What is it about opera? It’s so over-the-top!

And now comes the time for a full confession.  Recently (my last post, in fact) I wrote a bit about being away from home, travelling, and therefore not doing as much posting as usual.  A few weeks ago, I wrote a little post about Monsters’ Den:  Book of Dread and Monsters’ Den Chronicles, which was yet another of my excuses for not posting on my old regular schedule of once every three to four days.  Now is the time finally to make the third part of my tripartite revelation, and say what else I have been doing (partially on my summer vacation) that has taken me away from the posting screen on my computer at WordPress.com.  And that’s listening to opera (and watching it) on my computer on Met Opera on Demand, which is immensely good and more affordable than full stage or screen opera for someone of my limited income, and which fills my very heart with delight.

That is, sometimes my heart is filled with delight.  At other times, my heart is filled with angst, or with bitter remorse as I recall an old relationship in which I acted much as some opera character acts.  Or perhaps moments of fleeting and evanescent passion or joy take center stage, and I allow myself to be pulled along with them, on wings of song (as the saying goes), loving and hating and sympathizing (or empathizing, if the feeling goes deeper) with the characters I see before me.  Just yesterday, as Magda in La Rondine left her lover, Ruggero, I thrilled with response as the young lover repeated over and over again to her “Love!  Don’t leave me alone!  Don’t leave me alone!”  A couple of weeks ago, the Romany Carmen likewise rejected her lover José (who by chance was the same tenor as Ruggero in that later opera I mentioned a moment ago).  But what a difference in attitude the tenor assumed!  Whereas Ruggero was incapacitated with grief and wept what looked like real tears from a reclining position on the floor, when José was once convinced that Carmen meant it, he leapt to his feet and with a final roar of “Carmen!” stabbed her to the heart outside the bullfight ring in Spain, where Carmen had gone to join her new lover, a toreador.  Do I approve?  Do I acquiesce?  Does it seem like a good idea, to watch people behaving like children and barbarians, weeping at length over what can’t be avoided and killing people who fall out of love with them?  I would just ask, do we ever with any drama apply the same rules we do to life?  And the answer is, “No, we don’t.”  Even with comedy, when the Barber of Seville gets up to his pranks and plots for his favorite customers, do we question their morality, and his?  No, we don’t, because we’re too eager to see him succeed!  We love the characters he’s plotting on behalf of, and hope they get their way free and clear.  By whatever means necessary, as government spies are wont to say.

It’s not, of course, that we don’t apply some of life’s rules to drama:  after all, would there be any way of understanding why Azucena in La Trovatore becomes so overwrought with a desire for vengeance that by accident she throws her own child into the fire, intending this end for an enemy’s child?  Or how understand Rigoletto’s final belief in the curse supposedly hanging over him when he exclaims “the curse!” in the final moments of Rigoletto, unless we saw that, true to life, his own character had caused him, in combination with circumstances inflicted upon him, to fall victim to the curse?  How understand the whole concept of Fate as it rules so many of these strange and outré dramas, and how accept the twists and turns of characters not recognizing someone they know well because the person is wearing a new hat or a cape in the comedies, and the mistakes and hilarious happenings that occur because of these?  We have to see that some of these things have actually happened once upon a time in real life, and upon that tiny hinge of possibility, the much larger door of probability swings open for the composers’ and the librettists’ imaginations.  And of course, we make moral judgements, but these judgements are delayed or attenuated into a last-minute resolution only after we have been treated to a full-scale examination of all the passion and humor and exaggerated emotion which can be extracted.

Because, that’s what opera is about more than any other form of drama–exaggeration, going over-the-top, having the full experience of pain or joy or fun in a concentrated form.  And that’s why music is the central part of opera, why music is at the very heart of drama and why the sets are so lavish or at least emphatic even when minimal, why the costumes, even those of a beggar, are gorgeous and grand and picturesque, because the exaggeration of emotion is central here.  Music of all art forms touches us most intimately, and though we are visual creatures, we hear before we can see, and thus the stunning visual effects here play handmaiden to the ear and its domain.

So, that’s what I’ve been doing, and I intend to keep on doing it.  Obviously, the best place to see opera is the venue where it occurs, but not everyone can get to NYC or other famous opera locales, and not everyone can afford a season ticket.  If you’re interested in a huge inexpensive free catalogue of operas to watch and listen to, you can contact metopera.org and either opt for tickets for seeing some of the shows each season at selected movie theatres, or listening on the radio, or watching them on your computer, where as I can attest even those shows which are not in HD are of high quality.  As a novice at this form, however, having seen the occasional opera since my teens on PBS, but knowing little and only learning more now, I prefer to watch what operas I can in order to familiarize myself with the stories and to be able to visualize them; then, when I know what my favorites are, I can elect to hear certain artists I like especially perform on audio alone.  This season, I was able to obtain a subscribership to Met Opera On Demand (viewing and listening on the computer) for only $14.99 a month, and decided it was definitely worthwhile.  I hope you will be interested in doing the same, as opera is one of the few larger-than-life experiences guaranteed, like any art form, to supply drama and humor without personal pain.  I mean, you could be sniffing glue or blowing up buildings, but one would destroy you and the other would destroy other people and landscape, and who wants that, when they could watch Don Pasquale (in the opera of that name) try to work his way free of the toils his new “wife” is winding round him so that she can instead marry his nephew, and hear the nephew’s beautiful and evocative serenade to her from the garden?  There is a certain mercy obtained by living vicariously, and though opera among dramatic forms may not have a total corner on the market of vicarious blessing, it certainly is up there at the top.  What am I saying, though, it’s over-the-top, dramatic, larger than life, all the qualities I’ve discussed above (and now that like many an opera aria I’m beginning to repeat myself, I will just leave off with the coda and hope you may find your way to such pleasures on your own, leaving my recommendation to speak for me).


