Why opera works

By July 19, 2012Music

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!

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Gaby says:

    In the good old days I could go and see the opera for a much reduced rate thanks to Mobil (or someone like that) subsidising young people. My sister Lesley and I (who I snuck in, she not being as young as was required) went to 6 a year for a while. We revelled in the atmosphere (and the champagne at interval) and giggled uncontrollably in the dark on one memorable occasion until shushed by those around us! I tried always for Verdi but as was the case with this particular subscription you got the leavings of the full paying subscribers. In some cases these were unmemorable, but I will always remember Patrick White’s Voss and Britten’s Billy Budd. Sometimes great things are thrust upon you.

  • Art Raiche says:

    Over the 40 years I have lived in Australia, the AO has improved greatly. They are really good. However, the Opera House is an unmitigated disaster. Even in the best seats, the leg room is economy class. They are too damned money-grubbing to put in a centre aisle, thus making things seem like a third world bus. The stage is much too small. Originally the AO was to have the big theatre but it has to make do with the smaller. This limits staging greatly, often farcically. The orchestra pit is less than ideal, to put it mildly, for the musicians.

    Public transport is pathetic. A decent city would have had rail to the door. They make up for it by charging outrageously for parking ($35 for the night)

    The place is overrun by tourists and at certain times it is hard to park because parking is not limited to patrons.

    What a joy, bu comparison to hear concerts at the Sydney Recital Hall in Angel Place.

  • Nicole Parton says:

    When does a “column” become a “blog”? When the writer pens them at no charge, as a labor of love. These excellent columns deserve a wider audience. The Australian, perhaps? Or are newspapers in Oz in as much trouble as they are here in North America? Another topic for another day, Dr. Aitkin.

    • DonAitkin says:

      Nicole, It is indeed the decline of the print media that pushed me into cyberspace. Having now taken part in cyberspace discussions for a few years I have enjoyed the experience of an international conversation that knows no boundaries, and takes place in real time. So why not try to provide one myself?

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