Why Opera?

[This is the first of nine extracts from a book Why Opera – An introduction to an art form – Opera in nine easy pieces.]



Just over twenty years ago, a Melbourne restauranteur and wine maker, Rinaldo di Stasio, got together with two cooking writers, Jill Dupleix and Terry Durack, to write a book about Italian cooking called Allegro Al Dente, Pasta & Opera.  The authors believed that opera and Italian cooking went together.  They were dead right, even if the French composer, Hector Berlioz made what Banjo Paterson may have described as a ‘rude remark’ about Italian cooking and opera.

Music for the Italians is a sensual pleasure and nothing more.  For this noble expression of the mind, they have hardly more respect than for the art of cooking.  They want a score that, like a plate of macaroni, can be assimilated immediately without having to think about it.

Now, we’ll have to confront snobbery and bitchiness in various forms on our journey in this book, but, among other things, it is odd to see a French man putting down the art or role of cooking.

The authors of Allegro al Dente put out a CD with the book.  It has fifteen of the biggest hits of opera delivered by a shining gaggle of its biggest hitters back then.  The sleeve notes said:

Here is the polished power of Carlo Bergonzi, the seductive charm of Giuseppe di Stefano, the radiant brilliance of Dame Joan Sutherland, the heroic emotion of Mario del Monaco, the sweet honey of Mirella Freni and Cecilia Bartoli, the warmth and colour of Renata Tebaldi, and the state of the art performance that is Luciano Pavarotti.

What a great idea – even if they missed out on my two heroes.  I was still engaged in taking my daughters to the opera about five times a year, and wondered if I might write an introduction to opera for them – and anyone else who might be interested.  (I had written a short outline of a history of the world for them.)

Until very recently, I wondered how I could write an introduction to opera without knowing what works – such as the arias on that CD – that members of the reading audience might have.  You see, I’m a bit slow on the internet.  I plead age.  But I now find that anyone can access a vast range of opera on the internet for nothing, on sites like YouTube, so that anyone could have access to the equivalent of as many of those CD’s as they like.  (Is that why op shops are loaded with CD’s?)

From that discovery comes this little book.  It is written on the basis that the reader will accept the invitation to listen to or watch the works of opera that are referred to.

So, roll out the red and white check tablecloth, get out the pasta or the bread and cheese, open the Chianti or Coonawarra Cabernet or Grampians Shiraz, and, as a sports commentator used to say just before the start of a Grand Prix, pump up the volume!

But, rather than ask what opera is, we might ask what art is.  You can look up the dictionaries if you like, but to my mind they miss the point.  If I ask what Milton, Turner and Tchaikovsky have in common, my answer is that their art is a lyrical reflection of the human condition.  The key word there is ‘lyrical’ – their art is the imaginative and appealing way that they bring us to their reflection.  ‘To be or not to be’ is a very different proposition to ‘Why don’t I just top myself?’  A sonnet by Shakespeare does carry more clout than a Phantom comic.  To use the jargon of the advertiser, the art is the hook that draws us in to get the message.

Well, opera is theatre or drama set to music – so there may be two avenues of lyrical reflection – the drama, or theatre, and the music.  When you think about it, you could say the same of most songs.  Take the poetry of Robert Burns.  You can read it on the page; you can hear it read aloud, or recited from memory; or you can hear it sung to music by, say, Kenneth McKellar.  The effect may well be very different.  Would the poet be offended if many said that they thought that the last mode of performance was the most lyrical?

Let us look first at music.  It is clear that song and dance respond to deep needs in the human condition.  Indeed, our music may be one of the critical things that distinguish us from our primate ancestors.  Music and dance appear to cross all borders of time and space in mankind.  In my kitchen, there is a framed photo of a man with no apparent clothing, very pierced ears, and a very odd haircut.  His eyes are shut, and he looks concentrated, but to be at peace.  The inscription reads: ‘Photograph of a Maquiritare Indian of Northern Brazil in the 1950s, listening to a gramophone record of Mozart’s music played by the French explorer Alain Gheerbrant during an expedition to the Amazon.’  If you find that to be moving, you will see why I framed the photo.

