Why opera 9 – and Epilogue


So what?

Some years back, now, when my personal life was in turmoil, I took off for my usual bolt-holes in the sticks.  I was stationary in traffic at Port Fairy with the window down.  A guy lent across, and the following conversation took place.

Are you OK mate?

Sure, mate, is there a problem?

You’re bawling your bloody eyes out, mate!

Shit.  It must be the weather.  But thanks.

I was not aware of the tears, but the cause of the emotion just then, in an otherwise emotional time, was that I was right in the heart of Leb wohl toward the end of Die Walkure.  Getting a fading Anglo-Saxon emotional enough to shed a tear is no bad thing.  And that is a large part of what we have been talking about – awakening emotions by art, the art of the composer and the art of the performer.

We have come some way from the tableaux of Orfeo to Jack the Ripper closing out the heroine in Lulu.  As in all exercises in history, we are at risk of distorting our perspective because we have the advantage of hindsight.  It is worth setting out the views on Orfeo of John Eliot Gardiner, the founder of the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra, at some length.

Claudio Monteverdi, amazingly, provided all of these missing elements in the very first through–composed work for the stage… He recognised that the hitherto unexploited potential of what the Florentines called the ‘new music’ was to allow the singer’s voice to fly free above an instrumental base line, giving just the right degree of harmonic support and ballast… The radicalism of L’Orfeo may not be fully recognised by audiences even today.  In an age when the emotional life of human beings was becoming a topic of the utmost fascination – with philosophers and playwrights trying to define the role of passions in human destiny, and with painters as varied as Velazquez, Caravaggio and Rembrandt all intent on betraying the inner life of men and women – Monteverdi stood head and shoulders above the contemporary musicians in the consistent way he explored and developed musical themes of ‘imitation’ and ‘representation’.  We now refer to L’Orfeo as an opera and think of it as the beginning of the genre; but that is because we are looking at it backwards via the perspective of Wagner or Verdi.  To Monteverdi, it was a… fable in music…

Then let us recall what it may have been like when opera was in its prime in its birthplace – Italy.  This is how the celebrated French novelist Stendhal describes a typical Rossini premiere at a minor Italian opera house in the early nineteenth century.

The maestro takes his seat at the piano.  The house is packed with people who have poured in from twenty miles around.  Some folk are so fascinated that they are more or less camping in their coaches in the middle of the streets; all the inns have been full since the day before…

The overture begins, and you could hear a pin drop.  When it is over, the auditorium explodes with excitement, with shouts of praise up to the very heavens, with incessant whistling and roaring…

Each aria of the new opera is listened to in complete silence, and then received with the same astonishing uproar.  Not even the howling of a wrathful sea can give you an idea of the racket.  You can hear the audience appraising both the singers and the composer.  They shout ‘Bravo Davide, bravo Pisaroni’; or else the whole house will resound to the cries of ‘Bravo maestro!’  Rossini rises from his place at the piano, his handsome face looking grave, which is not at all characteristic.  He bows three times as the applause washes over him, deafening him with adulation.  Then the performance continues with the next item.

Rossini himself is at the piano for the first three performances of a new opera, after which he receives his fee of seventy sequins (Fr.800), participates in a splendid farewell faced hosted by his new friends – the whole town, in other words – and then sets off in his carriage ready to go through the same rigmarole forty miles from here in a neighbouring town.

There’s no snootiness there.  It is all so Italian, yet it sounds a little like the English at soccer or the Spaniards at a bullfight – or some Lutheran Germans in a church.  John Eliot Gardiner spoke of Thuringia (a part of Germany) after Luther’s time when even the smallest parish church had its own pipe organ framed by a curved choir gallery where local craftsmen or farmers could sing during the service.  He spoke of doing a cantata concert in the town of Eisenach on Easter Day 2000.  The pastor invited Gardiner and members of his choir and orchestra to lead part of the singing.  In the middle of the Mass, they were suddenly joined in the organ choir by a group of local farmers who sang a short litany in Thuringian dialect and then left.  It’s a great story.  From any other source, I would be inclined to doubt it.

