Sunday, November 19, 2006

On Going to the Opera, Part 3: In praise of middle age

'The appeal of Italian opera,' says Alex Ross in the article linked at the end of Part 2, 'is difficult to put into words, but it has something to do with the activation of primal feelings.'

In the next sentence it becomes apparent that he's talking about the primal feelings of the characters, but at first I was sure he meant those of the audience. Having so recently looked the Robertson Davies passages about opera (see Part 1), I was actually thinking of something he has one of the characters say in The Lyre of Orpheus:

'An opera has to have a foundation; something big, like unhappy love, or vengeance, or some point of honour. Because people like that, you know. There they sit, all those stockbrokers and rich surgeons and insurance men, and they look so solemn and quiet as if nothing would rouse them. But underneath they are raging with unhappy love, or vengeance, or some point of honour or ambition ... They go to La Bohème or La Traviata and they remember some early affair that might have been squalid if you weren't living it yourself; or they see Rigoletto and they remember how the chairman humiliated them at the last board meeting; or they see Macbeth and think how they would like to murder the chairman and get his job. Only they don't think it; very deep down they feel it, and boil it, and suffer it in the primitive underworld of their souls. You wouldn't get them to admit anything, not if you begged. Opera speaks to the heart ...'

I think this is most likely to be true of just such characters as Davies describes, stolid men of business and public life who don't set much store by art as a rule. But for someone like me, whose whole adult life has been about teaching and learning in the liberal arts, and who as a woman is in generally better touch with her feelings to begin with, there's not so much in the way of stirred-up and barely-understood suffering and rage, and insofar as any of my affairs have been squalid I have been only too aware of the fact.

(I must say, though, that the scene in Nabucco where Abigaille is wrangling and raging with her father did kick up a certain amount of dust and grime in the primitive underworld of my soul, as did the idea of being physically pushed and shoved around by male bullies who despise you -- though the schoolboy sons of Curramulka farmers circa 1965 might not seem at first blush to have much to do with fully grown lance-wielding Assyrian soldiers in chain mail. It's also true that there's more than one chairman I have fantasised about murdering, though not in order to get his job. And as for the wildfire qualities of sibling rivalry between sisters ...)

Anyway, what I felt the opera releasing as I watched -- the thing about interiority being its Tardis-like qualities; consciousness expands to contain all available data -- was more like a swarm of small precise memories than 'feelings' as such. Which is where the praise of middle age comes in, because by the time you reach about 45 (and I am, ahem, older than that) you realise you have a quarter of a century of adult experience, forming and re-forming intricate patterns of memory, knowledge and insight every day. And that is what you bring to the theatre: an unimaginably vast store of memories, any one of which could be unexpectedly brought into the light by something that happens as you sit and watch. Not necessarily on the stage, either, but the whole experience of being there.

For example:

1973 and I'm sitting with the Child Husband in this very theatre, in a box that we had all to ourselves, watching the Peter Brook A Midsummer Night's Dream. They were at the end of the world tour so they were all visibly knackered and sick to death of it, but we did not care. We had, of course, disappointed our landlord in order to buy the tickets. The following year we came back here again to hear Steeleye Span, who at the very beginning of the concert were subjected to a total sound-system collapse. They looked at each other, rolled their eyes, came to the front of the stage and sang half a dozen things a capella, led by the incomparable Maddy Prior in three- four- and five-part harmonies with no amplification, till the sound technicians got it fixed. It was, of course, wonderful. And it has been my benchmark for professional behaviour in the face of disaster ever since.

Or:

1998/9, manifestly a summer of lerve. Tonight at Nabucco there are two couples, all four of them friends, that I spy from a distance as they seat themselves in different parts of the theatre. Both couples got together properly that summer, as though to batten down the hatches before a new century began. They all look fabulous tonight and they are manifestly still, in both cases and after eight years, very happy to be together.

Or:

1987, the last day of winter: I sit at the hospital with my friend D's husband, periodically administering to him small restorative slugs of the brandy my father has suggested I bring (and has loaned me his hip flask for the purpose) while we wait for word that the elective Caesarean birth of their daughter M has all gone according to plan. Baby M, now nineteen, an Adelaide U Choral Society First Soprano just like her mother before her, and studying aerospace engineering in between the soccer team, the choir and the German Club, is my companion for the evening, sitting next to me and deeply absorbed in the director's program notes about Saddam Hussein and the Risorgimento.

