Thursday, February 24, 2011

too bad you don't like opera, she said

It came out of the blue. People say that, right? It came out of the blue.

A phrase I never expected to hear, let alone to say. But — it came out of the blue, and now I have to examine it.

"Too bad you don't like opera," she said.


"You don't yell. You don't scream. You don't do opera!" she chided me.

It's always bothered her that I practice equanimity, or try to, especially in my interactions with her. I've learned that frequently her goal is to get me to cry. Yes, even now. But recently I learned, her goal is to get me to scream. I think she wants me to scream back.

My ex-husband called me after we split up and he had achieved shikse-goddess possession. Finally. Thank god. It was exactly what he needed at that point.

"She yells!" he told me.

"What?" I was horrified.

"She yells," he repeated. We both were stunned by it.

"She yells, and then she's done. And it's all gone."

It was shocking.

So that's what my mother meant when she said I don't do opera. Because of course, I do do opera. Ever since I was a kid I've done opera. I was obsessed with one particular opera. And when I really was feeling down and low, I would put it on the record player in the living room, open the libretto, and follow along in Italian on the left and English on the right, and just wail. It still moves me to tears.

Il Trovatore.

Io fremo. I tremble.

Il Trovatore entered my non-existent soul and pierced my barricaded heart in a way I can't explain. I liked other operas of course, how could I not? But this one is at this point in my sabbatical from all things music (save obligatory listening for our Kaddish in Two-Part Harmony project), this one still brings me to tears.

Maybe she's right. Maybe I don't like opera. D and I looked at each other and walked out of Carmen a couple years ago. We hadn't bonded like that in a long time. But the reviewers had agreed with us. It was crap.

So. What is it about Il Trovatore that gets to me. I mean apart from the gypsy camp that has me drooling to enter and yearning to — well, not to be the gypsies, but maybe to be there with my pen and notebook taking notes. An anthropological dream come true. But is that it? The aesthetic? Or the incredible driving music, rough and rhythmic and unsentimental. These days I use the remote to skip through all the mushy lyrical parts — no mush for me. But I could play the Anvil Chorus all day long without any problem. I mean, you know they're using real anvils when they play it, right? And then, and then...

La zingarelllllllla. She enters. The old gypsy hag. And she tells her terrible tale. And she calls for revenge. And the camp has enough solidarity, and she enough standing, that they support her. But of course, goddamn, she can take care of the job herself. By the end, she's taken her revenge — and she feels not a drop of remorse for her actions. Redemption! Vengeance! Right. It's opera. And I was raised with opera.

"Too bad you don't like opera," she accused.

And since she's always right, and since I'm always reasonable, I tried to examine her statement.

OK. There's a love story. The aristocratic Leonora (right — my precious daughter's middle name) has fallen in love with the gypsy troubador. Boring! And her betrothed, the equally aristocratic diLuna wants to keep her under control. Who cares? Just sappy operatic stuff, right?

But Azucena, the old gypsy woman wants revenge for her mother being burned as a witch. And her revenge starts by stealing the infant son of the Count and raising him as her own. And purporting to love him. And raising him up to seal her revenge so that when he is a man he is murdered by his own brother, his rival for the love of Leonora.

So what do we have? A mother who steals a child and raises him not out of love but to wreak her vengeance upon him. Twenty plus years of binding him in obligation to her. He loves her. She despises him. What kind of a mother would do that to a child? Even a child not her own? Raise him up to slaughter him at the right moment.

(hm. It's not unlike what God does to Abraham by giving him a son, and then asking him to sacrifice him on a fiery altar. But God then says, sorry, just kidding, you're a good guy, so keep him and use this ram instead...)

What gets me about Il Trovatore (apart from the force of the music) is the horror that parents can perpetrate on their children. And you listen, and you listen, and it never comes out any other way. And it never will.

It's opera.

In which injustice reigns supreme. In which there are no happy endings. In which 'training' a woman who speaks her own mind to be an obedient and submissive wife is the best you can get to a happy ending.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. ...

Dylan Thomas expresses well my mother's philosophy of both opera and life. She wants me to rage, as she herself rages.

"It moves energy," she explains wisely.

But this is me, calm waters. When I say that my tears are falling I mean that my eyes just might be a little damp. Were I to rage, it means that I wonder at the tremble that my limbs have conjured up. I cling to my composure like a man thrown overboard clings to floating flotsam. Even-handed, and if not that — then run. Run fast, run far!

So maybe the wise old woman was right. Maybe she understated it, being kind. Maybe I despise opera.

But I don't agree that it's too bad.


  1. Hm. Could it be that because you despise it you do opera internally, where nobody else can hear it or harmonize or be dissonant or openly interact with the characters, but nevertheless it is indeed often on, and with the earbuds turned up full volume?

  2. Nice try, but no. Although I know you'd like to think so!

    It was a rhetorical "maybe I despise opera" anyway, just for fun. I happen to love opera — as long as it stays at the opera house where it belongs.

  3. I'm with you on all counts: that Carmen was awful, and I left at the first intermission suddenly clear on the greater importance of Pauline's Pizza to my short-term edification; V was sad to leave on account of enjoying the sets, but sets are not enough. Especially not with Carmen, which I've played too many times and didn't like much in the first place. I, too, prefer equanimity, and don't care at all for operatic drama in my life--and no, T, it's not playing internally for me, either. I do love opera at the opera house, and it's even better if I'm in the pit.

  4. Yah, the sets were great at Carmen! I'm sick of seeing theatre and opera in which the performers can't live up to the sets! I'm hoping the upcoming season is a thrill, and we can manage to keep the opera up there on the stage...

    PS When Berkeley Rep reopened after remodeling the new theatre, the sets were breathtaking — but the poor little actors seemed puny and unworthy!