BAWDY HOUSE OR CATHEDRAL — A Slightly Irreverent Look at the Opera-Going Experience

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The opera…is to music what a bawdy house is to a cathe­dral,” humorist H. L. Mencken wrote 75 years ago. From some of his other writ­ings, it is easy to sur­mise Mencken did not mean this as a com­pli­ment. He once com­plained, “The gen­uine music lover may accept the car­nal husk of opera to get at the ker­nel of actual music within, but that is no sign that he approves the car­nal husk or enjoys gnaw­ing through it.”

Speak for your­self, H.L.

Besides, Mencken was miss­ing the point: Bawdy houses and cathe­drals might appear to be oppo­sites, but actu­ally they have a great deal in com­mon — not only with each other, but with opera as well.

Bawdy houses, cathe­drals and opera all have cer­tain unwrit­ten rules of behav­ior which can quickly sin­gle out the novice from the reg­u­lars; all three estab­lish­ments attract some peo­ple who attend once or twice, then decide they are not really inter­ested in the pro­ceed­ings, as well as peo­ple whose lives begin to revolve around the activ­i­ties in their estab­lish­ment of choice. All three offer cathar­sis and ecstasy — in one form or another — to The Faith­ful, some­thing patrons gen­er­ally gain in direct pro­por­tion to their involve­ment with the activ­i­ties within. In gen­eral, atten­dance at one of these insti­tu­tions is not some­thing one does on a whim, but involves a bit of prepa­ra­tion, often men­tal as well as phys­i­cal. Atten­dance is often on some kind of reg­u­lar basis, set up in advance, and some­thing to which patrons look for­ward with var­i­ous degrees of enthu­si­asm. And then, there is the fact that some peo­ple sim­ply do not under­stand — or even do not approve — of what goes on in bawdy houses, cathe­drals or at the opera, even though one man’s bawdy house might be another man’s cathedral.

Samuel John­son did not get the point of opera.

Per­haps the most famous exam­ple of some­one totally mis­un­der­stand­ing the point of opera is Samuel John­son, who once lamented, “Opera is an irra­tional and exotic enter­tain­ment, which has always been com­bated and has always pre­vailed.” The point, my dear Dr. John­son, is that opera has always pre­vailed sim­ply because it is irra­tional. And because it is irra­tional it leads us from our often petty pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with mun­dane life and its dead­en­ing rou­tines into the realm of our souls. It gives us glimpses in the world of the gods, into that part of our­selves from which Life Itself springs, and renews us in the deep­est way. But, like bawdy houses and cathe­drals, the oper­atic expe­ri­ence is richer, more enjoy­able and longer last­ing if you know what you are get­ting into and if you know — and observe — the rules of the game.

Oper­atic Rule Num­ber One: Pay Atten­tion to What’s Going On Up Front.

This would seem to be so obvi­ous as to not need stat­ing. After all, why would any­one buy a ticket for an event and go to the trou­ble of attend­ing only to ignore the event itself? Oper­atic Rule Num­ber One is not unlike the cathedral’s admo­ni­tion to fol­low the Golden Rule. If one does, indeed, “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul and mind, and thy neigh­bor as thy­self,” then one will auto­mat­i­cally not run afoul of any of the other Ten Com­mand­ments. But until we reach that plateau of under­stand­ing, some­times it helps to have a few of the par­tic­u­lars spelled out.

In the opera house that trans­lates into, first of all, Do not make noise while there is music. There are some excep­tions to that rule, but for now, that’s a good way to begin: no com­ment­ing to your neigh­bor about the dress the woman in front of you is wear­ing; no pulling out your cell phone to check with the babysit­ter or to con­form a din­ner reser­va­tion for later in the evening.

Just as there are peo­ple who are always late for an appoint­ment, human nature seems to have begun pro­gram­ming peo­ple who are inca­pable of silence. Chronic offend­ers, how­ever, should be pre­pared for the pos­si­ble con­se­quences. Those of us who are truly pas­sion­ate about opera are not likely to suf­fer Rude Talk­ers in vain, though I have heard of few peo­ple going quite so far as a man whose obit­u­ary I read not too long ago.

