This past week has seen me having to make a few concessions. I may have been just over a tad ambitious to think that I could put out a blog piece every day for 365 days, consecutively. This small detail regarding being human – it really can become a challenge when you factor in that I am a quadriplegic with unique health considerations. That being said, being unwell got me thinking "it's not over until the fat lady sings." And then I got to thinking, hey, that may be a good idea for something to write about.
Opera. I was introduced to this unique art form when I was about 15 years old. The production was called "The Rape of Lucretia" which, as it turns out, was what is known as a "chamber opera" written by Benjamin Britten, first performed in 1946. This would make it a more modern composition compared to some of the more well-known examples of the discipline, but I was thoroughly converted. This two act English libretto was based on a French play which, in turn, took its cue from a Shakespearean poem. Serendipitously, I was spared having to wonder about Italian or French lyrics standing in the way of my understanding of the plot but, if I were to be honest, I still don't understand Italian and this has never caused me to miss the emotion or passion of any Italian word I was subsequently privileged to see.
So, what is the big deal? What makes opera so special? Well, it starts with the history of it all. Opera is a stage drama set to music in its entirety, made up of vocal pieces with instrumental accompaniment and usually with orchestral overtures and interludes. In some operas the music is continuous throughout an act; in others it is broken up into discrete pieces, or "numbers," separated either by recitative (a dramatic type of singing that approaches speech) or by spoken dialogue. I am writing, of course, about opera in the Western tradition, it also has a rich history in Asia!
The English word opera is an abbreviation of the Italian phrase opera in musica which means "work in music". It denotes a theatrical work consisting of a dramatic text, libretto ("booklet"), that has been set to music and stage with scenery, costumes, and movement. Aside from solo, ensemble, and choral singers on stage and the group of instrumentalists playing offstage, the performers of opera, since its inception, have often included dancers. A complex, often costly variety of musico–dramatic entertainment, opera has attracted both supporters and detractors throughout its history and has sometimes been the target of intense criticism. It's detractors have viewed it as an artificial and irrational art form that defies dramatic verisimilitude, which, simply put, means that to them it appears unreal. Supporters, on the other hand, argue that it is more than the sum of its parts, with the music supporting and intensifying the lyrics and action to create a genre of greater emotional impact than either music or drama could achieve on its own.
I think Franco Zeffirelli said it best in his 1986 autobiography –
Short men in armour and large ladies into fine singing about ancient Egypt don't make much sense at one level that they can reveal to us the confusions of emotion and loyalty, the nature of power and petty, that could not be so movingly expressed in any other way.
I have been very fortunate to see some amazing productions in my life so far. Verdi's Aida, with the iconic slave choir. Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, with the haunting clown's aria. Bizet's Carmen, with those bits of music that many people will recognise, even if they haven't seen it. But, by far the greatest privilege I have had thus far, was to see Luciano Pavarotti live in the 1990s. Surprisingly, on that day, a young lady performed with him who totally upstaged the legendary tenor, in my humble opinion. Her name was Kathleen Casello, and she would go on to become one of the "three sopranos", a compliment to the trio that included José Carreras, Placido Domingo, and of course, Pavarotti himself.
There are some who would say that going to the opera is a distinctly elitist pastime, a bit like attending the ballet, or going to a polo match. In recent times, it has become a little less stuffy, a little more relatable – in short, there is been a great effort made to make it more inclusive, both by virtue of the performers themselves as well as to the audiences that companies market themselves to. I can only say that, for me, it has been one of those often overlooked components that have made me the man that I am today. I have learnt to appreciate the subtle cultural nuances that have formed and shaped my ancestry for centuries, and I can only say that, if you have not yet attended a live opera performance, you have not yet lived!