Let me tell you about a love affair, other than the much more important one with my wife, that I’ve been involved in for a long time.
And it began with a blind date.
When I was a young teacher I did a favor for a colleague, who offered to reciprocate with a nice dinner with her and her husband, followed by a “surprise.”
The dinner was a good steak and trimmings at The Stables, a Houston culinary landmark that is now gone. Over dessert, coffee and a snifter of brandy I must have tried hard to not look disappointed when I was told the surprise: I was being treated to a night at the … opera.
My life, prior to that evening, had been completely opera-free. There is a remote possibility that I could have, on a dare, come up with two or three titles, and maybe one composer. I admit to having been confident that I was in for a long and boring ordeal.
When what I was in for was, in fact, a revelation.
We saw “Faust”, one of the grandest of grand operas, with rousing choruses, sweeping melodies, moral dilemmas, and an imposing finale with nothing less than one character ascending to heaven and another descending to hell. Now that’s something you don’t see every day.
I came out of Jones Hall, which was then the home of Houston Grand Opera, humming. In the car, I wanted to know about the composer, the story, the singers, and everything else. My hosts were probably glad to be rid of me after our hour drive.
I was caught: hook, line, and sinker. And, like many fresh converts to anything new and fascinating, I dove in head first. Within weeks I had seen another production in person, had subscribed to Opera News magazine, and was a faithful listener to the Saturday afternoon Texaco radio broadcasts of live performances from the Met in New York.
I was in an Astros group back then, which consisted of five of us who bought mini-season ticket packages and drove up to the Dome several times a month. On the way home one night I told the guys I’d have to miss the next game. It was with the Cincinnati Reds, which was one of our favorite pairings because we loved to boo Pete Rose. So the guys wanted to know what was up.
When I told them I had a ticket to “Rigaletto”, with a world-class baritone in the title role (maybe Sherrill Milnes; I can’t remember), they looked at me as if I had spoken in Swahili. And I was in for some ribbing after that.
But I didn’t care. I was a bona fide opera fan, complete with strong binoculars rather than those little wimpy opera glasses. And it was a good thing, given the nosebleed section seats which were the only ones I could afford.
As time went by, I discovered that I am a neophyte fan at best. I don’t understand any foreign languages, don’t know an E minor from an F sharp, and much of opera is beyond me. I fully understand that Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and “The Marriage of Figaro” are supposed to be two of the best compositions ever, but after the soaring overtures there is just too much harpsichord plucking for me. And Wagner’s Ring cycle is too thunderously loud and so full of mythic characters flying around that I can’t keep up with all of them.
My admittedly provincial tastes run to stories with pleasing melodies throughout, a triumphal march or two and a good bit of melodrama, usually resulting in a beautiful young girl (who might, depending on the performance, be played by a rotund and not so very young soprano) who almost certainly dies in the final scene. In other words, I am an Italian, perhaps specifically a Sicilian, at heart when it comes to opera. Give me Puccini’s “Tosca”, “Turandot”, and “La Boheme”. Or Verdi’s “La Traviata” and “Aida”. Or Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana”, which might just be my favorite.
I think I like opera – or the relatively few operas that I know anything about – because it combines several theatrical genres into one artistic vehicle. As someone once famously said: “If you end up in a performance of a Puccini opera where the acting and singing are bad and the sets are uninteresting, you can just close your eyes and let the music wash over you.”
And as a writer I appreciate how operatic composers bring into play a balanced variety of useful tools to tell a story: plot, melody, dialogue, staging, and the full sweep of human emotions, from lively festivity in the Christmas Eve Paris street cafe scene complete with a children’s’ chorus and a snowfall in the second act of “La Boheme” to the tender last moments of little Mimi, whose “little hands will never be cold again” two acts later. If we writers can blend and employ our various tools and manipulations that successfully then we’ll have gone a long way toward telling the stories we want to tell.
The steak dinner I was given a long time ago was very nice indeed. But that night at the opera was the first kiss, so to speak, of a love affair that has endured nicely.
[Part of this first appeared as a newspaper article many opera performances ago]