20th Century Opera: a series

I’ve spoken before about how difficult it is for me to explore and begin to enjoy opera the way I listen to most other music. For me, as for most people, it’s an auditory experience, and I’ll listen to music while I’m writing, ironing, cooking, cleaning, walking my dog, working, whatever.

But not watching. It’s only in the concert hall that I sit and watch music, and it’s a given that the fundamental difference, the all-encompassing nature of opera, is visual as much as it is auditory. In cities like Santa Fe, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, or throughout  Europe, there are opera houses to walk into at almost any time of year and see a staging, but despite the fecund classical music scene here in Taiwan, there is still an unfortunate paucity of opera stagings.

(This also happens to be the 800th article I’ve published on the blog, in almost four years, and coming up on one million words written about music and other stuff, so… that’s not nothing!)

However, thankfully, Taipei’s very own National Theatre is back from its nearly year-long renovation and we have an opera coming up this month from the fantastic National Symphony Orchestra (referred to elsewhere as the Taiwan Philharmonic). What better way to celebrate this rarity, I thought, than to devote a whole month to the form? So here we are.

But, as with many things, it seems, the expected way is not for me the way in. You won’t be seeing Don Giovanni or Le Nozze di Figaro here, nor Carmen, Rigoletto, La Tosca. We’ll get to them eventually, but not yet.

For one, to pick on Mozart for a moment, I feel his music is somewhat harder to identify with in today’s society if you don’t have some kind of musical background, or knowledge of the political climate, etc. What was considered cutting edge, or ingenious or daring then just isn’t now, (although it still may be stunningly beautiful!). I’d say the same is true for opera, but in an even more extreme case. Opera that caused scandal in Mozart’s time with the use of banned texts doesn’t get any gasps from today’s audiences, and we often aren’t aware of the political messages, the statements made, opinions shared, that contemporary audiences would have. So while those are undeniably some of the most famous operas in all the repertoire, we won’t be discussing any of that.

Part of my purpose in addressing more contemporary works is hopefully to give a more modern, updated view of what opera is, or can be, and find a way to relate to a form that might be intimidating to some. Secondly, it’s not all fairy tales and powdered wigs and quaint love stories or cliché lovers’ plights and pretty song and happy endings. There are some smaller operas, some not even an hour long, with others in the more typical two- or three-hour range.

And the subject matter of almost all of them is of a darker, not-so-feel-good nature. They all fall within the first half of the 20th century, and discuss themes that are in most cases quite dark.

This idea is an interesting one, to me. I tend to like darker movies, with heavier themes, and I think part of it has to do with the curiosity of how you yourself would deal with a situation, or how you respond to it, or at least how the character navigates it. The threat of managing uncomfortable emotions is an engaging one, and in the safety of your theatre seat or sofa watching YouTube or a DVD, it’s like being in an emotional shark cage, getting the intensity of a brush with tragedy, but without the imminent threat. Does any of this make sense?

In any case, what we’ll be looking at in July is about a half dozen operas of varying degrees of darkness and seriousness, with most of the others of my choosing exploring different vices or fears or tragedies, in what in some cases have become some of the most successful operas of the century.

So that’s the plan for July. Thanks to YouTube, some of these works are easily accessible online, perhaps not in the best quality, but it’s better than nothing. At the very least, though, hopefully some of these works will dispel any of the ideas you (and I) might have that opera is slow or boring, or an art for a bygone time, and that it’s something that’s worth your time. I’m no opera aficionado (interestingly, aficionado in Spanish means ‘amateur’, which would describe me), but I’ve chosen what I feel to be some very interesting stories, and am eager to share them with you. There’s some real drama on the way, so stay tuned.

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