Do you like going to the opera? I love it, and can in fact think of few things more pleasurable than an evening at the opera, perhaps preceded by a drink, and followed by dinner and a walk through the dark streets of the city.
To me, opera music is very haunting and the more enjoyable because of the abstractness of the show and its slight absurdity. Just think, a bunch of highly-trained performers, wearing pompous period costumes, enact stories of complex or devastating emotions, by singing parts requiring breathtaking vocal acrobatics. I say pompous because of the costumes, but when I watch on the youtube performances in modern-day clothing, I don’t like them. I want pompous and period. 🙂
Operas were something like the soap operas of the past, and confronted emotions and moral categories such as love, hate, passion, loyalty, adultery, duty and bigotry, too controversial to be publicly displayed by means of expression other than music or literature. They also catered to the fashions of the times by setting their plots in exotic, to the European mind at least, destinations like China (Turandot), Japan (Madama Butterfly), or India (Lakme).
Opera is meant to be viewed, but sometimes the discrepancies between a character’s attributes and the physical appearance of the singers is such, that one had better close their eyes and enjoy the aural side of the performance only.
Have you ever struggled to see a delicate and petite 15-year-old Japanese Cio-Cio-San in a busty middle aged soprano singer that looks like her mother? In the same vein, have you ever felt the credibility of a stage Violetta, the one of Verdi’s Traviata, undermined because her looks are not in the least suggesting a host of male admirers? …Then you know what I mean.
Of course I try not to be as superficial as that and to take into account that opera houses tend to book singers according to their vocal qualities and past experience, rather than looks. Still, I wouldn’t believe you if you told me that age and looks do not play any part whatsoever in winning auditions. On the contrary, I think that young Anna Netrebko and Bulgarian Sonya Yoncheva of today have caused such a stir exactly because of the rare combination they had, or have, of youth, good looks and exceptional vocal skill.
Opera developed as a popular art form in Italy and migrated as an elite one into France. Horribly expensive elsewhere in the West today, in Bulgaria it is quite affordable, because of the state funding of operas and the low salaries of in-house musicians and singers. On the other hand, performances are typically sold out months ahead. According to some, this suggests Sofia is able to accommodate a second opera house, but actual steps to launch one have not been taken yet.
The worker-peasant foundations of the Bulgarian society of the past decades, to which I alluded in my previous post, and its aversion to all things bourgeois, have caused irreparable damage to the opera dress code in the country. Today, you might see the occasional man in a suit, but more often than not, you’ll see men in smart-casual combinations of trousers, a shirt and a jacket, and women in more assorted attire, ranging from stripper and nondescript everyday casual, to flamboyant boho and “I’ve-just-sneaked-out-of-a-power-dinner” corporate.
I may be on the conservative side here, but I kindly call on all ladies planning a visit to the opera – please, leave the showy updos, the Converse shoes, the large rhinestones, the backpacks, the jeans and the tight mid-thigh dresses of the 1980s for more appropriate occasions, and opt for a simple sheath or a full-skirt dress in a sombre colour, a jacket or a cardigan, an uncomplicated hairstyle and one piece of moderately-sized statement jewelry. For the men – don’t wear anything you’d wear on a backyard barbecue, or a Friday casual day at the office. I usually hold my unsolicited opinions of the subject of dress to myself, but sometimes one just has to speak up.
There is one thing, though, for which I applaud Bulgarian opera goers, and it’s this – they don’t typically eat during performances, and have never dreamed of demanding events featuring live singing and eating, like audiences elsewhere that I’ve read about, do.
I have this huge American cookbook called The Joy of Cooking, which, in its Candy chapter, has a recipe for a traditional sugary concoction called Opera Candy. Its main merit is that it is either chewy or melts in the mouth, so it does not produce a sound when consumed during an opera performance, and is not sticky, so pieces of it can be tied in one’s handkerchief, so as to be easily and noiselessly accessible when needed.
