Take Me Out to the … Opera?

Brian Hinrichs

Opera. It has a funny connotation among most people our age. Maybe overweight women in Viking attire or a man repeatedly singing “Figaro” come to mind, or maybe you’re a step ahead of the game and can recognize Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” Rossini’s “Overture to the Barber of Seville” or Verdi’s “La Donna ?e Mobile” in one of their many pop-media reincarnations (if I hummed any of these for you, you’d at least know the tune).

Most associate a certain level of snobbery with opera as well; after all, the average attendee at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City is 63 years of age and earns $120,000 a year. Interestingly though, that same institution has just announced the appointment of a new general manager, Mr. Peter Gelb, who has a vision of bringing opera back to the people and returning the Met to the forefront of New York City and the world’s cultural landscape. Gelb envisions more commissions from contemporary composers, an increase in new productions, fresher talent on stage, hard-to-get conductors and cheaper prices for family circle and balcony seats.

Having just returned from a semester with the Venice study group, where one of our courses was the “Italian Opera Tradition,” I enthusiastically praise Gelb’s mission. After attending seven operas in Italy and four more across Europe, it has become readily apparent to me that you don’t have to be a music dork or old or rich to appreciate this highly entertaining art form (which, as a side note, is as physically demanding on the body as most sports). In the history of Western music, opera is traditionally recognized as a form that developed for the people. Opera houses in the 17th century were the first public venues for musical performance outside of the church, and they also served as grounds for composers to present works written out of the realm of royal patronage.

That being said, I’ll turn to an experience that was particularly eye opening. In Verona this past August, where a summer opera festival takes place annually in a Roman amphitheatre completed in 30 A.D. which at one point sat 25,000, I witnessed a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Nabucco”. Sitting alongside Professor Swain of the Music Department and a few others from our trip, I was struck by the atmosphere. Professor Swain noted immediately, and we all agreed, that it appeared more like a baseball game than an opera — vendors coming through the hard, stone benches selling wine, beer and sandwiches, groups of friends jovially chatting and visibly excited. I felt more like a bleacher creature at Yankee Stadium than anything else. The reserved, proper air of my previous opera experiences in the U.S. would have been as foreign to the Italians that night as baseball itself.

And it didn’t stop when the performance commenced. Verdi’s “Nabucco,” rarely performed in the U.S. and certainly not one of his most popular works, has one distinct high point in the third act — the chorus of Hebrew slaves. Used as a hymn of unity by the Italians during the anti-Austrian revolutions of 1848 and 1849, this piece is in their blood, and during the number many in the audience gently swayed together, some mouthing and some singing the words softly. At its conclusion, a second before the thunderous applause, one man boisterously shouted “Viva Italia!”, triggering an encore right in the middle of the performance, something once common, but now incredibly rare, making the evening an unforgettable one for us tourists.

Of course, one must note that Italy was the birthplace of opera, as the U.S. was for baseball, so naturally such enthusiasm would seem unusual to an outsider. Also, there isn’t exactly an abundance of famous American opera composers around which to rally, whereas the Italian opera tradition dominated the international scene for at least two centuries. Still, I cannot help but feel some of this enthusiasm and excitement can be translated. Opera is offered in the U.S. on a large scale, whereas baseball in Italy is not.

The nature of being outdoors in Verona certainly added a casual feel, unattainable in any regular opera house, so it is easy for me to romanticize the Italian opera experience as one big party. But across Italy and in Paris, Vienna, Prague and London as well, I observed many more young people in attendance and a certain sensibility that transcended age and class. With college-aged groups of friends waiting in ticket lines for hours and parents with young children in tow, there is an element of appreciation, whether it be historical or simply aesthetic, that permeates European culture when it comes to the arts, and opera in particular.

I’m generalizing a bit, but that is one reason why I loved being there, and even more so a reason why I am a staunch supporter of the philosophy of change Gelb will be pushing at the Met. He will be encouraging opera traditionalists to join him in leaping forward onto the 21st century wave European houses are already riding. I encourage you to take a chance on opera the next time you need an idea for a date, or are simply looking for good entertainment. Operas are often absurd, profound, funny and poignant. With an open mind, you will likely not be disappointed; just ask one of the neuroscience, math or international relations majors from last semester’s Venice study group.