Peak Culture? My Night at the Opera

 

Some of you may have been following my ongoing journey to become a Cultured Person™. In recent posts I have made great efforts in this enterprise, exploring foreign films, classical and jazz concerts, and even Shakespearean theater. I finally had to deal with my most glaring weak spot: Opera. 

Even before this compressed adventure, I had attended symphony concerts. I’d watched ballet performances. 

I had never been to an opera. 

To be honest, though I often listen to classical music on the radio, when a screechy soprano or a whiny tenor comes on, I push the button to turn to the alternative rock station.

But I have a good friend, a member of the same writer’s group I’m in, who’s gotten into opera. He’s a REAL writer who made his living as an editor at a prominent magazine and continues to write best-selling books. And he is just a really good guy. (Pro-tip, to get real Cultured, it helps to have Cultured Friends.) So, I had to take his opinion seriously when he said that opera was worth the time and the effort. He argued that this was the art that, more than any other, allowed for passion and deep feeling to be expressed in a way that no other art allowed. So I agreed to go with him to the opera.

Actually, this night at the opera was the starting point for my recent endeavor. Tim and I bought tickets for ourselves and our wives to see Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the San Francisco Opera. I felt good about this because IMHO, WAM was a pretty good composer. Besides, I’d watched the film Amadeus numerous times.

We drove to San Francisco from Santa Rosa, CA. We went out to dinner at a nice place near War Memorial Opera House. My wife took this opportunity to buy a very fancy dress for the evening. A dress from a thrift store’s bargain basement, but still. I wore a tie, so that’s something. Arriving at the Opera House we discovered there was a great deal of diversity in dress. No men in tuxedos that I recall, but some suits, a kilt or two, and more business casual. A few women wore gowns, one or two with elbow-length gloves, but most were informally dressed.

As we entered, we received programs the size of a 1990’s issue of Newsweek. In it, the stage director (Barrie Kosky) said this about the night’s opera, “The Magic Flute is the most frequently performed German-language opera, one of the top ten operas in the world. Everyone knows the story; everyone knows the music; everyone knows the characters. On top of that, it is an ‘ageless’ opera, meaning that an eight-year-old can enjoy it as much as an octogenarian can.” I think Mr. Kosky knows different eight-year-olds than I know. I think he knows different “everyones” than I know, because I’m definitely not one of his “everyones.”

Not that I know much about traditional opera staging, but this was apparently not a traditional performance of the work. Instead of elaborate sets and costumes, almost everything was performed in front of a large screen. Many of the creatures, such as the great serpent, were animated creations on the screens with the singers/actors performing with and against the animation.

The hero of the play, Tamino, was dressed like Buster Keaton. This made a kind of sense, because the interaction between actors and the screen was very much like the Buster Keaton classic, 1924’s Sherlock Jr., in which Buster as a film projectionist dreams of entering the world on the screen. The heroine, Pamina, was dressed like the silent screen star, Louise Brooks, and she struggled with a villain that looked very much like Max Shreck’s Nosferatu.

The plot of the play is pretty much pure nonsense; the hero and heroine are separated and facing many trials and tribulations from gods and magical creatures before they can be reunited at the end. But it was lively and the music was tolerable to the ears of this non-opera fan.

The most familiar piece of music in the show may be “Der Hölle Rache” sung by the Queen of the Night. Our friends especially enjoyed that moment in the show because their son once performed it in a high school talent show, bringing the house down.

Having survived a night at the opera without the Marx Brothers, I felt I had finally achieved Peak Culture. And yet the next week I would be getting cultured even a little bit more.

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  1. EJHill Staff
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Opera in German can get pretty messy for the folks in the first three rows.

    You’re a better man than me, Gunga Din. 

    • #1
  2. namlliT noD Member
    namlliT noD
    @DonTillman

    See also @quickz : My First Taste of Opera

     

    • #2
  3. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    Good. Now do Aida, Tannhäuser, Parzival, The Marriage of Figaro, Carmen, and Don Giovanni.

