OK, this blog is truly personal. I very much wanted to write it. I don’t know whether my experience will be of help – or even interest – to other writers. I hope it may. But no guarantees.
There’s something a bit magical, a bit otherworldly about opera. Lots of my nearest and dearest hate it. If you do too, you’ll be in excellent company.
Why I’m Thinking About This Now
A few weeks ago I lost a friend. He and I used to go to opera together several times a year. Sometimes with others. Sometimes just the two of us.
He knew a lot more about music, singing and singers than I am ever going to. But he wore his knowledge lightly.
I didn’t even know, for instance, that he had made records as a treble, long before we met.
But what made Michael such a very special companion at opera, I think, was that he accepted the validity of feelings. You didn’t have to make a case for what you felt during a performance or defend your reaction afterwards. You certainly didn’t have to feel the same as he did. And you could talk about it afterwards. Or not. No pressure.
A Different Opera Companion
My mother took me to my first opera, performed by a local amateur company in which she once performed herself, in the chorus. I was completely overcome.
Many years later I took her to the English National Opera to see Iolanthe, in which she had once played a fairy. I did so on the strict understanding that she Would Not Sing during the performance. Afterwards she was welcome. But NOT singalong. She agreed.
But then came the fairies’ entrance, Tripping hither, tripping thither, no one knows the why or whither and she became alarmingly animated. Was she swaying in time to the music? Yes!!!
My heart sank. But she hadn’t quite burst into song. I peered suspiciously, bracing myself. But then I saw that she, along with the unknown lady sitting on her other side, was mouthing the words. And, bless them, they were both tapping away in their seats, dancing the dance. A joyous memory!
Of course music is visceral. Think dictators’ martial music on the radio, while they’re mounting a coup. Or The Magic Flute, bringing comfort and enlightenment to Mozart’s beleaguered lovers.
I think opera nay-sayers get annoyed by having their strings pulled, as it were, without proper respect.
My friend, the Birdwatcher, complains about “the damned silly stories”. And then there’s the poor chap who burst out, after an evening at Covent Garden, “They keep stopping the action to sing about something.” Both have more than a grain of truth.
BUT – well, that’s rather the point. Opera deals supremely well with stuff that isn’t rational, or even has a clear cause. It’s USP is emotion so all-encompassing that it bursts out of the continuity of a story, any story.
Love. Anger. Grief. Hope.
We have to choose to accept it. (Mostly I do; though I draw the line at Turandot).
But if you’re going to give opera a chance, you have to open yourself to emotions that may take you way out of your comfort zone and, yes, even insult your intelligence sometimes.
Opera and The Song
Music produces a physical response – we dance to it, march to it, cheer our heroes to it, feel the pain of loss and so much more. Add words and the impact can blow your head off.
I know writers, like historical author Elizabeth Chadwick, who produce a playlist to go with their novels. In fact she give an example on this blog and there are some cracking songs on it. She says she’s always used songs as a way of understanding her characters.
It’s happened to me a couple of times, too.
One song can be very intense. I used to run away when Teddy Bears’ Picnic came on the radio. It scared me. My mother hated the carol Silent Night so much that she would shout at me if I sang it – and she never shouted. And Walking in Memphis is guaranteed to stop me dead in my tracks whenever I hear it.
Now, when you go to an opera, you concentrate for a couple of hours or more. As song follows song, interspersed with musical recitative, and orchestral intervals, all adding colour, changing mood, the tension builds all the time. Sometimes I have come out utterly silenced by profound feeling. Or as high as a kite on sheer delight.
As I have no doubt I would have done if I’d seen this – a young Jonas Kaufmann as Ferrando, young, in love, idealistic, hopelessly unrealistic about women, sex and life and so, so touching.
Opera and My Writing
For me, opera is like a glorious garden, a place of roses and lawns, woods and water, in a wider landscape.
I can go there whenever I want, thanks to CDs, DVD, radio, even television. But I need to prepare, I need to clear my brain for the experience, and I need time to come down afterwards.
But I find it’s best in theatre or concert hall, surrounded by people on the same journey, though not necessarily the same path. As Michael was. I find that feeling of fellowship, and yet privacy at the same time, deeply reassuring.
The opera experience somehow puts me back into balance. It seems to leave me in a place of clarity, out of which I find my writing energies replenished. More than once I have come home from an opera, too exalted to go to sleep, and written a scene or a character that I didn’t know I needed, until it was done.
But opera is not a tool for me. The wellspring of creative energy generally bubbles up after I’ve been to a performance or listened to a recording. But I don’t know when it will happen. I certainly don’t know how.
All I can do is live in the moment and then – see what happens. It’s exciting.
Opera was part of my life for many decades and I inherited my Great Aunt’s wonderful collection of opera books including libretti for some great operas, including Wanger’s Ring Cycle. That was a favourite of mine and one of my family gave me Georg Solti’s complete recording. I was lucky enough to see operas at Glyndebourne, the Royal Opera House and Sadler’s Wells.
