My cat loves opera. Ever since Manny C turned me on to the Classica channel, the cat has been sitting at the foot of my bed, watching intently. The set is only a few inches above her head. When “Turandot” begins, her ear twitches with pleasure—or is it the tickle of a flea?
I used to think the trouble with opera is that you can’t understand the Italian they’re singing in. Their nostrils are flaring, their jowls are quivering, angry notes pour like molten lava from their mouths.
They’ve angered each other, they have begun to fight, oh, oh, they’re going to kill each other, why! Why!
Garbed in white tuxedos and white top hats is the male chorus in another opera. A girl in an absolutely gorgeous red costume appears. Her eyes are azure and her red net veil is down to her eyebrows. I love her earrings (I wonder where she bought them). She, too, is very excited. Is her house burning? Did the maid accidentally flush her baby down the toilet?
The set gives me no clue—it is abstract—metal triangles and parallelograms, like some building in Ortigas. But then some stage mechanism pushes it out. In its place brown planks from wooden crates surround the family with a new dwelling. It is depressing. Did their fortunes fall? Did their business fail?
Another opera has a birthday party going on. The cake has many candles, all lit up for blowing. A couple comes over and blows them together. Is it their singing (or bad breath) that extinguishes the little flames? The heroine’s mouth is moving every which way, it seems like she’s saying something very important. Her eyes roll, she opens her mouth so wide a baseball can fit in, her tongue is quivering, her singing magnificent. At that moment, the audience goes into thunderous clapping, so I guess it’s the end and it’s very good.
My BFF Manny Chaves to the rescue! He tells me just to enjoy it, don’t try to understand it. Too late.
I know precious little about classical music, but I respect it. Once strictly high art and high brow, Manny has made me discover, with that Classica channel, that opera all over Europe has become digestible. There is now always something one can connect to at some level.
Visual fun and puns
Could be because it’s artistic, painterly, fashionistic, fantastic, futuristic, surrealistic or downright ballistic. Opera sets and costumes are full of visual fun and puns. But the singing remains pure unadulterated opera, no parodies there, that’s what keeps the real opera clientele unperturbed.
Joan of Arc wears leather boots up to her groin and a stupendous velvet upper garment with studs worthy of a Galliano. Even when she dies wearing only a plain inner blouse and oozing blood from a mortal wound, she can go straight to fashion heaven. I can understand Joan of Arc immediately, why she is waving that impossibly long flag, because I read the story in grade school.
Even the serious Wagnerian opera does not wag its head at gods riding on seesaws, descending on the stage (via hidden cranes). The director is having such crazy fun!
Moses in Egipto is not the Jewish baby floating on the water on a leaf boat that the Pharaoh’s daughter finds. It is the Moses of the Exodus who wants to set his people free. No qualms in the new opera about the shifting of time frames. So Moses is in fatigues—a leader engaged in the Jewish-Arab war. Weeping bloodied women mix with the front-row audience and then write the names of their desaparecidos on a wall, singing all the time.
It still takes “Traviata’s” tragic Violetta an eternity to die, but at least in the rest of it she has no circles around her eyes and the fallen woman is magnificently caparisoned.
No holds barred
Another opera looks like it is set on a sandy beach. There’s a big Japanese paper umbrella shading a green wicker chair. Beside it, standing on end, is an open steamer trunk that serves as dressing table, closet and escritoire combined. On the desk the guy finds a letter and reads it. He is devastated and dissolves in a waterfall of tears.
Another baritone enters the scene and you’d think he’d console the poor fellow but no, he slaps the guy and kicks him, I wonder why. It is already 12 o’clock so I can’t phone Manny to ask why.
“The Abduction From the Seraglio,” Manny relates patiently, takes place in a hangar outfitted like a club. There’s a fashion show going on. But there’s also a stranded helicopter which some guys are pulling. No-holds-barred opera. The producers have fun tweaking it and we have great fun watching it.
I recently read that in times of crisis one should be able to conjure a place of peace and contentment. To me refuge will always be just my home, the compound composed of a son and his family next door, my cat at the foot of my bed listening to “Turandot.”