Or:

1966, first year of high school and first-ever introduction to Ancient History: I recognise the Assyrian guards' outfits on the stage from illustrations in a 40-year-old textbook I'd given nary a thought to from then till now. I can smell the classroom: not a bad smell, just very schooly, with undertones of good, old wood. That was the year I got my head properly around the idea of '600 B.C.', as around the idea of 'minus one'.

Or:

1989 and I'm making more money than (as I now know) I ever have or had before or since, and I almost decide to splurge some of it on a really spectacularly beautiful dinner set. The featured colours in this pattern are a seriously OTT combination of gold and heavily saturated teal, the exact colours being used here in the Nabucco sets to suggest a kind of barbaric splendour. I know it'll be the only classy dinner set I ever buy and it is for some forgotten reason going at a bargain price: an 87-piece set of Royal Doulton Carlyle. In the end I don't, because I fear that in five years I might be a woman of different (read: better) taste, and come to regret the extreme statement being made by those colours. I had not thought of those 87 pieces of fine china for many years. But the colours, now onstage as then in the shop window, make something tighten in my chest and constrict my breathing.

Or:

2004: again in this very theatre, the State Opera of SA is staging Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, referred to by the cognoscenti as Cav'n'Pag, two short operas which are traditionally put on togther. One of the best-known bits of Cavalleria Rusticana is the Easter Hymn (listenable excerpt here), which is performed offstage; the set is a Sicilian village square and the sound of the hymn is coming from inside the church.

Instead of just using a recording, the State Opera's chorus master Timothy Sexton, also the musical director of the choir I was in at the time, decided to use us instead: a masterstroke, as we were a big choir and while considerably more tuneful than a hundred people grabbed randomly off the street might be, we were still musically ragged and amateur enough to sound like a very, very musical but otherwise ordinary congregation, and from all reports the effect was weirdly moving.

So as I sat in the Festival Theatre watching Nabucco I was somehow also in the wings, two years younger than I am now, and in the middle of a unique experience I subsequently described in an essay called Brothers' Keepers that was about choral singing in particular and, in general, the dynamic between individual and communal effort:

'A choir is like a big animal, a creature with its own life. When the SA State Opera put on Cavalleria Rusticana at the Festival Theatre last year, it was our choir that sang the famous Easter Hymn, which is meant to look and sound to the audience like congregational music coming faintly from inside the church in the little Sicilian village square. To sing it we had to hide huddled in the wings, black-clad for invisibility and soft-shod for silence. Moving through the vast dark caverns of backstage space to take up our position, we made a whispering, a rustling, a susurration; we were a black, shadowy, soft-footed mass, a ghostly panther with a hundred paws.'

So I can say with perfect truthfulness that I've sung in opera. And it was one of the great experiences of my life.

I suppose at any age you bring to any experience the sum total of what you've seen and learned. But for some reason, maybe some indirect knock-on effect from that unleashing of the primal that Alex Ross talks about so beautifully, a night at the opera reflects it all back to you. And in that huge, gilded, rococo mirror, you can see things you'd forgotten for thirty years or more.


17 comments:

Melly` said...

Beautiful - thank you.

Your dinner set - my antique lamp.

I was such a silly girl - the thing haunts me everytime I buy whitegoods or a car....

I haven't been to the opera in eleven years. And I watch it late at night on "Ovation" some times.... but I can't turn the music up. I am still a silly girl! Tomorrow I will buy headphones!

Once again, thanks!

Anonymous said...

Lovely stuff, PC. Thanks. Never really considered going to an opera before, but 'Operatunity' was fascinating and I'm starting to think about it. Even more so after reading these three parts.

Aaron

bertie said...

Opera's not over until the fat lady sings. One of my most memorable opera experiences was when the fat lady couldn't sing!! At the 2004 Melbourne performance of Turandot by the Puccini Festival Australia, Melbourne Opera Company and the State Opera of Victoria,the imported soprana in chief Maria Dragoni stopped singing, clutched at her throat and began talking across the stage to the conductor in Italian.
At interval the conductor Richard Divall spoke to the audience saying that he had urged the soprano not to continue but she insisted in doing so because she did not want to disappoint the other cast members who had worked so hard. Divall said that,if there were any problems, he could have the orchestra play loudly and drown her out!!! An amazing night.

FXH said...

well done - made me make the effort to look when I might next get tickets.