Filed under A prose flourish, Other than literary days....

10 responses to “What is it about opera? It’s so over-the-top!

  1. I envy your love of opera. It is the one thing theatre/arts related I have not been able to embrace, but perhaps I will try it again…


    • Do it your own way, is my advice. I have largely neglected the “big” operas like Wagner (I find him obnoxious, ethnocentric at best, racist at worst, and full of bombast except for a few lovely arias). I find that the “bel canto” operas and Verdi and Puccini are my real loves, along with the comic operas and opera buffa. I’m not throwing these terms at you to mystify you; rather, any good dictionary of music can be your friend to find out what “bel canto” means. As with much drama and art, there are versions of opera which have been “modernized” in their staging and conceptual boundaries: for example, there’s a lovely Met “Faust” with Faust as a twentieth-century physicist responsible in part for the bomb! You can take your pick, there’s an opera for everyone, just as there is a Shakespeare for everyone. Have fun, Kathy! I have faith in your ability to extend yourself to a new form. If I can do it, you can.


  2. I don’t know much about opera but I did enjoy what I experienced (on YouTube) of the fisherman one…I can’t remember the name but you probably know it…I did like that immensely.


    • Actually, I’m sorry, I don’t know “the fisherman one,” not yet anyway, but I’m glad you enjoyed it. The conventions of opera may take a little getting used to, but it’s well worth it. I’ll be on the look-out for the fisherman and friends, on your recommendation.


      • The Pearl Fishers, that’s the one! Just had a quick hunting session for it. I agree with you, well worth the time it takes to get into the nuances of opera.


  3. richardstuartgilbert

    I attend opera when one is put on here at the college, and usually I enjoy it. But I have a confession: I actually prefer the American version: musicals. Yep, lowbrow, corny, hokey. But they have what opera has: pure expression of emotion. And I can understand them, fully. Because they are so popular, I think they are underrated.


    • Hi, Richard. Yes, I share your love of musicals, and I think (without knowing much of the history of music) that they must be a derivative form from the opera. But if it’s understanding them that you’re concerned about, then I should tell you that Met Opera on Demand comes fully equipped with subtitles automatically. Yes, I am plugging for them enthusiastically, but ever since it’s been hard to get a reliable tv guide without fiddling with the tv channels themselves, and especially since PBS no longer carries as many operas as it did before (and finally because my housemate doesn’t care for opera and I can’t monopolize the tv for perhaps 3 hours at a time justifiably), I have really become very enthusiastic about Met Opera on Demand. I can watch it with my ear buds in and not bother a soul, and sit in my easy chair (minus opera tiara and fancy dress, at my comfort), and all the world’s a stage!


    • I love musicals as well. My great aunt took me to my first, and then my mother took me to “Jesus Christ Superstar” when I was like 7! I’ve never been the same since! 😉


      • I too enjoyed “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and “Godspell” (the latter of which I was lucky enough to see at 17 in its London production), but my latest favorite is the gutsy “Chicago,” which I saw in the movie version and loved so much, even though it was about crime and mayhem, and there weren’t really any admirable characters in it, except the cheating woman’s husband, who was clueless. But my very first musical (appropriately enough, considering that the subject is partially the bringing up of a child) was when I was about ten and someone took me to see “Mame” in a neighboring town. I was hooked! And one of the funniest things about both opera and musicals is that you have to accept the convention that people could be face to face in a close encounter and suddenly start singing in the other person’s face, while that second person listens and waits patiently for their turn to speak. (Time to break out the breath mints–I’ve heard that even actors sometimes have trouble with this one–Vivien Leigh reportedly said that the thing she hated most about acting with Clark Gable was having his bad breath in her face all the time. How much more so, then, when the possibly offending party’s mouth is wide open and their tonsils and adenoids exposed for five or six minutes at a time right in your face!) But I’m being facetious! I love the conventions, since they’re what makes the form. I think why people find musicals easier to relate to than opera, perhaps, is that opera is rarely if ever about the spoken word and relies almost totally on the singing voice, even in the recitatives, whereas in a musical, the convention is that the people are basically talking, with the occasional song “thrown in,” in a more “realistic” manner. But at least it’s all about music! And now that I’ve monopolized the panel for so long, I’ll shut up!


  4. Dear Ste J, Thanks for the recommendation of “The Pearl Fishers.” I’ll see if I can find it.


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