How Opera Won Me Over

Wire #33
Wire #33

I don’t know about you, but I always had an attitude about opera. Give me some chamber music, a piano concerto or a symphony and I’m happy to submerge myself into an hour or two of focused listening and experiencing of classical music. But I was very snotty about singers and opera in particular. Most of my fellow woodwind players and I barely considered singers to be “musicians”.

I think it was fostered by the attitude that we woodwind players had about everybody else in school. The jocks were the brass players. And the string players were the cattle (there are so many of them in an orchestra). Moo. The percussionists were a fascinating enigma to me, I dated several. The pianists and the guitarists were lone wolves. And then there were the woodwind players. They were the real musicians. They were the ones I felt the intimate connection with when we played together. I married one of those (not my current husband).

It took several experiences for me to change my opinion about singers and later about opera.

First, I had the experience of playing flute in the pit orchestra for some Puccini operas. The music was so heartbreakingly beautiful that I allowed myself to fall in love with it in spite of the singing.

Then a close girlfriend married an opera conductor. When she came to California to visit me, with him in tow, we spent the whole night listening to opera. I tried to have an open mind for her sake, and largely succeeded at least for the night (aided by continuous drinking of cheap French wine and the smoking of cigars while discussing the merits of obscure – to me – opera performances).

Then many years later, as I introduced my current husband, David, to Puccini’s La Boheme, little did I know that it was the beginning of an obsession for him. I, being the musician in the family, had to save face and nod wisely when he exclaimed over a new find.  “I knew that.” “Really.” I came home from work to encounter booming voices and bombastic music ringing throughout the house. He started collecting recordings of Puccini operas. Then it was Mozart. Then it was Verdi, Delibes, and Rossini. When he started playing Wagner’s operas, I knew I had created a monster.  As far as I was concerned, Wagner belonged in the genre of cartoon music composers. His operas were blow-your-brains-out* loud music that lasted an eternity and had a wildly unbelievable storyline.

My attitude about opera (not Wagner – stay with me here) was reversed, finally, when I went to the San Francisco Opera for a live performance. The sets, the orchestra, the costumes, and the soaring rich resonant voices produced a revelatory experience.  I got it. I understood what was so special about opera. It is an encompassing experience that isn’t represented nearly as well in an audio recording as it is at the live “happening” event. From then on, I was in harmony with my husband about going to the opera. Every year we bought tickets for a few operas locally and in San Francisco. But I still didn’t feel  “the love” for Wagner. I really had no patience to listen to any of his music.

Today (ahh, you waited), when David and I attended the performance of Wagner’s Das Rheingold streamed LIVE from the New York Metropolitan Opera to a theater  in Sacramento, I lost my aversion to Wagner. To put it in modern terms, it was like the real, the ORIGINAL Lord of the Rings Trilogy for classical music buffs. I completely bought the ludicrous storyline when I thought of it as a fantasy/science fiction story. The sets were magic and the close-ups of the singers made me really buy the emotional content of what they were singing about. I cared. I was completely engaged in a magical story that had music so expressively woven into it (and performed so fabulously) that the music was the setting, the music WAS the story. Wagner made something more than music + costumes + sets + story. The sum of these parts was in a new dimension for me. It was jaw-dropping and utterly absorbing.  The music was loud when it was perfect for it to be loud. The long conversations of the Gods were packed with emotional content and a sense of building suspense.  Art provokes an emotional response, and the new Robert Lepage production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold completely meets that criteria in the most pleasurable way. It has opened up a new world for me to explore. I can’t wait for the next installment in the series! Bravo!!!!

*blow-your-brains-out, this is a flute-player’s jaded perception of orchestral music tutti sections