Life experience transforms opera from dull to divine

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PICTURE THIS: Your life has just gone down the drain. So you swallow a lethal dose of poison. Just as your nervous system begins to fail, you sing a moving and beautiful song. Crazy? Not at all - just another summer night at the opera.

As an opera fan, I'm accustomed to hearing, "How can you like opera?" Friends complain that opera is unrealistic: "Who sings when they are dying?" They imagine, as I once did, that opera is for the old or the rich.

It's true that opera isn't for everyone. It's an acquired taste. But that's because to appreciate opera you must first acquire some life experience. This, more than any other reason, is why opera audiences tend to be older. The age of opera's audience reflects experience rather than years alone. There are some young people who are old enough. So how do you know if you're ready? It all depends on your story.

Opera is all about story. We're attracted to good stories because stories are how we teach and how we learn. The old saying is true: A smart man learns from his own experience, but a wise man learns from someone else's. This is why we tell tales, why we gossip and why we go to the opera.

But critics say, "Oh, the stories of opera are so old, who can relate?" Yes, opera does have deep roots, back to ancient Greek theater, but the stories are timeless. The plots of opera's standard repertory read like headlines from yesterday's New York Post: "Disgruntled Bozo Snaps, Stabs Two" (Pagliacci) or "Seamstress Coughs To Death As Friends Look On" (La Boheme) or "Bride Goes Mad, Murders Hubby On Honeymoon" (Lucia di Lammermoor).

I didn't always love the opera. I was in my 20s the first time I went. It was something German, the night was long and I was bored.

So what changed? I got older and life began to happen. When I look back, I realize that I hadn't yet begun and ended my first marriage and didn't fully understand the concept of tragicomedy. I hadn't yet seen people I loved dying and learned that singing is the least of the strange things people do on their death beds.

And in my 20s I hadn't yet had a serious illness of my own, so I hadn't learned that sweet and scary amalgam of fear, self-pity, courage and melodrama.

But what about all that singing? People don't really sing about their problems, do they? Well, have you ever had a really bad day and found that talking didn't help, but when you drove home from work singing "Take This Job and Shove It," you felt better when you got home?

Or maybe the day after a break-up you couldn't move the gray knot lodged in your gut, but a song on the radio helped you to cry and get those feelings moving?

So how can you know if you're old enough for opera? Here's my theory: You have to have lived a little and loved a lot. So, ask yourself: Have you ever, against your own good sense and your best friend's advice, fallen for the wrong person? Do you know, despite the false comfort we offer teen-agers, that sometimes unrequited lovers do suffer for years?

Have you ever begged God to stop an illness, a death or someone else's decision? And have you learned that forgiveness doesn't follow a formula and that it can come like grace after something as simple as hearing a song?

When you are old enough and have hurt enough and you know just how strange life can be, opera doesn't seem silly at all. If you know from firsthand experience that grief and humor are the two lines running parallel down the center of life's highway, then you are old enough to go to the opera.

Diane Cameron is a writer who lives in Valatie, N.Y.

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