A Senior Moment
Opera: 'An Acquired Taste'

October 16, 2016

New Perspectives

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Opera is where a guy gets stabbed in the back, and instead of dying, he sings.”

Robert Benchley (quoted in workinghumor.com) reflects a commonly-held negative attitude toward that complex form of music we call opera. The Canadian Opera Company launched its full schedule of performances this weekend in Toronto. Thousands of devoted followers will be drawn to the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts over the 2016-17 season. Other millions of non-fans may shake their collective heads and wonder: Why?

Admittedly, opera is an acquired taste, an art form surrounded and hampered by misconceptions and stereotypes. In our mind, we think of a large lady with an even larger voice shouting in some obscure foreign language for three interminable hours, while wearing a metal helmet festooned with two cow horns. We assume lovers of opera represent an unattainable world of high society sophisticates in fancy dress, sustained during intermission by caviar and exquisitely-aged French red wine while the rest of us would sooner sit home in track pants to watch our beloved Blue Jays, sustained between innings by beer and chips.

You might be surprised to realize that each of us ordinary folk have already tasted opera. When the Lone ranger and his faithful Silver gallop off into the sunset of a western prairie, they do so accompanied by a thunderous finale of the overture to Rossini’s opera, William tell. Those scary-looking American attack helicopters in the film, Apocalypse Now, roar over their Vietnamese targets to the tune of Richard Wagner’s stirring music “The ride of the Valkyries.”

Weddings have traditionally begun with the bride’s dramatic entrance to the tune of “The Wedding March” from Mendelssohn’s joyful incidental music to “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.” Other ceremonies begin with Wagner’s more familiar Bridal Chorus---“Here comes the bride---“ from his romantic opera, Lohengrin.

Even those older guys on that couch with beer and chips likely were impressed by the theme music to the 1990 FIFA soccer World Cup tournament. Who could forget the huge voice of Luciano Pavarotti delighting thousands of Italian football fans with his poignant aria “Nessun Dorma” from the opera, Turandot by Puccini.

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I confess to being unable to read a note of music. Neither can I play an instrument. I sing only in the privacy of a shower or reluctantly at a church service, but then only very quietly, hoping my pew mates (and God) are not distracted by my off-tuned attempts at respectful worship.

Yet, I proudly and boldly call myself an opera buff. While in graduate school in Toronto, I even arranged a tightly-scheduled November weekend trip to New York to catch a performance of the Metropolitan Opera in its original historic building. In senior high school, I had somehow been attracted to the excitement of those Saturday afternoon CBC radio live broadcasts from the Met. Now, at last, this was to be a dream finally realized.

After purchasing my pricy ticket on that Friday afternoon, I planned to pass a few hours while awaiting the evening performance, by strolling along Broadway. After lunch, I noticed clumps of people clustered in front of stores that were selling radios and television sets. President Kennedy had just been assassinated.

I joined the growing throngs of shocked mourners. Then, one by one, all the bright neon lights of Broadway and Times Square began to flicker off. The city grew silent. The opera was canceled. I came home early.

Despite this disappointment, my love affair with opera has continued over the years. I have remained selective over which composers and which music I choose to embrace. That is the key to acquiring a taste for the genre; one need not sit through those three interminable hours while that large lady incessantly belts out unintelligible words within some confusing story line of a plot which seemingly makes no sense.

Many of us have selfishly plucked out those mealy, salted cashews from a dish of mixed nuts, leaving a less desirable remnant of peanuts and walnuts for others to consume. Anyone willing to acquire a taste for opera can follow this same principle.

One can leave the more difficult, obscure operas for its truly-devoted followers and, instead, sample a carefully-selected feast of wonderful music written to move our souls into reverence and awe.

Next week, I will gently lead you by the hand into a new world of delights. Once there your life will be enriched, like consuming those tasty cashews.
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