R. M. Foster talks
In an old episode of Murder, She Wrote, Jessica Fletcher memorably said that there are three things in life that one can never have enough of: one cannot have too many friends, eat too much chocolate or soak up too much opera.
Jessica was right, and why? Truly no other art form can be said to be more enduring than opera. It has truly stood the test of time. And why does it endure so? Because no other performance art can so uniquely penetrate the depths of our emotion and so aptly capture the very essence of what makes us human, whilst staying fresh, modern, relatable and true each time we see a new and completely different production of the same story.
No more must we look through frosted glass with narrow minds at something we think of as grandiose and out of reach. I have often heard the high-brow opera-goer referring to themselves as an ‘intelligent music lover’. What nonsense. Such people, as well as being insufferable snobs, fundamentally misunderstand opera’s place in the world and why classic stories such as Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Verdi’s La Traviata have endured for as long as they have and continue to be popular and loved today.
I am reminded of a performance of Handel’s Ariodante I saw recently at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh with a friend who had never been to the opera before. Richard Gere was indeed correct in Pretty Woman when he remarked that it is always interesting to see someone’s first reaction to opera – they may appreciate it objectively for what it is, a thing of great beauty, but one can tell straight away if it will become part of their soul. And thus I waited for the interval with trepidation. As the curtain fell and the lights rose, I turned to see my friend’s face strewn with tears, staggered by the beautiful drama that had just played out before her.
And why was she moved to tears? Because opera is so fundamentally, inexplicably human. The characters themselves are the very embodiments of human emotion, with each drama showing us a melting pot of everything we, the audience, have ever felt – lust, greed, anger, love, jealousy, ambition, everything that constitutes our humanity and lets us know we are alive. Robert Thicknesse thus justly labels opera the most “life-affirming” of art forms, in his book The Times Opera notes. Even the most ‘novice’ of listeners (if we are to use such a term) can find beauty in it.
It is no accident that people are so frequently moved to tears; the strength of opera lies in exposing our own weaknesses as sentient, emotional creatures, played out in front of us to exquisite and inventive music and heartfelt words. The combination of music, words and drama is so unique in its ability to reflect human experience, but also, to transcend it, and for two brief hours in the opera house, to allow us to experience the divine. No wonder the Daily Telegraph listed going to the opera as being one of the top three pursuits for good mental health.
Opera is like sex. It is noir, it is twisted; it is guilt-inducing; it is a soulful, bodily, emotional, purge on numerous levels and it exposes, for a short while, the darkest excesses of humanity, of our own behaviour. I have seen nothing more wantonly sexy than the exotic and sultry Carmen dancing for Don Jose in her quest to seduce him in Bizet’s eponymous opera.
And we need not hold ourselves rigid in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the contemporary operatic repertoire is ever increasing. I have every faith that in fifty years time, the modern operas of Michael Tippet, Mark Anthony Turnage and others alike will be played as frequently as those of Mozart, Verdi and Puccini. Special mention must go to Turnage’s creative wonder Anna Nicole, a lyrical and musical commentary the life of the aforementioned femme fatal, which recently premiered in Covent Garden.
Have you ever laughed? Have you ever cried? Have you ever fancied anyone? If the answer is yes, then opera is a pursuit for you. We as students would be fools not to take advantage of various offers such as the Royal Conservatoire’s £5 ticket deal for students or the Scottish Opera’s offer of a £10 ticket for any seat in any performance for the under 26’s.
Opera is not elitist, not expensive and certainly not for a select few; it is for everyone. It is, fundamentally the emotional expression of what makes us human, our desires, our prejudices, our fears and our loves, sung and acted to extraordinary music – it is our cathartic outlet where mere words become superfluous.
It is up to our generation to make sure this art form does not die.
So take a chance, take a seat in an opera house near you, you may be pleasantly surprised.
R. M. Foster