You Think Opera Sucks? This Lady Doesn’t

So, What Is Opera Anyway? Let’s Ask Wisława Szymborska

 

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Photo by Mariusz Kubik. Source: Wikimedia Commons

(…) The opera world has been managed by tough personal politics. Family relationships have been established by iron relations, as in primal tribes. A soprano is bound to be the daughter of a bass, the wife of a baritone and the lover of a tenor. A tenor is prohibited from fathering an alto or having a sexual intercourse with a contralto. A baritone paramour is a true rarity and he’d better look for a mezzosoprano. For that matter, mezzosopranos should be careful with tenors, as their fate usually leads them into the role of “someone else” or an even more miserable position of a soprano’s friend. The only bearded lady (see Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress) in the history of opera is a mezzo and, naturally, she is unhappy. Basses are almost universally fathers, cardinals, infernal forces, prison officials, and there is one manager of a mental hospital. However, the above notes shouldn’t lead to any conclusion. I respect opera which is not real life and life which is sometimes a real opera.

Excerpt from Nonrequired Reading by Wisława Szymborska

Don’t blame Wisława for this excerpt’s formal shortcomings, if any. Blame the lousy translator, i.e. me.

Want some more opera quotes? Check out this article. It’s only half as boring as most of those endless lists of quotes you might find elsewhere on the internet.

The diva doth scream too much, methinks

(Scarpia) Soccorso, aiuto! (Help, help!)

(Tosca) Ti soffoca il sangue? Muori dannato! Muori, muori, muori!!! (Is your blood choking you? Die accursed! Die, die, die!!!)

Giacomo Puccini, “Tosca”, 2nd act

There’s got to be more to opera than just sighing, crying and dying.

There’s also screaming. A part which I really, really like. One of the practical reasons is neighbors’ noise which eventually leads to retaliation. If neighbors in some lower-class district bother you as they bother me, with their quarrels and babies crying, turn the volume up and give ’em this.

Another reason why I enjoy the screaming is that it’s usually the only part of opera that I can perform convincingly, in the shower or anywhere else.

There’s a man in Amsterdam who also likes to do it. Can you imagine his surprise when the police broke into his apartment to check on domestic violence? They had received a report from a worried neighbor. It happened this year in January.

Enough with the neighborhood issues. (Although I suppose all of us would be satisfied if everyone loved opera. Police officers too. Let’s sensitize, people!)

Did they always scream?

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For centuries opera has been associated with agitated divas and earsplitting sounds they make. Here is what Jean-Jacques Rousseau had to say about it, back in the 18th century:

What you could not possibly imagine are the frightful cries, the long-drawn-out groans which fill the theatre throughout the performance… One sees the actresses, almost in convulsions, violently extracting this screeching from their lungs, their fists clenched against their breasts, their heads held back, their faces inflamed, their blood vessels swoolen, their stomachs quivering… The most difficult thing to understand is that these screeches are almost the only things the spectators applaud.

The thing is, he was an opera composer himself. In this fragment, he was campaigning against the contemporary fad of tragic operas and their abundance of artificiality. Hundreds and thousands of those operas were to be seen in that age, defining – and reflecting – the taste of the establishment. They were sponsored by the court and attended mostly by wealthy aristocrats. (In fact, Rousseau’s only opera, “The Village Soothsayer”, was itself very popular – and appreciated and loved by king Louis XV. Which apparently troubled the great philosopher, who refused an honorary life pension offered by the king himself.) So this unflattering impression came from a critic of opera who, as so many critics of opera, worshipped it. He was just being somewhat malicious for the occasion. And wanted the best for his darling, as we all do.

 

They scream because we want them to

There was once a perfect reader (alongside Don Quixote), the one with a twisted, self-centered imagination, who wanted everything to be about her. It was Flaubert’s (anti-)heroine, Madame Emma Bovary. Let’s see how she professed her literary taste.

I detest commonplace heroes and moderate sentiments, such as there are in nature.

Isn’t she a perfect opera spectator as well? Living a little, ordinary life, but craving thrill that escapes her, lusting after splendor which is all but decent and true-to-life. Searching for stories that are utterly useless, but they are dramatic and beautiful because she doesn’t live them every day.

Opera has always dealt with topics of love, hate, sex, jealousy, power, murder, treachery, magic, witchcraft, curses, maledictions and other mundane matters. And it has an aspiration for overdoing it, both in terms of plot and expression. Even the most simple, down-to-earth stories (and opera likes to use them as well) tend to become unnatural when sung. Especially when you sing while dying. Or sing “I’m dying” while dying.

However, it has never pretended to be realistic. The psychological base of art is the depiction of human experiences just for the sake of us getting to see/hear the heroes suffer and rejoice in our stead. We’ve suffered long enough, after all. But we’ve never rejoiced enough. Art is there to make the balance. Through reception, it converts suffering to delight. That’s what the ancient Greeks called catharsis. And I bet you can feel it in opera more than in any other art.

Let the divas scream, then. When the performance is over, I want to scream too.

 

4 Types of Clothing to Wear to Opera

Io tremo…

After a dull and uneventful week, Dis Oper finally met a girl whom he happened to like. He accidentally bumped into her while playing Pokemon Go. Romantic comedies taught us what happens when you almost knock someone down: chemistry works instantly. So Dis realized he had to ask the lady out. But where to?

In a pleasant chitchat, Placida said she was a student. An exciting rock concert would probably be a good idea, but Dis would rather propose something unhoped for.