Let us look then at drama or theatre.  More than 2,500 years ago, the Greeks reached a very high stage of development in both tragedy and comedy as modes of theatre that helped them to see their world.  The works of Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles and Aristophanes are still read and performed.  Sigmund Freud was greatly interested in their insights into our psyche, although some would say that symbolism has necessary limits in science.  Curiously enough, the Greeks found that the sound of the words carried further when they were sung.

Nearly two thousand years later, a professional English playwright began writing and performing in plays that would lay the foundation of modern theatre, and in which Europe reached well beyond its ancient sources.  The shell-bursts of the genius of William Shakespeare have altered not just how we see drama, but how we see ourselves.  Shakespeare was vital to the development of the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi (‘Joe Green’), so much so that he wrote three operas based on three leading plays of Shakespeare.  With that fusion of poetic and musical genius, what insights might we get from that lyrical reflection upon our condition?

We might add something more on drama.  In a book published in 1949, Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature: A Study of King Lear, by John Danby, the first sentence reads: ‘We go to great writers for the truth.’  Later, the author unloads this zinger:

It is only dramatically that the manner of living thought can be adequately expressed.  A discursive philosopher is tied to the script of his single part.

This is a precious insight for our purposes.  Later, Danby referred to the well‑known aphorism of Thomas Hobbes that the life of man is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.  Some may take that view of life, but where do you think you might better seek enlightenment on the nature of life –Hobbes’ Leviathan or Shakespeare’s King Lear?

So, drama set to music is an obvious candidate for an art form.  This book will follow the opera houses’ current practice and focus on four composers – Mozart (1756-1791), Verdi (1813-1901), Wagner (1813-1893) and Puccini (1858-1924).  The main operas looked at will be for Mozart, The Marriage of Figaro, Cossi fan Tutte, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute; for Verdi, La Traviata, Rigoletto, A Masked Ball, Don Carlos and Falstaff; for Puccini, La Bohême, Tosca, Madam Butterfly, and Turandot.  Wagner is a different proposition.  Together with The Barber of Seville and Carmen, these operas would all vie today for position in the top bracket for box office or recordings.  There will be additional chapters on sources and directions, bel canto, and the twentieth century.

In each chapter references, will be made to extracts from operas that are freely available on sites on the internet – ‘freely’ there including at no cost.  This will enable readers to be introduced to the greatest performers that have lit up our stages and enriched the western world – and to the hot shots of now.

Just how you take to opera is a matter for your own taste and capacity.  All of the operas that we will look at were composed to be performed live on stage with a live orchestra and no mechanical assistance for the voices.  Many opera fans would prefer to take their opera live at the theatre.  Presently in Australia, you can generally get a cheap seat at the opera for less than what you pay for a lot of pop concerts or for some seats at AFL home and away games.

On the live stage, you get the suspense of any live performance.  Will they pull it off?  Or will this soprano buckle under the weight of that big aria in Turandot – as some say happened to Maria Callas?  Opera is a bit like Formula 1 – there is complicated technology; big amounts of money; bigger amounts of ego; and huge amounts of bullshit.  But – in the end, someone has to get out there on the day or on the night and pull it off – and come mortally close to their limits while doing so – when failure is very, very public, and they have no place to hide.

But, we are so well treated by both recordings and films now.  Some years ago, I was watching Pavarotti in a free concert in Central Park.  The camera zoomed in as he reached down to hit the high note, and I could see a look of white terror in his eyes that reminded me immediately of the look in Humphrey Bogart’s eyes when he realised that Ingrid Bergman had chosen his gin joint to walk back into his life – and it’s something you only get on the big screen.  Then there is the sound quality, both contemporary and reconstructed.  I have never seen Victor Trumper bat, but I have seen and heard Enrico Caruso and Maria Ponselle and Nellie Melba sing.  I can witness history.

