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Chapter One— Introduction: The Difference Is They Sing
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The formula of right opera plus right production, the ideal work ideally realized, is still an incomplete recipe for success. It lacks an essential ingredient—the ideal spectator, the right person listening and watching. The ideal spectator would not, obviously, be a Tolstoy or a Nietzsche, or any of the fundamentalist anti-opera types conjured up some pages ago. The ideal spectator cannot, obviously, be a woodenheaded literalist, one of Stendhal's "poor, passionless, bluntminded creatures" who can tolerate art only at its most photorealistic, who accepts what happens on a stage only when it resembles very closely what happens in daily life.


Conversely, people who go to the opera primarily for the social cachet of being seen there—the operagoers Tolstoy and Nietzsche most despised—are probably doomed to boredom, frustration, and (insofar as they have one) an uneasy con-science. Let us permit these two types of non-opera lovers to cancel each other out.

What sort of person can spark a potentially fine operatic experience into life, within his or her own sensibility? What sort of person is likely to derive the greatest amount of pleasure (enlightenment, new understanding, moral and emotional enrichment) from a good opera well performed?

In the face of the heterogeneous list of 100 current standard repertory operas cited earlier in this chapter, it is clear that no two people—not even two people equally educated, open, alert, and responsive—are going to respond in the same way to the same works. Multiply the likelihood of variation in response by the different conductors and orchestras, the different actors and voices, and the different theatrical ideas and visual effects that may be involved in production, and it would seem impossible (except as a gesture of sheer solipsistic arrogance) to identify anyone's response as "ideal." Alan Rich defines this dilemma when he writes:

Suppose I am going to La Traviata —a not out-of-the-way supposition, since there are times when I seem to be going to La Traviata four nights out of five. I've lived with this opera a long time, studied it in school, followed it with the score on records or at the piano. I have had plenty of time, in other words, to form my own set of ideas about the opera, the kind of voices I would ideally like to hear in the roles, the tempos at which it ought to move, how it should look onstage. This is the equipment I take with me to the opera house that night, but it is my equipment, which has taken shape inside my mind, condtioned by my personality, which happens to be that of an incurable romantic. My colleague across the aisle arrives with a similar set of equipment—similar in scope, that is, but conditioned by his personality. We sit there, a few feet apart, listening to a Violetta with a perfectly awesome technique; she sticks an E-flat into the end of "Sempre libera" which goes offlike a rocket. She may not know beans about what the opera is about; her exchanges with Germont in the second scene may seem so many vocalises. But boy! she can get the tone out, and the crowd goes wild. In the next morning's papers my colleague erupts in ecstasy, I in fury. There's something I want from La Traviata that has to do with drama and sentiment and reaction to the text; my colleague is mad for vocal prowess. I am not immune to great singing, nor is he to dramatic values, but each has made his own decision as to which is the element more highly to be prized. Our reviews are opposed, and the strange and wonderful thing is that neither of us is "right" or "wrong."

On the whole, I expect that my response would be closer to that of Alan Rich than to that of his imaginary colleague. There are obviously people "mad for vocal


prowess." There are people who relish opera primarily at its most voluptuous and irrational. Anyone who has spent much time in an opera house has probably encountered both sorts.

The Puccini scholar Mosco Carner once wrote, "As for Tosca , there is certainly all aspect of it [an 'undeiable streak of vulgarity,' as he called it] that may offend the purist. But it was not written for him, or the aesthete or the man of perilously refined taste. It is a bold man who will assert that to relish fullbloodedness in art is incompatible with aesthetic enjoyment—on the contrary it may be a sign of a healthy, unwarped aesthetic instinct." The French essayist Guy Verricst, unhappy with the overly demanding standards of rationalist opera critics (who "accept no more than about twenty works"), proposed Mignon as his test of the true opera lover. This opera (still popular in France), he writes, "signifies nothing for the analytic critics who are only trying to set up a relative scale of values, a normative judgment; while the sensitive, instinctive spectator will immediately be carried away by the 'unique and indefensible' poetry that characterizes Ambroise Thomas's work." The playwright Albert Innaurato, a self-confessed "opera fanatic," sets up Ponchielli's La Gioconda as his standard. "The question finally may be not whether the opera is defensible but whether we are who love it. La Gioconda is an extreme example, one where the expressive potential of music is used rather crudely, and not harnessed to insights of an intellectual sort. But I think there is something fundamental about its dramaturgy that may make it a litmus test to differentiate those who more or less like opera from those who adore it."

I fear I would pass neither Carner's test as a person of healthy, unwarped aesthetic instincts; nor Verriest's test as a sensitive, instinctive spectator; nor Innaurato's test as a defensible adorer of opera.

No one, except certain employees of an opera company (ushers, stagehands, orchestra members), professional music critics, and a few people who buy season tickets for other-than-aesthetic reasons, is obliged to attend every opera of the ten-, or twenty-, or thirty-production season of his or her particular resident troupe. In fact, only the most dogged and devoted fans are likely to do so, given the cost, the likelihood of imperfect performances, and the unlikelihood that every work will be of equal appeal.

