Right female voice can transform opera into a thing of sensuous, powerful beauty


When the Baltimore Opera Company opens its 1995-1996 season with Verdi's "La Traviata" next Saturday, I hope the soprano who sings Violetta, the heroine, has the kind of voice that produces in a listener the feeling the French refer to as "jouissance."

There's no exact English translation of the word. It's the quality of the singing voice that makes some people experience shivers up and down the spine. Others feel suddenly, inexplicably, moved to tears.

"Bliss," "ecstasy," "elation" only partly capture the essence of "jouissance," which in French also carries a sexual connotation. Related words include "joy," "thrill," "gratification."

So when the opera company advertises this year's lineup as a "season of seduction, intrigue, human sacrifice and revenge," the description isn't all just marketing hype.

Yes, the idea is to present opera, the quintessential "high" culture, in a way that relates it to the "low" culture of murder mysteries, suspense thrillers and romance novels. But the truth is, opera really is basically about sex -- or put another way, it is about power, but power represented symbolically as the sexual energy of the (female) voice.

Perhaps this is one reason Americans are wary of opera. People say they can't be bothered learning Italian, German or French. But the problem isn't linguistic, it's moral: There's a Puritan streak in the national character that makes us uncomfortable with the promiscuous appeal of an operatic voice.

For example, I once visited a conservatory workshop rehearsal where the voice students had invited their nonmusician friends to hear them sing. The friends, mostly students at other colleges in the area, knew nothing about opera and were there mainly to hear their buddies perform.

The instructor gave a perfunctory summary of a scene the singers were practicing -- a three-minute duet for soprano and mezzo. Of course the plot was incomprehensible, the libretto in French. The invited guests started tuning out before the first notes sounded.

Then an amazing thing happened. As the two beautiful voices rose and entwined in exquisite harmony, a wave of emotion passed over the audience. A minute into the performance, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. I looked around and everyone was wiping away tears.

Neither I nor anyone else in the room had the foggiest idea what our soprano and mezzo were singing. It was the kind of uncanny din the great Russian singer Feodor Chaliapin once called "educated screaming." Yet so moved were we that it took several minutes for the audience to compose itself after the performance ended.

The guests were puzzled. They felt tricked, somehow. After all, if what they just heard was opera, which none of them understood, how could they possibly have liked it?

Their reaction reminded me of the scene in the movie "Pretty Woman," where the rich boy (Richard Gere) takes his low-life girlfriend (Julia Roberts) to the opera. She's overwhelmed, though she hasn't a clue what's happening. (Coincidentally, the opera he takes her to is "La Traviata.")

In "The Angel's Cry: Beyond the Pleasure Principle in Opera," (1992) the writer Michel Poizat identifies "jouissance" as the ultimate source of musical pleasure -- indeed, as music's whole reason for being.

Luckily for opera fans, Mr. Poizat's book is couched in the turgid academic style of French deconstructionism, which makes it practically impossible to read. Thus, modern-day Puritans, such as North Carolina's Sen. Jesse Helms, are probably unaware of it. Still, it is important because it marks a turning away from the older scholarly critique of opera, which defined the form primarily in terms of dramatic content rather than sensual appeal.

The idea of opera as principally dramatic form goes back at least to Wagner, whose "Opera and Drama" foreshadowed the principles embodied in the composer's own revolutionary works. More recently, Joseph Kerman's "Opera as Drama" (1956) pioneered the modern approach to the subject, which emphasizes structure and symbolic meaning over sheer vocal virtuosity.

Unfortunately, Mr. Kerman's many useful ideas provided ammunition to a whole generation of critics who turned his insights into the worst kind of intellectual snobbery. The result was a great deal of commentary that downplays the beauty of the music and the singing in favor of largely nonmusical values. Meanwhile, the sort of diva-worship that engages fans and wins new audiences for the art -- such as the famous rivalry between Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi in the 1950s -- is dismissed as an adolescent diversion, like collecting baseball cards.

Yet opera survives only by its great voices, which in every era redefine the masterpieces of the repertoire. The sexual tension created by the voice of a Callas, a Leontyne Price or a Mirella Freni -- and, more recently, by a Cecilia Bartoli -- is not an incidental, dispensable quality of their singing but a large part of what makes them incomparable divas. Anyone who thinks otherwise hasn't really listened to them.

My friends used to ask why I bothered learning librettos and doing other opera fan chores. I used to tell them, "It's worth it when the soprano sings high D."

Gradually I have overcome my Puritan inhibitions. Now I happily admit what draws me to the opera house is its promise of "jouissance," unearthly bliss, delight in the delicious nakedness of pure song. But please -- don't tell Senator Helms that.

Verdi's "La Traviata"

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 8:15 p.m. Oct. 14, 20, 21; 7:30 p.m. Oct. 18; 3:30 p.m. Oct 22

Tickets: $19-$98

$ Call: (410) 727-6000

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