    • #3
  4. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    I’d just as soon the singers would sit down and let me listen to the musicians without the caterwauling.

    If I wanted a large woman to scream at me in Italian, I’d punt a football into Mrs. de la Costa’s rose bushes. She’s gone to her reward decades ago, but I’m sure I’d catch her famous aria “Bambini Marci” from the Beyond.

    • #4
  5. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Eustace C. Scrubb: Having survived a night at the opera without the Marx Brothers, I felt I had finally achieved Peak Culture. And yet the next week I would be get cultured even a little bit more.

    Good for you.  I  would have drawn the line there. 

    Maybe as a cultural substitute I could spend the evening at the local restaurant with a large parking lot that I ride past on my evening bicycle rides. It’s called Wild Mike’s.  Thursday night is Biker Night, with liver and onions on the menu. Thursday night is different from other nights in that the motorcycles and loud music overflow into adjoining parking lots where vehicles are otherwise seldom to be seen. 

    • #5
  6. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Eustace C. Scrubb: I had never been to an opera.

    I’ve wanted to attend an opera ever since I got hooked on them by the Great Courses and Professor Greenberg.  However, I have two requirements:

    1.  It has to be traditional.  No modern “interpretation” using the original work as a basis, and
    2.   Frequent intermissions for potty breaks.  Yeah, I’m that old . . .
    • #6
  7. Lunchbox Gerald Coolidge
    Lunchbox Gerald
    @Jose

    Good try, but you haven’t convinced me.

    • #7
  8. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert
    @DoctorRobert

    After a lifetime of attending symphony orchestra concerts, I went to the opera for the first time on the day after my wedding.   We did it right, seeing Aida, the grandest of grand operas, at the fabled Metropolitan Opera House in NYC.  It was a fabulous show, leading Mrs Doc Robert and me to become opera fans.  We now attend the Met at least twice a year.  We try to pair the shows with another at Carnegie Hall on an adjacent night.

    I second the advice given by Hartmann to see many of the standard operatic canon as a way of learning to love the medium.  There are so many beautiful operas.

    I also second the advice of Stad to look for traditional stagings.  Mrs Doc and I walked out of a recent Carmen, set not in Seville but in Nogales, with dance numbers in the back of a semitrailer truck and on the top of a pair of gas pumps, shaking our heads in disbelief at how the altered setting had detracted from the overall effect.

    So buy some more tickets for the San Francisco Opera and have fun!

    • #8
  9. DaveSchmidt Coolidge
    DaveSchmidt
    @DaveSchmidt

    “Not that I know much about traditional opera staging, but this was apparently not a traditional performance of the work. Instead of elaborate sets and costumes, almost everything was performed in front of a large screen. Many of the creatures, such as the great serpent, were animated creations on the screens with the singers/actors performing with and against the animation.” 

    A nearby college recently closed its Theatre [sic] Department.  In the last few years of its existence, as its budgets got tighter and tighter, they began using digital screens instead of building scenery.  MOST of the time it worked well.  

    • #9
  10. namlliT noD Member
    namlliT noD
    @DonTillman

    DaveSchmidt (View Comment):

    “Not that I know much about traditional opera staging, but this was apparently not a traditional performance of the work. Instead of elaborate sets and costumes, almost everything was performed in front of a large screen. Many of the creatures, such as the great serpent, were animated creations on the screens with the singers/actors performing with and against the animation.”

    A nearby college recently closed its Theatre [sic] Department. In the last few years of its existence, as its budgets got tighter and tighter, they began using digital screens instead of building scenery. MOST of the time it worked well.

    Normally the San Francisco Opera has large, complicated, and stunningly beautiful sets.   And clever arrangements for switching between them.

    • #10
  11. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko
    @JosephStanko

    Eustace C. Scrubb: Arriving at the Opera House we discovered there was a great deal of diversity in dress. No men in tuxedos that I recall, but some suits, a kilt or two, and more business casual. A few women wore gowns, one or two with elbow-length gloves, but most were informally dressed.

