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(Almost) Everything I Love About Opera in 5 Minutes 59 Seconds

(Note: If you can be bothered, you can read about it. Alternatively just skip to the bottom and watch the clip. It does a far better job of explaining why I love opera than I ever could with mere words).

One of the nice things about blogging opera is that you find out that you have a shared enthusiasm with people you hadn’t realised were similarly “inclined”. My gaydar is pretty good but my operadar is very much sub-standard. Should have returned it ages ago but you know how it is; it’s such a  hassle going back to the shop and you keep hoping it might fix itself. Once you have outed yourselves to each other then you get to have that lovely chat about why you love opera so. Today was one of those days, enjoying a coffee with two dear friends, former workmates and now lovely near neighbours, and it got me thinking about a great clip on YT that pretty much sums up everything I love about opera. 

It’s a bit of an odd choice as it’s from a style of opera known as Bel Canto which isn’t madly to my taste, I’m much more inclined towards Baroque. Also it’s a recording of a performance I wasn’t at and I generally am a “live” junkie and not hugely interested in recordings other than as aide memoirs. But…this clip of Montserrat Caballe singing Casta Diva from Bellini’s Norma, at an outdoor staging at Orange in 1974, pretty much sums up everything I adore about opera.

First it’s a very atmospheric recording from which I get such a strong sense of what it must have been like to be there. Perhaps it’s because it was outdoors and we can see the wind moving people’s costumes and hair, but I really feel as if I am there watching this. For me the ‘being there’ is such a big part of opera (and ballet for that matter but that’s another coming out story!). I love arriving in an opera house, watching the audience, and the people who work there. I love the sense of excitement and anticipation, wondering who these people are and why they are there, eavesdropping on conversations in the queue for the loo. I love wondering if my seat neighbour will be chatty or not. But most of all I love that moment as the lights dim and we all sit a little bit taller in our seats as we crane for a glimpse of the conductor. Watching the performers here I am absolutely imagining how incredible it would have been to be in that audience watching this incredible performance and feeling the mistral winds.

Next, it has for me a killer combo – a beautiful voice against a very quiet orchestra and then as if that was not achingly beautiful enough – bam… a choir. I start to cry the very second that choir comes in. Now don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of listening to an amazing singer give it their all in some lovely aria, but I have always found the sound of a choir singing simply overwhelming. Probably some genetic memory of all my Hebridean ancestors standing in their Kirks as their congregations sang (Lewis psalm singing equally will bring this heathen to sobs of ecstasy in seconds). A choir, like an orchestra, seems to me to be just such a fantastic, magical, manifestation of the human community spirit. Of course I know in reality choirs, and orchestras, can be hugely political and full of intrigue. But when they perform they remind me of all that as amazing about humanity.

Which brings me to Caballe. First I love this for the reminder that despite recent trends to the contrary, opera should be honoured and valued for its ability to remind us that great art need not come packaged in the one size fits all but it better be size 0 package, for its ability to remind us that beauty need not be defined by some boring Hollywood standard. Opera is a bit like ‘Orange is is the New Black’ in that it is one place where one can encounter a huge range of women’s (and men’s for that matter) beauty. Caballe is probably most people’s stereotype of “it ain’t over till the fat lady sings”. And the perfect reminder of why that stereotype is just that, a stereotype. It’s not just that her voice is so amazing, it’s her ability to stand there and command your attention with her presence that is so amazing. I defy anyone to watch that performance and not feel utterly mesmerised by her grace, that regal profile and bearing. She may not fit Hollywood’s idea of beautiful but she certainly does mine. Not to say that the opera world hasn’t fallen under the evil spell of the market –  a pretty face and svelte figure can get a mediocre voice a long way these days – but I like to believe that at heart the opera audience is still capable of falling hook, line and sinker for a singer like Caballe. A singer who reminds us that the nature of beauty defies prescription, for all the marketing men’s efforts.

Then there’s the voice. When you are in the audience listening to a great singer perform it can be utterly transcendental. I’ve had moments where I have wanted to punch the air and scream. Moments when I have been terrified that I am about to make a fool of myself by letting out a primal sob during some painfully beautiful slow aria. Watching and listening to this I am there. My body starts to respond as if I am really there. I can imagine how I would feel were that sound real, since of course the difference between hearing a singer live and hearing them on a recording is like the difference between a having a photo of a glass of fine single cask, single malt, and actually having the glass in your hand. I hang on every note wishing both that it would never end and that the next would come to let the tension out. Bellini seemed to love those wonderfully long notes and in this the presence of the choir in the background really accentuates them. Even without knowing anything about what is going on in the aria (as I mentioned before I am just as happy sitting through an opera without a clue what is meant to be going on as I am with) I get it. This is about longing, about desire, not for something physical but for something more fundamental.

Now I’m quite sure that someone who knows about music could offer a great explanation of what happens next, but I do know about listening and in this something incredible happens as the aria builds towards those final notes. Caballe, the choir, the orchestra and the conductor scoop us up in their arms and hold us gently as we are lifted up to the clouds to see God’s face. Which as an avowed atheist is some trick to pull off! I love the way the orchestra, choir and Caballe suddenly come in to such close unison. I love the contrast between Caballe’s incredible soprano and the wonderfully sonorant bass choir lines. Just when you think you can’t take it any more, the coup de grâce; the final note stretches out and out and out, Caballe’s chin goes up, and you realise suddenly there is no God’s face here; this is not some supreme moment of religious ecstasy, but rather of human ecstasy. You have been in the presence of a singer, a choir, an orchestra and a conductor combining to do something incredible. For you, it seems when you are in the audience.

The audience – the last part of why I love this. The sound of that audience as they let rip, so instant, so in agreement, makes me smile every time. Sometimes after an aria or at the end of an opera a great ovation will come but it will build slowly as everyone is almost bullied into joining in. But other times it’s instantaneous – people release cries of joy, leap to their feet (or start stamping if you are in Munich). For that is our time then. The performers have had their moment, now it’s ours. We look around at each other, smiling. If you’re in the cheap seats where I mostly am then there’s usually a fair bit of chatter about why this or that was so incredible between furious clapping and bravo-ing (or brava-ing, or bravi-ing). There’s also usually a bit of tutting and scowling at the folks in the posh seats who were there for appearances and not the love of it, so they start leaving indecently early. We reserve special applause for older singers who are perhaps no longer at their peak vocally but whose history and intelligence we admire, or for the kids who may have had acting roles, or some young singer who we suspect may be a new star in the making. Then we all try and make sure that our particular favourite singer gets the most applause. But pretty soon we forget all that as the audience dwindles to the hard core, and we hope for just one more curtain call to drag the last moments of our joy out. At this point we’d probably bravo for the theatre cat if it wandered out.

All of that is why this clip will for me always be the perfect reminder of why opera is the perfect reminder of everything wonderful about life, humanity, and music.

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