Opera? Who Needs It?
by Frederick Paul Walter
Why, in the 21st century, do some Americans enjoy opera? Honestly enjoy it … rather than trying to impress somebody … or sitting through one because they’ve been badgered … or making end-of- the-year contributions for the obvious reason.
Me, I’ve enjoyed opera since I was a small-town kid in northern Ohio – but why the blazes do I?
First, though, let’s get clear on what I mean by “opera.” I mean, simply, music theater— any story on stage or film where the singing voice and musical instruments are themain expressive tools. So this takes in not only Marriage of Figaro, Rigoletto, andCarmen but also Oklahoma, Evita, and Les Miserables. They all feature singing, and itmakes no difference to my definition that some have spoken dialogue (Carmen andOklahoma) and some have music all the way through (the other four).
Even so, readers may wonder: how could anything with so many repulsive traits ever be enjoyable? Aren’t operas supposed to be in foreign tongues like arthouse films …don’t they feature young lovers who are middle-aged and morbidly obese … aren’t they monuments of High Culture that call for seminars and prayerful attitudes?
Let’s clear this irrelevant clutter away – the snobs, the stuffy scholars, the fat ladies,the foreign languages, the hoity-toity productions. Instead, let’s never forget: those 19th century Italians who went to see Rossini’s latest hit never did an ounce of homework … either the show made immediate sense, or it immediately bombed. Over and out.
So if we ditch all these irrelevant distractions, we’re back to something simple and understandable – a human story set to music.
But why bother with the music? Why not just let ’em talk? Because of all artisticmediums, from poetry to paint to pantomime, music is the best equipped to express human emotion. And it’s our emotions – not logic or hard facts – that ultimately drive our likes and dislikes … make us run from things … buy stuff … elect presidents. So the great achievements in music theater are those that show us their characters in emotional states that grip us stupendously … and it’s the music that locks us in.
Take that creepy duet early in Mozart’s Don Juan where a woman and her lover plot frenzied vengeance against her father’s murderer … the music is taut and sinister yet stuns in its ability to create a terrifying effect with the simplest means, with amazingly few notes. Or take the middle act of Wagner’s Valkyrie, where the Nordic god Wotan realizes all his schemes are hopeless … his monologue is an inventory out of a 12-step program, its music full of agony, sorrow, and self-loathing. Or, from the theater of our own era, take that final buildup in Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, that throbbing, menacing tango “The Point of No Return,” after which neither the characters nor the audience can ever be the same.
Consequently it’s the music that makes the biggest difference … and in this kind of theater it can attain an impact unbelievably searing. Listen, for instance, to the very end of Verdi’s Othello, based on Shakespeare’s tragedy. A great man learns that he has destroyed a precious, innocent life out of his own miserable weaknesses – it’s a moment of grief beyond description, and Verdi’s music has a power even exceeding the Bard’s poetry. Shakespeare, for once, comes off second-best.
The highest value of art is that it can supplement life – it can give us experiences we might never have (Melville’s Moby-Dick) … it can show us scenes we’ll never see (Magritte’s landscapes) … it can introduce us to people we could learn from but never meet (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). So the highest value of music theater (aka opera) lies in the rich experiences, the therapy, and the vicarious practice wecan get from … feeling feelings.
Opera? I need it.
Photo credit for our featured photo: Opera Southwest’s production of “Tancredi” begins on Sunday, October 23 at 2 p.m. For tickets: operasouthwest.org or through the National Hispanic Cultural Center: nhccnm.org. Pictured: “Il Turco in Italia” was a big hit with OSW audiences in Spring 2016.