I came by my love of Opera honestly.
I didn’t attend my first Opera to impress a girl, nor did I go to immerse myself in culture so that I might put on airs so as to impress my peers. Rather, I was assaulted without consent. As with all the great passions in my life: rugby; women; cooking and kung fu movies etc.etc, Opera was a bolt of lightning out of blue skies. I didn’t see it coming because I wasn’t even looking. Sort of.
My love for Opera, as with my prior passions, was, eventually, instant, intense and beyond mitigation; my desire was not coerced. I fell hopelessly in love as I did upon first meeting the women who would become my wife.
There is love, and there is love, and the two often d0 not know one and other. Some loves burn intensely and briefly as if one if searing Ahi tuna; other passions must smolder for a very long time, before they maim one’s soul- as with southern barbeque.
My love for Opera was Ahi, not barbeque, though, truth be told, it took some time for this instantaneous love to come about.
The zen folk are found of saying that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. In similar fashion, I had several abortive meetings with Opera before I was smitten with it’s beauty.
The stuttering pace of this pas de deux undoubtedly explains why- some several decades later- I cannot explain with any great clarity what caused me to be so smitten; accounts for the fact that I am, to a large degree, hamstrung in elucidating what it is I love about opera.
I cannot, for example tell you anything about the etiology, history or development of the art itself- literally nothing. In that way my love of opera is not like my love of hockey. I can speak for hours about my passion for the teams I have followed over the last twenty years. I can tell you explicitly why I love hockey and why I have attended hundreds of games over years.
But opera, is a different beast. I cannot, for instance, name opera’s three greatest composers; nor formulate a credible argument for any composers inclusion in such hallowed ranks. I know the names of several composers, but not their entire name, just enough to bandy about a cocktail party, provided that it is not too educated a gathering.
No, opera is-for me- more like a beautiful blonde French-Canadian stripper. You need not know the backstory to appreciate the aesthetic charms unfolding before you.
All of this, is not to say, however, that I am totally without connection to the art form nor am I a complete savage. As I said, I had several early brushes with the art form.
In my youth, in the mid eighties, I had lunch at an outdoor cafe directly across the street from the Paris Opera House. I remember that the meal was very good, and very expensive, and I recall thinking that opera singers must occasionally dine in this cafe.
Beyond those simple facts, I recall almost nothing about that lunch, save that there was a boisterous American man at an adjacent table explaining to the French-man, with whom he was dining, that Americans had greater discipline than the French because Americans wanted more out of life.
I recall my fellow citizen’s exaggerated patience in explaining that because the average American owned multiple cars and televisions and, all told, enjoyed a much better lifestyle than the French; that it was necessary that Americans work harder than the French as Americans carried considerably more debt. I don’t recall any conversation, upon the part of the American- or his weary French lunch companion- regarding opera. Of the opera house itself I recall only that it was large white and august.
I do recall Monet’s massive exhibition was all the rage that summer. I recall being swept along the halls of the Grand Palais, speechless before those paintings. The Manet Centennial Exhibition honored the 100th year of his death in 1883 and was hung at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris from April 22th thru August 8, 1983. We stumbled across the exhibit on its second last day thus there were immense crowds that pushed one through the hall as if one were standing upon a moving walkway.
I recall the pencil sketches, the nudes, the thick colors of a painting of a gray and white cat toying with an orange.
Several days before we had visited the Jeu de Paume- which at that time, prior to its renovation and repurpose-ment as a museum of contem-porary art- was the great storehouse of impressionistic works. The museum at that time held many important impressionist works now housed in the Musée d’Orsay. I recall, as I will until the day of my death, the effect those paintings had upon me- a young midwestern hellion who- on before the day of his visit to that hallowed place, had no knowledge of the impressionists, of the paintings hanging inside.
I can still see in my mind’s eye, the brilliant and yet subdued colors of those works, the manner in which the paint had been laid so thick upon the canvas. The depiction of light, in so many of those works, baffled me.
My travel mate, Susan, had brought a good camera on that trip, I had none. I was not a photographer then, but I suspect- with no real proof- that I became an artist, a photographer that day, after seeing the works of Monet and Manet and Picasso and, in particular, paintings such as Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe and Van Gogh’s The Church at Auvers.
My entire point in this digression being that I am, like the museum itself, a continual work in progress. The Jeu de Paume was built in the 17th century to house courts upon which a primitive form of tennis was played; and was later converted into an impressionist art museum; and subsequently into a photography museum.
The point being that I am not impervious to beauty nor great art; I’m just a little slow to catch on, sometimes.
I could have gone to the Opera during that trip to Paris and I culd have appreciated the art, but we simply did not go- we did many other worthwhile things instead. Thus my passion for Opera was forestalled.
