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April 23, 2013

Opera: A Think Piece

Opera is one of those things you have to like if you're going to be fancy. It's like mink underwear. Quail egg omelets. Exclusive athletic clubs that provide bathrobes. Golf and/or tennis. Ostrich-bound books. All things you have to get used to when you decide to enjoy The Good Life.

If I have the choice between non-fancy and fancy, like if someone is presenting me a silver platter and removes the lid with a flourish and I have to choose between a lil' smokie and a mini escargot-oyster smoothie, you know I'm going to go for the delicate blend of balloon and snot.

Thus it was my destiny to dabble in the operatic arts, and when the opportunity arose to view final dress rehearsals of the Minnesota Opera's productions as an Official Blogger for the low, low price of free, I knew my time had come.

Turandot | Photo by Michael Daniel for the Minnesota Opera

My first production was the world premiere of Silent Night, which would go on to win a 2012 Pulitzer Prize (read my review here). I was enraptured. Enthralled. Gobsmacked. It was possibly the best performance I've witnessed of anything ever in the world. I cannot stress enough how much I loved the music and the costumes and the everything.

I was like, "Opera. Yes."

I enthusiastically requested tickets to the next performance, Werther, about an emo young man who falls in love with a woman promised to another and he just. can't. deal. so he shoots himself and sings himself sweetly to death (spoiler alert!).

I was like, "Opera. Wut??"

I had a hard time feeling any of the feelings I was supposed to be feeling for the characters. I was not one penny invested in them. There was zero chemistry between Werther and his supposed ladylove, and he just seemed to spend most of the time flailing around the set feeling sorry for himself. It was just so... dramatic.

Unable to reconcile my wildly disparate feelings for these two productions, I signed up for Lucia de Lammermoor. Reader, I can't even tell you what it was about. Because I have no idea. I was so not into it that I left at halftime. There was a lot of singing and moaning and being sad and unrequited-ness, I'm sure.

I still wasn't ready to give up, so I went to Madame Butterfly. This at least had a plot I could get into: It's the early 1900s, and an American named Pinkerton gets stationed in Japan, where he marries the beautiful Cio-Cio San (Butterfly). He's pretty cavalier about the whole thing, and despite declaring his love for her he takes off shortly after the wedding and bedding. She sticks around for three whole years for him to come back, all the while taking care of their love child. When he finally does show up, it's with his new wife. Burn. Adding major insult to major injury, they want to take her son back with them to 'Murica. Unsurprisingly (this is opera, after all), she kills herself. But just to be extra dramatic (again, opera), she does it in front of her blindfolded son, who is blithely waving an American flag for his father, the shocked and devastated Pinkerton, to see.

I found this one much more visually and musically appealing. I especially loved all the vibrato-heavy wails of "But-ter-flyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!" and "Pink-er-toneeeeeeeeeeeeeee!"

I was like, "Opera. OK."

Next up was Doubt, another world premiere, this one adapted from a play (which had already been adapted to a movie). We bloggers were invited to a pre-performance Q-and-A with playwright/screenwriter/librettist John Patrick Shanley. Triple-threat! I was especially excited to see this one because it starred Christine Brewer, a soprano I'd seen perform with the SPCO, as Sister Aloysius.

At this point in my opera-going career I was having an opera-stential crisis. What is opera, anyway? Like, is it a play with really pretty singing or is it pretty singing with a narrative structure and crazy production value? WHAT IS THE POINT OF OPERA?

Doubt did me no favors in that regard. Unlike a Puccini or Vivaldi classic, there was no show-stopping aria, no soul-shaking chorus singing about Truth. It was basically a play with people singing their lines. Things got especially weird when a character sang slang like "ain't" in full operatic glory. I mean, the singing was all very good singing. And the costumes and staging were as great as everything else the MN Opera lays its hands on. I'm just not sure what was added with the operafication.

I was like, "Opera, adieu."

One of my coworkers is an opera buff, and she convinced me to give the art form one last try with the season-ending Turandot. Turandot is a Persian princess who has no interest in marriage, and has declared that the only way she'd do the deed is if a prince can correctly answer three impossible riddles. If the prince fails, she will chop his head off. (This is not an empty threat; the stage is literally covered in blood from all the decapitating she's ordered.) Despite the carnage, princes from near and far are eager to take on this challenge. All fail until one day, a prince is like, "I got this." Everyone is like, "You're totally going to die. Just don't. Stop." And he's like, "I don't even care. She's so hot. Riddle me." Lo and behold, he gets all three right and Turandot flips out. The prince tells her that if she can find out his name by sunrise he'll let her kill him because that's just how much he loves her. After a long, futile night, dawn approaches. The prince approaches Turandot and is like, "I love you. Let's smooch." She's like, "Ugh! I hate you! I hate you! I... love you? OK I guess I love you now!" All the townsfolk come over and they're like, "What's his name? Did you figure out his name?" And she goes, "His name is LOVE."

*Mic drop*

I was like, "Opera, I will begrudgingly let you back into my life on a case-by-case basis."


  1. Opera is worth it. Keep your heart and head open. You will be rewarded!

  2. I wonder if there is an opera based on the story of Mildred Pierce.