“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.
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!”
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.
“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.
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.