By Eileen Murphy
We met at the revolving door on the way out of the theatre. “I didn’t laugh once” she said. “What do you mean you didn’t laugh. It was La Boheme for God’s sake – a very tragic opera, full of starving students shivering in attics, and a beautiful young heroine dying of consumption. What is there to laugh about?” I replied. “But I wasn’t entertained,” she wailed.
This was a highly educated and cultured woman of a certain age, attending her first opera, and by the sound of it probably her last. She is not alone.
The trouble with opera is that you need to prepare for it. Otherwise, it’s like trying to run a marathon, having spent the previous six weeks in bed. Torture! Put in the work and a whole new exciting and wonderful world awaits you.
Now opera is a story set to music. Nothing too strenuous in that you might think. The trouble is that the language is usually foreign and the story is told in song, not speech. In many performances, the English subtitles usually appear on the curtain over the head of the performer.
A great idea maybe, but considering that reading it involves a certain amount of neck strain, not to mention rooting around in the dark for your glasses, it’s not surprising that most people give up after the first five minutes and sit there cursing the person whose idea it was to come to the opera in the first place.
But to get back to the night in question and my friend who was not entertained. I suggested that to enjoy opera, it would be a help if she listened to a few of the arias (in opera the songs are called arias) before she embarked on the next experience.
It would also be a good idea to buy a book which tells the story of the most well-known operas, as then, the foreign language would be less of a problem to her. Also I told her that opera arias can be simple, but sometimes three or four people might be singing together, but singing totally different words and when that happens, it might be best for her to just sit back and enjoy the music.
The amazing thing I said is that this everybody talking at the same time works in song, even though in speech it certainly would not. The other thing she needs to know is that in nineteenth century grand opera, the heroine usually dies at the end. Her face took on a foggy glazed look. Once more she was definitely not amused. The opera La Boheme, by Puccini, is set in France, in a garret in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Four students – a writer, a painter, a poet and a musician are trying to eke out a living in the freezing attic and seem to spend a good deal of their time dodging the landlord, who understandably is looking for his rent. Mimi, the main female character is dying of consumption. The writer Rodolfo is in love with her, and after several scenes of jealousy, anguish, and the odd happy moment, she dies.
There’s no surprise there, because as I already pointed out, this is nineteenth century grand opera, and a death in the final scene is a must.
Of course the death scene usually takes ages, which reminds me of a quotation by a fellow called Ed Gardner. “Opera is when a guy gets stabbed and instead of bleeding he sings.”
“Do you think you might chance another night at the opera?” I tentatively enquired of the lady who was not entertained. “Well, you know,” she said, “I might give it another go, after a bit of homework like you suggested. Although then again, maybe not. “I already did some reading and I think I agree with the Austrian conductor Franz Schalk.” She told me gleefully that he said that, “Every theatre is an insane asylum, but an opera theatre is the ward F or ‘the incurables’.”
And he should know, she said as she walked away from me with a toss of her head.
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