Dr Strangelove or: How I Came to Stop Worrying and Love Opera

In Commentary, HOME, MUSIC by Nolwenn Davies

I have always carried a dark secret. The kind of secret that you carry within yourself out of embarrassment and fear. The kind of secret that would elicit gasps of horror at a champagne and brie event. The kind of secret if I told you at a music hall you would smile politely and pretend to need to go to relieve yourself whilst really meaning you want to flee to rejoin respectable company.

What is this insidious unmentionable? Well, to put it simply, I hated opera, I loathed it. They say it isn’t over until the fat lady sings, but, in all honesty, for me, she never ever started. A whiff of a German aria was strictly verboten, banished from my musical vocabulary. A soupçon of Délibes’ Lakmé, Non! A measure of Verdi, Basta! I just could not stand the turgid recitatives, the drawn-out soprano trills, the belting out of overwrought melodies, interminable performances and languishing cadences, fusty coughs and music-hall pomp, kraut and bollocks.

But to be honest, I could never hate opera without a certain sense of guilt. I knew I should like opera, especially, because I really do like music. But I just didn’t. I hope you notice that I use the past tense. Why? Because, I came to stop worrying and started liking opera. How? Well, that’s what I’m here to tell you.

First, opera is worth liking. Not to entertain and snub a musical dilettante, or to rub shoulders with the usual suspects at the concert hall and pretend you can make sense of the last three-hour morass of German, but because it really is a wonderful art form. It’s life, polarised and exaggerated to hyperbolic proportions. It speaks of fallen women and of foolish men, or lovers and antagonists, of expectations and realities, of travesties, tragedies and melodies. It is both Hello! and Havel, animated by the basest and noblest of humanity, glorifying gutter-gossip, courting High drama and literary brilliance. It is at times fancifully ludicrous, and at others woefully realistic. It gives us gripping injustice, as well as vapid sentimentalism.

Opera is as much a farce as it is complex and tortured. It is both painfully myopic, revelling in a socially-anaesthetised glory and isolated from the real world, yet, on some level, we cannot but fail to see a little of Violetta’s fatalism (Verdi’s La Traviata) in ourselves, or aspire to Elvira’s charms (Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri). In short, I realised that it is not easy to hate opera because it simply has everything. And I mean everything. From A to Z.

So now the question is how do we go about liking it. Because the foregoing is all dandy until you realise you have been sitting in Wagner’s Parsifal for an hour and you have still got another two Acts to go. And the wine costs 7 pounds a glass. So we proceed to the second stage, and that’s watching a good Opera. The first Opera I really enjoyed was Mozart’s Così fan Tutte. I looked it up, read a bit of the synopsis on Wikipedia so I knew roughly what was going on. I had a listen to the work in the week before so I could recognise some of the main melodies. But nothing could have prepared me for the riotous fanfare that it was. And I use the term advisedly.

The audience were howling with laughter and I’m sure I would have found it side-splittingly funny even if I didn’t secrete a mini-bottle of vodka into my otherwise innocuous entr’acte coke. Please indulge me. Roughly translated, the opera means ‘Women all do so’. It tells the tale of two young husbands-to-be, Ferrando and Guglielmo. They meet an older man, Don Alfonso, who overhears them extolling the love they have for their brides and boasting the solidity of their affection. Cynically, Don Alfonso steps in, claiming that all women are unfaithful. Why? Because Così fan Tutte. The gentlemen doth protest. Not their wives. A plan is hatched, and, skip forward a couple of scenes, they reappear as two low-life Albanians. The more observant readers will note that political sensibilities were not as refined back in the 1790s. But that need not occupy us for any length.

Predictably, the unwitting brides fall for them. Why? Because Così fan Tutte. It’s a truly excellent plot, and the production I saw was set in modern times. Cue iPhones, selfies, and smelly-die-hard-unkempt-rock-and-roll-biker-junkies in lieu of Albanian riff-raff. The performance achieved perfect pitch, showing humans at their vainest and most vulnerable, exploring the unifying – yet ephemeral – power of love and the interplay of youthful aspiration, wisened cynicism and human fallibility. In short, il faut mettre la main à la pâte. If you want to like opera, go for it.

Finally, I started to listen around opera. There is so much choral music that has the operatic elements of drama and melody. These works helped me understand the voice as an instrument of innate sensuality. One that does more than sing a song, but speaks to us directly with a balance of purity and sensitivity. You start to feel implicated in the performance, where the music and performer are indivisible. You start to hum the melodies. The language becomes less foreign and starts to fit in your ears as it fits in your mouth.

Now everyone has their own jam. But here is a list of works that I found really helped me access opera. If I had to pin-point one specifically, it would be Rossini’s Stabat Mater. It just spoke to me, and is very operatic. It made me want to approach some of the master’s operas. As to the categories, take them with a pinch of salt. The choral works are lots of people singing their heads off. The operatic works are those with less people singing their heads off. The opera category is….well that’s up to you to find out. Let me give you a hint though. It’s not just one person singing their head off.

Michael Rhimes

Michael Rhimes is a law student at Queen Mary’s London. He finds short-sleeved shirts confusing and takes secret pleasure in reading the best rated Daily Mail comments. He also does NOT (the not is in capitals at his own request) like Christmas pudding – evidently a brandy butter man.

If you’re interested in getting involved with PTL – drop us an email on prancingthroughlife@live.com.

(Images sourced from: www.natja.org and www.newyorkclassicalreview.com)