05 June 2010

A night at the opera

I write about art a fair amount. At least I think I do. Ordinarily, when I'm writing and thinking about art, I'm dealing with visual art. So in a bit of a shift, I'm going to write a bit about The Arts. By that I mean the performing arts.

I am going to the opera tonight and I cannot wait. The St. Petersburg Opera Company is currently mounting a production of Georges Bizet's Carmen. I have great seats, good company and a good three hours to turn off my phone and get swept up in the story of a gypsy with loose morals, her affairs and her demise when one of her lovers decides to kill her rather than face the thought of her ending up in the arms of another man. That's the plot in a nutshell and I'll spare you the experience of my recreating the entire libretto.

Carmen is Georges Bizet's best known work. It was his final opera and at its debut in 1875 in Paris it received a lukewarm response. He died at age 36, three months after Carmen's premiere, so he never saw it turn into the cultural juggernaut it would become over the years following its debut.

Carmen is one of the most popular operas in the modern operatic repertoire and for good reason. It tells a compelling story and the music sets the tone for the entire art form.

I did not grow up as an opera buff. I never really understood it, all I could hear were loud vibrato voices. It took me a number of years to work up an appreciation for it and even then I wouldn't say that I liked it. In the lead up to turning 40, I started training to run a marathon. One of the ways that I found it easier to run the miles required of my training program was to wear an iPod and let music take me into the zone. Pop music distracted me and didn't let me get into the meditative space where I needed to be. I'd always appreciated classical music so when I ran, I listened to classical music.

I spent countless hours in the zone and listening to the great composers. I ran, I listened, and as I ran and listened it felt like a switch went off. I could really see the achievement of a great symphony for the first time during these runs. I mean, someone had a thought and he expressed it musically. Then he had a really complex thought and he imagined an entire symphony. It's a real achievement of human brain power when you think about it. Somebody like Claude Debussey imagined a melody, and then a series of connected melodies. He then imagined how it would sound as played by an entire orchestra. Then he sat down and wrote the music an orchestra would play to match that imagined series of connected melodies. I'm floored by that, really.

My own imaginings that I turn into real things are simple objects or they are a series of planes and angles. I cannot fathomthe creative energy required to imagine and then to create La Mer, the way Debussey did.

Along the way to my epiphany about classical music, I added some arias to my play lists just to see if they would appeal to me the way the orchestral music did. The first aria that I latched onto was an old recording of Jussi Björling singing Che Gelida Manina from Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème. The more I listened to that old recording the more I could hear the control he had over his voice. It took Jussi Björling to help me see through the conventions of opera and to see the art of it. I was hooked.

Opera singers train for years to be able to sing the way they do. What to an unschooled ear sounds like a mess of vibrato and wild scales is in fact an incredibly trained and controlled instrument. Opera singers sing the way they do because their art form predates anything close to modern sound systems, so they train their voices to be a self-contained sound system. To this day, opera singers sing without microphones. When you sit in the nosebleed section of an opera house and you can still hear every word and sound without the help of electronics, operatic singing makes perfect sense. Not only can you still hear everything, it's loud.

I know I'm not going to convert anybody. It took me years to be ready to like opera. Art forms like opera offer a great window into the past even as they stay completely current. Carmen's lyrics and story line are today what they were when Bizet wrote them 135 years ago. The actors come and go but people have been rooting for Carmen as she works her wiles in an uninterrupted chain of performances that stretch  back across the generations to that Paris debut in 1875. Carmen's continued popularity is proof that people are the same now as they've ever been. Knowing that helps me keep my pride in check and it helps me see myself as part of a continuum. I am a link in a human chain that extends back through time. After I'm gone, that chain will continue into some unknown future without me. I find that comforting.


  1. Hope you had a great time!

    Carmen was the first opera I saw. It was at the MET and for some reason, I decided that it was set during the Viet Nam war. My mother whispered the words to me because I couldn't read the subtitles, which were going way too fast for me at the time.

    I went and tracked down a DVD of the show I saw...it was 1988, so I was 10 or 11 years old when I saw it that first time.

    Even at that young age, I remember loving the music. How could people have ever listened to that music and not been completely taken with it?

  2. The performance is tonight and I am counting down the hours. Thanks for explaining your history with Carmen. You know it's funny, the music from Carmen gets used out of context constantly. "L'amour est un Oiseau Rebelle" sells cars and movies and everything else under the sun. Despite that, when Carmen actually sings it in the context of the opera it remains a thrill and the car commercials and movie soundtracks fade away completely.

    Your fortunate to have had a mother who introduced you to opera at an early age. And at the Met no less. It's good to know I'm not the only one who feels the pull of this stuff.

  3. Opera appreciation is new to me, but I am enjoying putting my toes in the pool. Mozart got me in the house. And then I realized I'd grown up on opera music watching all those Loony Toons!

  4. I love coming across a snatch of music in its proper context. Any affinity I have for classical music and opera I owe to the 19th century impressionist composers who lit the fire inside me. Those guys led me to places I never imagined.

  5. I hope you enjoy every minute of Carmen. It's a great opera, especially if the singers are top rate. Some of my most trascendental musical experiences come from Houston Grand Opera performances. If you ever get a chance to hear Laura Claycomb live, jump on it. Her performance as Gilda in Rigoletto is phenomenal.

  6. A gypsy with loose morals? Sounds familiar....


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