We left ‘Aida’ and found our way to Circular Quay Railway Station. Most of those ascending the escalator had been there, and a discussion broke out at once. A big man in a camel-hair overcoat told us that apart from Latonia Moore, who played the title role (and very well, too), the rest was ‘crap’ — the other principals, the set, the lighting, the production — the lot. I saw no point in engaging him, and others broke off, too. Then the train came, and we all became passengers. About half were using their mobile phones, texting, playing games, whatever. What did people do before the iPhone?
The next night we saw Erich Korngold’s ‘Die Tote Stadt’, a bleak, somewhat scary but finally uplifting drama about a man who has become obsessive about his dead wife, until the chance meeting with a look-alike woman turns his world upside down. Korngold was a precociously gifted boy who was to be the next Mozart. But the Great War and the rise of Hitler spoiled such an outcome (Korngold was Jewish). He spent ten years in Hollywood writing music for films: his score for ‘Robin Hood’ is his best known, but he produced a lot more, and won some Oscars, too. This opera was written when he was in his early twenties, and it is lush and romantic. Indeed, you can see why his music went well in films: it has that feel.
Every time we go to an opera in Sydney I wonder at how it works, and works so well. I am really not an opera buff — more someone who is wedded to the whole Western classical music genre. But a night at the opera is a journey to another world. People sing as they act. Sometimes several people sing at once, and their lines are different. One is telling us that he will do bad things to someone else on stage, while that person is singing about something else. It doesn’t matter — we take it all on board. They are real people and they are there before us. Even in the best film there is a remove: what happens is happening on a screen. But not here.
The magic is in the combination. The Opera House is a great space in a great building in a superb setting, especially at night.. The stage is not gigantic (you really need something gigantic for ‘Aida’), but it is deep, and you can fit a lot on it. The sets can be made up below and brought up in minutes, and they are memorable. There has been a revolution in lighting, and visual effects are now commonplace. The singers are excellent, and so is the chorus. Add to it a director with a love for the work and real competence in handling all the material, and you get an evening that will always be remembered. Oh — and the music runs through everything, an electric current that unites all the other ingredients. OK, some of the plots are unbelievable, and some operas, like ‘Don Giovanni’, are hard to stage. But such problems present challenges to the director and the cast, and much of the joy of the evening is in how well they all meet the challenge.
I have seen opera in London, Copenhagen, Paris, Stockholm and the US, as well as in Australia. I keep being amazed at the sheer professionalism of the Australian Opera. Two different operas in successive nights is another kind of challenge, as is presenting three Mozart operas in 27 hours (we were there for that earlier this year). I may be prejudiced, but I think that what the Australian Opera does stands comparison with the famous opera houses I have been to. And I do know why so many people are passionate about opera, and understand how people can be converted after just one experience. There’s nothing quite like a night at the opera, and I don’t mean the Marx Brothers version, achingly funny though that is!