Another Show

Nights like this, every third week or so for almost exactly five years, I would get home, turn off my sense of self-preservation, and write a review to post by morning.

I don’t have an opera blog anymore, and it’s something of a relief, but that’s where I’ve been. I’m wondering if there’s any way to write about it that doesn’t fall into the category of “tedious to all but fanatics” because, ok, maybe I’m having a tiny bit of nostalgia for auld lange blog.

Opening night is its very own monster, more fun and less fun than anything else. Before the chandeliers are raised–people used to clap for the chandeliers when the house opened–they play the national anthem and 4,000* people who are deeply hurt not to have been born Joan Sutherland stand up and overdo it. I remain seated, because when I was a Freshman in college I went to the opera with my dad and didn’t stand for the national anthem. He asked why, and I gave some mortifyingly self-important but not totally off base answer, and for years he said how much of a kick he’d gotten out of that. So I sit there as a dumb little hat tip to my dad, miles away and wholly unconscious of the gesture.

There are famous people at opening night, and I can’t feign jaded indifference to this fact. Barbara Walters shows up if it’s a gala, opening night of the season. Christine Baranski shows up for everything, like you’ll see her at a Wednesday night performance of Peter Grimes.

Also on the season opener they set up a jumbotron in the plaza and broadcast it in Times’ Square, too. People seem interested, honest to god. This charming little thing happens at the end of the night that my opera-pal and I always stop to watch: you file out onto the internal balcony sort of thing and wait a few minutes and the cast goes out to take curtain calls on an outside balcony for the crowd watching for free in the plaza. People inside take one more chance to applaud them.

At the opening night of new productions, the production team (director, designer, costume designer) take solo bows along with the cast. If it’s a traditional, fully representational production like this one was, nobody cares and the applause just kind of continues. If they’ve set an airheaded-but-beloved-of-some-hardcore-fans 19th century piece in a rehearsal studio where a troupe is working up an airheaded-but-beloved-etc. piece (actual example) they are likely to get loudly boo’ed. I’ve seen fights almost break out. “Go back to Long Island!” said some gays to some disapproving suburbanites. “Go back to Greenwich Village!” the suburbanites yelled back. “Where you’re from!”

I had to stop with the opera blog because it had turned into a chore. After the third time you’ve seen a production, even with new singers, there are no more ways to say “she has great high notes.” I took an approach I (a bit pretentiously) thought of as inspired by MFK Fisher’s litte prologue to The Gastronomical Me:

People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do?

They ask it accusingly, as if I were somehow gross, unfaithful to the honor of my craft.

The easiest way to answer is to say that, like most humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it, and the hunger for it…and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied…and it is all one.

I tell about myself, and how I ate bread on a lasting hillside, or drank red wine in a room now blown to bits, and it happens without my willing it that I am telling too about the people with me then, and their other deeper needs for love and happiness.

(It goes on a little from there. I quote this all the time but had forgotten it takes up some real estate.)

I didn’t write anything so grand. I’ve never been in a room that’s now blown to bits. But I wrote semi-informative, semi-informed reviews as a frame on which to hang little jokes and some Yiddish schtick, and people seemed to like it well enough for a while. I miss it some.

Tonight was a good night of this stuff. The opera was about Ann Boleyn, the music bel canto which essentially means formulaic 19th century stuff that serves in some large part as a frame on which to hang a lovely vocal line and that allows for some improvisatory virtuosity. The cast ranged from able to legitimately starry, best of all the star herself, who has an imperfect technique and sings sharp a fair bit but has an instinct for singing one size larger than life as you must from the stage, and can kill you with a sustained soft note and, incidentally or not, is beautiful.

And so on. It’s late and I’m not reviving the old blog, but I thought it might be nice to share a corner of my obsession, even if I’m halfway cured nowadays.

*That’s actually about the number of seats at the Metropolitan, though 4,000 is a number I would use to express “tiresomely many” in other situations.

11 responses to “Another Show”

  1. lane says:

    i like your astrik habit.

    part of your yiddish schtick kind of… bookish, or something like that.