But to go back to Stendhal on Rossini, the point is that if you draw a line from Rossini’s Barber of Seville through Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Verdi’s Masked Ball to Puccini’s Tosca the composers and then the performers were engaged in giving the ordinary people of Italy a good night out.  They would have thought that you were at best absurd and at worst mad if you had accused them of engaging in snootiness.

Now come forward to today.  We are I think about as well served with singers for opera as we were in the past.  We are better served with theatres and production facilities than before.  But – we are not finding composers of the first rank or with immediate appeal; communal participation in making music is far less prevalent than it was before; jazz has become stagnant; and what passes for ‘popular’ music is a sterile form of bromide that is made purely for money – it might remind some of what some Anglican divines pronounced about sex outside of marriage.  They said it could be ‘trivially pleasurable and mildly therapeutic.’

There is then a risk of putrefaction in opera – especially if we cannot throw off the ‘snooty’ tag.

As ever in art, it depends on your point of view.  It is in the ear as well as the eye of the audience.  As with say, sports, you may find that performing musicians may well have a very different view about the merits of a composer or piece of music than a musically illiterate fan like me.  You may well find some who say Beethoven is to be preferred to Mozart, a proposition that would strike many opera-goers as at best risible and at worst blasphemous.  I have tried to explain my misgivings about Wagner.  There is one thing that can be said in his favour.  Angela Merkel, whom I greatly admire, is a fan.  She loves those big long shows.  I gather that Frau Merkel is not inclined to bruit this about – not because Waggers was a ratbag or a fascist, but because such taste might be regarded as snooty.  Sadly, too many Wagner fanatics lend weight to that impression.  Two things may be said of Bayreuth.  They don’t mind the snooty tag; not at all.  And I will never set foot in it.

And we English speakers live in a nether world most of the time in opera.  We get most of it in Italian, which is said to be the language best suited to this art form.  But there is a lot to be said for hearing an opera in your own language.  That’s primarily what a lot of them were written for.  About thirty years ago, I was faced with a choice in London between Billy Budd and La Bohème.  I rang Moffatt Oxenbould at the AO and I asked him for his opinion.  Since I called him cold, it was very good of him to take the call.  He gave me very good advice that I can still recall.  He said that the Bohème was imported and stale, but that there were two things in favour of Billy Budd for me.  It was so soon after its creation that they hadn’t had time yet to mongrelise it (my language) and that it would do me good to see an opera in my own language for a change.

Always spare a thought for the next most important artist after the composer.  They have to protect their voice at all times, so you may see them wearing a scarf in even mild weather.  Their fear is that their voice – their livelihood if not their life – may just fail.  They have to be careful that they don’t aim too high and overtax their voice.  Melba only tried Brunnhilde once.  She said ‘I’ve been a fool’ and it took her months to get over it.  And then there are nerves and stage fright.

Rosa Ponzillo was born in Connecticut in 1897 into a typical first generation Italian immigrant family.  She got interested in singing and she wanted to take Melba as her saint’s name.  She did vaudeville with her sister and they toured with people like George Burns, Jack Benny and the Marx brothers.  They made the phenomenal amount of $3000 a week in vaudeville.  Then Caruso spotted her.  Rosa Ponselle, as she would become, did a crash course in opera.  She was to begin with Caruso in La Forza del Destino at the MetThen she had a frightful attack of nerves.  She was physically dragged to the opera house.  In his book Prima Donna, A history, Rupert Christiansen says:

When she finally reached the wings, she looked pleadingly to Caruso for encouragement, only to find him in as bad a state as she was.  No two singers on record communicate a greater sense of spontaneous technical mastery than Ponselle and Caruso; no two singers suffered more agonies of uncertainty before a performance.  And Forza is not easy for anyone, even a Ponselle.

