Humanities 101: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Opera
For most of my life I've been trying to convince people how important the humanities are. I've been preaching that art is good for the soul, that it will bring you to a heightened sense of self awareness, world awareness, people awareness. Art can make you a better person. It will make you more creative and more sensitive to the world around you. I believed my professors when they told me this, and I hoped my students believed it when I taught it to them. But honestly? I don't know if I ever really felt it, and sometimes I wondered if I was straight up lying to them. I've always loved art; looking at it, thinking and talking about it, researching it, I've made art my whole life. And yet I always wondered why it never moved to me tears, why I felt an intellectual pull to it, but never an emotional one.
Well, I'm getting a bit more emotional in my old age, and I'm seeing a correlation to how I experience art. Part of me wonders if maybe all these years of trying to figure out why art moves people has taught me how to approach art, and it's finally all clicked in place. Somehow I doubt that. Somehow I think it's just evidence of a cold heart melting.
You know what the strangest thing is? I crave art, and when I encounter it I let it take over me and it renews me, it really does. Last Friday I stood and stared at a Greek statue in the British Museum for 20 minutes, and then I left without looking at anything else because the beauty of that one piece just filled my soul. I'm beginning to think that all that stuff I fed my students that I suspected might be total malarkey wasn't, isn't. So for the past few weeks I've been craving the opera. If a Greek statue can move me to tears, then the opera might leave me in a puddle on the floor, which is just what I needed. A catharsis. I was talking to a friend on Sunday and one of us mentioned opera (forget who) and the other got excited and somehow we ended up at the Royal Albert Hall last night to see Madame Butterfly. It was just what the doctor ordered.
I don't understand why or like how opera is perceived in our culture now. Opera was never really supposed to be "high" culture, well not Italian opera. Wagner pretty much changed it all. Wagner turned the lights down and made opera a serious aesthetic event. He really was the first one that insisted the lights be dimmed. Before that opera was a social event. All the lights would be up, people would be walking around and talking to their friends and hanging out. Of course the music, story and singing would rapture them at the right times, and they would burst into applause and shouts, "Bravo! Brava!" Old men would be crying and yelling and carrying on. You know why? Because opera is pure, raw, base emotion. It's not subtle by any means, and it's not particularly intellectual either. It grabs you by the chest and it pulls you out of your seat and makes you want to shout at the stage.
Opera was popular. It wasn't high brow. Imagine if in 150 years from now people would be spending $200 to tickets to see Doctor Who or The Office shown on a 2D television set. Wagner operas, yes, that makes sense. They were written and designed to be shown in dimmed theaters and have elaborate stage design and virtuoso performers. They are the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art. But Italian operas? I saw an Italian opera in Italy once and it was a completely different experience from the one I saw last night. There were old men shouting at the stage, people standing up at the intense moments because they just couldnt stay in their seats, and the performers were definitely not virtuosi. I wish opera could go back to that a little bit in the UK and America. I was really sad last night when I looked around and saw I was the only one giving a standing ovation.
I apologize for the digression. Back to Madame Butterfly. The liberetto was in English, unfortunately. I do prefer supertitles and the original language. You can't understand anything anyway, so it might as well be in Italian, right? Despite that the performers were as astounding as expected. We were in the cheapest seats available and I was still moved by their actions and sound. The set was amazing; a Japanese water garden (in the round so it didn't matter that we were on the side and not the front). The only problem was that there was an annoying rail right in front of us, but the seats next to us were empty so we shifted over. I always told my students that the best way to enjoy an opera is to read a synopsis and listen to the music before going, so you're not wondering what the heck is going on with the plot (which isn't usually too complicated. Remember how opera is pure base emotion?) I'm going to have to rethink that advise. I didn't know anything about the opera, and I was definitely surprised on a few occasions, which seriously helped to heighten the emotional level of the performance. I gasped, I clapped with joy, I hung my head in disappointment. The Italian in me almost got me to my feet shouting a couple of times, but the repressed English in me won that battle. By the end I was reduced to a puddle of tears. The intensity of the music with the intensity of the emotion and the sadness of the story just took me over. When it was over I was to my feet, cheering. Unfortunately I was surrounded by repressed English and no one else stood. I wish I could have transfered that experience to the tiny opera house in Rome, and I would have felt completely at home. Well, I think I can say I get it now. I get why people love this stuff, and why I was trying to convince all my students to love this stuff. I wish opera didn't seem so inaccessible, especially when it can have such a strong pull on your emotions, and not on any particularly sophisticated emotions either. The story last night was simple, the themes were love, betrayal and humiliation, something we all can relate to. And yet somehow I felt totally renewed, totally alive, after being hit the face with this abundance of emotion. Oh dear, I think I may have just become addicted to opera.