Puritan Guide to the Opera 2: Objections

In an earlier installment, I assayed to “clear the field” for the beginner. Now I will answer some of the standard “objections” to opera that are floating around out there.

The fat lady

At first blush, there is something ridiculous about, say, a bunch of chubby 40-somethings trying to act like 19-year-olds (as in: La Boheme). However, two things need to be pointed out:

First, many of the modern opera singers are quite svelt.

Second, one learns to abstract from these accidental features. What opera delivers is something that transcends sheer realism.

The stories are ridiculous

This is actually not usually the case. Think about it: so much effort is involved in writing an opera, not to mention producing it, that it is not likely that anything but the best plays available were picked, at least from the perspective of the composer and producers at the time.

Having said that, Mortimer Adler has correctly observed that writing an enduring play is a very rare thing. After the Greeks, the really enduring playwrites can just about be counted with the fingers of one hand.

Granted, some of the plots are ridiculous. But the thing the opera is tilting at is (usually) not ridiculous. That must become your focus.

Opera stories include adaptations of the Greek tragedies, Nordic myth, Victor Hugo, and Shakespeare. Others have proven to be lesser lights. But just about all the survivors have a good deal of merit.

The story is told too slowly

I should have mentioned this up front as an advantage. What opera does is slow down the action to dwell on the eternal moment. Or, to resume my earlier analogy, think of it not so much as swimming, as soaking in a Jacuzzi. Learn to dwell; it will pay off.

The stories are immoral

Opera has the reputation of wallowing in seduction, adultery, murder, and even incest.

There is some truth to this. But it is not quite what it seems superficially. These settings are taken up to highlight something important. Often, the apparent muck is taken up into something that greatly transcends it.

It’s in a foreign language: I don’t understand it.

Operas used to be performed in translation, in the native tongue of the audience. It is to be lamented that in recent decades, snobbery has dominated most opera houses, such that most operas today are performed in their original languages.

While the original language yields extra beauties to those aficianados that by luck or conscious effort know the language, it is a 3% type of bonus.

After all, when the Italians set a Shakespeare play to music, they did it in Italian translation. The idea that a poetic dramatic work cannot be translated is greatly overstated.

And watching an opera without comprehension is absurd. It might as well be ballet.

That said, I think all American opera houses project the English translation in some form or other. The Met has little text boxes set in front of each seat. DVDs offer subtitling.

So it is an annoyance, but not a fatal objection.

11 thoughts on “Puritan Guide to the Opera 2: Objections

  1. Still, some stories are ridiculous. Take “Magic Flute.” It borders on the nonsensical. But at least in this opera, the music is so good that the story is almost beside the point.

    This is not true of most operas. Puccini, for example, wrote several operas about the same basic story. Though musically distinct and all quite good, the stories do leave something to be desired. One will cry during first several viewings of la bohème, but then the tears will run dry. Mimi dies again, ho hum. But while one laughs at Papageno during the first several runs, he later becomes moved by his pathos. The viewer is torn between laughter and tears. This is because the human drive for love is at once ludicrous and pathetic. Mozart captures both in Papageno. This is the mark of genius.

  2. MB- Interesting…you should develop the “same story” thesis of Puccini into an essay; they all seem pretty different to me. Personally, I would pick Bohème over Flute three times out of four; and the world agrees with me (I know, I know: fallacy ad populum).

  3. The world does in fact pick Bohème over Flute if the Met is any indication. Aside from Aida, it is the most performed opera at the Lincoln Center. This is not necessarily due to it being the better opera. Rather, it because it is more accessible.

    I would probably pick Bohème three nights out of four over Tristan, but this is not because I think it is greater. More is involved with Tristan. One has to be in the right state of mind; it is draining and leaves one numb. Bohème does not. Fill your pipe with tobacco and uncork a good bottle of wine and you are ready for Bohème. Approach Tristan in the same way and you will not make it through the first act.

    The paradox of this is that if we rated opera as we do movies (it is safe to assume both would rank on the endless-periodic criterion), Bohème may get a higher score. Yet Tristan would still be the greater. Perhaps this means that we need another index if we ever get around to rating operas.

  4. Re: opera in foreign languages

    I think that one of the most winsome aspects of hearing great opera is that it is a great teacher of foreign languages. In the 60’s and 70’s, before the advent of supertitled performances, it was an unalloyed joy to listen to a scene in a foreign language and understand almost every word. Follow the libretto included with the disks, and try to make sense of the words in the original language as you follow the translation. With most languages, aside from Russian, this will be easy because of the cognates. If the performance is good, soon you’ll be singing along with the cast. It’s surprising how many of the top singers do exactlty that. The singers themselves do not speak all the languages in which they regularly sing. After a short time, you will acquire a wonderful passive vocabulary, and will be picking out the same words again and again in other operas. The only thing that you can’t overcome is a second rate performance and, unfortunately, there are a number of them on recordings these days. A short google search will produce many lists of “best” recordings. Start with one of them and soon you’ll be pulling swords out of Earth Ash trees with Melchior and loving it.

  5. Glenn – right. A good rule to follow is this. Study the libretto before seeing the opera. If you know the language study it in the original. If not, get a good translation. But while you read the translation, look at the original as well in order to familiarize yourself with what you will hear during the opera.

    Reading the translation during the opera is distracting. The more you know about the story, the more you can pay attention to what is being sung and what is happening on the stage.