The New York Times said she was ‘vocal gold’ as well as beautiful.  But this was a very cruel way to blood such a young woman, and in some ways she never recovered.  Ponselle had limpid Latin eyes and she was achingly beautiful.  Just look at the photos of her as she started, not absurdly kitted out for Norma, but as the drop-dead gorgeous Latin migrant girl.  On the first night of Norma in 1927, her ‘Casta Diva’ halted the show for several minutes.  She gave up the stage in 1937 after an indifferent Carmen.  She had recently married, and she was still afflicted by nerves.  Even divas are human.

‘She had a string of romances and was known to enjoy herself uninhibitedly.’  That proposition of Rupert Christiansen may be a very discreet way of describing one way to beat nerves and to relax.

The critic J B Steane said ‘I daresay that if some (absurd) nomination were proposed for ‘Soprano of the Century’, Ponselle would vie with the title with Callas.’  After Ponselle died, Steane visited her home in Maryland in 1982.  It was being kept as a kind of shrine.

….the front door opened to the living sound of a dead voice familiar to me since childhood.  Rosa, as though in person, sang Auld Lang Syne.  For a moment, it was hard to believe she was not there.  I never heard such good reproduction in the house again, but this was as to life.  It forbade a normal exchange of greetings and introductions.  As we were about to speak, there came a phrase in the legendary pianissimo, and a moment later another in that incomparable low register, so that words again failed, and the heart fairly turned over.

That is the kind of devotion that some singers inspire, but for a time in New York nearly one hundred years ago (it was 1918), descendants of two Italian migrant families, Enrico Caruso and Maria Ponselle, were on stage together performing Verdi.  Each is considered by many to be the greatest ever of their kind, but each was a nervous wreck before the show opened.  The new world was taking on from the old world.  And if you wonder why Steane was so moved by the sound of the voice, listen to the divine Rosa Ponselle sing Ave Maria, the Verdi (Othello) version in 1924, and the Bach/Gounod version in 1926.  It is distilled beauty – to both the eye and the ear – and a joy forever.

But there is a price.  Ponselle never got over her attacks of nerves.  She retired from the stage at a very early age – but in 1947, ‘the supreme alchemist’ or ‘the dramatic soprano of the century’ ended up in an asylum for four months and spent one of them receiving electric shock therapy.  She recovered and lived happily until 1981. The scars were there – but so were the triumphs.  This is how the distinguished critic Ernest Newman of The Sunday Times described her debut season at Covent Garden in 1929.

Not only is her voice one of great beauty but she has the art of making it convey every nuance of the mind without it ever for a moment losing its pure singing quality.  It is a curious voice in some ways, with contralto timbre in its lowest register, yet a real high soprano up above.  She is not only a mistress of coloratura technique in the abstract but has the rare gift of making coloratura dramatic and psychological.  Sung as she sings it, we begin to have an inkling of what it was in the old coloratura that made it, for our ancestors, not a mere vain vocal display but the carrier of all sorts of shades of dramatic meaning.

What these performers do is to give us the drama of the performance in itself, and that is an integral part of a night out at the opera – or at the concert hall or at the theatre.  And without conceding one inch to snootiness, a night at the opera partakes of ritual in a way that our church-denying way of life cries out for.  It’s all very well for intellectuals and others to talk about the death of God, but they haven’t as yet found any replacement.  Major sporting events here carry a form of ritual, but a lot of us need a lot more – and I find it hard to think of a better place to look for it than in the opera house when the show is running.  It’s just that opera is much more a general part of peoples’ lives in, say, Italy and Germany than it is here.  My sense is that government subsidies there make it possible for great opera houses to make cheap places available for those who are not so well paid.  That might mean that they are in some ways just a bit more mature than us.  Well, the   truth is that they have been at it for longer.