And with opera, as with Shakespeare, and any drama, there are some pieces that you would rather just sit in comfort and listen to rather than go and see it on stage or film.  For example, there are problems with staging King Lear – most directors over-cook the storm scene; plucking out eyes is not fun to watch, especially with this script; the fall at the beach is tricky; and this is a play where the cast has to bat right down the order, and some companies outside of England can find that hard.  I have seen this play butchered – butchered – in Melbourne, London, and Chicago, and I would need serious provocation to try my luck again – especially if I can hear Paul Scofield or Ian Holm in the comfort of the hearth.  You can find similar issues with most of Wagner – before you get to their back-breaking length.  And there is an amazing range of material on film.  A couple of years ago, I paid less than $100 for a set of 33 disks showing 22 operas of Mozart performed at Salzburg – premium performances of his whole oeuvre for the cost of a reasonable seat for a Figaro at the Australian Opera.

Whether you want to go to the opera or not bears on another issue.  Many of the operas we see were composed with the assistance of patronage.  Most are now performed with the backing of patrons.  But no opera that that I know of was created for the benefit of the aristocracy or establishment.  But that sadly is not the impression that a lot of people have of opera.  They see it as an establishment toy, rather like polo or an exclusive school.  This is bloody sad.  A leading guide to opera says that many people are put off it by ‘the social exclusivity cultivated by many opera houses, especially in the English-speaking world.’  The guide (Opera the Rough Guide) is English.  That proposition would hold for Glyndebourne, but if it holds for Covent Garden, that is not the fault of those now running that house.  In Opera, A Penguin Anthology, Stephen Brook says that ‘the duchesses have been replaced by the dispiriting bosses whose companies donate money to the opera house.’  Boy, did he get that right – and not just for England.  You can see bank managers shuffling around with their triumphantly defiant wives – at the expense of the shareholders.

The snootiness problem is not so acute in Australia.  There I think the issue may lie in uncomely phrases like ‘cringe’, ‘sheilahs’ stuff’ or ‘toffs’.  We might hope that by now we might have gone past such hang-ups.  Can we proceed in this book on the footing that in order to enjoy opera, in whatever form you like, you do not have to be a toff, a smart-arse, or a fairy?  You don’t even have to wear a tie.  There is no reason why you cannot go to both the opera and the Melbourne Storm on the same day – although experience suggests that if alcohol is to be consumed, some prudence might be shown about the order of the performances.

So, let’s hear no more of that bullshit about class.  Among other things it’s said not to be Australian.  Let’s look kindly on those who need to put people in boxes and label their attitudes, and hope that these poor souls find both enlightenment and liberation.

Two points of what might be called housekeeping.  You don’t need to know a note of music to enjoy Beethoven’s Fifth – or opera.  I suspect that most people who go the opera will have my level of musical literacy – nil, nix, nought, and nothing.  For the musically trained, this is a tale told by an idiot – but I’ll lay off the sound and the fury.  I started a course on reading music nearly twenty years ago in preparation for a summer school at Oxford.  To the consternation of the tutor and myself, I failed – badly.  Fortunately, that course was abandoned – and we looked instead at Shakespeare in Verdi – much more to my taste and capacity.  (So emboldened, I later took a course on Bach’s orchestral suites at Cambridge – the demons people fear about some subjects that they are in awe of tend to disappear in the daylight.)

Then, if you want a good book-length companion, I recommend the Rough Guide.  You can pick it up for a song second hand.  It is as complete as it is brilliant.  The English are the best at this kind of thing and at dry put-downs.  You get a biography of the composers and then for each major opera, there is a synopsis, a commentary, and a recording guide.  At the end there are helpful lists of houses, performers and conductors, and a glossary, all written by people who know their stuff.  You want to know about Franco Corelli?  ‘One of the loudest and most exciting singers of the twentieth century – and almost certainly the most intoxicatingly vulgar.’  (That is not necessarily a put down.)  Domingo?  ‘The most versatile and most recorded tenor in history.’  What about our Joan?  ‘Her large physique highlighted her poor acting, and she was criticised for her poor diction, but no one ever went to hear Sutherland sing to listen to the words.’  This guide is remarkably good, in a market that sees a lot of rubbish.

Let us, then, turn to our first two samples – the duet ‘Io l’ho perduta’ from Don Carlos by Verdi, sung by Jussi Bjorling and Robert Merrill, and the aria ‘Ebben?  Ne andro lontan’ from La Wally by Catalani sung, by Maria Callas.