What a great legacy, Roland. I think we are lucky to have so many wonderful opera companies in Britain.
I discovered opera when working in theatre more or less side by side with an opera company doing Lucia do Lamermoor. I found it extremely moving and as you say deeply emotional. I don’t often go but when I do, I best love the highly theatrical productions, rather over the top and cleverly staged. Gives me the best of both worlds.
I can do OTT productions, Liz. Not so much the big nineteenth century stuff dramatic operas themselves. Michael did get me to experiment and I’m moving closer these days. Though I still can’t take most Puccini.
I LOVE opera, wish it wasn’t so expensive and my dream is to go to Covent Garden. We recently saw for the second time, the really inventive modern take on The Magic Flute at the ENO. We also have a friend who was absolutely fabulous in La Boheme and Tosca, a crowd funded and perfect production mini-staged at St James’s in Piccadilly. We’re off to Brighton next week to hear her and I can’t wait. Some opera I find very tedious too! It’s vwry much an art form of two halves I think, but can bring you to tears, in a good way. Pure emotion!
Cara. Sophie and I went to see that production very recently and loved it. My first live opera was La Boheme by the Welsh National Opera; my love of opera was instilled by my mother, who never saw one live. When she and my Dad died very close together (and younger than I am now) my husband and I made a big effort to do things we’d put off for one reason or another. That trip to the opera was the first, but very far from the last.
My first live professional opera was Hansel and Gretel, I think. My first serious weepy La Traviata. Three hankies on the train home after that one.
Cara if you are in the UK, the Royal Opera House often have live screenings where a performance is broadcast live to various cinemas. Not quite the same as being there, but still a wonderful experience. Bfor me, opera deals best with the big emotions, love, death, jealousy etc. I don’t always need to know what they are singing, word for word, it is the feelings that get through to me. Thanks , Sophie for a lovely, thought provoking post.
I’d forgotten the live broadcasts, Sarah. You’re very right. They come in from the New York Met, too. I’ve seen some terrific stuff that I could never have gone to, otherwise.
Lovely post, Sophie. I was lucky to see some very fine productions on the television in the early 80s, but nothing beats the live experience. And thank you for Jonas with my early morning tea. Such a treat!
You’re very welcome, Liz. He’s a honey in this song, isn’t he?
Blissful, Sophie. I watvhed a few years ago at the Last Night at the Proms and he was so much fun
I saw him in the Met production of Parsifal (at my local cinema) and got as near as I ever have to relishing Wagner. [Sorry, Roland, but he’s really not for me, except in the bits where no one sings 😉 ] The live relays have been wonderful for me, living in the sticks. I even saw The Pearl Fishers which is hardly ever played. Most people know only the great tenor/baritone duet and don’t realise that its meaning is not the obvious one.
Our mother suddenly took to listening to opera in her latter years, and we played Nessum Dorma at her funeral. People who’d held up through gritted teeth so far were no proof against Pavarotti. Euch! Never put me through that again.
Unlike Sophie, I DO like Turandot because the music is sublime though the story is horrendous. But then, that’s true of a lot of Puccini. The one I can’t bear is Butterfly, because of Pinkerton knowingly taking (and abandoning) a child bride. Paedophilia and racism in one package.
I sympathise, Jane. Nessun Dorma well and truly pulls at the heart strings, doesn’t it? Though in the opera it’s just a careless idiot saying – with absolutely no evidence or justification – that he’s going to win this cruel, stupid test tomorrow. That’s precisely where I join forces with the people who say they don’t like having their strings manipulated.
Jonas is a lovely Sunday morning treat. Thank you, Sophie, for a great post. I’m still very much an opera virgin but watched a few productions on TV back in the day.
You’re very welcome, Sandra.
Well, I had to comment on this post, didn’t I? Sophie actually rekindled the opera experience for me live several years ago. At the Coliseum – where else? – where my true opera experience had begun with a friend who was in the orchestra and used to get me tickets. The stories from that era are many and varied, and I’ve probably told a couple of them here before. But I have to confess to being more of a G&S fan than true opera, and I am a little nerdish in that area. Sadly I play all the scores in the office while I’m working and – yes, Sophie – singalong. Very lowbrow.
I’m a huge G&S fan, too, Lesley. [Full disclosure: as a student, I sang the Fairy Queen in Iolanthe and Lady Jane in Patience. Huge fun] I have a lot of the piano scores and sometimes I have a go, but only when no one else is in the house.
I can’t be doing with highbrow and lowbrow. Music is music. I think that Gilbert’s superb wit, rhymes and determination to keep a lid on emotion if at all possible may make some people take G&S too lightly. There is real feeling in the music. I used to cry regularly over the “Tit Willow”, for instance.