    I’ve been to that Opera House several times, it’s a great venue, though it’s not exactly in the best part of town.  There’s a convenient BART stop a few blocks away, but you have to dodge the homeless sprawled out on the sidewalk to get there.  It’s a rather fascinating microcosm of Bay Area society when the opera ends and the wealthy, well-dressed socialites spill out onto the streets and mingle briefly with the opposite end of the class spectrum.

    • #11
  12. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko
    @JosephStanko

    Percival (View Comment):
    If I wanted a large woman to scream at me in Italian

    Though it’s considered rank heresy among the Cultured People™, I prefer to listen to opera sung in English. 

    Eustace C. Scrubb: He argued that this was the art that, more than any other, allowed for passion and deep feeling to be expressed in a way that no other art allowed.

    Unfortunately, much of that passion and feeling is lost in translation if you don’t speak the language being sung, or at least that’s been my experience.

    I’m partial to the Chandos Opera in English recordings of classic opera in English translation.  There are some decent operas composed in English as well.  One of my favorite performances I saw at the S.F. Opera was their staging of Susannah by Carlisle Floyd.

    • #12
  13. Yarob Coolidge
    Yarob
    @Yarob

    Eustace C. Scrubb: The Magic Flute

    A fabulous choice for a first opera. It was my first too, a masterpiece which by my count I’ve now seen 11 times in both professional and amateur productions in London, Coventry, New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and Ambler, PA .

    The 1976 Ambler event was memorable because it was held in a Nissen hut-style hall on Temple University’s satellite campus and an enormous thunderstorm disrupted the performance. Thunder, lightning, and the sound of raindrops and hail hitting the metal skin of the building would have been splendid effects to accompany Der Hölle Rache, but unfortunately the atmospherics were so loud they completely drowned out the orchestra and the singers who had to call a halt for a few minutes. Good times.

    • #13
  14. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    OK, I gotta pitch my niece again.  She’s just beginning her tenure with the Chicago Lyric Opera.

    https://www.lyricopera.org/about/company/artists-musicians/emily-richter/

     

    https://www.emilyrichter.com/

     

     

    Everything I know about opera I learned from Bugs Bunny, or her.

    • #14
  15. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko
    @JosephStanko

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):
    Everything I know about opera I learned from Bugs Bunny, or her.

    I learned from the Smurfs.

    smurfs magic flute book

    • #15
  16. DaveSchmidt Coolidge
    DaveSchmidt
    @DaveSchmidt

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):

    Eustace C. Scrubb: Arriving at the Opera House we discovered there was a great deal of diversity in dress. No men in tuxedos that I recall, but some suits, a kilt or two, and more business casual. A few women wore gowns, one or two with elbow-length gloves, but most were informally dressed.

    I’ve been to that Opera House several times, it’s a great venue, though it’s not exactly in the best part of town. There’s a convenient BART stop a few blocks away, but you have to dodge the homeless sprawled out on the sidewalk to get there. It’s a rather fascinating microcosm of Bay Area society when the opera ends and the wealthy, well-dressed socialites spill out onto the streets and mingle briefly with the opposite end of the class spectrum.

    You might think the elites are dancing in the streets like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  They are just avoiding the poop on the sidewalks.  

    • #16
  17. Yarob Coolidge
    Yarob
    @Yarob

    A quick reminder to those disinclined to dress up and leave the house that there’s a superb 1975 film version of The Magic Flute directed by Ingmar Bergman. Once seen, never forgotten.

    Wikipedia: “The work is widely viewed as one of the most successful films of an opera ever made.”

    Edited to add: The whole film with English subtitles is available on YouTube.

    • #17
  18. Steven Seward Member
    Steven Seward
    @StevenSeward

    Hartmann von Aue (View Comment):

    Good. Now do Aida, Tannhäuser, Parzival, The Marriage of Figaro, Carmen, and Don Giovanni.

    I vote for Gotterdamerung.

    • #18
  19. Steven Seward Member
    Steven Seward
    @StevenSeward

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):
    If I wanted a large woman to scream at me in Italian

    Though it’s considered rank heresy among the Cultured People™, I prefer to listen to opera sung in English.