So ever since the times that people used opera houses as a place to get together to see, to be seen and to exchange gossip, food and wine consumption have been a part of the show, but still, I believe that if one is unable to suppress their desire to magnify their perceptions during a live performance through actions stimulating an insulin response, they had better do away with opera altogether and go see a blockbuster movie instead.
At the beginning of this post, I told you I thought opera music was haunting. So following is a list of arias, arranged in an ascending order by level of emotional load and overall appeal, that have been pulling the stings of my soul for years:
5. The Flower Duet of Leo Delibes’ Lakme. This is an early morning duet between the daughter of an Indian high priest, Lakme, and her woman servant Mallika, who go down to a river shore and take off their jewelry and clothes to bathe, while singing of the beautiful jasmines and other flowers around them. Shortly after that, Lakme meets a dashing British Empire officer, who is attracted to her, but eventually decides to remain loyal to his duties, causing the dishonoured Lakme to poison herself with a plant called devil’s trumpets.
4. Mon Coeur S’Ouvre a ta Voix – Dalila’s aria of opera Samson et Dalila by Camille Saint-Saens. This is an aria in which a devilish woman tries to lure a man who is in love with her, to reveal the secret of his strength, so that both he and his people are ruined. He does, poor chap, and is blinded as a result. In the last act of the opera, his penitence leads both to his death, as redemption, and to that of his enemies. Interestingly enough, and in line with the focus of one of my recent posts, Samson’s strength lay in his hair. So you see, although ridiculously magnified, we have this parallel again, of long hair being equivalent to power, and hair cutting meaning dis-empowerment of sorts.
3. Offenbach’s Barcarolle of the Tales of Hoffman, performed by Elina Garanca and Anna Netrebko. The aria speaks of a belle nuit d’amour and has a gorgeous melody, what can I comment here. 🙂 I have also listened to older performances by star soprano and mezzo-soprano singers of say, the 1980s, in the search of better interpretations, but no – this one is superb.
2. Una Furtiva Lagrima of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, performed by Roberto Alagna, who may well be my favourite tenor singer. I love the bassoon opening of the aria too. Alagna is perhaps a bit too emotional, but still, he sings with such ease and verve! He has a wide repertoire of French chancons and Spanish and Italian traditional songs, I still have a lot by him to show you! Oh, and the aria tells of the joy of a man who has just realised that the woman he loves, loves him back, after seeing a secret tear in her eyes. The lyrics are very touching overall.
- Je Crois Entendre Encore – The most haunting opera piece ever. The aria of Nadir, a fisherman of George Bizet’s opera Les Pecheurs des Perles (The Pearl Fishers), it is the song of a person in love, who relives in his memory a happy encounter with his beloved. In line with the views of Marcel Proust, whose novel A La Recherche du Temps Perdu has been ranked at the top of the 100 Books of the Century by Le Monde in 1999, the aria suggests that the memory of happiness is the purest and most eternal form of happiness achievable. I offer you two versions of this beautiful aria – by French/Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon and by Japanese tenor Yasu Nakajima. I am really torn about whom I like better, Villazon is more famous and the video has better sound, but I think I’ll go with Yasu Nakajima – he sings with such tenderness and softness, and I love his pronunciation and facial expressions too. This aria is very popular and has been covered by pop and jazz musicians, as well as, curiously, by Pink Floyd.
So pick any of the above great arias, play at top volume, lean back with a glass of wine, and enjoy. This post is something of a surprise, even to myself, for when I sat down to write yesterday evening, I didn’t even plan to write about opera…
It felt all right then, but now, in broad daylight and the mid-day sun, glaring although it’s 11 degrees outside, I feel somehow overwhelmed by so much emotion on show.
I should wrap this up and go do something more down-to-earth, like cook or work.
Until next time,
PS …But still, though a bit over-the-top, opera is a pleasure and a joy. Like the dedication page of the Joy of Cooking says:
So that’s what I just did.