Boredom and opera

Every summer I take a group of a dozen or so friends and acquaintances to Inspiration Point, near Eureka Springs, Arkansas, the site of Opera in the Ozarks performances. This year the organization is staging three operas, Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte, which my group saw; Puccini’s La Rondine; and Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.

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Lyric Opera in Chicago performance of Cosi Fan Tutte.

Admittedly, opera is not for everybody. It’s offputting to a lot of people, especially those who are trained or, rather, versed or immersed in pop culture. As one of my friends said last year, after attending his first opera, La Boheme at the OiO, “Why do they sing so high?” And I replied, “Because they can!”

Like you, no doubt, I’ve seen people mimic and mock opera by singing a few bars in silly falsetto. But this mockery misses the point, of opera if not people’s taste and training.

Opera is elaborate, an art that insists and thrives on elaboration — more notes, sure, and higher notes, more ups and downs, more subtlety, more innuendo. We are not hit over the head with the art, both music and text, as we often are in pop music, but treated, rather, to subtle, soaring, transcendent artistic form.

Art, or high art anyway, is a kind of sublimated heaven for those of us on Earth and not necessarily buoyed up by ancient creeds. Indeed, in Cosi Fan Tutte, the principals don’t mention Christianity. They are restrained by the social codes of the day, for sure, which include, in the background, religious faith. The male lovers are convinced their fiancees will not betray them. The fiancees swear off temptation — until they don’t. The villains, or realists, of the play, Don Alfonso and the servant girl Despina, represent the real world of appetite and longing, of flesh and blood. They tempt the four lovers to give in to temptation … until they finally do.

Ironically, of course, the realists sing in the same transcendent operatic forms as the idealists. Even the flesh and the appetites, Mozart may be suggesting, can and should be represented in the most endearing and enduring forms. 

The world, the flesh, and the devil are joined with earthly authority, both religious and civic, in the beautiful alchemy of opera.

But what about the many millions who ignore or despise opera? Well, they don’t understand it, first of all, and have not been trained to do so. I don’t mean via classes in classical music or opera, but by their whole life experience and their emotional predilections. Let’s say a person loves folk music, which tends toward simple harmonies and perhaps sentiments, whether love or protest. Or loves heavy metal, gods forbid, which is wild and thrashing and emotional and designed, could be, to exorcize demons.

What can such people devoted to a particular musical genre make out of something so other, so ethereal, so ritualistic as opera? Maybe those trained in classical religious music, not hymns, say, but oratorios or other elaborate forms, can make the transition to opera more easily. Still, it’s not an easy jump for most people.

This year I took 15 people to the Opera in the Ozarks, which plays in a rude pavilion, with rustic air conditioning, and on the day of the opera the outside temp was about 100 degrees. All the group seemed to enjoy the show a lot — there were smiles and laughter, enthusiastic applause — except two sisters, in their thirties, who bolted early. I inquired why, and they said the pavilion was hot and the music was boring.

Ach, du lieber! Boring? What was boring about the music? That it was 230 years old? That it was nothing like the music you ordinarily listen to? That it was slow? repetitive? That the libretto was nothing like an action movie, for which we hanker? 

Well, there you go. What can I say? You can’t make people love opera. Or force them to the theater — even with tit-for-tat inducements. Last year, two friends attended, a couple, and were, I’m afraid, bored. They fell asleep though they didn’t leave early. The wine beforehand, at the Mediterranean restaurant we patronized, was a bit of a soporific, but then the show? La Boheme? A bore?

(Another friend, a biology professor, sighed at the end of “Che Gelida Manina,” “Such sweetness!”)

But my couple friends would not be convinced. They pretended to offer me a deal. They would go to the opera, next year (this year), if I went with them first to a monster truck mashup (or whatever these foolish noisy shows are called). Well, hell, sure, I said. I’ll do that if you do this (the opera). But I’m afraid I heard no more from them about roaring trucks and banging metal.

I would be bored by quantum physics, I suppose, if forced to attend an advanced class or lecture for which I was not prepared. To the initiated, and/or patient, such an event might be very appealing. Certainly the field of quantum physics is full of fascinations. Can they be brought down to earth?  Made comprehensible to the average man and woman? Can opera operate on a level and earthly field?

What do you think, friends? What is your experience?