Opera Theatre

My Father’s Bad Seats at the Opera

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A regular feature of my father’s pocket diaries of the nineteen-fifties are his entries about the performances he attended at the old, wantonly destroyed Metropolitan Opera House on Thirty-ninth Street, usually with one or another family member. He would cite the names of the operas and the singers and the conductors, and give a terse, usually highly favorable opinion (“excellent,” “beautiful,” “outstanding”), though here and there he found something to criticize, such as the length of a “Figaro” (“interminable, from 8 to 11:45”). On rare occasions he would set down a happenstance of the evening, for example: “In the intermission [of Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci”] drinks with Janet in the Grand Tier lobby (Scotch for me, Tom Collins for Janet). Last performance of our subscription.”

Our seats were not in the Grand Tier—which was the third level of seats, above the orchestra and boxes—but on the fourth level, called the Dress Circle, above which rose two more tiers, the Balcony and the Family Circle. I once sat in the vertiginous top tier; the voices of the singers carried, though they were themselves barely visible, tiny doll-like figures ridiculously gesticulating. They came into better view on the Dress Circle level, but were still too far away to register as the characters they were representing. You could only make out their expressions with the aid of opera glasses. I don’t recall that we resented our seats and wished for better ones, any more than we resented the riches of rich people and longed to be rich ourselves. The Dress Circle was what we could afford and where we belonged.

In later years, I have had occasion to sit in orchestra and box seats, and to see what I had only briefly glimpsed when accompanying my father: the full play of emotion on the faces of the singers. I remember my own almost hysterical emotion while watching—from the vantage point of a perfect orchestra seat—Renée Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky enact the scene of their tormented parting at the end of a Met performance of “Eugene Onegin.” Hearing them was only part of what the composer intended us to experience.

The inequality of audience experience is intrinsic to the performing arts and unique to them. Literature and painting and sculpture are mediums of equal opportunity. A rich reader’s experience of “Anna Karenina” is no more intense than a poor one’s. The hedge-fund owner and the secretary see exactly the same “Raft of the Medusa.” But only the hedge-fund owner gets to see the expression on Azucena’s face when she relives throwing the wrong baby into the fire. Attempting a fairer shake with opera are the Met’s Live in HD films of performances. Here we all have great seats, so to speak, but somehow it isn’t the same as being at the opera house. Something is missing from those films. Or perhaps, more to the point, something has been added—the gigantic closeup—which blunts the magic that wafts out to even the lousiest seats in the opera house after the lights go down and the first bars of the overture sound.

I felt this magic at those performances in the fifties. But I also felt the tedium of prolonged incomprehension. Supertitles had not yet been invented. Most of the time, what the characters were carrying on about was anyone’s guess. In the interval between arriving at our seats and the start of the opera, we desperately read the plot synopsis in the program, but it didn’t help much. Hearing great arias sung by great singers was elating; occasionally, it was almost enough. But accompanying my father to the opera was not something my sister Marie and I fought over, or that my mother was eager to do. Sometimes, I gather from the diaries, my father had to ask a distant relative or a friend of the family to fill the second seat of the relentless subscription.

In his entry on the “Cavalleria” and “Pagliacci” evening, with its Tom Collins and Scotch on the Grand Tier, he also noted that a performance of the pair in 1911, at the Národní Divadlo, or National Theatre, in Prague, was his first experience of opera. He was ten years old. This has summoned the memory of my own first opera: Bizet’s “Carmen,” to which my father took me at an early age—perhaps also ten—performed not at the Met but at a small theatre in Manhattan. The memory is indistinct—I hear or see none of the performance—but it must have made a deep impression, for “Carmen” has remained my favorite opera. I practically know it by heart. In my mind I hear the tinny sound of the children’s chorus that comes at the beginning of the opera, and the hush that falls over the audience during Micaëla and Don José’s first-act love duet. I go to “Carmen” whenever I can. I have seen a Swedish version in which Carmen sang the Habanera while lying on her back; I have seen a film version set in South Africa, in which Don José was a cop who drove a police van; I remember “Carmen Jones,” an all-Black version set during the Second World War—there isn’t a version that hasn’t pleased me. “Faust,” by Bizet’s mentor Gounod, is another of the operas that delight me no matter where I sit. Both share a quality of Frenchness to which my parents, as cultivated Czechs living in Prague in the twenties and thirties, were alive. French was their third language (German the second), they were well versed in French literature, and France was a frequent vacation destination.

It was my first visit to France, in 1960, with my first husband, that induced my own chronic case of Francophilia. I don’t know what kind of impervious boor you have to be not to notice that everything in France looks better than things look anywhere else. There is some sort of atavistic aestheticism embedded in the French soul. The smallest objects of daily use are touched with beauty. The music of Bizet and Gounod partakes of this tropism toward the elegant and pleasing. “Salut, demeure chaste et pure,” the famous tenor aria in “Faust,” with its unearthly high C, is an especially commanding example of the deliciousness that my father sought—and found—in the old opera house of his new country. ♦

This is drawn from “Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory.”

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