The Light Touch / Dozing during the aria -- confessions of an opera dropout
It was Robert Benchley who said: "Opera is where the guy gets stabbed in the back and instead of dying, he sings." I'd rather see an action film where the bad guy gets it in the heart, goes through as few elaborate gyrations and ends up blood-stained and dead. He doesn't waste time. He gets right to the point.
Opera is melodramatic. Every emotion: love, hate, anger, jealousy and sadness become a musical experience -- the more intense the emotion the stronger the music. I once fell asleep in the middle of a death scene, and when I awakened, the guy was still breathing. It took him 20 minutes to croak. I wanted to go up on the stage and personally knock him off.
In theory, I like the idea of getting dressed to the nines and hob-nobbing with the elegant -- the sophisticated, who are enthralled in operatic bliss. But after a couple of hours of arias, arpeggios and falsettos, I'm ready for a good night's sleep. And, if I can't wait that long, I find I can get my sleep right there in my seat.
It wasn't always this way. My parents went through much time and expense to culturally educate me. Many were the operas I attended -- the librettos I was forced to read. I attended numerous performances by some of the world's greatest virtuosos. When listening to opera at home, my father turned up the radio volume so loudly, glasses shook -- the house vibrated. He would then go off on elaborate dissertations on what it all meant, hoping I would suck it up like a sponge.
I'm grateful that they cared enough to heighten my musical awareness, but much to their chagrin, I grew up avoiding opera probably because I had reached my saturation point and couldn't take it any more. The worst part is I still feel guilty because I let them down. I am ashamed to admit it, but when someone mentions opera, my eyelids droop.
For years, I sampled Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti and Strauss. For a while I pretended to appreciate them so others wouldn't think me provincial and dull. When I married, for his birthday, I took my husband to an opera of his choice, and watched as he ingested every note like a musical gourmand. He glowed. He basked. He shed tears. I shed tears, too, out off sheer desperation that it might go on forever
"Some very intelligent people don't appreciate opera," he finally said. "Don't be afraid to admit the truth."
"What truth?" I asked, trying to fake my way through La Traviata.
Eventually, I became confident enough to tell him I didn't understand or appreciate opera. Sometimes people looked askance. At a dinner party, a pompous man snubbed his nose when I told him opera left me cold. When others spouted off musical terminology: canzone, gruppetto and rubato, I thought they were referring to Italian pastries.
After a few years, I decided it was time to reacquaint myself, and give it another shot. I started off with a dollop of Offenbach, a smidgen of Verdi, a dash of Bizet. I dug into my musical library pulling cassettes from their cases. My house was suddenly filled with music. I poured myself a glass of Italian wine, lit a fire, sat back and promptly ... fell asleep.
Feeling like a musical misfit, I changed my tact. I began telling people that I liked opera. A close friend took me seriously. One evening, we drove to New York, and she said she had a surprise -- one I would never forget. She had gotten tickets to Die Meistersinger, an experience that, she assured me, would be life-altering.
She was right: anyone who has never sat through a Wagnerian opera knows what true pain is. It's analogous to sitting in a dentist's chair for five hours except at the dentist's you get novocaine. By the time it was over I had such a dazed look on my face she asked if I were ill.
"I'm suffering from a rare psychological disorder manifested by a catatonic-like trance brought on by extensive exposure to arias," I said.
I'm mature enough now to admit that opera isn't my thing. It doesn't mean I'm a bad person. I'm simply operatically-obtuse and challenged. While I attend symphonies, the ballet and theater, others keep me abreast of opera from afar. Just the other day, a friend told me that she recently had seen Der Rosenkavalier.
"The cantilena was superb," she told me.
"That's nice," I said, trying to sound erudite, "but, I prefer pasta primavera, myself.