    I actually prefer operas that are sung in foreign languages because I don’t want to be distracted by the words.  Most of the story lines, to me, are trivial or silly or really boring.  I enjoy the sound rather than the narrative, and most people already know the story beforehand.  It’s not like there are going to be plot surprises.

     

    • #19
  20. Steven Seward Member
    Steven Seward
    @StevenSeward

    Percival (View Comment):

    I’d just as soon the singers would sit down and let me listen to the musicians without the caterwauling.

    When I was younger I once turned on the car radio and came in on the middle a Saturday Metropolitan Opera broadcast.  The music was screeching and caterwauling.  Then came the women singing in shrieking tones, wailing, outright screaming, like fingernails on a chalkboard…….  IT WAS GREAT!!!!    (I like that kind of stuff)

    I had never heard this before, but somehow it reminded me of the later parts of the only Richard Strauss piece I knew – Also Sprach Zarathustra.  I listened to the end and sure enough, it turned out to be “Elektra” by Strauss.

    At the time the opera opened, somebody did a marvelous caricature of Strauss that depicted the music perfectly:

    • #20
  21. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko
    @JosephStanko

    Steven Seward (View Comment):

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):
    If I wanted a large woman to scream at me in Italian

    Though it’s considered rank heresy among the Cultured People™, I prefer to listen to opera sung in English.

    I actually prefer operas that are sung in foreign languages because I don’t want to be distracted by the words. Most of the story lines, to me, are trivial or silly or really boring. I enjoy the sound rather than the narrative, and most people already know the story beforehand. It’s not like there are going to be plot surprises.

     

    To me a good opera is a story set to music. When rereading a favorite novel or rewatching a classic film I already know the plot, but I still enjoy watching it unfold and often pick up a few subtleties and nuances that I never noticed before.

    Without the story, an opera is just an overly long symphony — and honestly, most operas have a few standout songs and a lot of filler. 

    • #21
  22. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Steven Seward (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    I’d just as soon the singers would sit down and let me listen to the musicians without the caterwauling.

    When I was younger I once turned on the car radio and came in on the middle a Saturday Metropolitan Opera broadcast. The music was screeching and caterwauling. Then came the women singing in shrieking tones, wailing, outright screaming, like fingernails on a chalkboard……. IT WAS GREAT!!!! (I like that kind of stuff)

    I had never heard this before, but somehow it reminded me of the later parts of the only Richard Strauss piece I knew – Also Sprach Zarathustra. I listened to the end and sure enough, it turned out to be “Elektra” by Strauss.

    At the time the opera opened, somebody did a marvelous caricature of Strauss that depicted the music perfectly:

    Beethoven supposedly said to another composer “I really liked your opera. I think I’ll set it to music.”

    • #22
  23. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Steven Seward (View Comment):
    When I was younger I once turned on the car radio and came in on the middle a Saturday Metropolitan Opera broadcast.  The music was screeching and caterwauling.  Then came the women singing in shrieking tones, wailing, outright screaming, like fingernails on a chalkboard…….  IT WAS GREAT!!!!    (I like that kind of stuff)

    At my previously mentioned Niece’s senior recital a few years back, one of the performers had a birthday that day, and the audience sang Happy Birthday to her.

     

    You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Happy Birthday sung by a bunch of people with Opera voice training.

    • #23
  24. DaveSchmidt Coolidge
    DaveSchmidt
    @DaveSchmidt

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    Steven Seward (View Comment):
    When I was younger I once turned on the car radio and came in on the middle a Saturday Metropolitan Opera broadcast. The music was screeching and caterwauling. Then came the women singing in shrieking tones, wailing, outright screaming, like fingernails on a chalkboard……. IT WAS GREAT!!!! (I like that kind of stuff)

    At my previously mentioned Niece’s senior recital a few years back, one of the performers had a birthday that day, and the audience sang Happy Birthday to her.

     

    You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Happy Birthday sung by a bunch of people with Opera voice training.

    Is that better than a barbershop quartet?  