It seemed the Dear Departed was an operaphile with a decided pas­sion for Mozart’s work, espe­cially Così fan tutte. On one occa­sion, shortly after the begin­ning of Act I, a woman seated behind the man began to talk to her com­pan­ion. First the man turned around and glared at her, but she was imper­vi­ous to his silent plea.  Then the man gave a quick — but firm—shush! The woman talked on. After a bit the man asked, “Would you please hush?” But the woman con­tin­ued blithely chat­ter­ing away. Real­iz­ing there was more than an hour to go before the inter­mis­sion, and unwill­ing to forgo the plea­sure of Così’s entire first act, the man — accord­ing to the obit­u­ary — rose from his seat, rolled up his pro­gram and whacked the talked over the head with it while say­ing loudly, “I said SHUT UP!”

An inat­ten­tive audience.

While not going to that extreme, I’m happy to report I dis­cov­ered my own secret way of deal­ing with such offend­ers some time ago. After years of stand­ing at the opera, a new job finally allowed me to sub­scribe, and I hap­pily went whole hog, treat­ing myself to not one but sev­eral series, all with seats in the Grand Tier. I real­ized that if I went right from the office to the opera, wear­ing an ordi­nary suit, talk­ers gen­er­ally ignored my shush­ing. But if I had taken the trou­ble to go home and change into black tie, the talk­ers, in fact, hushed — for the rest of that act. But if I had decided the per­for­mance was indeed a Spe­cial Occa­sion (say, Strauss’ Der Rosenkava­lier or Verdi’s Don Carlo) and was wear­ing white tie and tails, not only did the talker hush — and for the entire rest of the opera — on sev­eral occa­sions they sought me out at inter­mis­sion to apol­o­gize. Can there be a bet­ter excuse to dress for the opera?

Please don’t mis­un­der­stand: This is in no way to sug­gest that opera should be a cold, still for­mal event through which one must suf­fer for some arcane social rea­son while dressed to the nines. To be sure, there are some mis­guided folks who insist on treat­ing opera merely as a social duty. Poor souls, they’re miss­ing the best parts of one of the most excit­ing, most pro­found expe­ri­ences a human being can have. For­tu­nately most opera goers quickly real­ize there is more to opera that sar­to­r­ial dis­play and mak­ing busi­ness or social con­nec­tions. In fact, opera is true adult enter­tain­ment in the best sense of that phrase.

It was Winthrop Sargeant, the extra­or­di­nar­ily wise music critic for The New Yorker back when I was grow­ing up, who once summed up opera about as well as any­one ever has when he observed, “The two essen­tial ingre­di­ents in opera are sex and the dom­i­nant sev­enth chord.” It is odd that the same par­ents who will do almost any­thing to keep their teenagers from see­ing an R-rated movie are delighted to send their prog­eny off to see Tosca—replete with mur­der, attempted rape and unre­lent­ing sadism — sim­ply because it is an opera.

Mary Cas­sett, “Woman in Black at the Opera”

Opera must draw tears, ter­rify peo­ple, and make them die through singing,” said Vin­cenzo Bellini. Read­ing accounts of some of the early per­for­mances of his operas like Norma and I Puri­tani, one reads of entire audi­ences swept away by mass hys­te­ria; men unashamedly burst­ing into loud, pro­longed sobs, women faint­ing. We’re talk­ing about sane adults who were so moved by the emo­tion and drama onstage that some­times full-scale riots developed.