A piercing sound coming from someone’s apartment brought to our friend’s mind those concert halls with a fat lady or two and a few gents on stage, accompanied by many musicians beneath it. That would most certainly be an unusual date. A quick check on the internet, and arranged it was. The next day, around six, they would meet in front of an opera house.

The preparations were going on swimmingly until Dis opened his wardrobe. A huge gap was staring at him. What is one supposed to wear when going to a place like that? Let’s jump out of this narrative and help him with a few basic suggestions. (What he experienced at the opera, we’ll discover soon enough, in one of the next posts.)

        1. Jeans and a worn out T-shirt. And trainers. I myself attended some performances at Belgrade Opera dressed like that. Admittedly, my trainers were black, so maybe that’s why they went unnoticed, or so it seemed. Oh, and Belgrade Opera is nothing like the Metropolitan Opera, but let’s assume for a second that Mr. Oper doesn’t live in New York City. After all, he only paid 10 euros for two tickets. So relax, Dis. It is good for you to know that even the great English National Opera had a campaign “Undress for the Opera”, where they encouraged their audiences not exactly to go naked, but to forget the presupposed dress codes and just enjoy the sheer beauty of comfiness. Along with the show, of course.

          Terry Gilliam, a Monty Python member, famous movie AND opera director.

        2. An everyday shirt, pants and plain brown shoes. Dis has never before been to opera. Neither has Placida. They wouldn’t like to stand out. Dis had no money to buy something special for the occasion, but he could put on some of those no-name things he wears when taking an evening walk or going to a movie.

        3. A formal shirt. Cufflinks. Waistcoat. Black tie. Dinner jacket. Polished Italian shoes for the (mostly Italian) show. A-HA, I knew it! So opera IS the place where you would go to show off your tux, if you had one! Maybe Dis could borrow the tux from his dad or a cousin. This would be advisable if he and his partner were to attend Glyndebourne Festival, one of those rare venues where visitors still have wish to do everything by the books (although Glyndebourne’s new general director pointed out earlier this year that people would be welcome in jeans and leather jackets too). The aforementioned Met even has a fashion blog with photos of stylish opera lovers. And that’s OK. When in Rome… The thing is, Rome is not today what it was 5 centuries ago. Nor is opera. So Dis and Placida don’t have to worry.

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      1. Plumage. Accessories – magic pipes and bells to cast away the evil forces. Let’s suppose our heroes’ choice was Mozart’s picturesque “The Magic Flute”. Since it is preferable to read an opera’s plot before attending, Placida and Dis learned about a couple of lovebirds Papageno and Papagena, dressed up as (love)birds. So we would suggest them not to hesitate – they can disguise as their operatic prototypes, and get together at the end of the evening.

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By Luigi Caputo (Salzburger Festspiele), via Wikimedia Commons

 

Why sigh and cry? (when there’s opera)

Ahimè, everyone!

This is yet another attempt of mine to blog about opera. The first try was in my native don’t click if you can’t read Serbian language. Not exactly user-friendly, so not enough audience, of course. (I’ll address this issue in one of my future posts.) Accordingly, I got lazy. And now, a few years later, here I am, to sigh together with all my fellow souls that opera makes suffer (and that make opera suffer, obviously).

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Those of you who still aren’t acquainted with opera will discover that it truly IS mostly about sighing, crying and dying. Dying a lot, and dying loooooong, singing out many wishes and requests. Many opera newbies nag about that: how can someone sing while dying? All I want to say is: I would like more than anything to be able to sing on my deathbed/deathstreet/deathdesert/deathwhatever. It would make such a glorious retribution to the fate. It would be an aestheticized irony, bringing tears to the spectators’ eyes (of course there would HAVE to be spectators) and catharsis to their souls.  But I am not a diva. All I’ve left to do is to sigh together with the opera.

Yep, she is dying alright… From consumption.

But why so bombastic?

Brace yourselves: sonorous pathetics, pomp, all the trashy extravagance, that’s exactly (among many other things) why many of us adore opera. It isn’t just another guilty pleasure. Remember the Olympic games opening ceremony that you watched a couple of weeks ago? Colorful lights and costumes, loud music and fanfare… It didn’t bother you at all? Well, that’s good news. Btw, if you’re old enough, you may have watched the same thing in 1992, which was opened by an opera-loving rock star and a rock-loving opera star. Barcelona was resonating with joy. And it came nowhere near an opera – it was just a popular glamour, completely devoid of tragedy.

“It’s way too loud and noisy, all that yelling, screaming and endless lamenting over loss, violent murder death of beloved, tales of forbidden love. Opera is so cliché, unrealistic and unfit for the 21st century mindset.” Those are few of the most common anti-opera arguments you’ll hear these days.

And – they’re right! But isn’t it a megacool global hipster fad to devour anachronical stuff that most people wouldn’t think of seeing (let alone paying for)?

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All opera ents unite!

 

Yes, us opera-fans are entirely bewitched by sighs, cries and glory. And most of us are not members of any social elite (deep sigh) – so we don’t have to pretend or fake anything. It’s so simple: some folks enjoy Greek tragedy, some enjoy low-budget Latin telenovelas or Turkish pseudo-historic TV series, some just love to see a good old Hollywood spectacle. Some of us (Balkanians especially) even like to dive into grotesque sounds of turbo-folk music or poorly directed plots of reality shows. That’s because we are all tired of life’s mediocrity. Mind this: opera provides a glorious answer to our boredom. In its essence, it is an excess of art which depicts the excess of life.

You can as well throw off your tuxes and evening gowns. There was no need to iron them so thoroughly. This is the internet era, after all. You can encounter opera online.