So well written in fact that I felt slightly churlish raising my eyebrow at "....and who as a woman is in generally better touch with her feelings to begin with.."

That's churlish not girlish.

FXH said...

".....and who as a woman is in generally better touch with her feelings to begin with.."

Bloody html

TimT said...

Churlish not girlish?

FXH, you're being surlish.

Fyodor said...

Following FXH's lead, I've also chosen to mask my jealousy with churlishness.

How awkward it must be for bourgeois beasts to attend musical theatre they can never understand. The poor dears may well pay for the shows, but they can never appreciate them like literary men and (particularly!) women of feeling.

My, what terrible powers of condescension you possess, Ms. Pavlova.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Good lord, Fyodor, where did that come from?

Now, help me down off this ladder at once, you pleb. This big, tall ladder.

I think we are reading Davies differently. If one is churned up by a work of art then one has probably 'understood' it just fine, which is what I think and what I think he also thinks.

As for women being, generally speaking, in better touch with their feelings than blokes, all I'm doing is faithfully quoting all the many blokes I've heard say this over the years. I wouldn't want to condescend to them by assuming they were wrong.

Melly, you're right. You should have bought the lamp and I should have bought the plates. I ended up instead with my Ma's precious Spode after she died.

Aaron, I'm full of envy, I only got to see the final episode of 'Operatunity', but I plan to get the DVD.

Bertie, I read about that. It must have been quite a night.

Fyodor said...

Apologies if I came across too severely, Ms. Pavlova - this may be one of those times where the "tongue-in-cheek" emoticon might be handy.

I reacted to the implication that opera has to be emotionally overwrought because (bourgeois) people are so emotionally constipated that they can't appreciate subtlety. The emotional intensity of opera appeals to people of all walks of life, for the elemental reason that it deals with primal emotions.

The distinction with your own sense of touchyfeelingness wasn't particularly helpful in giving the impression that "stolid men of business and public life who don't set much store by art as a rule" are on a different emotional plane from thy lofty self. [insert emoticon here]

Also, I know a couple of blokes who think sheilas can't drive and are too emotional for politics. Are they right?

Operatunity was excellent, BTW. Absolutely shat on Idol.

elsewhere said...

> by the time you reach about 45 (and I am, ahem, older than that) you realise you have a quarter of a century of adult experience, forming and re-forming intricate patterns of memory, knowledge and insight every day.<

My mother's version of this was: 'I've got a head stuffed full of useless information.'

Just think what old age will be like!

Pavlov's Cat said...

El -- there's no such thing as useless information. It's like string: if you save it, it will eventually come in handy. I'm shocked that your ma, as the string-saver you have called her, doesn't see the connection.

Fyodor -- don't worry, if I'd thought you'd been fully serious I would have reacted, erm, differently. (Actually I think I would have thought it was someone else calling himself you.) But they're all interesting things and the conversation about them is worth having, viz:

'I reacted to the implication that opera has to be emotionally overwrought because (bourgeois) people are so emotionally constipated that they can't appreciate subtlety.'

Hm. If anyone was implying that, it was Davies, and I don't think he was either -- nothing so harsh, or simple. Also, it is a character who makes that speech, and she is not a particularly nice character.

Personally, though I know I am fighting a losing battle here, I use 'bourgeois' strictly as a value-neutral descriptor, and think it applies to people like us who have easy access to a computer and chat about opera at it. I used to work with someone whose most savage insult was 'booj', and he couldn't see for the life of him that, as someone on an academic salary in an English department, he really wasn't in a very good position to be trashing other people's middle-class, culture-preoccupied comfort.

'Emotionally overwrought' is strictly your spin -- I wouldn't have used 'overwrought' because that isn't what I think.

The kinds of men I was thinking of, because I assume they're the ones Davies means, don't set much store by art as a rule. Go over to Catallaxy, say, and have a look at what some of them think about art over there, where they are also very scornful about the expression or discussion of emotions, something which at chez Bl**r would make you an actual pantywaist, I believe.

Re driving and politics: if you have had women telling you all your life that they can't drive and are too emotional for politics, then yes, this is a valid analogy. Not otherwise. (NB I discern some serious ambivalence about whether you think a high level of emotional response is a good thing or a bad thing!)

And finally, (re-) check out the paragraph after the one you're objecting to, and see if you really think I'm seriously setting myself up on a higher plane of touchyfeelyness. The point is that opera churns everybody up in a primitive way, whether they've spent their whole professional lives thinking about symbolism and narrative and so on or not. You surprise me, Fyodor, you're usually a better reader than that!

