Here’s some things I’ve never done before: hunted dolphins, stuck myself to the wall with blu-tac, assassinated the sovereign leader of a country, jumped into a lion pit at the zoo*, and, perhaps most shockingly of all, before last night, I’d never been to the opera.
At school it had been easy avoiding social exclusion by pretending that I knew my Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria from my Die Entführung aus dem Serail, but at university the embarrassment and humiliation from being one of the few not to have experienced opera was just too much. So when the opera was suggested for an evening of entertainment I jumped at the chance to rid myself of my embarrassing social leprosy.
The first thing that confused me on arriving at the Festival Theatre was the general age of the audience. Most of them had been present in at least three different centuries. They all kept glancing nervously at the steep gradient of the theatre steps, wondering how best to attack them without popping another hip socket. Where were all the hip young dudes? The crazy cats ready to have their emotions frayed and torn apart by the spirit of opera? There were a few young kids; the higher up you got in the theatre, the younger the opera lover tended to be so the top bar was practically empty, but we were severely outnumbered should it have turned nasty over a particularly saucy aria di bravura.
After all the usual non-stop hilarity of finding out seats and settling down I prepared myself mentally for what was about to happen. The only things I knew about opera were the bits I’d picked up from reading Maskerade time and time again*. I couldn’t help but be reminded of that whore from Pretty Woman who’s never been to an opera before, what with being a crackwhore and living on the street and all, and of course she loves it because Hollywood loves bullshit. Would the dulcet words of Richard Gere come true for me too*?
The whole thing got going in expected fashion, the orchestra started playing, people started walking about on stage. But then came the first snag of the evening, which really I should’ve seen coming. None of them were singing in English. This was going to make it a bugger to follow, no doubt about it.
Then I noticed what the large television screens in the boxes either side of the stage were for. Subtitles for opera. Genius! They would be my guide to the action on stage. Unfortunately it soon became clear that a lot of the emotional impact was lost this way. When characters are singing long, emotional, drawn out lines on stage and the screens simply state, “Edgardo. I hate him.” it somehow detracts from that all important emotional knee to the groin.
The plot kicks off like this: Enrico is trying to marry his sister Lucia to Arturo for financial reasons but Lucia is in love with Edgardo, Enrico’s sworn enemy. When Enrico finds out that Lucia and Edgardo are at the hanky and the panky he gets a little bit angry and comes out with a plot that reads like one of those modern day honour killings.
At least that’s what the screens would have me believe. However, my suspicions were first aroused when, at the emotional peak of the scene, when Edgardo is apparently saying that he’s going to slaughter his sister and her lover, the orchestra is playing a happy little ditty and everyone on staging is singing in an upbeat manner reminiscent of puppies on a warm spring morning. I began to suspect a disgruntled slide employee of tampering with the slides to change the story. Perhaps what everyone was actually singing was, “We’re very happy with our long sticks.”
Oh yes, the chorus. The poor bastards. All the male members were dressed up in black trilbies and long black cloaks and for some inexplicable reason carried sticks around with them that were twice their height. It was bizarre. I was hoping one would flip and cry out, “You. Can not. Pass!” but I was sadly disappointed. The female members were all dressed up in black with the same wigs, creating a weird homogenous blob effect. They spent most of their time just standing on stage listening. Some characters only job was to stand still on stage, listening to the action, and occasionally move. That was it. No singing, and no explanation for their presence. It looked like the most boring job in the world…
As Act I Scene I ended with revenge being sworn, the tragic heroine of the story, Lucia, entered for Act I Scene II. She was a buxom lady in ways that I am assured are in keeping with the finest traditions of the great female divas throughout the ages. I’m not entirely sure why larger ladies have such powerful voices. A quick Google turned up some stuff about fatty tissue around the vocal chords and larger diaphragms, but I reckon it’s something to do with the personality and good sense of humour these people are apparently blessed with. Whatever the reason, she had a voice on her that would make a dead man come*.
Lucia was going on to her friend (I think) about this vision she’d had at the fountain of a girl and the water running red with blood. It sounded like Lourdes if the Virgin Mother had been on her period. Then came on Edgardo*. The screens of lies said something about the two loving each other despite the danger, bobloblaw, but my attention was distracted when Lucia knelt down.
She was wearing a red dress that had a train so long that when she knelt down it looked like she was melting into the floor in the style of the T-1000*. I got caught up in this entirely different storyline in my head where she had melted into the floor up to her thighs and keeps begging him not to leave, and he keeps making to go before the guilt brings him back to this weird cripple that he can’t help but love. Then she stood up, shattering the illusion, he gave her a quick peck on the lips, fucked off stage and the curtain came down for the interval leaving me completely dazed and confused.
So instead of trying to catch up, I decided at the beginning of Act II to ignore the screens, which obviously had no idea what was actually going on, and instead focus all my attention on the stage. This made things instantly clearer. For example, time and time again at the beginning of a scene, female members of the chorus would walk across the stage carrying candles while people sang, to no explanation from the screens. Suddenly an entire sub-plot involving a cult and ritualistic sacrifices became apparent, the material obviously being too violent and explicit to translate into English given the high chance of heart attacks in the arcane audience.
Probably not, but I didn’t care. I discovered that the most fun to be had at an opera was to sit there and just imagine how you think the scene should be going based on the music and what’s happening on stage. I was starting to create my own ridiculous plot involving mafia weddings and plans to poke the King with long sticks, when all of a sudden Lucia burst on stage, covered in blood. I found this a bit hard to work into what I thought was going on, so decided to go back to the screens and find out what I’d missed.
It turned out that Lucia had gone totally batshit. Having being convinced of Edgardo’s infidelity, she married Arturo, then killed him, and proceeded to lose every one of her marbles. She wandered about on stage in a blood-stained wedding dress hallucinating about Edgardo and getting gradually more barmy until literally crazying herself to death after about 35 minutes.
Now this bit was sung beautifully and was well done, but I kept wondering why no one was stepping to stop her. Here’s the bridesmaid at her wedding, covered in blood and going round the twist. I was hoping someone would put a blanket around her, calm her down a bit and wait for the police to arrive and put her in a mental hospital. Not just stand there staring blankly on. Then Edgardo hears that she’s dead and decides that’s as good a reason as any to plunge a dagger into his stomach and again draw out his death beyond necessary lengths. “All a bit over the top” I initially thought.
But that kind of thinking takes all the fun out of opera. It’s all about the tragedy, the melodrama, the ridiculousness of it all. That’s what makes it all so appealing. At least that’s what I deduced from one trip to the opera. It’s a Red Wine type problem. I know what red wine tastes like, if I have one type of wine immediately after another I can identify the differences in the taste. But I have no idea what makes up a good red wine, how to tell one red wine from another, or any of that kind of thing. Same with classical music. I enjoy listening to it, but I’m buggered if I have a clue what’s actually going on. And cricket as well. No idea what the finer details of cricket are. These are the kinds of things loved more by older people. Maybe it’s something you learn to appreciate with age. Personally I enjoyed making up a story* and listening to voices that were so incredible it’s humbling.