The trick for you is to take opera at your own time and space.  Whether you want to go the opera house or just listen at home is a matter for you.  For most of the operas we have looked at, you can watch more than one version at home for nothing.  Most of my opera time is spent on just listening.  I could happily watch The Flying Dutchman again on the stage, but I do not think I could endure again any of the big ones of Wagner, and I absolutely reject Tristan and Parsifal, the first on medical grounds, the second on moral grounds.

The editor of The Oxford Dictionary of Opera says that when he is going to a doubtful venue, he gets a ticket on the aisle so that he can take off without offence.  That’s good advice.  At my first Ring, I went to the Flinders Ranges between Rheingold and Siegfried.  As a result, I missed the first act of the latter.  That was a good result, although some snooty people were put out.  The next time, I went back to the Flinders Ranges and I skipped the whole of Siegfried.  That was an even better result.  One of the big problems with the Ring is that Siegfried is a bloody idiot who takes too bloody long to die.  (The secretary of the Adelaide Club was thrilled to get my ticket.)  Now, I often leave at the end of the first or second act of other operas.  It is a habit that I got into living in Richmond and following the Storm.  With Bohème now, I would probably leave after Act I.

There is no call to express shock or horror.  It’s what suits you – provided that you don’t offend others.  And I have what lawyers call authority.  Here is the English conductor Sir Adrian Boult on sitting through Wagner.

I ran into Dame Ethel in the street during a Munich Festival: ‘You are the man I’m looking for; you’ve got to come and dine with me at the theatre restaurant tonight during the second act of Walkure; all the Walters are coming.’[This was a reference to the distinguished conductor, Bruno Walter.]

It happened that I had come a very long way to hear and see the second act of Walkure, among other things, but my hesitation was promptly sat on, and I joined a most hilarious and happy party.  Karl Muck was conducting, and Bruno Walter was having a night off, enjoying himself.  We felt particularly superior when the audience all rushed frantically out for beer and sandwiches in the second interval, while we had dined comfortably and could go leisurely back for the third act.

Then I learned a lesson; I thought I knew that act well, but I heard much in it that I had never heard before, and I decided then and there that to concentrate on two acts of Wagner was enough for any one evening, and I have always tried to escape one act, whatever the cost, ever since.

That is good advice from someone who is competent to provide that advice, and I have been both happy and better off for having followed it.  Remember this – Mark Twain thought that one act was enough, but I bet that they wouldn’t have had the nerve to try wagging school on at Bayreuth.

One way to start would be by getting collections on disk of some of the big hitters, past and present.  That way you get to hear songs you will never hear in the opera house, like the gorgeous ‘Amor te vieta’.  The record companies throw these at you, as they do boxed sets of operas by one composer or performed by one singer or under one conductor.  ABC FM offers an Opera Hour where you can hear from the past and what is going on now.

There are libraries of books, but one stands out way above the rest – J B Steane’s Singers of the Century, volumes 1, 2, and 3.  Steane writes beautifully and he composes his vignettes so as to reveal to us the heart of his subject.  He is to opera what The New Yorker’s Witney Bailliett was to jazz.  Each of them almost does the impossible and describes music in words.  Here is Steane on Di Stefano:

…Di Stefano was a summertime singer.  He came to us with his great talent, his youth and promise, just as civilisation was starting to breathe again after the Second World War.  In the 1950’s when Maria Callas became the sun goddess of opera, Di Stefano stood very close …if Tito Gobbi stands to one side of her in the photograph album of that summertime, on the other side is Giuseppe di Stefano…. ‘It was as though every part of him was voice….and you felt that if you heard it a little bit longer, you’d have enough energy built up inside you to last a lifetime.’  That was the effect the young Giuseppe di Stefano had upon his listeners: it is the special gift of the Italian tenor, and essentially it is the voice of youth.

That is beautiful writing.  This is how he concludes on Thomas Allen:

Yet here is the ‘true singer’, and method of some sort, there surely must be.  Whatever it is, it has worked like a charm and has made the art of singing seem an act of nature: which is probably as high a compliment as could be paid to any method yet devised.

