It's not all that difficult to like
By Gaëtan L. Charlebois
In an episode of the late great Malcolm in the Middle, Dewey, the ten year old, a musical genius, is bored and decides to channel surf. Suddenly he falls upon an opera and stops clicking and soon he is weeping with joy...or even ecstasy. The episode is a classic called Dewey's Opera and I understood it right into my guts. That's how it happens: you are swept up, you are astounded, you can't quite believe it - it is as if you are hearing it for the first time.
It hits us where breath begins.
Opera is loved and hated. However, take it from one who was initiated at about the same age as Dewey - the lovers of opera more than love it.
It hits us where breath begins.
We understand that the words are sung because their sentiments are too huge to be spoken. We understand that trios, quartets and sextets are what people are thinking but aloud. And choruses are crowds beautiful (in prayer or joy) or ugliness (lynch mobs and political rallies). We get it, even when - as Dewey was - we're very young.
I weep hardest when Mimi is singing about spring which we know she will never see.
My first opera performance, at nine, was La Bohème. It was a good place to start; light, but perfect. I have seen it so many times since - in Montreal, Ottawa, Germany - and people around me in the audience think me odd because I weep hardest when Mimi is singing about spring which we know she will never see. It's in Act I. The thing operaphiles are mocked for - that we know what we will see and usually know what we will hear (having listened to the opera obsessively in recordings before the performance) - is precisely what makes us a hard audience. We know the music and story so bring us something fresh. A fresh reading of the score, a fresh UNDERSTANDING of the piece, a fresh way of looking at the whole artform. If the production surprises for these reasons, we'll talk about it for months. If it surprises us for the wrong reasons, we will talk about it for months.
I remember a Tristan and Isolde at Covent Garden where the brilliant conducting of Bernard Haitink kept the audience from losing its collective head over a production so profoundly wrong you almost wanted to break the Wagnerian silences. The director had placed the two mad lovers in separate boxes and they never touched. Perhaps it was his way of dealing with the fact the Tristan was a midget and the Isolde a strapping German valkyrie. If they had been standing side by side it would have been risible. It also reduced the evening to merely a concert reading and that was not a good thing. Besides the perfection of Haitink et al., the Amazon was offering a Wagner-wobble that would have stripped wood and the tenor was straining so hard...well, insert metaphor here...
I was a Verdi and Puccini nut with some space left over for Gounod and Bizet.
Not everyone will like every opera. I was in my 40s before the Wagner bug bit me. Soon after it was Berg, and around about 45 Dvorak became an obsession. Before, I was a Verdi and Puccini nut with some space left over for Gounod and Bizet. But I didn't give up on the composers of my childhood for the German. I insisted on more from them...or, rather, for them.
Zeffirelli's Traviata at the Met - with its dancing cows - enraged me. A D-grade Aïda at Opéra de Montréal, with its terrifically awful crowd scenes, had me give up on the company (especially since, across the street at Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, they were presenting a ground-breaking Wozzeck).
That Wozzeck is one of the moments I will never forget. Another is seeing a truly bizarre opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, at the new COC house when it was still shiny. Placido Domingo rendering a smooth as silk Siegmund at ROH is another (in a Ring that was largely forgettable). The man was in his 60s and still had an utterly seductive voice. A concert version of T&I directed by Kent Nagano was thrilling because you knew more than half the house had never heard the work and were being moved by it.
But mostly I remember, when I was 11, a Trovatore in a small provincial house in Germany which had no set but which hypnotized me because all I could watch was the potboiler of a drama which - despite its melodrama - is full of humanity and...well...grandness!
I promise - even, perhaps, guarantee - that there is an opera and a performance with everyone's name on it; like there is a play with everyone's name on it. Look at all these moments - great and wondrously awful - I have lived in my little life.
I am Dewey-eyed.