Of that lunch and tentative brush with Opera, I recall, nothing else.
For instance, I do not recall it occurring to me to inquire about the possibility of seeing an opera while in Paris.
Opera just wasn’t in my world at the time.
I was studying literature in those days. I had, in fact, attended- just the week before- Shakespeare at the Barbican where I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company perform Love’s Labour’s Lost. This performance; like the visit to the Jeu De Paume, was also a ground breaking, thought not a novel experience, as I had fallen in love with Shakespeare some years before.
It wasn’t until some 17 years later that I saw Opera live: a 2002 Cincinnati Opera premier of Dead Man Walking; an opera in two acts by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally. Based on the narrative book by Sister Helen Prejean, the libretto tells the journey of a Louisiana nun who becomes the spiritual advisor to a convicted murderer on Angola’s death row.
I have no idea why I went. Given that I had been practicing blue collar law for some eight years by then, my interest undoubtedly had more to do with social justice than any desire to broaden my cultural horizons. I recall being impressed but not stunned by the performance. I recall being moved by the modern sets, the colorful lighting and the poignancy of the story.
Yet, I apparently was not too impressed as it was not until 2009 that I again saw the Opera live – a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio at the Met. In fact, we- my beloved and I- not only saw a Saturday Evening performance at the Met, that Saturday, but also caught the A train to the Bronx, that afternoon, to watch a Yankees game.
We were on an east coast tour at the time, celebrating our anniversary. I recall being surprised to learn that the Yankee faithful ( poorly) sang their hometown players onto the field-as if the pinstripe nine were actually european soccer players. I don’t remember who the played or who won the game. I recall the stadium was old and worn and full of warrens and tunnels and a spectacular place to catch a game.
Like watching Shakespeare at the Globe.
And though the details of that afternoon’s boxscore still escape me, I recall, with great clarity, the glory of Saturday Night at the Met.
Because my knowledge of Opera is so limited, I possess little knowledge with which to describe that performance nor can I construct a mound of any respectable size upon which I might plant my staff of Opera, my musical or literary banner of erudition.
To impress you with my love of Opera, dear reader, I am forced to play the only card I hold, which is this: I am but a single step removed from one of Opera’s greatest all time artists.
Listen: There is a hat shop, a haberdashery in the heart of Cincinnati where old school lawyers, and the like, go to have their shoes shined. They go to this place, as Christians go to Lourdes, to purchase their yearly fedoras.
Luciano Pavarotti was known to frequent this shop on the rare occasions that he made it this far inland. Over the years, I am told, he struck up a friendship with the hatter.
He, Pavarotti, in time not only provided the requisite signed photos to hang in the shop window, during the course of this friendship he flew the merchant and his wife to New York where Pavarotti dined with the the couple providing them also with a car and tickets to Pavarotti’s performance that evening.
I have these facts from the hatter himself. I would speak with him on occasion as his shop was a wonderful place to kill time. Whenever I had several moments in the vicinity, I drifted towards to that spot. I’d usually window shop, but sometimes went in.
On one occasion, having become by that point, a moderately successful lawyer, I thought that I ought to have my own fedora. I had regularly begun besting other fedora wearing lawyers in Court and, so thought myself in need of a Fedora so that others might recognize my ever blooming legal abilities.
During the course of selecting my Fedora the hat maker told me, sua sponte and without being led, that I reminded him of his good friend Luciano Pavarotti and that I must myself be a good man if I bore such a striking resemblance to such a great artist.
Now one might jump to the conclusion that this comment was offered as encouragement to purchase a hat. I was, admittedly, lingering over a $300.00 hat. I don’t think at that point in time I had ever owned a hat worth more than $40.00.
However, I note in my own defense three crucial pieces of information which demonstrate, beyond reasonable doubt, that the hatmaker spoke in good faith.
First, I am a large man of (inter alia) Italian heritage. In fact, it is not a stretch to say that I bear a passing resemblance to Pavarotti.
Secondly, I have in fact been told that I resemble “an Opera singer or something” by other people on any number of occasions in various places.
Honesty compels that I should note, However that I have no proof that any of these people had any relationship with any actual Opera professionals, let alone Pavarotti. We may, in fact, be almost certain that none of these other persons had at any time ever been flown to New York by nor dined with Pavarotti.
Lastly, and most importantly, various scholars have noted that Puccini’s sorta seminal work ‘Turandot,’ was a flawed masterpiece, and some critics have been hostile.”