    Like everything else, the more you put into it, the more you will get out.

  6. Ok, I want to ask a question that has bugged me in the past, and now is bugging me more and more. What do you think of Negroes (i.e. blacks) in Opera? Is this not a traitorous act against White European art forms? Moreover, what of the historical anomolies in seeing a black Zerbinetta (Kathy Battle) or a black Ariadne (the cavernous-mouthed ‘Just Enormous’ i.e., Jessye Norman in an opera written for Austrian Aryans?

    Inquiring minds want to know…
    “Fanget an!” (from Meistersinger)

  7. Mr. John-

    Try this question. What do you think about a Japanese soprano singing Butterfly? Assuming you answer that you would have no problem, this shows that the question that you ask is more subtle than you realize.

    But the real problem with your question is its extreme formulation. Don’t get me wrong, it is a question worth asking, but I don’t think western civilization is what is at stake here.

    Your question calls for a lengthy reply, but I will try to be brief and risk coming across haphazard.

    1) Specifically on Kathleen Battles, I find her voice clean and lovely. And she is feminine, even for a diva (which tend to be quite feminine), and more feminine than most other American sopranos. This is a real plus in my book. The problem with Battles is that she lacks heart; she is not “into” the part she is singing and often appears to dislike the other singers (esp. male) around her.

    As for Norman, I like her voice for some roles, but not for Wagner (even though she does a decent job of Elsa). And while she has personality and heart, she does not seem to identify with her Germanic roles. She sings with passion, but with the passion of Jessye Norman not the passion of Sieglinde or Ariadne.

    For some, these observations, even if their truth is granted, will not move them. It is the singing that matters. For me, identification with the role (esp. in German opera) is almost as important as the singing; at times, more important. I’ll take a B-level heldentenor who is a dramatically great Siegmund over an A-level singer who is a stiff. (Of course, my preference would be to have the best of both worlds.)

    What does all this have to do with your question? Well, for one, and I don’t want to build a theory on race on this, it seems that somebody with heart such as Norman cannot really get into the role of a German heroine. Race or culture may play a role here. And, if true, this is likely because her background (race and culture) is alien to such roles. If true, this would give some basis for casting whites and perhaps even Germanic whites in these roles.

    (Like most, I’m a fan of Placido, but his Lohengrin is too romantic for the part. This despite the fact that Wagner envisioned an Itialianate singer for the role. German heroes call for German singers.)

    2) Opera is like theater in that you have to be able to to suspend disbelief — only more so. My colleague addressed this issue briefly in the above post.

    Casting parts has been problematic for a variety of reasons. Take Siegfried. Siegfried has always been a difficulty. He is 17 years old, with all the naivety and spunk of such a youth. Add to this that he has never had human contact. Playing him convincingly would be a tall order for a good stage actor. But opera singers are primarily trained in voice and secondarily, if at all, in acting. Add to this that tenor who can sing this grueling part cannot be anywhere near 17. What we end up with is a chubby 40 year old with mediocre acting skills running around stage trying to look and act young, heroic, and naive. Amazingly some are able to pull it off fairly well. But not most. And even with the best Siegfrieds, it takes some effort on the part of the audience to suspend disbelief.

    Take Tristan. The Met recently did Tristan with Ben Heppner and Jane Eaglen in the principal roles. Many opera singers are big (fat), but Heppner and Eaglen are enormous and Eaglen borders on the obscene. It is difficult to watch the two heifers alone on stage, but when they sing together, it is painful. I would take a black and think Isolde over a white and obese one.

    But here the role is important. I don’t think I would be bothered if Eaglen sang, say, Tosca or even Violetta.

    (Speaking of Eaglen, there was a rumor that a concert tour consisting of Deborah Voight, Sharon Sweet and Jane Eaglen wa going to be launched. The name was to be “The Three Tonners”.)

    Now let’s take race. It takes tremendous effort, for me at least, to suspend disbelief when Siegfried is white and Sieglinde is black. And I confess that it does not work for me. A recording is one thing, but not on stage and not on a DVD.

    But when I think about this, I think the opera being performed is critical. Negroes do not really work in Wagner. And the same is true of Fidelio and perhaps some Mozart. When it comes to Strauss (with the exception of Rosenkavalier), race is not nearly as important. To use your examples, a black Ariadne or Zerbinetta is not nearly as bothersome as a black Brünnhilda. And as for Italian or French opera, race is almost a non-issue. These operas are, for me, mostly about the music. Nothing about these touches me on a primal level or at least not on the most primal levels.

    To conclude these rambling thoughts, race is important, but so are other things. In most cases having blacks sing the roles does not bother me (although, all else being equal, I would probably prefer whites for staged performances). But in some operas (Wagner in particular) black singers are distracting and makes it much more difficult for me to become absorbed in them.

    And though they won’t admit it, even the PC types recognize this. Opera companies seem to go out of their way to cast black sopranos as Aida. The reason for this is obvious and I think their motivation is right.

    But even with this said, I would not turn down tickets to Die Walküre just because a Jessye Norman sang one of the parts.

  8. Well I’m with Father John on Strauss. I really don’t want to see a Negress Zerbinetta or Ariadne.

    I’m wondering: wd the PC crowd hire a honky to portray Malcolm X? Maybe they wd say, “that’s too historically concrete to abstract it.”

    Then: wd they hire honkies to act a generic story based in tribal Africa?

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