Saturday, June 6, 2009

she's in parties (part quatre)

Today I had a bit of a rude awakening. The "Stuffed Animal Bed-Side Lite Opera Ensemble", headed by spokes-plushes Polie and The Monkey, announced to me that it was time to present a new piece, something about stipulations in their contracts, blah blah blah, so I am now committed to finish writing the epic "Porky and Asbestos", an opera about the rise of a humble yet beautiful young pig from the blush of youth through a tumultuous career with OSHA. Look for it playing in my bed in the near future.

Thinking about opera got me thinking- about opera. I have always been a big fan. Why, right before I was born, my Dear Papa and Mam'zelle went to see Maria Callas as Medea in a rare US performance. Mother recalls that when Callas walked up the long set of stairs on the stage in her red wig and blood-smeared costume, grasping a blood-stained knife with which she has killed her two children, I kicked her so hard, she lost her breath.
I didn't want her getting any ideas, always looking ahead, that's me.

For many people, the word opera only brings to mind funny visual images like Bugs Bunny in drag as Valkyrie Brünnhilde opposite Elmer Fudd as the demigod Siegfried in composer Richard Wagner's opera Der Ring des Nibelungen. This is not at all a bad thing, that cartoon gave many a young person the important message that opera is not only totally accessible, but that sometimes its good to shake it up a little, to blow the dust off as it were.
I saw Ken Russell's production of Madama Butterfly (Puccini) during Spoleto and again in Houston. It was unbelievable. The "cast" was mingling around outside the opera house (in full costume) and I had this great feeling like I was in the middle of a Ken Russell movie.
Russell said in an interview, "I wanted to get across Puccini's message- the real clash between East and West. I mean, I feel the piece was prophetic. Why, for example, should Puccini have chosen to set in in Nagasaki? He could have chosen hundreds of other places in Japan. Well, when I saw that, the rest just fell into place. I worked back from the bomb and ended up in a brothel".
Ken's direction includes Madama Butterfly putting a Mickey Mouse mask on her child to illustrate his Americanization, at the wedding feast the sailors bring cans of beer. During the beautiful and moving "Coro a bocca chiusa" when Suzuki and Cio-Cio San (Madama Butterfly) are spreading flower blossoms around the place -in the usual production- to prepare for the return of her beloved, Russell has Butterfly spread corn flakes around instead. Russell ends the opera with Butterfly committing suicide- not in front of a statue of Buddha but instead in front of the Frigidaire ice box, a present from Pinkerton, and with a simulation of the explosion of the atom bomb, cleverly staged by suddenly flashing two hundred keg lights arranged around the front of the stage, pointed at the audience- that makes for blinding yet truly brilliant theater.
For some it is a sad thing that opera has become so accessible and wide spread, that it is getting harder and harder to admit that you know nothing about it. No worries, my lips are sealed.

And so this primer is for the ill informed and designed to help you keep your head at least above water with a real aficionado (who won't let you talk much anyway) you may have the chance to chat with at a cocktail party, wake or post-coitally and to dazzle the countless people who think that opera is only for the very rich or the very clever. (You want to be at least one of these.)
General information is that Italian operas have beautiful melodies, German operas are long and "heavy", French opera has ballets and choruses, Russian opera is Boris Godunov, British opera is Benjamin Britten, is in English, but is totally indecipherable, and American Opera is not an issue- sneer at the mere suggestion- but say you like Akhnaten written by composer Philip Glass, simply because it's libretto is true to its eighteenth dynasty (1336 BC or 1334 BC.) Egyptian storyline, and on occasion you have enjoyed Gershwin's Porgy and Bess only for it's guileless charm.
And then there is Mozart.
A word or two about Mozart, he wrote his first opera when he was twelve. it's called La Finta Semplice, is short and uninteresting, "but isn't it amazing that a twelve year old could write an opera?" Don Giovanni is arguably the greatest opera ever written, but the Magic Flute (refer to it merely as "Flute" in conversation) has the most glorious music. The Marriage of Figaro is delightful, and it is okay to prefer it in English, because "so much of the wonderful humour is lost in Italian." This and Die Fledermaus are the only operas you will not prefer in the original language.
As for Wagner and his problems, he was first and foremost a rotten human being. He was married to Franz Liszt's daughter, but he cheated on her. He wrote the words and the music to his operas, and was Hitler's favorite composer. The Ring cycle is sixteen hours long and is too much to digest, but you "love Tristan and Isolde, it has such sensual music."
Verdi vs. Puccini" Verdi is greater, but you find Puccini far more "moving and realistic."
Verdi wrote in three basic periods- early, middle and late- really, this is real opera terminology.
Verdi wrote Othello when he was seventy-three and Falstaff when he was seventy-nine, you find them "right up there with Don Giovanni for greatness."
Puccini died right before he finished Turandot, someone else finished it, just like when Bela Lugosi died during the filming of "Plan Nine from Outer Space". Hmmm, well sort of.

A general roundup of other composers include Rossini, who retired at thirty-seven and threw parties in Paris, Bellini, who died at thirty-three and wrote operas that are hard to sing, Donizetti, who contracted syphilis and wrote very little after he was thirty-five. He did however manage to squeeze in almost seventy operas. And of course the one hit wonder of the opera world, Mascagni, who never wrote anything as good as Cavalleria Rusticana.

There now. This should be enough knowledge for you to buck the most headstrong opera buff in a social situation, but next time you are at the nearest Barnes and Noble looking at "Art Photography", wander over and crack a book of opera stories, you'll be hooked.

The Opera House Special
1 shot 1800® Tequila
1 shot gin
1 shot white rum
1 shot vodka
1 shot pineapple juice
1 shot orange juice
1 shot sweet and sour mix
Add all ingredients to a metal mixer and strain into a shot glass. Now you can sit through the entire Ring Cycle, albeit in an alcoholic stupor...


senate.side said...

Cher Cornichon
Enjoyed your little school house on opera and especially the Italian composers. So, why do all their names end in "I" and why did you skip Vivaldi? He didn't just concertoize the seasons; he was famous in his own time as a virtuoso violinist and, more to the point, as a prolific composer of the then new thing call "opera." Besides that, I miss you.

Le Cornichon said...

mea culpa- I shall write the approprate addendum asap- I miss you too!

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