    • #24
  25. Steven Seward Member
    Steven Seward
    @StevenSeward

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    Steven Seward (View Comment):
    When I was younger I once turned on the car radio and came in on the middle a Saturday Metropolitan Opera broadcast. The music was screeching and caterwauling. Then came the women singing in shrieking tones, wailing, outright screaming, like fingernails on a chalkboard……. IT WAS GREAT!!!! (I like that kind of stuff)

    At my previously mentioned Niece’s senior recital a few years back, one of the performers had a birthday that day, and the audience sang Happy Birthday to her.

     

    You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Happy Birthday sung by a bunch of people with Opera voice training.

    Miffed White Male isn’t one to brag, but his niece recently won the Metropolitan Opera tryout audition, one of the toughest in the world.  She got a big contract singing major roles.

    • #25
  26. Eustace C. Scrubb Member
    Eustace C. Scrubb
    @EustaceCScrubb

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    We were in Chicago last week and we didn’t go to the Opera, but my wife was amused by this, so she took a picture:

    • #26
  27. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Steven Seward (View Comment):

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    Steven Seward (View Comment):
    When I was younger I once turned on the car radio and came in on the middle a Saturday Metropolitan Opera broadcast. The music was screeching and caterwauling. Then came the women singing in shrieking tones, wailing, outright screaming, like fingernails on a chalkboard……. IT WAS GREAT!!!! (I like that kind of stuff)

    At my previously mentioned Niece’s senior recital a few years back, one of the performers had a birthday that day, and the audience sang Happy Birthday to her.

     

    You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Happy Birthday sung by a bunch of people with Opera voice training.

    Miffed White Male isn’t one to brag, but his niece recently won the Metropolitan Opera tryout audition, one of the toughest in the world. She got a big contract singing major roles.

    That’s not “quite” true.  the annual  Met Laffont Competition is a huge deal, she was one of the five winners this year, and it is certainly a rocket-launch for a  career.  

    But she already had the gig with the Chicago Opera lined up even before that.  She is a rising star.  The critic for one of the Pittsburgh papers (where she was the last two years) gave her a series of glowing rave reviews.  We were joking with her that she needed to move him to Chicago to keep it going.

     

     

    • #27
  28. DaveSchmidt Coolidge
    DaveSchmidt
    @DaveSchmidt

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    Steven Seward (View Comment):

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    Steven Seward (View Comment):
    When I was younger I once turned on the car radio and came in on the middle a Saturday Metropolitan Opera broadcast. The music was screeching and caterwauling. Then came the women singing in shrieking tones, wailing, outright screaming, like fingernails on a chalkboard……. IT WAS GREAT!!!! (I like that kind of stuff)

    At my previously mentioned Niece’s senior recital a few years back, one of the performers had a birthday that day, and the audience sang Happy Birthday to her.

     

    You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Happy Birthday sung by a bunch of people with Opera voice training.

    Miffed White Male isn’t one to brag, but his niece recently won the Metropolitan Opera tryout audition, one of the toughest in the world. She got a big contract singing major roles.

    That’s not “quite” true. the annual Met Laffont Competition is a huge deal, she was one of the five winners this year, and it is certainly a rocket-launch for a career.

    But she already had the gig with the Chicago Opera lined up even before that. She is a rising star. The critic for one of the Pittsburgh papers (where she was the last two years) gave her a series of glowing rave reviews. We were joking with her that she needed to move him to Chicago to keep it going.

     

     

    Just buy him a few plane tickets.  

    • #28
  29. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Eustace C. Scrubb (View Comment):

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    We were in Chicago last week and we didn’t go to the Opera, but my wife was amused by this, so she took a picture:

    There are cicadas in Chicago?  What do they eat?  

    • #29
  30. drlorentz Member
    drlorentz
    @drlorentz

    “What was there in the world more Western than Mozart, more civilized, more perfect? No eight hundred thousand voices could drone their chant to Mozart’s notes. Mozart had never written to stir the masses, but to touch the heart of each single human being, in his private self.”
    – Jean Raspail

    • #30
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