Of Callas, he said that ‘she is instantly recognisable, and the recognition itself brings that frisson which is the tribute our instincts pay to genius’. He might have added that in this she may remind us of Louis Armstrong, but J B Steane was the ‘true writer.’  You might also enjoy his Voices, Singers and Critics.

Before we close, I may list the operas that we have looked at.  They are Orfeo, St Matthew Passion, Rinaldo, Xerxes, Orpheus and Eurydice, The Marriage of Figaro, Cossi fan Tutte, Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, The Italian Lady in Algiers, The Barber of Seville, Lucia di Lammermoor, Maria Stuarda, L’elisir d’amore, Norma, La Somnambula, I Pagliacci, Cavalleria Rusticana, La Traviata, Rigoletto, A Masked Ball, Don Carlos, Falstaff, The Pearl Fishers, Carmen, The Flying Dutchman, Tristan and Isolde, Parsifal, Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried, Gotterdammerung, La Bohème, Tosca, Madam Butterfly, Turandot, Salome, Der Rosenkavalier, Wozzek, Lulu, Jenufa, The Makropolous Case, Peter Grimes, Billy Budd and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I think the number is forty-five.  That could keep you going for a while.

We have listened to or noted the following performing artists in song: Thomas Allen, Luigi Alva, Victoria de los Angeles, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, Janet Baker, Cecilia Bartoli, Kathleen Battle, Carlos Bergonzi, Jussi Bjorling, Montserrat Caballé, Maria Callas, Enrico Caruso, Franco Corelli, Diana Damrau, Natalie Dessay, Joyce Didonato, Giuseppe di Stefano, Placido Domingo, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Renée Fleming, Juan Diego Florez, Mirella Freni, Elina Garanca, Nicolai Gedda, Alana Gheorghiu, Beniamino Gigli, Tito Gobbi, Miriam Gormley, Susan Graham, Thomas Hampson, David Hobson, Marilyn Horne, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Gundula Janowitz, Kiri Te Kanawa, Jonas Kaufman, Yvonne Kenny, Christa Ludwig, Catherine Malfitano, Emma Matthews, Susan Mentzer, Robert Merrill, Ann Murray, Anna Netrebko, Jessye Norman, Anne Sophie von Otter, Luciano Pavarotti, Peter Peers, Maria Ponselle, Lucia Popp, Leontyne Price, Graham Pushee, Christine Schafer, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Anja Silja, Elizabeth Soderstrum, Frederica von Stade, Joan Sutherland, Renata Tebaldi, Bryn Terfel, Jon Vickers,  and Rolando Villazon.

People have their favourites, in operas and performers, as they do in footy, but I hope you have got something from these works and these performers because, these works and performers are, with others, what I live by.

There is something dodgy or futile about top tens – wines, footballers, novels, or operas – J B Steane would have called them ‘absurd’.  But if I had to name a top ten now, it could be – The Marriage of Figaro, Cosi fan tutte, Don Giovanni, Rigoletto, Don Carlos, Falstaff, Die Walkure, Tosca, The Makropolous Case and Peter Grimes.  If you asked me next week, at least four of those may not be there.

To go back to the first chapter, and how we might take these works, I am equally happy with the Mozart and Verdi operas on the stage or on CD (except in winter).  I may watch one on film about once a year.  For reasons I have given, I don’t think I could endure all Die Walkure again on the stage.  I’m happy with any of my three CD versions of that opera or the Chéreau/Bayreuth DVD – but instead of skipping the second act, which is entertaining, I could skip the first half of the third act, which is banal – and which has been a little on the nose for some since Robert Duvall said ‘I just love the smell of napalm in the morning.’  Tosca really has to be seen on stage, although we are fortunate to have Callas and Gobbi on film.  With the two twentieth century operas, I can enjoy them equally in all three media.

