Monday, February 6, 2012

How Is the Aria up There?

La donna è mobile....
I miss having season tickets to the opera.  Yes, I could buy tickets to individual performances, but time slips by and I forget to order the tickets or my husband and I can’t coordinate a date that suits us both.  With season tickets, like a gym membership, you make time for the performances since you’ve already paid for them and the dates are pre-set.  But unlike a gym membership, you’re only obligated to make one appearance a month and there’s no sweating.

I know.  The Opera sounds snooty, but it’s changed over the last 20 years.  Nowadays, most opera companies have super titles of the lyrics (or at least the gist of them) projected over the stage.  And whether through fashion or intent, many of the younger opera singers, particularly the women, are increasingly more attractive.  There was a notable gasp when Anna Netrebko, a stunning soprano, opened her scene in Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, in a milk bath that glowed and showed off her naked figure.  What?  Sex at the opera?  Yes, not since the Bible has so much sex, violence and intrigue been publicly ignored or forgotten.  Carmen, La Traviata, La Bohème, and Abduction from the Seraglio all involve women of dubious reputations, and Don Giovanni and Tales of Hoffman are stories that glorify what the young folks would now call “pimp masters.”  My husband and I attended a production of Faust so lewd that several audience members left the performance in prudish horror.

Lest you have visions top hats and capes in our season ticket days, let me clarify that our seats were in the upper balcony, made even more affordable since they were for performances during the middle of the week.  The upper balcony occupants were predominantly elderly with some college students and a smattering of people in between.  And like any hinter zone, be it theater or sport, it contained the most devout fans.  There wasn’t any face painting, but some people sang along during the more popular arias.  This isn’t as rude as it sounds.  While opera is performed without microphones, historically opera audiences were a rowdy lot, which is why opera singers know a variety of ways to project their voices.  There is even a technique where the voice exits the body quietly, but expands and actually seems to drift once released.  It’s an incredible experience.  When this technique was used, we in the hinter zone sat at the edge of our seats, waiting for the waft of sound to float our way.  When it finally did, an operatic “touch down,” we leapt to our feet in an enthusiastic standing ovation.  It was one of the rare times during a performance that the performer intentionally acknowledged the cheap seats.

The frugality of our section presented interesting situations.  The couple who sat behind us brought along a “carry-on” suitcase that they tended to rest on my husband’s shoulders.  The case held the elderly husband’s oxygen tank and a seemingly infinite supply of crinkly wrapped sucking candy for his wife.  Rather than keeping the bag unzipped or unwrapping several candies in advance, every performance was marked by series of “zip,” crinkle, “zip,” crinkle, crinkle, crinkle . Sometimes the woman dropped the candy mid-crinkle, which prompted “oh, dear,” followed by some fumbling as she felt for the candy, a resigned sigh, and then “zip,” crinkle, “zip,” crinkle, crinkle, crinkle …. 

Some people brought their own cocktails even though the theater served beverages both before the performance and during intermission.   This wasn’t an issue until someone accidentally kicked the bottle, which happened on a fairly regular basis.  Our balcony seats were severely raked, so it was a noisy and perilous journey as the bottle rolled and hopped down each row.  The usher would rush over and try to catch the bottle’s movement in the glare of his or her flashlight.  We all held our breath, hoping the bottle wouldn’t jump the low rail, perhaps killing someone below thereby confirming that we were indeed the rabble.  Once the bottle stopped, the usher would collar it by its neck and stomp back up the stairs in a huff.

Babies love the opera ... sort of.
And then there was the baby.  I’m all for early exposure to live performance, but taking an infant to a non-Italian opera was daring.  Taking one to an opera about a child molester (PeterGrimes.  Did I mention opera could be tawdry?) was cruel.  Rightfully, the child burst into tears and was inconsolable during the scene when yet another child was brought into Peter Grimes’ care, only to meet a horrible and violent death.  The baby’s cries were loud enough to draw the performers’ attention to our little aerie.  I think we all leaned back a little and sank into our seats.  After the performance, we saw the couple carrying their sleeping baby.  “Our baby loves the opera,” they said to anyone who looked in their direction.

The baby incident prompted my husband and I to splurge on seats in the Founder’s Circle the following season.  Along with our tickets, we were also issued an invitation to the Founder’s Room and given the opportunity to place orders for refreshments before the performance to circumvent any waiting in line at intermission.  When we took our seats, we noticed the sea of black ties, furs, and silvered hair.  During the performance, no one sang or even hummed along.  The gentleman next to me snored.

From our new seats, we saw the singer’s faces and enjoyed the sets without seeing the framing.   All the super titles were visible and the performers seemed to be singing directly to us.  It was opera as it was meant to be.  I sat grinning as a stunning version of an aria drew to a close and I jumped up to give a standing ovation.  My husband gently tugged my skirt.  Everyone else in our section remained seated and only politely clapped.  I sat back down, trying to keep my restraint for the duration of the show.

Somewhere up above us, a bottle dropped and rolled.

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