In Which I Defend My Horrible Ex: Opera
Recently, someone reminded me of that military and competition-archery kid from Fort Riley - the base next to my hometown - who was Kansas' representative at the Miss America competition. But the pageant wouldn't let her ...uh...arch? Shoot arrows. So she tried to sing a Verdi aria for her "talent." Which aria she learned in 2 days. Or didn't, really. But the point is she was ...not... good. The fountain of snark was spectacular. Now, my desire to either run down or defend Kansas' young archer stands at exactly zero amount; she's not the focus of my aggravation. At most, she's the lens through which I'm peering at some aggravating shit. As a native of Kansas and having spent my childhood under the watchful eye of Fort Riley's Atomic Canon, I'd have been pleased for Sergeant Vail to win. As a woman and a friend of women, I think the pageant should have figured out an OSHA-approved workaround to let her shoot arrows, as her Maker clearly constructed her to do. But she needs nothing from me. Her gifts are many, and she's on her way to the life of her dreams whether clad in a Miss America sash or not. Opera, on the other hand...she's felt better in her life. Here, then, is my defense of my (cruel and ungrateful, by the way) erstwhile mistress.
Every now and then, I get introduced to someone who immediately tells me they don't like opera. In addition to being a weird opening gambit when greeting a (former, at this point, but still) opera singer, it's also frustrating. Upon examination, I discover that they've not seen it. Boiled down to soap, they wouldn't know opera if it pranced up in a doublet and stabbed them with Maestro's baton. Let's just face it: what they've seen is a high-school aged friend singing something entirely inappropriate, with no understanding of the language or in bad translation, having had no rehearsal, little if any thoughtful coaching, and all this in front of zero production values.
Or they heard it in a restaurant at 2:00am, singers half in the bag, situated 18 inches from their first listener under suspended ceilings, and accompanied by the dulcet tones of a "piano" that's been used as a buffet and a doorstop for twenty years, but hasn't seen the tuner in thirty.
Or they saw, y'know, they saw Miss Kansas and her famous (among opera types) decision to use Puccini's iconic litmus test of an aria for lyrico spinto tenore as a graceless Plan B for an amateur soubrette.
Or they saw one of the sundry tenore bambini who've given what amounts to a middling Sophomore Jury on the stage of America's Voice Has the X Factor, or whatever the actual fuck that ring of hell is called.
Or worse, and God help poor Opera, they've heard it on commercials. Pro Tip: That tenor on the Olive Garden commercial? Well...that guy is not so good. There's a voice in there, but he does not stick the landing. That lady in the Mozart-wig in that car commercial with the giant hamsters? Come on, now; that's not even fair. She's a caricature. She has a tremolo from hell and she's sharp, and there are hamsters.
Here's The Deal: Opera didn't last 400 years because it sucks.
And the thing is, it matters. It's an important art form. Give it chance, help us keep it alive and take the time to learn something important about art. You'll be a better person and you'll get to live in a better world, if only incrementally and only sometimes.
However, and I say this with love, newbies: The other piece of The Deal is that Opera didn't last 400 years whilst never sucking once. Use your ears. Trust them. Your ears know better than the voice in you head saying, "What do I know? It must be...good...but I don't...I guess I don't get it." Screw that voice. If you think it sounds like shit, it probably does. If you're paying attention and it bores you, it's probably boring. And this right here is important: Opera is vast, even among the good ones you won't like it all.
For example, I cannot stand Mozart operas. Weirdly, I don't mind singing them, but as an audience member? Holy cats. I'd rather watch paint dry. Or Miss Kansas sing Nessun Dorma (this link is the antidote). Mozart operas are long. And boring. Plus they always feature, right about the time you need to pee and/or a drink, that string of arias we like to call the Talent Show. The Talent Show, kids, is sort of a 7th inning stretch; that spot in the 4th act in which everyone in the whole entire expanded cast list, cruises through and sings a disposable aria that literally nobody gives a fuck about.. And all of Mozart's music sounds the same. There, I said it. Hold on a sec...I have to check outside for black helicopters.
Ok, I'm back; we're cool. Anyhow. Think of it like this: What if the first time you saw a movie, you didn't like it? You wouldn't just...never see another one. You'd understand that there are a mazillion gathousand to choose from. Old ones, new ones, comedies --both slapstick and smart-- dramas, thrillers and tearjerkers, abound. They come in both domestic and a multitude of foreign varieties. Operas cover 400 solid years worth of musical styles, incorporating every sort of music you've ever heard of, and much you haven't. There are composers, librettists, conductors and singers for every taste. And given the breadth, of course some of them are objectively terrible. Bad actors, hack directors and schlocky film score composers abound as well. But some of them are wonderful. Lots of them will move you or make you happy. One or two might change your life.
