By Anne H. Oman
January 11, 2018 6:00 p.m.
We’re off to the opera.
But no need to dust off the mother-of-pearl opera glasses or dig the long kid gloves out of the steamer trunk. It’s opera live from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, but in movie houses (both Tinseltown USA and Regency Square 24 in Jacksonville), where you can come as you are, sit back with a box of popcorn and a libation, and enjoy the drama.
Next up, on Saturday, January 27: Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, a tale of love, jealousy, politics, torture, murder, and – how timely is this?– sexual harassment.
Opera-at-the-cinema is one of the innovations introduced by the Metropolitan Opera’s General Manager Peter Gelb to make opera more accessible to the general public – which is used to be when it started back in the 1600s. By 1700, Venice boasted a dozen opera houses where all social classes mixed. The first operas in America were performed in either Charleston or New Orleans – depending on which historian you believe – in the 1700s and were popular with every strata of society. An American returning from Europe in 1860 marveled at hearing arias from Faust, The Barber of Seville and Don Giovanni “whistled by street boys and ground out by hand organs.” According to historian John Storey, the transformation of opera from pop culture to high culture was a conspiracy by the New York elite, who instituted dress and behavior codes and made sure the works were sung in a foreign language (without surtitles). Not to mention that rising ticket prices soon put opera out of reach of the hoi-polloi.
My first foray into opera came in high school. Once a year, the Metropolitan Opera Guild treated suburban high-schoolers to an afternoon at the Met – the old, pre-Lincoln Center opera house. The opera was Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, a tale of love, filial devotion, sacrifice, deception, vengeance, and murder. The final act finds the heroine, Gilda, mortally stabbed and enclosed in a sack. Heroically, she manages to sing a very long aria before she finally breathes her last and the curtain falls.
This long-drawn-out denouement exemplifies one popular complaint about opera: that everything takes too long to happen. As our four- year-old daughter put it when we took her to the Franco Zefferelli movie version of Verdi’s La Traviata, “She certainly died a lot.”
Yes, but to achingly beautiful music.
True, the third act of La Traviata (The Fallen Woman) is consumed with the heroine, Violetta, dying of consumption, finally breathing her last in the arms of her lover, Alfredo. This is a clear case of art imitating life, with a vital variation. The opera is based on The Lady of the Camellias, by Alexandre Dumas, fils, which is based on the author’s real-life affair with one Marie Duplessis, a courtesan who came to Paris from the country and charmed many of the city’s intelligentsia, including Dumas. The only flowers she could tolerate were camellias, which don’t smell and didn’t irritate her fragile bronchial tubes, which were her downfall. But, in real life, the hero-lover – sent out of the country by his disapproving father –didn’t reach the heroine in time. Both Duplessis and Dumas are buried in Paris’ Montmartre Cemetery, but, alas, an acre apart.
After my high school operatic debut, I didn’t have a return engagement until several years later when I was studying French in Geneva and living in an international student pension. When contestants in the annual Concours de Musique came to stay there, they entertained us with arias in the afternoon and took us to their tryouts. There was Barbara, who did a hand-wringing version of the mad scene in Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, based on Sir Walter Scott’s gothic tale of love, family feuds, ghosts, forced marriage, madness, and murder set in the Scottish highlands. (It later became a staple at the Met, where we saw it with Dame Joan Sutherland in the title role.) And there was Karl, a basso who specialized in the title role of Boris Gudounov, Modest Mussorsky’s drama of guilt, ambition, love and death in Imperial Russia. In the death scene, Karl sang out an anguished, “Prasteetee!” which, he told us, meant “I am dying.” Later, we shared a box at the Rome Opera with some Russian-speaking Armenians who told us it just meant “Excuse me.” Opera singers don’t always speak the language they sing – they just pronounce it.
When my husband was stationed in northern California with the Navy, we were able to get discount tickets to the San Francisco Opera. Even with a discount, we could only afford the cheap seats. A gallant old elevator operator with a mittel-europa accent would call out the floors: Dress Circle, Grand Tier, and, finally, when we got to the top balcony, “True opera lovers.” Being a true opera lover had its drawbacks: In Puccini’s Turandot, when the title princess-with-heart-of-ice-soon-to-be-melted-by-love stood at the top of a high parapet, as she often did, she wasn’t visible from the cheap seats.
