'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.
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.
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.
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.
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'.
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.
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.