handel-stamp

It’s funny how things always come back around – flares, Adidas trainers, Handel…

I started this blog as a vehicle for my reflections on navigating life with MS, and almost immediately the urge to add “and opera” hit me. Just as many years ago I started a blog about opera that turned out to be a blog about navigating life with MS. Yesterday as I culled my Facebook reports on living with MS onto this site, I got caught up in a fantastic post from a blogging friend I made back in the opera blogging days. If you are at all interested in music you should really read it – it’s a Q and A with a fantastically erudite, funny and learned musicologist called Holger Schmitt-Hallenberg. It’s full of far more jewels of observation and insight than I could do justice to here. I’m still mining it after several readings. But one section leapt out – his thoughts on Handel:

For me he is the most human, the wisest and most compassionate composer. And the most cunning, and the cruelest. I was assistant to the stage director Michael Hampe for a while (a very “faithful” stage director, by the way), and in one rehearsal he leaned over to me and whispered: “Handel, this bastard! He is looking for your heart, and when he has found it he puts a knife in it. And then he turns it slowly.” Yes, he does that.

One day when I was at High School, a rather fusty old Latin teacher who had taken an interest in a slightly odd girl took me to his “office” (actually a cupboard) at lunchtime. Now luckily this was in the days when something like that didn’t immediately occasion Social Services being called out. Because what he wanted was to share his love for music with me. I have no idea why, except that he struck me as a fish out of water so we probably recognised each other’s kindred spirits. So there we sat in his tiny room, and he talked to me of how often the stories of the great Latin writers formed the basis of operas. Then he pulled out one of those old portable record players (it was a while ago…), and put on a disc, very quietly – I suspect playing opera to a female pupil at that particular school would probably have been regarded as suspiciously as had he actually been interfering with me. It took about 30 seconds, 30 seconds and it hit me. And over the course of the next 30 minutes or so, I fell in love with Handel and opera.

I still to this day don’t know exactly what it was, is. My Latin teacher was pretty smart I imagine as he played Come Nube – a blast of high energy joy that immediately reminded me of my vast collection of punk music (this was the late 70s and I was totally obsessed with all things punk). Every time I hear it now I am instantly transported back to that funny little office, the slightly sickly smell of overheated cacti on his window ledge, the mouldy smell of books and old man’s cardigan, the fascinatingly long white hairs sticking out of everywhere on his head but his scalp. After that first immediate connection he moved on to much slower arias. And though Handel is known for his crazy super fast arias and the hugely physical challenging ornamentation, it’s still always the slow arias I go back to. My teacher introduce me to much more I would fall in love with – Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler – but more than anything else the Handel stuck that day.

It would be some years later before I actually got to go to an opera, and many many more years before I could afford the cash and the time to chase favourite operas and singers around the world. But my Latin teacher’s passion and that tinny little record player nurtured in me a passion bordering on obsession that has been with me ever since.

Some time ago I had a discussion with a good friend about why people (i.e. me) get so caught up in opera. He felt it was a bit melancholy; living vicariously through the stage what is missing from everyday life. I couldn’t articulate at the time why I strongly disagreed. I can now. Handel reminds me that it is only in reflecting through art (of whatever kind turns you on, for me it happens to be opera) on the great horrible, messy, hilarious, tragic car-crash that is everyday life that the spirit can truly soar free of the bonds that ‘the system’ and ‘society’ try and tie us down with. Because Handel forces me face to myself once again: the stupid and callow youth, the anxious mother, the idealistic kid, the deceiver and the deceived, the brave bit of me, and the cowardly bit of me. I am reminded of how amazing it was each time in my life I threw caution to wind, and of the occasions when having done that I had to bear the consequences. I am reminded of how closely intertwined sex and love and pain can be. Of how power liberates and corrupts. I am reminded that we pass this way only once, and the journey is incredibly short. Mostly though Handel makes me reflect back on the young me embarking on life’s journey (stupid and ill equipped but enthusiastic at least), muse on where I have got to now, and look forward with enthusiasm to everything (good and bad) to come. 

But… of course as Holger Schmitt-Hallenberg points out, opera is essentially ridiculous, anachronistic, and utterly unsuited (much as some try) to rich social commentary. It never has been, nor ever will be, a popular entertainment form. It is sadly heavily dependent on the kindness of wealthy patrons – in Handel’s era Royalty and aristocrats, in ours bankers and luxury goods manufacturers. It’s the Real Housewives of Beverley Hills of “high culture” whereas theatre carries a Tarkovsky film’s capacity to ask us to engage with social realities and politics. Which creates a certain problem for the opera loving plebian like me. Navigating this elitism, this lack of grounding, and navigating the kind of audience that can heavily influence the ‘feel’ of opera going. Again though I struck lucky with my Latin teacher. He not only got me to fall in love with opera, he got me to fall in love with Handel.

Had my introduction been the more normal route of Romantic and Bel Canto opera I suspect it might have been harder for me to see, still less find, the subtle anarchic and queer sides of opera and opera audiences. I love opera audiences for that weird vibe somewhere between a little bit camp, violently queer, and utterly straight and bourgeois. Unavoidably it seems to me, you sit there at a Baroque opera marvelling at the idea that for many people in the very same audience there is apparently nothing ‘radically queer’ (I use queer in both a particular and a loose sense) about the whole thing. I have long thought there is a parallel with the Lewis Psalm Singers of my homeland. In a small island community north of Scotland live ‘my people’ – tall, deeply protestant, dour and generally a fairly miserable bunch (luckily I have a few other genes which explains why I tick the tall box and nothing else). Daily life was a grind of hard work against a tree-less windswept Atlantic battered landscape. God loomed large and sin even larger. Sunday’s were (are) observed strictly – no work, no playing, nothing but communing with God. And the Kirk (church) is designed to make attending the most uncomfortable experience possible. There my people would sit (often with one of my relatives in the pulpit – I’m from a long line of Free Kirk ministers) in those cold, dark places with tiny slits for windows and no ornamentation, being harangued about their miserable sins. And then they would sing. They would sing. No recording could ever do justice to what it feels like, let alone sounds like, when you are there. It’s a whole community letting rip with all the love, rage, joy and passion it so tightly battens down the rest of the week. It’s the auditory evidence that yes, they feel, they love, they hurt, they live.

For me Baroque opera takes that ability of music to create a small crack in the facade of society and instead prises it wide open. It does that with nothing much more than music and the sheer magic of human voices that can do *that*. For all I may obsess about staging and white shirts ultimately it’s the music, and music making, that hooks and moves me, prods and cajoles me. It opens my heart. I may have vicariously enjoyed the thrill of being in love, the excitement of bettering someone, or the thrill of plotting against some enemy whilst at the opera but that vicarious thrill only lasts for those few hours in the theatre. The real magic is that somewhere along the messy way of life, opera taught me to be a true bon vivant in a way I’m not sure I would have had Handel not made me think, desire, and need.

So if you have never been before, go to the opera and see if it can’t help you get a little more out of your real life too. And no, DVDs and YT are not a substitute. Opera is a performance art that only truly makes sense when experienced live. You’ll just have to trust me on that one. But till then I’ll leave you with some YT – in fact of Holger’s wife Ann Hallenberg (a fantastic mezzo and Baroque specialist) singing one of the arias I heard during my lunchtime revelation all those years ago (well actually one of Handel’s rip offs of one his other arias, but that is another long story):