A Senior Moment
'Cashews and Carmen'
by Rev. Bob Johnston

October 23, 2016

New Perspectives

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Opera is the ultimate art form. It has singing and music and drama and dance and emotion and story

Diane Paulus (Brainy Quote) has encapsulated the universal appeal of opera with this simple, but astute, observation. What other expression of artistic creativity can combine such a wide variety of art forms?

When we think of opera we visualize singing, albeit most often in some foreign language. We often fail to appreciate the glorious orchestral music supplementing the human voice. Similarly, many will remain unaware that an opera often includes a skillfully-written plot, guaranteed to evoke some emotional response---sadness, anger, love--- from those devotees who take time to understand its complex dramatic story line.

One must also not forget to recognize those little gems of carefully-placed, elaborately-staged dance sequences, miniature ballet routines strategically inserted to give the audience a break from the singing---a shift from the auditory to visual.

When I was growing up, my mother would habitually introduce dubious-looking new vegetables to my dinner plate with this offer: “You don’t have to like it but you must try it at least once.” I now offer the same reasonable request to any opera-sceptical reader. “I am not asking you to consume a steady diet of this art form but be willing to at least give it a taste.”

How can you sample opera without investing a whole evening, immersing yourself in some randomly-chosen, three hour performance? Not to worry! I have already prepared the meal and will now serve it to you with love and hope. Making full use of access to You-tube and being informed by accessing relevant Wikipedia articles, one can easily be exposed to the most desirable “cashews” of opera without needing to consume those less-tasty “peanuts” in the bowl of mixed nuts I referenced last week.

Here are my thoughtfully-chosen opera gems for beginners. Google these references and be prepared to enjoy the discovered results.

Vesti la guibba: Don’t be deterred by the Italian words of this 1892 opera, Pagliacci, by Leoncavello. The phrase simply means “Put on the costume.” This aria (meaning a solo) is sung by Canio, who must act out his clown role on stage in a comedy, just after learning his wife has been unfaithful. He sings about his broken heart hidden behind the clown mask and breaks down sobbing in the final few bars of his aria, one of the best-known in the opera world.

Click the orange arrow to read the second column

Un Bel Di: Another Italian aria which is a highlight and showstopper in Madama Butterfly, composed in 1904 by Puccini. Here is Cio-Cio-San, ( Madama Butterfly) a young Japanese woman who waits faithfully for the return of her American husband, J.F. Pinkerton, one of the most despicable characters in all opera. He had casually and cruelly “married” her for convenience three years previously---she was 15---while stationed in Japan with the US Navy. “One fine day” he will return, she sings plaintively, ignoring the taunts of family members who have disowned her for marrying a foreigner.

Pinkerton does finally return, but now with his “real American wife.” His discarded first wife is gently told this truth by the supportive American counsel, Sharpless. This last scene, one of the most heart wrenching dramatic moments in opera, sees Madama Butterfly give her three year old son an American flag to honour his American heritage before she---No spoiler! You’ll have to discover the tragic conclusion yourself.

Samson et Dalila: This well-known Biblical story was transformed to opera by Saint-Saens in 1877. Look for the exquisitely-crafted love song “Ma couer s’ouvre a sa voix” (My heart opens itself to your voice.) Speaking of exciting ballet, google the “Bacchanale” from the same opera.

Sempre Libre: In La Traviata (the fallen woman) by Verdi, first performed in 1853, Violetta celebrates her freedom. She enjoys living independent of marital and societal restrictions. In the magnificent first act, one will also discover the robust “drinking song” in praise of wanton libation. By the way, for anyone stuck with the stereotype of that large woman with the metal helmet and goat horns mentioned in last week’s column, google Angela Gheorghui or Anna Netrebko seductively singing that aria. You will immediately abandon your stereotype.

Caro Nome: (sweet name) Another love song, this one joyfully-rendered by Gilda to her undeserving lover, The Duke of Mantua, in Verdi’s 1851 masterpiece, Rigoletto.

Triumphal March: Taking a break from the operatic voice, sit back and enjoy this stirring march from Verdi’s Aida, presented in 1871. Powerful orchestral music celebrates the successful return of the Egyptian warrior, Radames, with his Ethiopian captives and looted treasure.

Largo al Factotum: Forget the plot; just enjoy this comic rendering of the self-defined and self-important job description of a town barber from Rossini’s 1871 barber of Seville.

I have not nearly finished my list of favorites but I fear overwhelming any opera neophyte with excessive information. Yet I must risk one final thought: having sampled from the above list, the beginner is now ready to be immersed in a real opera experience.

My choice would be to google and you-tube the opening act of Carmen  (Click Here). She is a factory worker in 19th century Spain who provocatively seduces a young soldier simply with her voice and dancing, before casting him aside for the more attractive Toreador, the bull fighter. I hope you will enjoy your operatic “cashews.”

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Saturday, October 22, 2016