Opera is not changing quickly, at least as far as I know. What might well disrupt it soon is the availability of online streaming with services like OperaVision.eu. That, and glorious initiatives such as New York’s bold ‘Mile Long Opera’ from last year (wish I’d been there!). With so many more people able to access opera, composers and writers from fresh walks of life will get a look-in and hopefully start to bring some new sights, sounds and stories to opera, and shake it free from its dust-gathering base.
I only got interested in opera thanks to the Access All Arias programme by English National Opera in London. The venue and the magic of the events enchanted my newbie self, but it was the music that kept me going back. The incredible duet O soave fanciulla in Puccini’s La Bohème moved me to tears. Libiamo ne’lieti calici (the ‘drinking song’), which opens Verdi’s La Traviata, expanded my heart.
Here is the ‘drinking song’ from La Traviata (Met Opera 2018):
Then, when I lost access to the wonders of cheap youth tickets, opera took a back seat in my life as an ‘exclusive’ activity that I wasn’t really part of.
Until one day, when I was taken to see Mozart’s The Magic Flute at Liceu in Barcelona and was completely transported by the Queen of the Night’s unfathomable vocal dexterities (as recently used in a popular US car commercial) as well as the inventive animation in this particular production. Bizet’s Carmen was next (birthday gift, Palau de la Musica Catalana). Tears streamed down my face and soaked my clothing as I was utterly overcome during the duet Parle-moi de ma mère.
I had half-noticed that it was only the recognisably patterned ‘pieces’ within opera that I was experiencing as transcendent. You know: the tracks you’ll find on a ‘Best of opera’ album. When it came to the rest of it, the sing-talking, I had always assumed that there was something I didn’t get.
My next two experiences, Manru (discovered via OperaVision) and Madame Butterfly (birthday gift, Liceu 2019), which contain moments of beautiful choral unity and arias but sing-talk most of the way through, compounded this feeling. Clearly, there was something so sublimely aesthetically perfect about these parts that I was missing the point.
It was a young, ranting Nietzsche who helped me see that I might actually just not like those parts very much. I read his The Birth of Tragedy, in which he derides opera. In his view, opera uses music in a warped way, making it subservient to the narrative. Dramatic narrative should be slave to the music, in his view, as it was in original Greek tragedy. This is due to music being the most original, most human art form, which validates and reaffirms our existence by enabling us to transcend the visual and access the darker parts of ourselves.
“Language can never adequately render the cosmic symbolism of music, because music stands in symbolic relation to the primordial contradiction and primordial pain in the heart of the primal unity, and therefore symbolizes a sphere which is beyond and prior to all phenomena. Rather, all phenomena, compared with it, are merely symbols: hence language, as the organ and symbol of phenomena, can never by any means disclose the innermost heart of music; language, in its attempt to imitate it, can only be in superficial contact with music; while all the eloquence of lyric poetry cannot bring the deepest significance of the latter one step nearer to us.”
― The Birth of Tragedy
My reading of Nietzche’s book explained why the parts that were not orientated around ‘hubs’ or culminations of clear patterns in the music were simply boring me. The music was being subjugated to the story. As a musician myself, I assumed that the music came first: that composers composed beautiful musical pieces and then got hold of a librettist and narrative to join them up and help to ‘gild’ the moments and bring everything together. That is, that story serving music. Meaning that the sing-talking enabled the creation of pretty pictures which joined the dots of the visceral odyssey.
I didn’t care much for the narratives themselves, mainly because of the exhaustingly oppressive representations of gender. I needed to watch them with a tipsy feminist crew behind me to comment bitingly on each moment. And I don’t always have a tipsy feminist crew to hand.
The podcasts and reviews I could find of opera productions were always so reverent of the composers and librettists – the auteur syndrome – that they seemed unwilling or unable to provide much critical appraisal of the power structures at play in, and reinforced by, the plots they came up with. Perhaps that’s because those podcasts and reviews are often commissioned and created by people with power.
So was this a great ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ situation? Were people pretending to like this singing sentences at each other because they thought it was highbrow enough for them to be seen at the opera? As the next one I had planned to see, I hoped The Marriage of Figaro (thanks, OperaVision) would offer me some answers to this conundrum.
I was wrong. If you are wondering why, just watch it! It’s pretty complicated. Voi che sapete is absolutely gorgeous, though, and it’s refreshing that it’s being sung by a woman playing a teenage boy with burgeoning sexuality (Cherubino). Some playful relief from gender tyrannies at last, even if only thanks to the traditional way of casting the part.
When taking leave, one of the special people who had come over to watch it with me commented that we’d done our bit for a while – that we could probably leave opera aside for a bit and take a break. I thought so too, but the following day I found myself checking out OperaVision and reconsidering already. Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen is available for streaming…
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