October 29, 2009
Yesterday I went to see Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. It is one of my favorite operas. The music is excellent and the story is pretty good as opera goes.
Often when I tell people I am going to the opera they look at me as if to console me. I am not sure why that is. Maybe I don’t look like someone who goes to the opera. It is true that I have a variety of interests including fly fishing, bluegrass and folk music, and lots of other non high brow things and maybe I, like everyone else, is expected to fit a certain pattern during these red state, blue state times, but I really enjoy opera. When I first married I did not know much about it. In my home, the Grand Ole Opry was the preferred entertainment (which I also enjoy). However, I married a singer who at one time had some aspirations to sing opera professionally and thus I was introduced to a musical form that heretofore I had envisioned primarily as large ladies with horned helmets singing loud high notes. Early in my academic career I was invited, for reasons still unknown to me, to sing the role of the judge in our college production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury. It is a comic role that does not require great musical skills, but I was hooked. That led to participation in a local opera chorus and eventually to membership in the Red River Opera Company, which performed four operas a year. It was a family affair for us. Pat sang several roles and our son did the lead in Amahl and the Night Visitors for two years (until his voice changed). Though our daughter really never got the opera bug she did get a degree in classical voice and has sung her share of arias.
Though my skill level is very mediocre I learned a great deal by being around really good singers. The human voice is a complicated and beautiful instrument when properly trained and the amount of rehearsal and study that professional singers put into their craft is truly remarkable. They rehearse as much each day as Tiger Woods practices golf. However, even those at the top of their game will never make as much money as Tiger or for that matter as much as some scantily clad singer who monotones while dancing on stage with fireworks going on around her or him. It is a fact of the business that the best musicians do not always enjoy the most success. Our opera company occasionally brought in outside singers to do key roles, and I can remember their stories of barely getting by, going from performance to performance, often memorizing multiple roles, auditioning for upcoming roles, all the while fitting in vocal lessons to improve their voices. Despite the stereotypes, most singers nowadays recognize the importance of overall fitness and indeed a performance such as the lead in Madame Butterfly is extremely taxing physically and vocally. To see an opera performance is to appreciate the level of commitment that these performers have to doing something they truly love. Very few opera singers get rich. Many wind up teaching as their careers wind down.
To be fair there is a bit of the snootiness factor with opera but, like everything else, it rarely comes from those most devoted to their art. The people I have known who are directors, performers, and teachers are usually very nice down to earth folks. Face, it there is a snootiness factor in almost everything, including fly fishing (a subject for another blog).
What really bothers me is the unwillingness of people to try something new based solely on a stereotype. I hear people say opera is an acquired taste; but you never acquire it if you don’t try it. We have an opera workshop each year that has popular scenes from popular operas and the attendance is always slight. People will turn out in droves for a popular musical like Oklahoma but say “opera” and they run the other way. As they say in New Orleans, “What a pity.” They are truly missing the opportunity to experience the human voice, a miracle of God’s creation, at its best.