A long time ago, I decide to acquire a cultural veneer. Not actually become cultured, you understand – that might be too much work and then there's the possibility of becoming insufferable and pompous. No, as far as I was concerned, a thin layer of culture which could be donned at required moments would be sufficient.
To that end, I purchased a 3-performance subscription to The National Ballet of Canada. Aside from a phenomenal performance of Blue Snake, it turned out that my childhood fascination for ballet had abated. I like modern dance, but traditional ballet left – and leaves - me bored and wishing they’d get off pointe and get on with it already. Unless it’s Mikhail Baryshnikov. I’ve been lucky enough to see him twice and would cheerfully watch him dance anything.
(by the way – the fact that I admit to being bored by ballet is a fairly good indication that any culture I might possess is, at most, skindeep)
The next year, ballet veneer acquired, I moved on to The Canadian Opera Company. As before, I got a 3-performance subscription. The first was Tosca by Puccini and it left an indelible impression on me. Not so much because of how good it was, as that particular performance was a smidgen pedestrian. I loved it because of the legend of Tosca (being apparently cursed in much the same way The Scottish Play is in theatre). I also loved the story (scroll down to ‘Anecdotes’) of how once, a stage crew got back at a horrific diva by placing mattresses under the tower from which she flings herself at the end, causing her to bounce back up past the tower, then down, then up again, all in full view of the audience. I loved that our Hero - supposedly a dashingly tempestuous lover - was sung/played by a middle-aged, extremely portly fellow, who while in his death throes (which yes, did last about 15 minutes) staggered ponderously about the stage, singing and singing and singing, causing mor (my partner in cultural veneer acquisition) and I to get an uncontrollable fit of the giggles, silently hiccupping with laughter, tears streaming down our cheeks for the entire aria. Add lovely music, the grandest emotions, surtitles above the stage so you know what’s going on and I was hooked.
I’ve subscribed every year since, probably for the past 15 years. I’ve seen crap (and like the philistine I am, left at intermission) and the giggles have continued to punctuate some performances, to the point of once being told to shut it or leave by an usher (hey, we weren’t the only ones laughing at that one). I have seen operas that left me breathless and weeping with the beauty of it, stunned that such otherworldly sounds can be created by a human being, enraptured by the perfect fusion of score, libretto and performer.
Opera hasn’t just been confined to a formal performance. Once, on a WheelTrans bus, going home from a movie, the driver and I got to talking about opera (don’t ask me how). It turned out that he sang and before he dropped me off at home, he serenaded me with an aria from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers. It was one of those moments in life that stood out. Random beauty.
And then last week, when in line at an ATM, the woman behind us started singing softly – which in opera, isn’t very softly at all. There we were, on the street in the sunshine, joined by a gorgeous mezzo-soprano singing in Italian. Another moment of unexpected beauty.
I love opera.