At its core, the point of opera is really very sim­ple: Opera is con­vey­ing emo­tion through the human singing voice. And that is, at its essence, some­thing we all expe­ri­ence every day. Think back to the last time you were sit­ting along when the phone rang. Not expect­ing a call at that par­tic­u­lar time, you did not know who it was. But when the per­son at the other end of the phone said, “Hi,” not only did you rec­og­nize his or her iden­tity, you had an imme­di­ate emo­tional — and phys­i­cal — response to the sound of their voice. Maybe it was one of your chil­dren and you imme­di­ately became con­cerned, you stom­ach sud­denly knot­ted in fear. Or if the caller was an old friend whom you had not seen in some times, you smiled, your entire body suf­fused with a glow of delight as you almost sang, “Hii­i­iii. How are youuuuuu?”

Whether our response to the unseen person’s “Hi,” is fear or delight, anger or ecstasy, the point is, it is auto­matic. We the lis­ten­ers have an instan­ta­neous, gut-level response. Can any­thing be as ordi­nary as that? It is some­thing we do so often, every day, we do not even think about it.

With opera we have the emo­tion of the human voice strength­ened by singing, sup­ported and col­ored by the music itself, enhanced by the drama of the story. To con­vey the emo­tion even more we have the orches­tra and cho­rus, which some­times add com­plex­ity by con­vey­ing a very dif­fer­ent emo­tion than the ones the soloists are con­vey­ing. And with the sets, cos­tumes, and lights added to the pro­ceed­ings — well, it’s a won­der we’re able to walk away at the end.

But we can only be trans­ported to this ver­sion of heaven if we lis­ten.

A deliri­ous audi­ence cheers Joan Sutherland

I have often thought that one of the rea­sons those early per­for­mances of operas by Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini and Verdi were so pow­er­ful was sim­ply because the audi­ence was so involved. Today, I fear, we in the audi­ence often for­get that we have a respon­si­bil­ity for the way the per­for­mance we attend turns out. Ask any singer, any con­duc­tor, any musi­cian in the pit, and — with­out excep­tion — they will tell you that long before the applause at the end of the first aria, or at the end of the first act, they know if an audi­ence is “with it” that evening, or if the audi­ence is try­ing to decide when they can get their clothes form the clean­ers. And they will also tell you that an unin­volved audi­ence is deadly to the performance.

That is because opera is an erotic expe­ri­ence in the deep­est sense of the word. If one mem­ber of a cou­ple out on a date spends the evening talk­ing to some­one else, or trans­act­ing busi­ness on the phone, we would all agree the love affair is doomed. Any rela­tion­ship has to be nur­tured or it will die. An oper­atic per­for­mance is an erotic con­nec­tion between two forces — in this case, the per­form­ers and the audi­ence—out of which a third entity grows, pro­vid­ing the ecstasy and the cathar­sis that trans­forms every­one involved.

It is that mys­te­ri­ous but very tan­gi­ble, very alive bit of magic which so infuses a per­for­mance of Tris­tan und Isolde that the lives of every­one in the the­ater that evening are changed for­ever in very pro­found ways. That is when the singers and lis­ten­ers are so at one with each other than an entire audi­ence does not dare breathe as Des­de­mona fin­ishes her scene at the begin­ning of Otello’s fourth act. Those are the per­for­mances that “take off” and become much more than the sum of their parts, the evenings that live for years in the mem­ory of opera goers.

We can hap­pily spend a life­time explor­ing Opera’s vast reaches, always find­ing a work that feeds out soul — what­ever its par­tic­u­lar need. It really does not make any dif­fer­ence if you pre­fer the raw pas­sion of the end of Giordano’s Andrea Chénier (pizza with every­thing on it, includ­ing the anchovies), or the gemütlich world of Mozart’s Magic Flute (warm home­made bread with lots of fresh coun­try but­ter); the thrilling bel canto per­fec­tion of Rossini’s Semi­ramide (tourne­dos Rossini), or the del­i­cate charms on Massenet’s Manon (lob­ster souf­flé with sec cham­pagne) — it is all avail­able. All we have to do is be still and lis­ten and enjoy.

Some­times it’s such fun to be an adult!

This arti­cle first appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill dur­ing the 1999 – 2000 season.