Like Puccini, my own writing has, on at least several occasions, been reviled and subject to hostile criticism. One self important critic claimed that my writing, “reminded him of bad Hemingway. (of course, this editor’s greatest claim to fame is having passed on a book which sold over 2 million copies worldwide and which has received multiple awards such as France’s Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger Award and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, as well as being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award- so fuck him).
These facts, you must admit dear reader, comprise a towering evidentiary edifice compelling the inescapable conclusion that opera and I were destined to become fast friends, comrades in arms, no? Indeed, these delicate and filigreed facts can only mean anything I was meant to bleed Opera.
I do not mean that I was destined to take up the study of the art- that would take far too much time and there is far too much hockey to be watched.
I have however, since the hatmaker’s proclamation given my heart, ears and eyes over to this heaven sent art.
I have taken this fact as a sign from the heavens that I should suspend all reason and fall deeply in love with Opera. Additionally, these serendipitous circumstances constitute a divine proclamation there is not any need, under any circumstances, to build my love for opera upon any rational basis nor foundation of appreciable nor coherent facts.
Ignorance has never stood me in such good stead.
For if there is a single fact which I have been able to pinpoint about this art, it is this. I love opera because it gives so much and demands so little. A well performed and beautiful opera is like being gentle submerged into a vat of very warm and pure syrup while simultaneously being fed crispy double thick bacon washed down by the world’s finest champagnes.
I mean that I have come to love opera because it provides- in the very best of moments- a complete release from the world and the unpleasant realities of the world- it is absolute aesthetic satisfaction. Great opera is nothing short of aesthetic heroin, concomitant time and space travel for the heart mind and soul.
Still, I wonder, have come to long for such earthly delights simply because an educated shop owner took a moment to make a casual comment. What is one to make of that?
Very little I have decided for I am determined that nothing shall rob me of this great pleasure. For doesn’t life often, out of the blue, offer both stunning vistas and blind alleys? Doesn’t life, considered over a lifetime, offer everyone both ecstasy and misery?
If one can stumble upon true happiness by accident, then why fight it, why labour to deprive one’s self of such happiness for it is only a matter of time until pain and loneliness, for no good reason at all, come to darken your door.
Opera is proof that sometimes things do go stunning right. Opera is life’s payoff for everything that is petty crass and harsh. Opera is a miracle.
Why is opera a miracle? Go to an opera and open your eyes fully. Think about the process of putting on an Opera and appreciate every little struggle that nearly every Opera must overcome.
Each performance is a complex project capable of collapsing at any given moment- a very ornate and vastly large towering house of cards ready to topple at any moment. Make up and scenery artists collaborate with lighting technicians,singers, actors and actresses. The multifaceted orchestra and it’s conductor must allign with this splendid mass of performers, perfectly, on cue. Together, they must turn on a dime.
Hundreds of people perform perfectly on cue. The chance for disaster- let alone a jarring misstep which could threaten an audience’s reverie- seems certain. To think about the process is to know that the process is impossible. A fully realized and beautiful opera is like- to me- a flying rhinoceros.
“Opera, next to Gothic architecture,” said Kenneth Clark, “is one of the strangest inventions of Western man. It could not have been foreseen by any logical process.”
But then, why would one ever be so stupid as to dissect such a thing of beauty? Why would anyone in the face of such great art simultaneously created by so many talented souls offer any resistance– offer anything beyond complete surrender?
Exactly, Opera is, I have learned, not only an inundation of the heart and senses, but an inundation of the imagination.
Over the last year the Cincinnati Opera Company has been kind enough to allow me to photograph their performances in the park as well as dress rehearsals in their home at Music Hall. To have their permission to use their efforts and their artistic efforts as centerpiece for my photography has been an indescribable experience.
To have the unfettered right to roam this darkened creaking hall, once the lights drop, is a rare and wonderful thing. To have permission to shoot at will so as to capture this alternate universe- which has been so lovingly created – is a compelling exercise; a short lived dream in which one is free to travel to places which have, and never will exist, even when you try to will them into existence with your entire heart and soul.
Admittedly, to fall so hard, to love so completely in the face of so little evidence is a thing of foolishness. It is the stuff of fairy tales. A story in which a young boy is given a handful of beans and told to plant those seeds on faith.
And yet, to go to such a place is sometimes all I want out of art, even if such escape can only happen three acts at a time.
To go to such a place where one is free to willingly deceive ones- self is a collective act of magic. But then, wouldn’t it be even more foolish to deprive ourselves of such witchcraft?
In the end I love Opera because it is a riot of colors, a place of shadows in which dreams are loudly proclaimed and passions are barred without embarrassment, are writ large.
It might be said that it is only through great art that we are human, it might even be said that through Opera that we are collectively made beautiful. Of course, I could be completely wrong- but if I am- I don’t want to know about it.