The title of this piece is a bit redundant. Opera lovers are without exception crazy. So opera is really for maniacs and no one else save those with extra time and money who think that an outing at the opera has a cultural context. These cultural aspirants fail to realize that they’re visiting the lunatic asylum and paying heavily for the ‘privilege’. I say this with no plea for exemption. I have been passionately devoted to opera for most of my life. Almost my whole family have been opera lovers. Mad – every last one. The cultural return of a trip to the opera is about the same that to a bullfight – the performance art it most closely resembles. In the latter the blood is real; other differences are minor. If you’re an opera lover you’re also an aficionado whether or not you acknowledge it.
Consider the most ardent devotees of these arts – the loggionisti at La Scala and the inhabitants of tendido 7 at Las Ventas (see below). The former think they know everything about opera and how it should be performed. Accordingly they make an evening at La Scala into The Night of the Living Dead. The recently booed Roberto Alagna off the stage at a performance of Aida; he was immediately replaced by a tenor in blue jeans. Renee Fleming cracked on a high note and paid for it. Luciano Pavarotti got booed during a performance of Don Carlo. But their antics go back almost forever. They assassinated the world premiere of Madama Butterfly in 1904. In 1840 they almost drove Verdi out of the business by crushing the first performance of his second opera Un Girono di Regno. They are the craziest of the crazy. Their standards are so arbitrary and impossible to predict that only crazy people would keep going to La Scala. But for the reason I stated at the beginning of this screed insanity presents no impediment to the house’s regular audience. Simply put, the dippier you are the more comfortable and liberated you’ll be in the lyric theater. The reason there isn’t more booing at New York’s Met is that much of its audience is there for a nap.
The denizens of tendido 7 are so strict in their interpretation of what’s kosher in the plaza de toros that every torero who appears in at Las Ventas is scared out of his zapatillas before he even sets foot in the arena. They even boo the bulls. About 10 years ago I was there when they booed 5 bulls out of the arena. Where the management found 5 replacements is a source of wonder. King Juan Carlos was also there; but he wasn’t in the royal box. If he had been tendido 7 would have booed him too. The likelihood of seeing a great performance there is probably the poorest in all Spain because of the whacked out fans that dominate the place. And like the opera house everyone in the plaza is cracked. No naps in the plaza; it’s too dangerous. You might get stepped on or beaned or poured on if you’re not nimble. There’s even the remote, but real, possibility that the bull may get into the stands.
It is ironic that the opera’s greatest practitioner, Giuseppe Verdi, was prosaically sane. Of course he tried to get out of the business as soon as he could afford to. He spent the last 30 years of his life taking care of his farm, his livestock, and the laborers who worked his land. He had to be tricked and cajoled into writing Otello and Falstaff which he wrote more for himself than for his audience. Puccini was also sane, as was Rossini. The latter wrote no operas at all over the last 40 years of his life. Donizetti died in the madhouse. Mozart had several lose screws. Heine described Bellini as, “A sigh in pumps.” And the biggest nut job of all shall go nameless here. Still, opera composers may be sane while their audience never is.
It is no accident that sopranos go mad at the drop of a baton. But tenors (Peter Grimes), baritones (Hamlet),and even normally solid basses (Semiramide) also go loony. Of course, the ancient opera truism that the higher the voice the smaller the brain ensures that most of opera’s wingnuts are tenors and sopranos.
A play is a sane art form even though it requires actors who are just as likely to be bonkers as opera singers. Its audience is no more insane than the general population, but set the words to music and only the balmy rush to buy tickets.
Look what’s going on right now at Parma’s Teatro Regio which considers itself the keeper of the Verdi flame. Its audience, or at least the most daffy slice of it, is so aggressive that they’d boo Helen Keller for signing during the intermission. The second opera of this year’s Verdi Festival was I Vespri Siciliani. The locals decided to pick on the tenor, Fabio Amiliato. By the time he surrendered to their abuse his understudy was not available. So the house ended up with Korean tenor, Kim Myung Ho, dressed in civilian clothes and holding a score. For all the sensational details go here. This is opera at its zenith.
Opera was confused from the get go. The Florentine Camerata thought they were recreating Greek theater. By accident they invented opera. Where else do people sing when they are being tortured, when describing the death of a parrot, or when reciting a list of someone else’s sexual conquests. There is no room for sanity in the opera. The great Italian musical theorist Gioseffo Zarlino (the teacher of Vincenzo Galilei – Galileo’s father – a member of the camerata) said, “What has the musician to do with those who recite tragedies and comedies?” This view has prevailed until the present. Among serious musicians there’s still a whiff of the vulgar about opera. But so what.
Vulgar, mad, and unique. Don’t you wish you’d been in Parma for The Sicilian Vespers?