Until last Wednesday, I had never been to the opera. My dim notions of the art form were entirely shaped by snippets from PBS broadcasts and the erotically-charged glamour of the film Pretty Woman, when Edward takes Vivian to the opera for the first time. As Richard Gere and Julia Roberts settle into their box seats, he whispers, “People’s reactions to opera, the first time they see it are very dramatic. They either love it or they hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don’t, they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become a part of their soul.”
I had hoped to love the opera. In lieu of that sensation, I wish I had hated it. Instead, I experienced a provoking sense of alienation. It seems I must learn to cultivate an appreciation.
I had hoped that despite not understanding Italian, I would be engrossed by L'Elisir d'Amore (The Elixir of Love), a story inspired by Tristan and Isolde. After all, I don’t speak Spanish, but I can raptly watch Spanish-language soap operas (the actors are so passionate; their faces are so contorted; the language is so rapid fire). No such luck. Sung Italian is definitely not the same as spoken Spanish. And while I had subtitles—in front of each seat is a velvet bar with an embedded screen which flashes translations—knowing what they were actually singing about wasn’t particularly engaging. Unrequited, uncommunicated love is so tiresome.
What also surprised me and discomfited me was the very obvious performance unfolding before us. The fourth wall simply doesn’t exist in opera. The audience is not voyeurs, as is often the case in theater. Case in point, the soprano finally declared her love for the tenor and her lower body melted into his, but her torso and face were twisted away from him. She sung her love of him to us. I get that a singer needs to project to the back balcony and while I appreciated that consideration, I would have rather lost volume than watch that tortured physicality.
I had written to a friend, the day before the performance, that I was excited to experience a brand new (to me) art form—that it felt exciting to have no basis for discernment. And while it’s true that I can’t detect whether the singers coloratura was intricate or plain, whether their intonation was crisp or muddled, or whether their technique was top-notch or a near fail (all concepts I’ve picked up from scanning the New York Times reviews), I do understand theatricality, imagined worlds, and set design. On these points the opera failed and abetted my sense of disenchantment.
The set looked as if Lisa Frank, the beloved artist of elementary school girls the nation over,had suddenly decided she was bored of dolphins, unicorns, and kitties and decided she should instead design 19th-century Italian villages. From the trees to the buildings, everything was rendered in pastel hues (the last time I checked wood grain didn’t come in shades of pink and green). And, when the protagonist Nemorino abandons the village to join the army, the trees that descended from the flies looked like a flock of broccoli. The lighting designer joined in on the fun, bathing the stage in warm golden and pink lights. I know its a comedy, but pastel psychedelia doesn’t actually create a fairytale type of world in which these characters can bumble, fail, and ultimately recognize their love for one another.
Despite the questionable aesthetics of the set, I will say that I loved the scale of the opera. I reveled in the very largeness of it—a grandness and giganticness that translated all the way to the last tier of the balcony. I appreciated the score of cast members, playing villagers, who filled the stage. Spying with my binoculars, I was charmed by the microcosm dramas being lived as part of the larger action—the small boys who engaged in playful roughhousing; the lovers who leaned their heads against one another; the men who chatted idly; and the women who preened to catch the soldier’s attention.
Patty, Katie, and I decided we’d give the opera one more chance. We’re also considering better seats (as the other proletariat in the Family Circle applauded and cheered, I wished I had brought an airhorn—we would have fit right in). Next up is a tragedy. I’m actually looking forward to this, as of yet unpicked performance. I’d really like to see an operatic suicide. For the amount of caterwauling that went on in The Elixir of Love, the lead soprano and tenor really should have plunged daggers into their breasts.