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
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
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.