Now, we all know that Verdi was Italian, and it’s a fair bet that Catalani was also Italian – but few people have heard of Catalani, and very few have ever seen or heard La Wally.  But many people will soon be at home with the soft pathos of the Callas aria – especially if they have seen the French movie Diva, where this aria is the centrepiece.  (And watching the film Diva may be as good a way as any to see the mystique of drama performed to music.)  You can feel the dramatic tension build up to the duet, but when it unfolds, it does so with a melodic lilt that you might catch from a rotunda in Sicily on a warm summer day.  That is very typical of this composer.

And both these pieces remind us that at heart opera is nothing if not Italian.  What do I mean by that?  The composers that we admire were not afraid to express emotion and they were not shy of style.  They had what footy coaches liked to describe as ‘attitude.’  They come straight at us like Ferrari, Ferragamo, or Maserati.  Or pasta al dente and the check table cloth.  They are rakishly in your face.

And you have just been exposed to two of the greatest voices that the opera stage has ever heard – and two of the saddest tragedies.  Bjorling came from a good musical family, but he was, perhaps like Bret Whiteley, daunted and almost crushed by the weight of his own genius, and he became a helpless drunk.  (Bjorling and Merrill have another famous duet, ‘Au fond du temple saint’, from The Pearl Fishers by Bizet.  I have seen a grown man cry over that performance after another bad day at the footy.)  Callas was adored.  She was looked on with awe.  She had no peer on the stage.  She had the power of Muhammad Ali to change the way that people saw their world.  But her personal life got messy, her voice cracked, and she was monstered by a dirty rotten rich pig.  In his wonderful DVD, Three Legendary Tenors, Nigel Douglas quoted someone saying of Bjorling that his voice was ‘heavy with unshed tear.’  That beautiful line goes for Callas too, and what you have here in their purest form are the dignity of the human voice and the majesty of drama in music.

And, yes, for the removal of doubt, I am not just a fan or acolyte of Bjorling and Callas – I am an addict.  Either can render me lachrymose at the drop of a hat – irrespective of what happened at the footy, and with not a drop of red in sight.

May I then go back to the Indians in the Amazon?  The book that the photo came from, Mozart and his operas, by David Cairns, says that when the French explorers approached the Indians with various records on their portable gramophone, there was at first no response.  They stayed shyly but stubbornly inside.  Then the French put on ‘their beloved Mozart’, and out came the Indians immediately, as the author says ‘compelled – like man and beast in The Magic Flute – by the Orphic power of the sounds.’  David Cairns concluded his Prologue this way.

We too are under the spell.  A contemporary of Mozart said that his music would ‘speak to unborn generations when the bones of kings have long since crumbled to dust.’  More than two centuries after his death, it speaks as never before.  Precisely how it does so we cannot, finally, say.  But it speaks, surely, not so much through the charm of its perfect patterns as through its comprehension of life, its penetrating knowledge of women and men, its profound humanity.

Does it not look to be the case that people who go to God without having drunk freely from this cup have sold themselves short – sadly and badly?

7 thoughts on “Why Opera?

  1. You can sit ‘in the gods’ at La Scala for 5 euros. At the Vienna Staatsoper about the same and for , I think, 10 euros stand at the back of the Parkett.  These places are always full. The other great European  houses do the same.

    Sent from my Samsung Galaxy smartphone.

    • Our houses are not designed for standers. Query whether Sydney was designed for sitters. I’m not sure about the politics of subsidised seating, but I ‘m sure they get more government money in Europe. That idea is not strong here – because of the class perception.

  2. I’ve only once been to see opera. That was Madame Butterfly at Rochford winery. A drunk woman threw up at my feet.

  3. Good afternoon Geoffrey,

    I thoroughly enjoyed the first extract from your new book on opera and look forward to the coming eight extracts. I saw my first opera in 1961 and have been devoted fan ever since.

    I hope you’re well.

    Best wishes, John

    • Good to hear from you. I knew you were a fan.
      I’m listening for the first time to the Opera Hour on ABC FM.
      Will do other short intros – history of the world, philosophy, terrorism, and so on.
      Go Demons.

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