Romeo. Music is similarly wonderful. In a concert hall or nightclub, the margins of the world shrink inward to admit no extraneous bullshit. It takes no practiced mental discipline to close your eyes and listen to the Beethoven or surrender to whatever steps “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” suggest to your feet.
Mix these things, and you’ve got a potent potion. Sung passions are more intense than spoken, and the background music that you actually hear with everyone else in the opera house is even better than the soundtrack you hear in your head during your regular life. Verdi, Puccini and all the others were onto something when they bought into the notion that private life has a music to it, and saying that music out loud would entrance people. Singing the story as it is acted out somehow makes it seem more important than it would be if simply spoken.
Once you surrender to the music, even the most stilted lyrics from times gone by (“Ah! Giorgio! How can I live without you!” and that ilk) become forgivable. The drama takes over, and Butterfly’s death or Carmen’s pushing Don José to the violent edge of sexual tension become stories we can sink our minds into, all with music being played right there by real people.
By the way, musical theater counts too. Les Miserables, which has virtually no spoken dialogue, is technically operatic, to my mind, and it’s a very compelling show. (Manon, La Traviata, and Die Zauberflote, to name just a few, have brief passages of spoken dialogue, but that does not disqualify them as opera.) So modern audiences have a touchstone for understanding the power of music and story combined. Opera is not such a great reach from that.
It’s Sexy. Good singing actors smolder. The Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, who is by modern standards a big girl — the kind my grandmother meant when she said zaftig — is nonetheless fantastically alluring. All the more when she opens her mouth and lets that voice out. Pair her with Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, aka McDreamy with a voice, and the crew starts manning the sprinkler system. Something’s going to ignite in all that heat.
Freed from the Victorian conventions (and even censors) that saw it through its heyday, modern opera staging has plenty of room for tasteful, but still effective, presentations of the sensuality written into the original stories. And not all the singers are of the Netrebko mold. Mojca Erdmann, a soprano from Hamburg, would more likely be taken at first glance for a magazine model than the talented Mozartian soprano she is. And Renee Fleming, while also pretty, is just so damned smart, and there’s not much that is sexier than that.
I won’t substitute my judgment for that of women readers on the subject of men in opera. But let’s just say that if you can command the stage like Dmitri Hvorostovsky or Marius Kwiezcen, it’s unlikely that getting dates is a problem.
It’s Classy. It’s acceptable in this informal age to show up at the opera in something less than Sunday best. Nice casual usually gets it done. Even at certain performances at the art form’s Olympus, the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, jeans are not frowned upon.
But an evening performance in New York City — or London, Chicago, Paris, Milan, and dozens of other cities — begs for gowns, pearls and tuxedoes. Cab rides and drinks and knowing smiles, enjoying the music together, single roses and late dinner and barefoot walks in the park, Manolo Blahniks in one hand, the other free to hold, moonlight doing its magic…
Opera is perfect for that.
It Paints Memories. Opera has a better chance, with me at least, of building a mental scrapbook than its single components do. I love symphony, ballet, plays — but their memories lack the detail that a good opera performance does. I recall with utter clarity an evening at The Pittsburgh Opera when I was in high school. The opera was Carmen, and in the last act, the passion-drunk Don José appeared, seeming to know he must have Carmen — or succumb to the evil in his heart that will make him kill her. When he came onstage and lurked against the wall of a set piece, trying to keep Carmen from knowing he was observing her — the look of desperation and anguish on his face was like an electric jolt. And he had not yet sung a note in that act.
Then, too, there are the offstage memories. I got to attend a lot of Pittsburgh Opera productions in high school because I was in the choir, and the Opera provided back-row, all-the-way-upstairs tickets for interested choir members. For free. So in my youth, I got to discover much of the music and theater I now love.
And being in my youth, I was trying to discover love, too. You see, an opera was a chance to sit in the dark next to Paula Line, a choir colleague with a nice voice, ebullient personality, blonde hair and an athletically luscious body. (Her real name was not Paula Line. It just looks better in print than “Paula ______.”) But there were other choir members with us, and Ms. Line always had a long waiting list of young swains to pick through. So no tuxedoes and barefoot walks ensued — not with me, anyway.
But a lot of ideas did, all accompanied by magnificent music and gripping drama — and it all melded into whatever romance and artistry I can claim in my life today.
If that’s dorky, bring it on. — Adam Barr
Copyright 2012 Adam Barr