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. They 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?
“Almost my whole family have been opera lovers. Mad – every last one.”
At least you were in good company. I was a total outcast…but when that magic door opens, there’s no going back.
Of course an opera buff has to be a maniac. Otherwise there would not be any operas and no audiences. Opera is the highest art form and appeals to practically all senses in the right half and to the intellect in the left. Opera combines literature (in the libretto), the visual arts (in the stage set), and music in various forms. Practically all known musical instruments are involved and all types of voices. Which other art form can offer all that? In some operas even philosophical questions are raised – as in the Magic Flute, provided the director has properly understood the message of the freemasons Emanuel Schikaneder and Wolferl Mozart.
The French diva Annick Massis has called Les contes d´Hoffmann une opéra très philosophique when I talked to her after a performance in Nice (France).
The number of opera maniacs is large. Let us consider a prominent one.
The Danish writer and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855), founder of existentialism, went to see all productions of Don Giovanni available to him. Consider that there were hardly any railways at his time, and communication was difficult. His second name, by the way, means churchyard.
In present Munich a retired executive of a pharmaceutical company indulges in the same hobby, communication and travel being a lot easier for him than for Søren Kierkegaard.
A former student of mine (we hated each other when I taught him in the seventies) usually begins his day by watching an opera DVD, of which he owns almost 3,000. He is a doctor of philosophy and a Kant expert on whom he has written two books.
I know a pediatrician in lower Bavaria who attends an opera performance at least once a week. Luckily he lives in Germany with several opera houses within reach. If you phone his surgery complaining that your son suffers from vegetative dystony or numerophobia at school you may have to wait until the consultant is available. If you mention to the receptionist that your concern is opera, you will be put through to him immediately.
I myself became addicted to Les contes d´Hoffmann at the age of 15. Since I retired from my teaching job I am free to travel, and have watched 43 different productions of this opera since April 2007 between Lisbon (Portugal) and Tartu (Estonia), Glasgow (Scotland) and Sofia (Bulgaria), and the Met. I even learnt at my advanced age of seventy to build a homepage from another former student. Health permitting I plan to continue this mania which has led me to remarkable interpretations in Bern (Switzerland) by Johannes Erath, in Berlin (Germany) by Thilo Reinhardt, in Warsaw (Poland) by Harry Kupfer, in Tartu (Estonia) by Dmitri Bertman, in Aachen (Germany) by Corinna von Rad, in Wroclaw/Breslau (Poland) by Waldemar Zawodzinski and most recently in Mannheim (Germany) by Christof Nel. (see links to illustrated reviews below)
I am proud to be an Old European and an opera maniac. (I wonder if Donald Rumsfeld has ever voluntarily attended an opera performance)
But Neil, seriously, does one go to watch bullfights? Is a Spanish or southern French corrida in any respect comparable to an opera? In a corrida testosterone bombs on either side compete, watched by testosterone and estrogene bombs. Homines sapientes sapientes (as they see themselves), armed to the teeth with various weapons, riding on equi tease and injure a bos primigenius taurus until he is near exhaustion and then stab the defenceless beast. I know you know better. Please don´t go there again to mention this pagan gladiator ritual in context with opera.
For those interested in the Contes here are the links to my favourite productions:
Dear Dr Kurtzman, I hope I have qualified as a maniac.
LOVE Offenbach!! My favorite Olympia is l’Orange with Dessay dancing with the giant dolls. The levels of satire in Belle Helene (even stealing the male trio from Tell) and Orfee aux Enfers are incredible,. I like his short operas too. M. Chafleurie has a so funny take off on Rossini.
Agree with you about the bulls.
[…] A gratuitous extra: This run of Vespri was the one where the tenor, Fabio Armiliato, was booed off the stage and replaced by Kim Myung Ho in civvies holding a score. The Parma company was lucky to have recorded a few performances unaccompanied by mayhem. Parma is famous for its rough handling of singer. Go here for the details. […]