Having made that comment about G&S, I’ve had the Nightmare Song from Iolanthe going through my head all day. Once, I knew it all, but now I keep getting stuck on fhe bit about “I dreamt I was crossing/ the Channel and tossing/ about in a steamer from Harwich/ which is something between/ a large bathing machine/ and a very small second-class carriage”. I’ll have to dig out the rest of it before it sends me nuts.
Oh dear, an ear worm! I don’t know how anyone ever remembers the words to that song! I should think everyone gets to that last line – “Thank goodness they’re both of them over” (?) – with 100% fervour.
I hadn’t realised that you were a star of the G&S stage, Joanna. Taking my hat off to you, here.
Yes, that bit of it I DO remember. “The night has been long/ ditto ditto my song/and thank goodness they’re both of them ooooooover”
Thing was that, with all the rehearsals, we all ended up learning all the interminable words to the song. And there are an awful LOT of them, as you say. But repetition does work.
I love the 30s (Sydney Greenstreet) version of The Mikado. Once saw The Grenadiers at The Savoy Theatre that was so touching I wept.
Oh, the Johnathan Miller production was fabulous – and Richard Angas was a brilliant Mikado, genuinely scary. I was very sorry to see he died in 2013 – the Independent obit says that the Mikado was the role he will be most remembered for. Very justly, in my opinion. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/richard-angas-singer-who-performed-as-jonathan-miller-s-mikado-more-than-150-times-8782679.html
Um- the Grenadiers? Have you been another victim of blasted Aucorrect? The Gondoliers was the one of the first operas I saw and those poor boys having to be half a king each AND leave their sweethearts behind just broke my heart. Which I think the Sullivan meant it to do.
Ah! Glorious Jonas Kaufmann! Thank you so much!. The ENO nowadays either does wonderful productions – I’m thinking of their Benvenuto Cellini (Berlioz) – I do like a touch of anarchy! or else the costumes and sets go all sludge-coloured and the opera (whatever it is) is re-set in either Nazi Germany or a Soviet Gulag, which I can’t bear. Surely part of the joy of opera is the colour and being taken out of yourself?
The new opportunities to see terrific productions live from the Met or wherever at your local cinema, has enabled me to see some wonderful productions I couldn’t otherwise have afforded to see.
I agree, Elizabeth. I’m not a fan of Gulag kitsch either. Though I suppose Lady Macbeth of Mtensk sort of justified it?
The ENO did a breath-takingly beautiful Pearl Fishers a few years ago, when I was trying to improve my education on nineteenth century opera. Indeed, it was such a visual delight, I almost forgave the damn thing for being a One Hit Wonder.
One Hit Wonders, yes. Thanks to cinema relays of opera, I’ve seen some operas where I knew only the one hit. Like The Pearl Fishers. Also, Bellini’s Norma. Casta Diva takes on a whole new meaning when seen in the context of the whole opera. OTOH, some of the story is ridiculous, especially the fact that Norma has had 2 children by Pollione and Nobody Knows Anything about them and the tribe still thinks she’s the virgin priestess???
I’ve never seen Norma, though it’s high on my list of opera-to-broaden-my-experience. So one day I will. Probably not with the Birdwatcher, though. That’s exactly the sort of plot that drives him out into the woods, muttering.
I’ve loved opera music since I was a kid (by which I mean, like five or six years old) but nobody I knew was actually into it, so I only went to see my first performance in my early 20s, when I took The Bestie along and got her hooked too! I just wish I had more time/money to go! I totally love it! 🙂
I love opera. I went to my first one aged 18 with a boy I was madly and awkwardly in love with. He never loved me back though, and I still can’t listen to ‘Cosi fan tutte’ without feeling a melancholic sadness. Strange how music can draw forth king buried emotions, isn’t it?
This was a beautiful post, Sophie. I’m sorry for the loss of your friend.
Sophie’s away today so thank you, on her behalf, for the condolences. I’m sure lots of people would agree with you about links between music and buried emotions. You’ve forgotten all about something that happened, the music plays and suddenly — bam! — you’re right back in the moment and the feelings. Not always sad feelings though. There’s some music (not saying what it is) that immediately takes me back to a picnic in the Pyrenees during my honeymoon. 🙂
I’m sorry this is a week late, but when I’ve read and commented on the current post, I often come back to see what else had been said on the last one, and following my comment on G&S, I was delighted to read that Joanna had played the Fairy Queen and Lady Jane. Absolutely perfect. And Tit Willow was the very first song I sang at an audition. Don’t ask.
Thank you for the compliment, Lesley. I think 😉
One fond memory of Lady Jane in Patience: as you’ll know, Lady Jane’s solo opens the second act (Silvered is the Raven Hair). She is alone on stage, playing a cello. Well, what else? We did it with a pre-recorded cello part, to which I mimed. There was a bit of business where I got too enthusiastic with the bow and it whizzed across the stage like an arrow. I got up, still singing, retrieved it, and returned to playing. Only problem was that about half the audience didn’t know whether it was intentional or not — does that mean my acting was OK or not OK? — and gasped rather than laughing. Happy days.