Opera has been popular with San Franciscans since the Gold Rush, when newly rich prospectors traded their hobnail boots for opera pumps and flocked to some of the city’s many opera houses.
In April, 1906, the great Enrico Caruso came to San Francisco to sing the part of Don Jose, the soldier-turned-suitor in Georges Bizet’s Carmen, a tale of love, jealousy, crime, passion and, of course, death. Caruso never got to read the rave reviews, because in the early hours of the day after his performance he was awakened by plaster falling from the ceiling of his room at the Palace Hotel. The San Francisco earthquake had struck. He escaped with his valet and several trunks, vowing never to return to a city “where such things are allowed to happen.”
Luciano Pavarotti was the Caruso of our own day, and we were lucky enough to see him as the garret-dwelling poet, Rodolfo, in Puccini’s La Boheme in Paris, where the story is set. (Puccini went farther afield for some of his operas: Japan for Madama Butterfly; China for Turandot; the American West for La Fanciulla Del West. His geography was sometimes a bit sketchy: in Manon Lescaut, the heroine dies “on a desert just outside New Orleans.”)
I happened to be in Lucca, in Tuscany, the day Pavarotti died of pancreatic cancer, September 6, 2007. As the news spread, recordings of Pavarotti’s signature aria, “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot, blared from the cafes and bounced off the walls of the old city, which was Puccini’s hometown. Puccini concerts are held regularly in a de-consecrated church within the walls, and there’s a statue of the composer in one of the squares. But Luccans seem to hold Puccini at arms’ length, maybe because his scandal-filled life resembled some of his operas: After a long affair and an illegitimate child with a Lucca matron, he married her and left Lucca for a house on a nearby lake. But the two did not live happily ever after. The composer had a series of affairs, and his wife, Elvira, accused a servant girl of seducing him. The girl took poison and died, and, after an autopsy revealed she was a virgin, her family accused Elvira of slander and persecution, and she ended up in prison. Life imitating art.
Similarly, there are few happy endings in opera, especially for women. Mimi and Violetta cough themselves to death. Carmen is stabbed by her spurned suitor. Desdemona is strangled by her jealous husband. Aida suffocates in an Egyptian tomb. Salome is executed by her stepfather. Isolde sings herself into the beyond in her famous “Liebestod”, or “love death.”
And then there’s Tosca. (Spoiler alert.)
Floria Tosca is a singer, the toast of Rome. Her lover, Mario, is a painter, a political leftie, and is hiding a fellow revolutionary wanted by the police and its predatory and oily chief, Baron Scarpia, who lusts after Tosca. Mario is arrested and tortured, and Tosca goes to Scarpia to plead for his freedom. His asking price: her body. Does she accuse him of sexual harassment? Tweet “Me Too.”? No, this is opera. She belts out an aria, “Vissi d’arte”. Rough translation: I have lived for art. I have lived for love. And what did it get me? Non-consensual sex with this Harvey Weinstein lookalike!
But they make the deal: Scarpia will order a mock execution and write out safe-conduct passes for Mario and Tosca to leave Rome. Before the ink dries, Tosca grabs a knife from Scarpia’s supper table, stabs the police chief to death and rushes to the Castel Sant’angelo, where Mario is being held — but not before placing a crucifix on the dead Scarpia. She’s a good Catholic girl, after all.
Predictably, all does not go according to plan. The firing squad uses real bullets. In despair, Tosca jumps from the castle wall to her death.
In reality, the soprano jumps onto a pile of mattresses hidden from audience view. But in one notorious production, she achieved a sort of immortality: The mattresses were too springy and she kept bouncing up into view, to audience hilarity.
Don’t count on this happening in the January 27 performance.
Showtime is 12:55 pm on Saturday, January 27. Reserved seat tickets are $27, or $25 for seniors. Tickets to the Tinseltown USA theater may be purchased at www.cinemark.com. For Regency Square 24, go to www.MovieTickets.com.
Here’s the rest of this season’s schedule:
February 10: L’Elisir d’Amore (Donizetti)
February 24: La Boheme (Puccini)
March 10: Semiramide (Rossini)
March 31: Cosi Fan Tutte (Mozart)
April 14: Luisa Miller (Verdi)
April 28: Cendrillon (Massenet)
For more information, go to www.metopera.org.
Editor’s Note: Anne H. Oman relocated to Fernandina Beach from Washington, D.C. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Washington Star, The Washington Times, Family Circle and other publications.