My first real exposure to opera came when I was eight years old. For years before that, I would observe my dad sitting cross-legged on the living room carpet, sorting through his huge collection of records while he listened to famous tenors—Mario Lanza, Jussi Björling and, most of all, Enrico Caruso, who I understood to be the operatic equivalent of Babe Ruth. The opera house in Seattle was ninety miles from our home, but in those days it was a fast ninety miles.
The opera that night was Tosca, and my dad probably summarized the plot for me, but by the climactic third act my eyelids were seriously heavy. Earlier in the evening I had been hushed by a well-dressed matron; she objected to my crunching the candy that my brother and I had procured from the concession booth. The first act had featured parishioners filing into church, while the villain, Baron Scarpia, sought to ruin Tosca, a big-time diva in love with the painter Mario Cavaradossi.
In the second act, Scarpia was having dinner with Tosca at a long table illuminated by candles, and it appeared that Scarpia wanted something from Tosca, and that Tosca was willing to give it. The wining and dining had little to do with sex. Scarpia’s motive was to seduce Tosca into divulging the hiding place of Mario’s friend, an escaped political prisoner. I was not clear on what was happening, back in the era before supertitles, but I did enjoy watching Scarpia, still singing, flopping liked a gaffed fish after Tosca stabbed him. Ever the diva, she paused for a moment to look down at the now-deceased villain and artfully arrange glowing candles around his body.
The third act opened with a shepherd boy only a few years older than I singing his girlish song that welcomed the dawn. Then came the soldiers, the orchestra heavy with percussion. Mario was to be shot by a firing squad. But actually, before murdering Scarpia, Tosca had been assured that the firing squad was just for show, and that Tosca and Mario would be free to leave Rome.
Nope, not quite right. When Tosca kneels down to congratulate Cavaradossi for his acting ability, she realizes that Scarpia was deceitful to the end. Those weren’t blanks! Those were real bullets! Mario! Mario!” L’opera e finita!
A quick questionaire: Based on this summary of one of my favorite operas, what word first enters your mind: Absurd or sublime?
My wife’s response might be overlong.
Well, we can’t agree on everything. But as I have gotten older, and particularly since I learned that my life may wind down well before I assumed, opera’s ability to move me has become more potent. The genre’s cathartic power is captured in the title of Peter Conrad’s book, A Song of Love and Death. As in other forms of dramatic tragedy, operas tend to end with the bodies piling up. Drawing on Freudian terminology, Conrad suggests that “Id in opera never learns to fear the superego; libido never acknowledges the repressive rule of society…. Music bypasses the rational quibbles of language to plead on their behalf, and persuades us to envy such lack of inhibition and maniacal consistency.”
This definition of the genre is contrary to the popular perception of opera as a rather arid art form, patronized mainly by the well-to-do, and relying on a repertoire, the bulk of which was assembled in the eighteenth and nineteen centuries.
But Conrad is correct: Terrible things happen to opera characters. In Verdi’s Rigoletto, the ill-fated jester is doubled-crossed by a charming but psychopathic prince, who seduces Rigoletto’s daughter, Gilda. For puzzling reasons, Rigoletto himself is complicit in his daughter’s exploitation. But this doting father cannot avoid the blowback. When Rigoletto contracts with Sparafucile, a hit man, to kill the Duke, Rigoletto promptly receives the body bag. But then he hears the Duke singing off stage: a sure sign that the corpse in his bag is his daughter’s.
The grotesque is a common feature in opera.
A couple of weeks ago, ahead of my trip to Berlin and Prague, I came across a boxed set of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, performed in Berlin at the direction of the acclaimed Jewish conductor Daniel Barenboim at the city’s Staatsoper. Wagner’s music is deeply controversial in Israel – it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that this enormously gifted nineteenth-century composer provided the score for Naziism. In 2000, Barenboim’s intent to perform Wagner’s Siegfried in Israel had to be OK’d by Israel’s Supreme Court. Woody Allen nicely captured the ambivalence that many people have about Wagner’s music in his movie Manhattan Murder Mystery: “I can't listen to that much Wagner, you know? I start to get the urge to conquer Poland.”
Having largely ignored the efforts of my middle-schooI music teacher, I lack the vocabularly to explain why Wagner’s music, or Verdi’s music, or Mozart’s music, can be so powerful. I am a lover of music who is musically illiterate.
But I know what I like. And when I hear the recording of Barenboim conducting Tannhäuser, the voice of the heldentenor booming out of my modest speakers, I welcome the music’s blunt force, its shuddering catharthis.
During my recent trip, I attended two operas, including a spectacular performance of Bizet’s Carmen, one of the most popular operas of all time. My thanks to my longtime friend Jeff Kramer for making this trip possible.