…even though both are quite ‘operatic’.
When I was in school (way back in aught ’75) we all had to learn something about ‘opera’. But of course, it was all a big joke. I mean seriously: fat people trying to play ‘cinderella’; screaming in a way that no ‘normal’ person sings; with plots so ridiculous even Harlequin Romances wouldn’t publish ’em. And they’re in… wait for it… eye-talian to boot!
And if that’s what I thought—someone who was trying to like that shi.. er ‘music’, heaven help the man in the street!
I now actually enjoy many of the classic operas, though no modern ones as of yet. And I think I’ve figured out why by watching some good ol’ Swedish Death Metal. In one phrase: alternative reality.
See what I couldn’t dig when I was 18 was that opera has to be appreciated strictly on it’s own terms. It’s an alternative world just as real as being inside ‘The Matrix’. You have to agree to it’s rules or it’s just no go. But once you do, once you stop judging it according to ‘the real world’ and surrender to life on this other plane, a different range of human experience opens up to you.
OK, now dig the average guy who goes to an average Swedish Death Metal concert. He dresses like Vincent Price on a bad day, and sings along to lyrics about exterminating… er… whatever it is they’re exterminating in that particular song. Lots of faux blood flows, many cow skulls get crushed and a good time is had by all.
Here’s the difference: The well-known operas are great art and Swedish Death Metal is crap.
See I thought opera was supposed to hit me the way it does Julia Roberts in that hooker movie… you know, she goes to her first opera and just starts bawling because there is something ‘ineffable’ about Puccini that gets to everyone with a heart. And I was wrong. Opera is not just about visceral emotion; in fact, that’s like the smallest part of it. And that’s why great opera will always be miles ahead of any entertainment that speaks only to the heart and not to the head.
Opera has to be in this alternative universe and the plots have to be what they are in order to get to a deeper truth. A Swedish Death Metal show, or for that matter any alternative reality, including video games like Quake or whatever don’t get ya there.
Why am I going on about this? Because ‘operatic’ has become synonymous with traits that are just not at the core of what opera is about; ‘operatic’ is about what people who don’t get opera think it’s about: overblown melodrama.
What turned it around for me? Ever have a thought that sticks with you for years? Well, something stuck in my head from a music history book I read way back in 1975. The anecdote was that a confused listener complained to the composer Gluck that his most current work was no good because, during an aria, the orchestra was playing an ominous theme while the soprano sang a happy melody over it. The listener demanded that since she was singing a happy song, the orchestra should also be playing a happy tune. Gluck explained it to him this way: ‘She is lying. It is the orchestra that is telling the truth!’ That stuck with me; that in opera you could have many psychological layers going on all at the same time in a way that no other art form (before film) could match. I still didn’t actually like Gluck, but the thought intrigued me and I kept trying occasionally to give a listen and then, one day, I found myself actually enjoying a bit of Pelleas Et Melisande.
The older I get the more I appreciate the message inside these pieces and how much work is incumbent on me to sample what they have to offer. It’s sort of the musical equivalent of a great mushroom hunt. Lots of work, but in the end, great reward. But first you have to learn to like mushrooms!
If you’re skeptical and new to opera, I hope you’ll check out my Links page for a couple of operas to get you started. They are not only great listening, but every one is like an advanced course in one aspect of human psychology.
Post Script: I want to touch briefly on why, for me, there has never been an modern opera in english that works. Or maybe there has been, but the ones I have heard, by Adams, Corigliano and all those minimalist guys just drive me nuts. I’m beginning to think that english is just not the language of opera. It may be that being fluent in the language prevents me from losing myself in the alternate world. Of course I’m not saying that Italians can’t appreciate Italian opera, but what I am saying is that there is something within the sound of Italian that sure helps.
I also think that, like other older art forms, opera should be left alone. Most modern operas, to me, seem like they would be far better off as Broadway Musicals. Back in the day, composers knew when to stop doing Concerti Grossi and start working on more ‘modern’ forms. Maybe it’s time to accept that shows like ‘Oklahoma’ and ‘West Side Story’ are the Twentieth Century’s great contribution to the Gesamkunstwerke and stop trying to make contemporaneous figures (eg. Nixon) sing arias like Don Giovanni.