And yet I believe that the happiest and most highly rewarded operagoer may be one who can take pleasure in almost any good production of a respectable opera. I am not convinced that the doctrinaire Wagnerite, who scorns Italian and French opera as trivial and thin, gets as much out of Wagner as the listener more catholic in attitudes and less difficult to please. The operagoer who can enjoy nothing later or more jarring to the ear than Puccini is obviously cut off from a universe of musical-dramatic satisfaction. I do not believe that the voice fanatic, and more especially the unique-voice fanatic, the Tebaldi or Domingo cultist, the devoted collector of Golden Age records, the exclusive connoisseur of bel canto sopranos—whatever


ecstasies he or she may experience at particular moments with particular singers in particular operas—is ever going to get as much out of opera in general as someone whose cultivated inlets of pleasure are broader and more numerous.

From a consideration of the peculiar nature of the 100-plus operas in the standard repertory, and especially the fifty or so most commonly performed, one call begin to compile a list of "desirable characteristics" for our fictional (and probably unattainable) ideal spectator: the third element in my formula an aesthetics of opera.

1. He (by which, of course, I also mean she) should probably be, if not Eurocentric, at least Europe oriented and more than usually interested in the European past. It would help if he were at least an amateur student of the history, literature, and art of Western Europe. A great deal of the standard repertory depends on Western literary classics and myths (the Greek myths and tragedies, Homer, the Bible, the Norse sagas, Ariosto, Shakespeare, Goethe and Schiller, Victor Hugo, etc.).

In addition to such written works, the standard repertory depends on European history as it used to be written—the story of kings, popes, wars, royal marriages, conspiracies, revolutions. Typically, the settings and stage designs of standard repertory operas evoke, or were originally intended to evoke, European castles and cathedrals, European cities and towns, European mountain and valley landscapes. The places, the people and events, and the literary sources were usually falsified and distorted, legendized and inflated, chopped and changed to fit musical and theatrical expression. But most operas in the current repertory—including recent "common man" or antifascist works, works charged with post-World War II confusion and angst—grow out of and depend on the European past. Not to be aware of that particular past, not to know the soil out of which opera grew, is inevitably to miss a great deal of the cultural resonance of opera.

Not knowing the basic repertory languages (Italian, German, French, perhaps a bit of Russian and Czech) is a lesser loss; even native speakers often cannot comprehend a sung text. One can always read a translation of the libretto in advance. Many houses today offer vernacular translations by way of projected "supertitles" for those who want them (and, I concede, for those who don't). If you wish to dig deeper into the world of opera, however, knowing the three chief repertory languages is, I believe, almost as important as knowing how to read music.

2. Beyond a basic fascination and familiarity with Europe, its history, art, and literature (and sonic of its languages), I think one is likely to get more out of current productions of opera for knowing something of


the history of opera—at least the history of operatic conventions; better still, of the history of Western music. The operas we are most likely to see and hear performed during our lifetimes will probably continue to be made up of the same 100–150 works, composed between 1600 and the present. It is beyond hoping that anyone would naturally and instinctively comprehend and appreciate the conventions of every one.

And yet old music remains, thanks to its vibrating sweetness, its widely apprehended emotional effects, and the passive way in which we are able to receive it, far more accessible and potentially enjoyable to most people than old literature or even old art. More contemporary English-speaking people, I would venture, find themselves moved readily by the music of Monteverdi or Purcell than by the verse of Spenser or Milton, by the paintings of Lorenzetti, or by the buildings of Mansart.

So it is worth trying to comprehend the conventions: making an effort to understand why and how composers once created, and audiences once expected, particular forms of music in opera. Beyond that, some awareness of the history of opera may help one to understand, tolerate, and even come to enjoy the attendant nonsense written into many standard repertory works, which may strike the first-time spectator as simply alien or foolish: da capo repeats, the cavatina (or "cantabile")-cabaletta convention, "exit" arias, inset ballets, vocal ornamentation, recitative of various sorts, "magical" stage spectacles, and those ever-popular ensembles in which characters express a whole gamut of emotions while singing over one another.

I am not pushing for flabby pluralism. To understand the origins and conventions of Metastasian opera seria (see chapter 3, "When Opera Was Still Serious") is not to accept wholeheartedly all of the tone-dead, properly neglected works of Leo, Vinci, Hasse, Porpora, Caldara, & Co. But operas still worthy of performance emerged from almost every age and tradition, and the more we try to assume the eyes and ears of their first audiences, the likelier we are to discover whatever enduring qualities they possess.

3. On the whole, I do believe that a tendency toward aesthetic pluralism and away from the position of the doctrinaire specialist is an advantage to the would-be opera lover. This is partly because of the rooted fact of the established repertory. If you can take some pleasure in Samson et Dalila as well as in The Marriage of Figaro (the two extremes of our 100-item repertory, as well as, to my eyes and ears, the bounds tolerable


taste), you are likely to enjoy the experience of opera more often and more heartily.

