So I know it's easy to poke fun at operas. To take their most ridiculous facet and hold it up to ridicule, and have everyone laugh because it is *funny*.
But operas are also about the best and the worst in people. And no, you don't have to understand every word of the libretto being sung in ITalian. Sometimes the music does it for you.
I was seven or so when I was taken, together with a cousin of the same age, to see my first opera - "Madam Butterfly". I cried. My cousin shrugged and said, eh, so what, boring.
But as for me... I fell in love. Hard. Forever.
Take this aria:
- do you really need to understand every single word of it, if you know the story, if you know that this is a woman abandoned by a cheating philanderer to whom she was a diversion but for whom he was the world and everything in it - a man who left her, pregnant and alone, promising to return - and if you know that the name of the aria is "one fine day" - as in, one fine day, he will return, he will come back for me, I believe - the music is full of that yearning, that joy-muted-with-sorrow, that pure human passion that believes in something right until the bitter moment that it is shattered before one's eyes. I was seven years old and I felt it go through me, into me, into the heart and the spirit of me, and I've loved the whole damned kit and caboodle ever since.
I've seen most of them, in my time. I've seen "Traviata", and "Trovatore", and "La Boheme", and "Tosca", and "Lucia di Lammermoor", and "Turandot" (which people go to see only because "Nessun Dorma" is in it"... and even "Nabucco", which probably remains on opera companies' repertoire only because of THIS:
- the most amazing opera chorus ever. The thing about "Va Pensiero" that I cannot forget is the story that during Verdi's funeral procession, while his coffin wound its way down the streets towards his final resting place, the roadside was lined by mourners, people who stood by with their hats in their hands paying their last respects to the man who wrote the beautiful music... and that these people, unprompted, unrehearsed, spontaneously began singing "Va Pensiero" as a final tribute to the man to whom the angels must have sung this piece of music when he first wrote it. I get goosebumps when I imagine this. I have them right now. The first line of the chorus: "Va pensiero, sull'alli dorate..." - "Go, thought, on golden wings..." - we will remember you, man of music. Always.
Call me elitist if you want, but putting human emotion into music inspired by angels seems to me to be one of the most visceral things that can touch a human being. The grand operas are sung in the language of their original librettos - but you don't go to an opera to hone your Italian. It's great if you understand the actual words, but if not... you go to the opera to steep yourself in the music, because the music is what does the talking. I heard the call at seven years old, and I don't think I was old enough at that time to be "elitist". I just loved it. I still do. And when I want to be touched by music in ways that wake my emotions and my empathy and my passions, it's opera that fills that need.
Perhaps it's the drama. Perhaps that's why I've always had such an affinity for, need for, understanding for, love for, the dramatic.
All I know is that this -
(you can ignore the imagery if you like, just LISTEN)
- this makes me tremble on the edge of tears - because it transcends, because it opens up things in my own mind's eye that make feel more deeply.
We are generations down the road from me - generations whose children were increasingly reared on fast food, sound bites, MTV, quick-draw EVERYTHING - generations whose attention spans, on the whole, seem to be shorter and shorter every year. Perhaps it has become elitist to expect a human being to sit in a theatre for two hours and immerse themselves into the full-body all-senses experience that is grand opera. If so, I can only say that I feel that something beautiful and valuable has been lost.
I have a book to go back to, now.
It's full of human passions and human troubles, or at least it's trying to be.
You know. Just like... grand opera...