May 17, 2003

How I came to enjoy opera

This note has nothing to do with ICANN, internet governance, technology, or railroads.  So if that's what you want you'll need to wait for the next turn of the wheel.  And if you are offended by comments that are perhaps less than politically correct you ought to tune out now.

This afternoon I had reason to drive over the Santa Cruz mountains - it was a most pleasant day, so I cranked down the windows and the roof and decided that it was time for some tunes.  I chanced across a CD (actually three CD's) of Normaby Bellini.  I was reminded of how I came to enjoy opera.  Here's the story; fade to a flashback...

About a decade ago I was of the firm conviction that opera was merely the vocal calisthenics of a bunch of big boned men and women.

I love doing backstage work.  And when the opportunity presented itself to work on a production of an opera, I thought "I'll give it a try, it's only a couple of weeks."

There are lots and lots of jobs to do on a show - I generally run the light board.  But on this show I lost the coin toss and ended up with the lowest job on the theatre totem pole - follow spot #2.  That means that I had the job of sitting up in the beams, above the audience, in sweltering heat, and in 75 years of accumulated dust and debris.  My job required me to point an uncomfortably hot 750 watt spotlight at roughly a 45 degree angle down onto my assigned singer.

The first night of dress rehearsals came along.  To my enjoyment I discovered something - opera divas are not "fat ladies".  No indeed.  Instead, I found that they are endowed with vast tracts of land.

OK, I admit that underneath my smooth veneer of sophistication that I've got a few latent socially recessive genes.

As it happened, our production had two Normas and two Adalgisas.  This meant that the costumers were always behind in their adjustments.  As a consequence the costumes had a tendency to suddenly concede to gravitational forces and to reveal the full extent of the landed estates of the occupants.  I cheered for gravity.

Over the years I have learned that most women would consider me most rude if I were to stare at their cleavage.  But during rehearsals and performances of the opera my job was to sit in the beams in the theatre attic and to constantly have my eye on the singers.  It didn't take long to I realize that my job was not merely stare at some very nice cleavage (and often more) but also to illuminate it with 750 watt spotlight.  And for this I was getting paid!!

This was a most  auspicious start; opera began to seem interesting.

My eyes were happy, but what about my ears and brain?

Most theatre goers do not know about headset chatter.  Fortunately, most actors don't know about it either.

During a performance a good portion of the crew wear headsets so that they can interact with the stage manager.  For shows like Sondheim musicals everybody is far too busy to do anything but deal with the hundreds of light, sound, and scene shift cues.  But for operas there is usually a lot of of spare time.  So the crew starts to play around.  (If you have not seen Sing Faster, you must do so.)  Generally on headset we talk about the show - not always in flattering ways.  Once during a production of The Secret Garden our stage manager invented a rap version of one of the childrens' songs, the actors, who could see us in the booth laughing our heads off, never found out what was so funny.  Nothing is sacred - we talk about the audience, we talk about the actors, we talk about each other.  And sometimes we can get downright lewd (such as when during a production of Le Bete a particularly pheromone laden assistant stage manager [female] and a particularly virile sound reinforcement op [male] decided to see how far past the hormonal red line they could push a very unwillingly virginal 18 year old guy we had on the sound board.)

Headset chatter is often more entertaining than the show.  And it can be educational.

Norma is a very well known opera and I know next to nothing about music and speak no Italian.  Our stage manager, as is necessary for opera, was well versed in music.  And we had the musical director of the company online as well.  So, apart from the jokes and my running commentary on the view from the beams, we were able to ask questions about what the music was doing or what was being said on stage (in Italian.)  It was like a couple of years of music courses squished into a couple of weeks.

We performed Norma umpteen times that month.  However, I never really saw it - because of my location I never was able to see very far upstage.  But I did hear it, over and over and over again.  At first I kind of was numb to the music.  But with repetition - and particularly because of the headset chatter, it finally began to sink in.  By the end of the first week, I was really rockin' out up there in the beams - I particularly fancied the duets between Normal and Adalgisa in the second act, the call of the druids to battle, and the final funeral pyre melody.

So what's my point?  I could say that even a philistine like me can gain a bit of culture if there's enough sex appeal.  But I won't.  Instead I'll point out that a lot of people wonder why we ought to have public support for the performing arts.  To me the answer is clear - our ability to think clearly about the future comes from our experience with the past.  Plays, including musical plays and opera, are a kind of emotional history - they reflect our past ways of feeling as much as formal histories reflect our past ways of thinking.  Opera is hard for most of us today.  But opera is hardly a dead art - John Adams has done contemporary works such as Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer.

So my point is this: public and private support of the arts benefits us all, often in unexpected ways.

(P.S. my wife and I both contribute our time and our money to a number of performing arts organizations.)

Posted by karl at May 17, 2003 10:22 PM