Gary’s June Gems, It Ain’t Over Till The Fat Lady Sings Issue
“Do you mind this music? Do you like Opera?”
This is what Tom Hanks’ character, Andrew Beckett asks his lawyer in one of cinema’s most emotional scenes. The film is Philadelphia. The aria is La Moma Morta, and the voice belongs to opera’s most divine of divas, Maria Callas.
I didn’t grow up in an opera household. No one in my family listened to it let alone went to see an opera. My introduction to the music was was similar to many kids, through that great purveyor of classical music, cartoons. Bugs Bunny introduced opera to generations of kids through The Rabbit of Seville and What’s Opera, Doc? Even if they didn’t become ardent opera fans, they at least could recognize the classic melodies.
Have you heard the expression, “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings?”
Some think it came from the dated operatic tradition of sopranos being voluptuous, rotund, full-figured, busty – well, you get it. The character Brunnhilde, the well-upholstered lady who appears for a ten-minute solo to conclude proceedings in Wagner’s five and half-hour Götterdämmerung finale is such a figure.
I was in my early twenties before I attended my first opera. It was Rossini’s masterpiece, The Barber of Seville. I’ve come to learn since that it’s the finest example of “Opera Buffa”, or comic opera.
I attended the performance with a love interest who couldn’t wait to introduce me to (Bel Canto), Italian for beautiful music. Even though we sat in the nose bleed section, I could feel a visceral connection with the performance. That particular romance was short-lived, but my new found love for opera flourished.
In the following years, I managed to scrape what money I could for opera tickets and would even attend solo when I had to. Once the overture started, I was completely engrossed with the performances on stage and oblivious to whoever was sitting next to me. Five years after my opera initiation, I managed to afford season tickets which meant a seat in the orchestra section as opposed to one in the “nosebleed” section.
Whenever I traveled, I would seek out opera in whatever city I’d find myself in. I attended performances in such opera cathedrals as The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London, the Metropolitan in New York City, the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, The Stopera in Amsterdam, the Staatsoper in Vienna, the Santa Fe Opera in Santa Fe, and of course the Sydney Opera House in Sydney.
So what’s so great about opera?
Opera holds a mirror up to us. It reflects through its music and stories, our struggles with love, romance, sacrifice, duty, honour, betrayal, deceit, jealousy, revenge, and yes, murder.
There are many myths about opera. One is that the singers sound weird and we can’t understand what they’re singing about. Opera singers are trained for many years to be heard without amplification, over a large orchestra of 30 to 90 instruments. That, combined with the twists and turns, highs and lows of the music they’re interpreting means words can be bent and shaped to a point where it’s difficult to decipher. Of course, as with jazz or rock and roll, the more you listen, the more you grasp. In the case of opera, there are also subtitles to help us – something I wish many concerts I had attended offered. And because opera is theatre, singers also need to be actors. They have to convey all the emotions of their character while executing olympian-level vocal acrobatics.
“It ain’t over till the fat lady sings.” means we can’t presume how something will end until it ends. In light of the COVI-19 pandemic, the fat lady has barely stepped on stage let alone sang an aria. And when she does, she’ll be holding those notes for a long time before we know when the curtain will be coming down.
My absolute favourite opera composer is Giacomo Puccini, composer of La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, and Tosca, to name only three of his masterpieces. Opera is a living breathing art form with contemporary mountings happening all the time. Apart from being the soundtrack to Bugs Bunny cartoons, Puccini’s operas also provided inspiration for musicals like Rent, (La Bohème), and Miss Saigon.
Experiencing opera is a transcendent experience. It opens a portal to a dimension where our emotions soar on the wings of music.
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In case you missed last month’s Gems, you can check it out here: Gary May Gems – the Gardening Edition