    “I have tremendous regard for the jewish people and thier tradition of learning!” – claus von bulow (as played by jeremy irons)

  2. I like your habit of commenting on posts that are feeling a little neglected and possibly boring/incoherent!

    Jeremy Irons was great in that. I always like the very end where whatsisname as Dershowitz says “you’re a very strange man” and Irons/Bulow says “you have no idea” and rolls up the limo window and rides off.

  3. Tim says:

    Ron Silver, I believe, played Dershowitz.

    I find this an interesting post because you express some things I’ve been feeling lately about what I might term the “postblogging” world, triggered by my recent discontent with FB and the whole entire complete and total internet,* to which I am utterly addicted in an irritating way.

    *Present company excepted. I love you all madly!

  4. Tim says:

    P.S. Sorry to be a ganef, using your asterisk and everything.

  5. J-Man says:

    I know next to nothing about opera, but have been a few times and loved it. It always blows my mind that human beings can produce that kind of power and tone.

  6. F. P. Smearcase says:

    Asterisks are for everyone! Asterisks want to be free!

    J-Man, yeah, part of the fun is the athletic element of things. Singing over a 19th century orchestra is no joke. Singers with enormous voices are a special thrill.

  7. lane says:

    oh shit this was about opera!

    FF, carmen! santa fe! red wine! sleeping! … remember!…. ah, the best fuckin’ nap in that high mountain air…. i love opera!

    no sorry. i know what it is that bugs me about opera. the whole BIGNESS of it. the Story! (like a novel) ACTING! (like a play) singing! like a concert, MUSIC! like another concert! ITALIAN! and possibly LED LIGHTED SUBTITLES!… whew! it’s a lot to take in…*

    * I should give it another chance, and hold the red wine.

  8. Dave says:

    The bigness is often the point, I think. It’s so big and out there that you either have to commit to the spectacle or slink away, embarrassed on behalf of everyone involved. (Or, like the young Wall Street types at the production of Madama Butterfly I went to a few years ago, ostentatiously check sports scores on your BlackBerrys during the first intermission and then convince your dates to join you in leaving during the second intermission.*)

    I loved this post and kinda miss your opera blog, Mr. S., although I totally get that there are only so many ways to say “great high notes.” Also, I am now intrigued by this new diva.

    *I may be in error in recalling two intermissions.

  9. farrell fawcett says:

    Wow, FPS, you constantly amaze with your secret subsets of expertise. Me and Trix really loved those two links. Really beautiful. It gave one of us goose-bumps. Really. Thanks for the reminder about how awesome opera music can sound. But truth be told, I never listen to Opera. It confuses me. (And in person, more than 30 minutes totally puts me to sleep. Good memory, LT.) And there’s something weird about it in a different way than the weirdness of broadway musicals, but also kind of similar. I need a Simpson’s or South Park episode or something to satirize it and help me crystalize the dissonance it makes me feel. I feel strangely incapable of ever being able to truly embrace it. Is it po-mo, generational, earnestness, a personal defect? Something’s wrong. I don’t know. But in brief youtube clips. Wow, amazing!

  10. FPS says:

    lane, I’m emphatically of the opinion that if you don’t like it, you don’t like it. The funny thing about being an opera weirdo is that people say “oh, opera seems so cultured…I keep meaning to learn more about it, but it’s hard to get into.” To which, thinking myself quite the wit, I always say something to the effect of: why would you go if you don’t like it? Its feelings will not be hurt if you do not go. Listen to the music you like.

    Some of them aren’t so big on the bigness, though. Carmen is paradigmatic, but not absolutely so. Just this last week I went to Atys, a 17th century French work that is subtle and intimate and never raises its voice. It bored the fuck out of me, but I went.

  11. FPS says:

    FF, this is going to sound nuts, but it gives me a small sense of personal triumph to realize I now have friends who don’t immediately associate me with opera, viz. comment about “secret subset.” The Opera Guy is an identity that has followed me around since college. I’m glad you liked the clips. I wrote this at 3 a.m. so I have to go see what they were. OH YEAH–Anna in the Louise Brooks wig! She kills me. I’m glad she killed you too. And Callas. I am maybe not very in recovery from opera.

    Dave: I always come about an inch from firing up the old blog and then have a crisis of will. It’s partly about the fact that I have a broader bloglife now. And then you read the comments on youtube and even the Main Opera Blog and remember what freaks opera people are. And then, yeah, “great high notes!”