I hope all that is catholic enough for you.  To continue pub talk about the all-time greats, you will know that I idolise Bjorling and Callas.  My other favourites include Giuseppe di Stefano, Carlo Bergonzi, Tito Gobbi, Katia Ricciarelli, Renata Tebaldi, and Christine Schafer.  If you asked me for the most electrifying moment for me on the stage, it was Katia Ricciarelli singing ‘Ave Maria’ from Otello.  The most hair-raising moment on disk?  Rosa Ponselle doing the same part about seventy years beforehand.  My favourite staging?  Midsummer Night’s Dream, Julius Caesar, The Makropolous Case and Falstaff, all by the AO.  And just to confirm my standing as a dodgy SNAG, if the categories of best staging and hair-raising moments were broadened to include ballet, my two favourites by some margin would be The Hunchback of Notre Dame in Paris and Anna Karenin in Budapest – each round about 1990.  Both were breathtaking.

What about an opera to go with a dinner – possibly pasta – and a bottle of red – possibly on the red and white table cloth.  Try one we haven’t mentioned yet – Bellini’s I Puritani.  It’s a good and simple plot about the eternal triangle and the conflict between love and duty.  It’s an ensemble piece for three leads and the chorus.  You know from beginning to end that this is Italian opera as it was meant to be seen and heard.  The tunes just keep coming.  You may not recognise one of them, but the reception at its premiere was such and so many numbers were encored that Bellini had to shorten it for the rest of the season.  So, there you have an ideal opera to go with the ideal meal – and that takes us back to where we started.

The Scottish philosopher, David Hume, said that reason is and always ought to be the slave of the passions.  Emotions mean more to us than ideas.  In our discussion here, we have been more interested in emotions than the intellect.  In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus reflected on the lovers’ account of the magic of the night, and how we might try to give shape to our emotions and our imaginings.  (‘A brow of Egypt’ probably means the face of a gypsy.)

More strange than true.  I never may believe

These ancient fables, nor their fairy toys.

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,

Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend

More than cool reason ever comprehends.

The lunatic, the lover and the poet

Are of imagination all compact.

One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,

That is the madman.  The lover, all as frantic,

Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.

The poet’s eye in a fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

And this alchemy is going on with no music yet – what might music add to the magic that enhances all our lives?

So, dear reader, brush off the checked table cloth, and perhaps send it to the cleaner for the red stains, but hold on to the red, and surrender again to the magic of musical drama.  And remember what the man said about Formula One – pump up the volume; even if the dog does raise his eyes.


A short note on Shakespeare and Mozart

One was English, the other was Austrian.  One was born in the 16th century (1564 –1616), and the other was born and died in the 18th century (1756 – 1791).  Both came from families that we would now describe as middle class, although the class system in Salzburg and Vienna may have been less mobile than that in London at the relevant times.

Unlike Shakespeare – at least as far as we know – Mozart was a child prodigy, both as a musician and as a composer, a kind of travelling freak show.  He was giving concerts at the age of five; he wrote his first symphony at the age of eight, and his first opera at the age of 12.  Many say that the mature Mozart appears in symphony 29 that he wrote when he was about 18.  If we go to Richard III or Henry IV Parts I and II as the flowering of the genius of Shakespeare in his early 30’s, then we may see that the life-span of each in his full creative power is not so different – say 20 years, or thereabouts.

It looks like Shakespeare was clearly spent as a dramatist before he died – not many now hold that view about Mozart.

Each was married and each was survived by a wife and two children.  The family line for each soon disappeared.  Infant mortality made a lottery out of all life.  Mozart and his wife lost four children, as had his parents.  That we ever got either Shakespeare or Mozart is down to the luck of the draw.

We know very little about Shakespeare and God, but we know that Mozart was a practising Catholic, who died in the faith, and a devout Freemason.  In truth we know a great deal about the life and thinking of Mozart, but next to nothing about either the life or thoughts of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare was comfortably off financially and socially.  Mozart was never financially secure, and to modern eyes he was shown a lack of respect by the ancien regime of the Hapsburgs that we find deeply shocking – not least because music was a lot more respectable in Vienna than theatre was in London at the relevant times.

