tosca

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?

cat

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.