Susoz said...

I'm not an opera goer but I did relate strongly to the 'intricate patterns of memory' etc. I find that, at 50, my consciousness flits all over the place, in time and space, just as you describe. 'Multi-dimensional' doesn't quite capture it.

elsewhere said...

I think my mother's words were said in a self-deprecatory fashion (as usual) and that if string were involved, she would be the first to see the connection.

I remember the 'booj-sayer'! I also remember a good comeback I once gave him, to which he had no comeback. (But can't repeat here for reasons of identification.)

Yeah, I think you'd better avoid that meme.

Fyodor said...

Ms Pavlova,

"Bourgeois" and "emotionally overwrought" are definitely my spin, but remember we are talking about thoroughly middle-class business people and "big" emotions, such as "raging...unhappy love", and thoughts and feelings "boiling" in the "primitive underworld of their souls". Sounds pretty bourgeois and overwrought to me.

It may be a character in a book that makes the assertion, but you agreed with it. Whether the assertion implied what I thought it implied is the real bone of contention, and your replying comment is instructive:

"The kinds of men I was thinking of, because I assume they're the ones Davies means, don't set much store by art as a rule. Go over to Catallaxy, say, and have a look at what some of them think about art over there, where they are also very scornful about the expression or discussion of emotions, something which at chez Bl**r would make you an actual pantywaist, I believe."

"Some of the men at Catallaxy" don't represent the opera-going constituency, and I submit yet again that you are making a gross generalisation about people who may well be in much better touch with their emotions than you assert, despite being of the testicular variant of humanity.

Regardless of how emotionally inexpressive they may be, I continue to refute the implication that people who go to the opera but happen to be men in business or the professions are uninterested in the arts, and need their emotional canvas painted in big crayon to "get" opera.

Re driving, politics and high levels of emotional response: my analogy stands. You provided an anecdote about something some blokes told you. That doesn't mean what they said applies to all blokes. Likewise, gumph I get fed by chauvinists has no truth to it simply because I hear it occasionally.

And yes, I'm very ambivalent about "high levels of emotional response", as they can be either good or bad, depending on circumstance and the emotion in question.

Re: the contradictory paragraph following the offending one, I did read it but noted that it was dominated by the previous and succeeding posts detailing your immunity to operatically-induced emotional discombobulation. [To be honest, I don't buy your assertion for a second. If opera doesn't grab hold of your spine and crack it like a bullwhip you're simply not. getting. it. IMMHO]

Besides, it's bloody hard to be churlish if you acknowledge the other person has a balanced argument. Where's the fun in that?

FXH said...

men at catallaxy- last I looked it was mostly boys

Pavlov's Cat said...

El -- Ah, who could forget the booj-sayer?

Susoz -- I don't know about you, but I find it makes time itself look quite different, as well as experience and memory.

FXH -- indeed. I exempt Jason, who appears to be a sweetie. His tolerance of certain Catallaxy regulars makes me wonder, though.

Fyodor: '... previous and succeeding posts detailing your immunity to operatically-induced emotional discombobulation...'

I did not say anything of the kind!

*stamps foot*

Why would I, when it is so manifestly untrue? FWIW I cried all the way through the sisterly forgiveness and the a capella choral bits of Immenso Jehovah. There's a good reason why I always buy waterproof mascara.

Now that I know what you think I said, though, I can see the things in the post that are open to misinterpretation. Yes, sloppy expression. Bad Pav. Fifteen whacks on the paddy with a hard, hard ruler. But hey, it's a blog, I'm not writing the Constitution here.

Re '... the implication that people who go to the opera but happen to be men in business or the professions are uninterested in the arts, and need their emotional canvas painted in big crayon to "get" opera': I know enough of said men to know this isn’t always, or even usually, true -- in fact the first person I ever saw in 'opera' (well, G&S; close) who made me get the point of it was a Greek schoolboy who's now a distinguished surgeon.

What I said (through Davies through his character; how indirect can you get?) was that some of those blokes were emotionally constipated or otherwise lacking, and that those people might find themselves churned up by opera to their own surprise. I didn't say all of them were; nor did I say that the only people who are like this are men, only that I think, on the whole, women are more emotionally self-aware. A view to which I will cling like a terrier, for Jack Russell are my middle name.

Fyodor said...

* forms orderly queue to spank Pav *