I would like you to consider this scenario that took place over this past weekend:
Knowing that the Metropolitan Opera’s Summer HD Festival was to kick off on Saturday with “The Enchanted Island,” myself an several others had decided to go and make a day of the occasion in Manhattan. Having been to these showings a few times before, the plan was to, in essence, not have a lot of plans other than making sure to put down seat cushions many hours before show time so as to secure good places. A couple hours before things were set to start, everyone decided we would walk to the nearby large Whole Foods Market at Columbus Circle on 59th street and pick up various things to eat and share in a sort of ad-hoc picnic type of way.
All of this was extremely casual and fun. One of the things that’s the most fun to joke about is the fact that we always pick up a bottle of wine to go with whatever we eat because we can. It’s one of those rare times when its socially and legally acceptable to drink outdoors. (The Met does serve snacks and alcoholic beverages in open cups as well, this is how I drew this conclusion.)
Well, we purchased, plated, ate, drank and then watched the opera. Incidentally it was not one of my standout favorites but in contemplating the reason(s) why, it dawned on me that perhaps I had simultaneously gained and lost something that made me not love the story.
This being the first opera I had sat through not having to deal with subtitles or mental translation, I was curious to see how the experience might impact me differently. Different would be an understatement. Granted, every opera libretto is different (regardless of how few types of endings there are among all of them,) and so another opera in English might be one I would “like better” for many other possible reasons. However, the fact that I clearly knew every time a character sung a line verbatim over and over and over, repeating upwards of seven or eight times and that there was no pseudo-language discrepancy to cloud this over left a less-than-pleasant ringing in my ears. It’s like, “Enough already! We get it!” Add to that the fact that each line took a couple minutes to sing and that’s a long time to having the same message hammered upon you.
I had considered, during some of these repetitions, a friend of mine, of which English is not her native language. Suddenly the thought of every other opera I had attended with her, wherein the words were plain as day to her as “Enchanted Island’s” were to me, flooded my memory and I thought,
Fast forward to the next day. At home, while channel surfing, Verdi’s La Traviata comes up on one public television station. I sit and listen for a bit, feeling nostalgic, thinking about how I had just recently seen the performance with Natalie Dessay. Not barely a few minutes in, mostly just listening to the singing more than anything else and the sound of lyrical repetition comes up again. My surprise this time came from the fact that I hadn’t noticed it while seeing the performance live in the opera house but now that my attention was spread differently than before, it was undeniable that the same thought of “Enough!” had crossed my mind again, even though the opera was in Italian this time.
I’m not sure if it was better concentration, better language comprehension or a combination of both that caused me to see and hear Traviata differently than I had before. Not to say I now abruptly ‘hate opera for its monotony’ or anything of the sort. All the same, it is interesting to notice how I can’t seem to un-know and un-realize this facet of operatic storytelling, even if I don’t fully understand the words of every language.
So let’s ruminate on this idea for a minute:
I’ve progressed to a point with opera where it’s not just about hearing a well sung show or admiring an orchestral score. A palate of experience is involved. Exposure, even subtle education, if you want to call it that. This is something opera companies all over the world strive for as its the foundation for new audience interest and accrual. Yet, is there something to be said for that portion of the audience that may become less interested or somewhat disillusioned with more total awareness? Noticing the more nitty-gritty of things like these might affect enjoyment of the bigger picture, so to speak.
Kind of like when one attends their first sports game. (Insert your favorite sport here.) You might not know all the -ins and outs but you are with a bunch of people and generally have a good time and can generally follow along but once there’s so many detail to consider, maybe it becomes less appealing to sit through but you still enjoy being with a group of friends, so you just go for the overall fun of it and leave the scrutinizing to the others. In America, baseball or football would be two good examples of past times that are popular but loved by many at varying levels.
This though, may be exactly what a format like the Summer HD festival is good for. Beyond the aspects of free seating and casual dress, the atmosphere can lighten up a person’s awareness to be less about ‘zeroing in’ and more about balancing the story you’re watching with the fun environment around you -much in the same way lots of people who don’t love football will still attend Superbowl parties and not feel out of place for only focusing on the basics of the game. (e.g. points, major tackles, any overtime, who wins and loses…)
I believe my friend summed it up best,
Somehow, when you explain hearing the same line over and over in this way, the idea seems far less of a drudgery and more of a comedic experience, despite the fact that most operas end in death by murder or suicide. Plus, by that time, you can usually look up and realize even the most seasoned of opera goers create a friendly sense of community off of this humorous outlook.
The video below runs along those same lines. It’s lays things out to say, “This is all there is to opera” but it makes a light mnemonic device out of it, making one feel like they can “get the fundamental joke.”
Opera Cheats: The Three Golden Rules of Opera