Beyond as broad a tolerance for the repertory as one can reconcile with a healthy aesthetic conscience, the ideal operagoer should be endowed with a spirit of tolerance in general: a wide degree of patience, an acceptance of compromise, perhaps even a rooter's "team spirit," wishing for but not always expecting the best; an ability to wait for and then to treasure (when they come) the perfect moments and ideal realizations. Given the extraordinary demands of this multiplex art form, such moments and realizations are going to be few and far between. It helps to be able to fill in the deficiencies of a performance from one's memory and imagination, rather than to sit there squirming with discomfort at the inadequacy of it all.

4. I am taking for granted an alert musical sensibility, although not necessarily specialized musical training. One should be able to register internally significant musical patterns and motifs, changes in tonality or orchestration, even if one cannot always apply to each the appropriate technical term. The musically trained can take special pleasure in compositional ingenuity, tonal problem solving, and allusions to other music; one can certainly learn more about a score by singing or playing it oneself. (The greatest composers, like Mozart, seem to have been able to write in such a way as to please the learned and the unlearned at once.)

But there are times when expertise—to judge from the confessions of experts—seems to get in the way of enjoyment. It is possible that the world's number one authority on Verdi may get less out of a good production of Don Carlos than would you, or I, or George Bernard Shaw—if only because, from closely analyzing the score at home and in "unreal time," the Verdi expert has concluded how it must be performed, and may be dissatisfied with any interpretation but his own.

An ability to detect and respond actively to aesthetic unity would also be a help; an admiration for the artistic event in which numerous disparate elements are held together, enhanced by their juxtaposition, and converted into a single and superior thing—because that is precisely what good opera is.

5. No less important, to the person who hopes to enjoy opera on the stage as well as on record or in print, is a theatrical sensibility, an openness to the limitations, illusions, and potential of the living stage. In fact, the ideal operagoer should probably be endowed with a greater-than-usual theatrical sensibility, one that can relish not only fine drama well


presented but also mimed horror and madness, imagined religious rituals, elaborate spectacles and decors.

6. Along with a nostalgic traditionalism that can take delight in old Europe and its musical-dramatic conventions, the ideal operagoer would possess an openness to orchestral, vocal, and theatrical reinterpretations of old standard works that give them a new but still coherent meaning, and to altogether new operas that push the genre further, and make a new kind of sense. This qualification may be the most difficult of all to attain.

Successful new operas are likely to be rare. For a complex of cultural reasons, very few serious composers since 1920 have been able to write operas as emotionally compelling and as profoundly satisfying as the best of the preceding century and a half. However fragmented and incoherent our world grows, a good deal of our own physiological and psychological makeup still seems to crave in music the formal order of rhythm and tonality that passed for "beauty" in more apparently coherent times. Contemporary opera producers, as we have seen, often feel a serious cultural compulsion to fight against or undercut long-established traditions of performance practice.

Just as I would not want to feel so distant from and resistant to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century conventions that I could not enjoy Poppea or Idomeneo , so I would hate to be so locked into the way Wagnrr and Verdi wanted their works to be performed in the 1870s that I could not bear what a Patrice Chéreau or a Pier Luigi Pizzi might make of them today. Had I settled years ago for the relatively easy, sentimental-voluptuous pleasures of Der Rosenkavalier and Turandot as the limits of my tolerance for twentieth-century opera, my inner life and memories would have been impoverished, deprived of Lear, Death in Venice, The Fiery Angel , and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk .

7. It helps, I suspect, to be a sensualist. Opera is a very sensual art. At its core are live human bodies pouring out great vibrating streams of sound. Around them flows a surfeit of instrumental pulses and vibrations, dancers, fabrics, colors, sensual appeals of every sort. There is more to opera than this, of course. Except for the odd bacchanal, and some particularly sticky moments in Wagner or Strauss, the appeal of opera is more than merely sensual, more than sonic Des Esseintes dream of synaesthetic self-abandon. But there's no getting away from the basic sensuality of a great deal of opera.

8. I do not want to argue, as others have done, that opera is fundamentally absurd or antirational, that you have to have a taste for insane spectacle


if you're going to like opera. (For one thing, such definitions rule out a great number of good operas.) But I do believe that an unusual ability and willingness to yield, to give in to a work of art is important: somehow to dissolve yourself and let the work include you.

In opera, for all of the power of great instrumentalists, I think this ultimately means a susceptibility to the awesome emotional power of great voices brilliantly used. This power is, I believe, potentially far greater than that of any organ or violin, any orchestra or synthesizer, more compelling than colors on canvas or words on a page. There before you is a body, like yours, with a throat and larynx, like yours, drawing out of itself (as you may dream of doing, but cannot) sounds that vibrate and seize beyond the power of any nonsinging actor. It seems to me the most captivating and beautiful thing that a human being can do on a public stage in living time.

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Chapter One— Introduction: The Difference Is They Sing
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