Philistine of the Golden West

Opera-loving is part of my heritage. My maternal grandfather was born in a Hungarian (now Romanian) backwater, but spent time in Budapest before emigrating. In those days Budapest was opera’s second capital, behind only Milan, and Grandpa Sam gained a passion for Italian verismo prior to embarking for America. He took my mom to the opera whenever he could afford tickets. She became a devotee of the Cavalleria Rusticana/I Pagliacci double bill and the mid-century diva Maria Callas.

Then of course there’s The Fabulous Wife. I didn’t know it when we got together, but she loves opera too.

So here’s my terrible confession: despite that lifelong exposure, I can barely stand opera.

Opera is what Europe did for entertainment before movies came along. Now that movies are here, what’s the point? Epic stories, you say? Sorry, but I have yet to encounter a libretto that makes sense. The live acting, you say? Come on, even opera lovers admit that whatever else might happen on stage, it isn’t acting. The singing, you say? Those aren’t voices, those are caricatures of voices, as Mozart surely knew when he composed “Der Hölle Rache” for The Magic Flute, an aria that also explains a comment I once heard about sopranos always sounding like someone’s chasing them with a knife.

And don’t get me started about how long operas drag on. There are Ring Cycles that began in 1963 and haven’t finished yet.

That said, a few operas do manage to maintain a modicum of musical momentum. Mom was right about Cavalleria Rusticana, for instance: the first twenty minutes are sensational.

And by the early twentieth century, when they realized they were competing with movies, some composers dared to innovate. I like several of Janáček’s refreshingly brief works. And of course I’m partial to my hero Dmitri Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, not just because of the (weak) Shakespearean connection, but because of the raucous score and its historical importance: Lady Macbeth is the work that got him in trouble with Stalin. Fortunately, Stalin walked out before the final act’s heartbreaking “Vyorsty Odna za Drugoy” aria for Siberian exiles, or Shostakovich would have been executed that night.

Last night The Fabulous Wife and I were going to hear the San Francisco Opera perform John Adams’s latest opus, Girls of the Golden West. We went to Adams’s Doctor Atomic when it premiered in 2005 and weren’t impressed. Adams doesn’t write instantly accessible opera music — one notable exception, “The Chairman Dances” from Nixon in China, didn’t even make it into the production and has probably led a successful orchestral life for that reason — and though Adams’s librettos are in English, no matter who writes them they’re so obscure you’re convinced either you’re a moron for not understanding them or his collaborators are too pretentious to survive outside their windowless studies.

We were further discouraged by the San Francisco Chronicle’s review: “Bloated, repetitive, self-righteous and dull, this commission by the San Francisco Opera . . . represents a miscalculation of astonishing dimensions.” Oh boy, Waterworld for sopranos and orchestra!

Still, we were gearing up for it. And we planned on writing a joint review of it for your web-surfing pleasure.

But we didn’t go. The Fabulous Wife came down with a bad cold and there was no way she could have sat through the performance.

Honestly, I’m not that disappointed.

The Fabulous Wife will get better soon, and when she does, she’ll read this post. I suspect she’ll want to write a rebuttal, leave me for someone who can stand to hear more than ten minutes of La Traviata, or both. Stay tuned!

The Opera Garnier, Paris, 2006.
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