San José State University
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

How I Came to Appreciate
and Enjoy Operas

About three years ago I was told by a friend about the Metropolitan Opera's transmission of some of its performances to theaters around the world. The signal is in High Definition (HD) so it is virtually the same as being there. The camera gets a better view than the audience so it is essentially better than being there. Furthermore there is a host who is an opera star who conducts interviews during intermissions with the performers, the director, the conductor and anybody else of interest such as the costume people. When interviews are not taking place the camera shows the backstage operations of the Metropolitan Opera, which are very interesting in themselves.

I have been attending the HD-live showings of the Metropolitan Operas from New York City for the past two years and have thoroughly enjoyed them. Initially I had no interest in opera, but I decided to see Puccini's La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the West) set in a California mining town during the gold rush days. I was curious as to how an Italian composer would handle an archetypical American story. It was fine and I later found out that Puccini based his opera on a play written by an American playwright. The next showing was the opera Nixon in China. I had to see that one to see how the historical event was turned into an opera. It was fine entertainment. There was one part in which Nixon and Mao were talking past each other; each thinking incorrectly that they were dealing with the issue of most concern to the other. The composer revealed in an interview that that episode was an almost verbatim transcription of what they were saying to each other. Henry Kissinger was depicted as a buffo character.

So I continued attending the Metopera showings and surprisingly did not find the four and five hours performances difficult to endure. The singing was only part of the appeal. The pageantry, the detail displays of the backstage scenes and operations and the interviews by the hosts were just as important. I became a fan of the beauty and talent of the stars such as Anna Netrebko, Renée Fleming and Deborah Voigt.

Anna Netrebko

Renée Fleming

Deborah Voigt

Altogether I have seen about twenty of the Metopera performances. I think I have only missed one. For a couple of them I had to catch the encore (recorded) performances that came about two weeks after the HD-live performances.

I attended Metopera's performances of Wagner's Ring Cycle and enjoyed them. They were performed with a special articulated plank machine that can create mountains and plateaus on stage.

This January there was a showing of Wagner's Parsifal. An opera fan sitting nearby kept muttering, "How could I have forgotten how boring Parsifal is?" I found Parsifal interesting because of the religiousness of the story. I thought Richard Wagner was some sort of pagan, but the story involved so much Christian theology and it was more Catholic rather than Protestant.

There was an especially enjoyable performance about a month ago of Rigoletto. The director set the story in Las Vegas of 1960 rather than 18th century Italy. Rigoletto was a court jester for the Duke and was essentially a Don Rickles comedian. The Duke was vaguely like Frank Sinatra.

And, although the story involved a monumental tragedy for Rigoletto, I did not think of it as a sad story, largely because I have become jaded about operatic tragedies. They have to be monumental tragedies.

I was able to see the San José Opera's performance of Il Trovatore. I had already seen the Metopera's performance of Il Trovatore so I was afraid that the local production would appear inferior to the New York production, but that was not the case at all. I was impressed.

A local art theater started showing movies of operas performed at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden in England. I started attending these and found them to be superb. They are not inferior to the Metopera's performances and perhaps might even be a little better.

The most recent Metopera performance was Giulio Cesare, ostensibly about Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. It was essentially set in the 19th century with the Roman soldiers dressed in British uniforms. I eagerly looked forward to it, but when I saw it on Saturday I found it to be quite different from what I was expecting. It was great entertainment and Natalie Dessay, who sung the part of Cleopatra, is not only a great singer with a voice as pure as a musical instrument, but also a great comedienne. I was however a bit perplexed at the discrepancy between the Caesar of the opera and the historical Caesar but I accepted the opera as farce.

Natalie Dessay

On Sunday I attended the movie performance of Eugene Onegin at the local theater. It was from the performance at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden a few years ago. The opera is by Tchaikovski based upon a novel by Alexander Pushkin. I had the feeling that I was now watching real opera and Giulio Cesare and the other operas I had viewed were more in the nature of cartoons rather than real drama. I had thoroughly enjoyed viewing them but they were not in the same league as Eugene Onegin.

The Onegin story involves two sisters living with their mother in a country estate in Russia. The sisters are in their late teens. The younger one Olga has a fiancé Nensky who lives nearby. Olga and Nensky have known each other since childhood. The older sister Tatiana (Tanya) is only interested in her books. One day Nensky brings his neighbor, Onegin, along with him for a visit. Onegin is in his midtwenties and rich, but is rather at loss as to what he wants to do in life. He is a bit melancholy and is said to be a Mason. Onegin spends the day talking with Tanya. In the evening Tanya finds that she has fallen madly in love with the sophisticated and worldly Onegin.

Here the Royal Opera House Company has dealt with a problem in a marvelous way. The singer for the Tanya part, Stoynova, is a middle-aged woman. She is the right age for the final act of the opera but the director knew it would not do to have her play the part of a teenaged girl. So the story was told in the form of flash-backs. There is a beautiful teenage girl who appears for the young Tanya but Stoynova is there as well viewing the scenes in memory. The young Tanya is in turmoil about being in love. She cannot sleep, she cannot relax and she cannot read. She is physically distraught. So the young actress enacts the physical turmoil of Tanya and Stoynova sings the lines. This works out beautifully well. One actress would have had a difficult time both singing the part and acting the part. At times the young actress has her back to the audience and gesticulates as though she were singing so it seems to the audience that she is singing.

In desperation Tanya write a letter to Onegin declaring her love and has it delivered to him. A few days later Onegin comes to see Tanya about the letter. He declares that he is unsuitable for a husband and father and that he would only make her miserable. He lectures her about being more cautious about writing such letters because other men might take advantage of her.

Sometime later Nensky brings Onegin with him to a party where Olga and Tanya are also attending. It is actually a name-day celebration for Tanya. Onegin dances with Tanya but feels uncomfortable being with her. He is attracted to her but feels there is no possibility of any further relationship. He then feels angry with his friend Nensky for prevailing upon him to attend the party. He decides to punish Nensky by flirting with his fiancé Olga. Onegin dances dance after dance with Olga. Nensky realizes that other people will be commenting on Olga not having danced at all with him. He confronts Olga and she is upset with him for being jealous and decides to punish him for being jealous by provoking him further.

Olga and Onegin have pushed Nensky too far. He decides that his honor demands satisfaction. He challenges Onegin to a duel. Onegin wants none of it but Nensky finally provokes Onegin into accepting the challenge. The next morning Onegin wants to get out of the situation but the duel is set up with seconds and a duel monitor and the process is set in motion. In the duel Onegin turns and fires his gun in the direction of Nensky without aiming assuming that Nensky will not be hit. But by chance Nensky is hit and dies. Onegin is devastated; he has killed his best friend. By endless and meaningless diversions Onegin tries to forget that he has killed his friend. He travels but becomes bored also with travel and finally returns to Russia. When he arrives in Saint Petersburg he immediately goes to a party being given by a high official in the Czarist government. At the party he sees Tanya and finds that she is the wife of the official. She is rich, powerful and sophisticated now. Onegin cannot deny what he should have acknowledged long ago; that he loves Tanya. He declares his love for her. She admits that she still loves him but that she will not violate her marriage vows. She sends Onegin away, now even more distraught and lost. In fact, he is absolutely hopelessly lost.

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