Operas are dark and light; grim and sexy; silly and dead serious; edgy and traditional; accessible and just terribly cerebral. Once you're in it, you'll have evenings when you're sucked entirely into the theater of it, gripped by story and spectacle. You'll have moments when your brain is overtaken by an inner ice-skating judge, all, "Here comes the E-flat...this soprano is historically stronger in the fourth act....we'll have to see how this goes...she's had a baby recently, and...No! No! It's good! She nailed it! She! Nailed! It!"
You may do Touchdown Arms. This is fine if you're watching the telecast in your living room. Try to suppress the urge when in the opera house, but if it happens, don't apologize.
You'll have your own personal iconic Carmen, a beloved Cavaradossi, that note-perfect Lucia, the thrilling Wotan -- them who were your First. They'll live in your memory, and you'll measure newcomers into these roles, and into your artistic life, by their yardstick. You'll be torn between excitement and super-judgy brain freezes. You'll have strong opinions. You'll care about them, because like I said, art matters. Caring about art matters even more. But the key thing to remember is, operatic singing is not an acquired taste.
I'll repeat that:
Operatic singing. Is. Not. An. Acquired. Taste.
I swear on a stack of bacon that this is true. You don't have to "get it". When it's done right, you will not have to try.
For my part, I got lucky. My first opera, at age 18, was Carlisle Floyd's Susannah. Great starter for a adolescent drama queen, burgeoning atheist and misanthrope from the bible belt who cut her teeth on mainstream American movies and country music. If my first opera had been a student production of the 3 1/2 hour Idomeneo (although I'm almost a lesbian watching Anna sing that link), someone might have had to write this letter to me. Twenty[cough] years later (and aside from Mozart), I have a palate. I love cerebral, brainiac operas of all stripe; it's all about the baby steps is my point.
You don't have to just hope you'll get lucky. Tell someone who knows what's what, what sort of movies, books and music a you like. Let them choose an opera for you. It's not hard, if you know what you're doing. Give your pet opera nerd your top five movie picks, the last three books you loved. Say whether you chose them because of the story-blurb, or because who was in them, or who wrote them. If you're already classically-minded or the literary type, extra no problem; you're golden. Much of our great literature has been set by opera composers. From Goethe's Faust to Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, to all the best Shakespeares, we got it covered. If you love X classical composer who didn't write opera, easy peasy. He (or she, too rarely), had like-minded colleagues and friends who wrote operas. (Well, hopefully...depends on the composer. Some of them were friendless for cause.) But mainly, get advice. It should be obvious that walking up to a list of 400 years of shows in a dozen languages and plapping your finger down onto one is fraught with peril.
Now, you've chosen some repertoire for yourself...where to? If you like sparkle and spectacle and an embarrassment of resources, The Met is the place for you.
The Met will straight up knock your eyes out of your head. Plus they command legendary singers and conductors, and that orchestra is a force of nature.
If you like the underdog -- scrappy kids proving on a shoestring that they got The Goods -- NYC has that coming out its ears. The New York Opera Alliance website will get you started. Buy a ticket or ten, you'll be glad you did.
Those singers are hungry as wolves in January, and they sing their faces off in interesting black boxes and rando spaces in hip neighborhoods all over the city.
Now, to the checkbook. That theater in which singers can fly: Where the room was built for operatic singing and the pit is properly placed. The orchestra has room to stretch their legs to really play out. The conductor and singers have a sight line that doesn't send them straight to the Jameson's. Those theaters don't pay for themselves. There are lighting geniuses, brilliant carpenters and electricians and makeup and wig masters who can change what planet you're on. Or from. (Seriously, put on your bucket list to get a good close look at a quality operatic wig from a fanciful production. You won't believe it.) God knows what all amazing backstage artists, are thick on the ground. Those professionals can't live on rose petals and compliments; those companies need your help. Find one you like --there's a lot of'em about -- and give them your chai latte money; that stuff is fattening and will kill you. Make it happen.
Also, you guys, we were shitty to Miss Kansas.. There was no way that was her idea, really. Plus a last question: Why does she get a faceful of shit while Paul Potts and the other baby tenors get a standing O and a weepy Simon Cowell? Because um. I got a couple theories, but I'll save it for a rant on Jezebel.
PS: Don't worry about the languages thing.
Titles technology has gotten super sparkly. These days, surtitles make it at least as easy as a foreign movie, and when done in translation, ambient sound systems for clarity (and the translations themselves) have improved a thousandfold. That guy next to you who has his titles turned off and his nose in the air about you having yours on? Is a douche and a poseur. Seriously, screw that guy. Opera is as much yours as his.