Sunday, April 28, 2019

My First Opera

Who knew I'd love the opera so much? I, for one, should have, when you consider how many movies, songs, books, and works of art I love that have been influenced by it or described as "operatic." How many figure skaters have I swooned over while they glided across the ice to excerpts from Tosca, La Bohème, or that singular right of passage for virtually every solo female athlete, Carmen? And I have been known to get quite involved at times with various soap operas, both the daytime and nighttime varieties, and they don't call them soap "operas" for nothing. I love The Phantom of the Opera! I adore The Umbrellas of Cherbourg! What was holding me back from a full blown infatuation with actual opera?

I guess, in my mind, it always seemed a little fusty. Too dated, too dull, too highfalutin. The language barrier shouldn't have been an issue, but it probably wasn't a selling point, either. I never actively disliked opera, I just didn't seek it out. My knowledge was essentially limited to Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors, because my mother owned the record album and, from the first time I heard it as a child, I've always found it enchanting. But it was commissioned by NBC for television and it's sung in English; It's contemporary, and it's very accessible. It's essentially a kiddie opera (and I mean no disrespect when I say that). It never inspired me to seek out older, more sophisticated works.

I never really thought much about my subconscious bias against opera until I had a chance to see Verdi's La Traviata at the Met last weekend. I'd been to The Met once before, to see the radiant Misty Copeland in Giselle, but those were nosebleed balcony seats. Still great, but very far away for someone with no opera glasses. We had box seats this time around, reasonably priced because of the partially obstructed view. Much closer, and much cooler. You go up to the balcony, then back down a side flight of stairs, then "behind the red curtain" to get there. "Like a Baz Luhrmann movie," I gushed. It would be the first of many times that night that Luhrmann would cross my mind. The second came moments later when I looked towards the stage and saw a sheer screen emblazoned with a single, giant camellia. Very dramatic, and maybe a little modern?

"What's this?" I asked my husband, when I noticed a small bar affixed to a stanchion in front of my seat. The translator. Oh. Honestly, it hadn't occurred to me that there would be subtitles. I figured it'd be like when Edward takes Vivian to the opera in Pretty Woman, assuring her that she wouldn't need to understand what the performers were saying, because the music was "very powerful." Fun fact: Edward and Vivian attend a performance of La Traviata. I didn't know that beforehand, but I recognized the music almost immediately (I may not be an opera aficionado but I've seen Pretty Woman a lot).

The translator took a little getting used to, because it's almost like watching a subtitled film, but I hated to tear my eyes away from the action even for a moment. Because once the lights dimmed and the screen lifted I didn't want to look anywhere but that stage. I adapted pretty quickly, though. And not every single line is translated. You get the gist, and you don't need much more than that.

The story's a fairly simple one. Violetta, a celebrated Parisian courtesan, is committed to her rock 'n roll lifestyle, even though her health is suffering because of her hardcore partying. A long-time admirer, Alfredo, declares his love for her. At first she rebuffs him, swears love is not for her, but then she warms to him. They become an item, but Alfredo's father Giorgio disapproves of his son shacking up with a woman of ill repute. Fearing her notoriety will tarnish the family name, Giorgio implores Violetta to break things off with Alfredo. There are tears, a public shaming at a fancy party, and an eleventh hour reconciliation between the lovers before the big, tragic finale.

Placido Domingo is the superstar here, the big name draw, and the crowd appropriately went wild for him when he made his entrance in Act II. Anita Hartig plays Violetta, and though all three leads have ample time on stage she's the one who does the heaviest lifting, because it's her story. I could talk about how astonishing the singing is, how technically impressive and emotionally resonant. I could talk about the work that goes into creating the sets and costumes, which are equally astonishing. It's like a Disney movie come to life. So much color, detail, and splendor. But that stuff is surely a given when you attend an opera at the Met. And while I can't speak to how this production measures up to others I can only say that, for me, it was exhilarating.

The love story in Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! hits all the same beats as La Traviata. Like Pretty Woman, I have seen Moulin Rouge! many times, so I had a good idea how the plot would play out. And that familiarity with the subject matter made La Traviata more approachable and accessible than I ever could've imagined it would be. So much of popular culture derives from opera; The grandeur of the production and the performances can seem daunting, but the stories themselves are familiar. I'd always thought opera was not for me, but opera's influence has actually been a part of my life for years. How wonderful to finally realize something I'd held aloft for so long was actually there, waiting to welcome me and give me an extraordinary experience. I just had to let it in.

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