Mozart was brought up to travel around Europe, including London, from a very young age.  ‘Without travel, one is a miserable creature.’  We don’t know if Shakespeare ever left England, but we do know that he liked setting plays in Europe, including Vienna, and that he was about the least provincial person ever born.

Shakespeare wrote 38 plays.  Mozart wrote 22 operas, but his composition outside of opera was far, far greater than Shakespeare’s poetry outside his dramas.

You could get an argument about whether Mozart’s innovations were more revolutionary for his art than Shakespeare’s, but such an argument is sterile and irresolvable.  You may as well ask who has had the greater impact on our western sensibility.

What, then, did these two men have in common?

Each of them was a genius.

Each of them was a professional writer – both wrote to make a living, to put a roof over the heads of the family and food on their table.  Or, as an American at Oxford said, he did it for the mortgage.

Each of them derived income, and I think the bulk of their income, as a performing artist.  Each of them first came to the notice of the public that way.  The primitive state of intellectual property law meant that neither of them was fairly rewarded for their compositions – their gift to posterity.  Shakespeare was fortunate that he found a more secure way to derive income from his business in the theatre.  He also looks to have suffered less from the whims and insults of patrons than Mozart.  (Remember ‘Too many notes’?)  It looks like Shakespeare was a much better manager of money than Mozart, but for the three operas he wrote with da Ponte – three of the greatest and most popular operas ever written – Mozart received a fixed sum that even then was little more than derisory.

Each of them was at least in part an impresario – each was in the business of entertaining people, and that meant anyone who could afford to pay to attend the performance of their work.  Neither was composing just for the better people.  Neither could afford to be exclusive, or to put their work beyond most people.  Each of them spent their working lives perfecting their craft.

We give our homage to these men of genius, but they did not hesitate to get their hands dirty in putting on their shows to entertain the public.  They had an immediate financial interest in honing their craft so that their work could attract the interest and money of as many as possible.  They needed the money to provide for their families.  Neither of these men could afford to be snooty.

Each of these is called a genius because of the astonishing quality, volume, and range of their work.

Accordingly, they can seem to us to be prodigal, and to be able to invest a passing moment with a level of transcendent beauty that lesser artists would die for.  One example is the trio near the end of the first act of Don Giovanni (Protegga il giusto cielo – preferably by Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Joan Sutherland and Luigi Alva). Another is the ‘Gentleman’ in the fourth act of King Lear who reported on the reaction of Cordelia to the return of her father:

……patience and sorrow strove

Who should express her goodliest.  You have seen

Sunshine and rain at once; her smiles and tears

Were like a better way: those happy smilets

That played on her right lip seemed not to know

What guests were in her eyes, which parted thence

As pearls from diamonds dropped.

Throwaway lines like that can send us mortals clean out of our minds.

Each of these artists was prepared to stand up for women and against the establishment, at least through their work, when going too far could have been career threatening, or worse.  While the subversive tendencies of The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni are well known, opera goers who only know Falstaff through Verdi only know the Neighbours version.  The real thing is at least as anti-establishment as Figaro.

The work of each has the two hallmarks of classics – the respect for the work is timeless and universal.

Neither appears to have suffered from the egoism of Wagner or the prickliness of Bach, Beethoven, or Ibsen.

Above all, the work of both continues to engross and enthral and shock us and to humble us in a way that somehow leaves us more at home with ourselves.  If art is a lyrical reflection on our humanity, it is hard to imagine any other artist having a greater claim on our trust and gratitude.  As someone said of one of them, it is like touching the face of God.

In short, these two guys were married men who plied their trade to support their families.  It’s just that they did it so marvellously that they will for ever be beyond our comprehension.  And for that relief, much thanks.


[That concludes Why opera?  Next week we will start a short history of the world.  Fittingly, it will be about one third of the length of the history of opera.  In uncertain times, we must maintain a sense of proportion.]

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