Living Our Best Pajama-Clad High Culture Life

The title of this post comes from my sister, who is the reason I’ve been watching so many operas the last two months.

The Metropolitan Opera was one of the first performance organizations to make shows available online, as part of the efforts to relieve quarantine tedium. Since mid-March, they’ve been streaming one opera each day, drawing from their stable of HD rebroadcasts (usually shown in movie theatres). My sister, being an opera buff, suggested this as a good way to sample the genre — and I was all in favor, since this didn’t mean getting up at an early hour for a cinema screening or wedging myself into the absurdly small seats at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco.

What I have learned: in direct contrast to my usual taste in movies and TV shows, I could not care less about most of the tragedies . . . but man, bring on the comedies.

This isn’t just because right now I’m more keen on amusing stuff than its depressing counterpart. It’s because I like plot and good dialogue/lyrics, and comedies, by their nature, tend to require more of that than tragedies do, just to make their engines run. Also, I just kind of don’t give a crap about most of the tragic characters? They make bad choices for reasons I don’t find very sympathetic, and then they die. And I’m hit-or-miss on the music itself (which is, after all, the point of opera); I often like the choral pieces, but I’m not hugely fond of the general techniques of operatic singing, so lots of the arias and duets don’t really engage me. Of the tragedies I’ve seen, Carmen tops the list by a mile because its music is so damn good, but the rest . . . eh.

Comedies, though! We’re at a point where I will agree to watch pretty much anything that involves Juan Diego Flórez: I saw two operas with him in a leading role (La Fille du régiment and Il barbiere di Siviglia), and promptly agreed to watch Le Comte Ory without knowing anything more than “the poster shows Juan Diego Flórez in a nun’s habit.” Nor was I disappointed. In fact, if you get a chance to watch it, do; it isn’t Flórez’s most sympathetic character, but on the other hand they took the scene where (by the script) Ory goes to seduce the countess and in the dark is deceived into holding the hand of his page (a trouser role, i.e. a woman playing a male character), and turned it into an unrepentant queer bisexual threesome: Ory unwittingly gets into bed with both countess and page, somehow fails to notice that there’s a second person there as they roll around in various configurations, sees his page when the lights come up, and then promptly shrugs and leaps back into bed with them both, because why not.

What have I seen so far? Prior to quarantine and the Met’s free streams, I’d seen rebroadcasts of The Magic Flute (Mozart) and Tosca (Puccini), and in the SF theatre I saw Manon Lescaut (Puccini), Turandot (Puccini), Carmen (Bizet), Hansel and Gretel (Engelbert Humperdinck), and a new modern opera, Dream of the Red Chamber (Bright Sheng). I regret to say that last one was kind of terrible; I could not bring myself to like it no matter how much I wanted to. Since the quarantine began, I’ve watched:

  • La Fille du régiment (Donizetti) — loved it, and kudos to Natalie Dessay for managing to sing like that while also engaging in absurd quantities of physical comedy, including being carried offstage sideways.
  • Il barbiere di Siviglia (Rossini) — I would buy a recording of this staging if it were available for purchase, but it seems not be. Not just fun characters, but really excellent set design and so forth.
  • Le Comte Ory (Rossini) — less of a good plot, but on the other hand, queer bisexual threesome.
  • La Cenerentola (Rossini; also with Flórez) — didn’t like the staging of this one at all, unfortunately. It was mostly just unattractive.
  • Il Trovatore (Verdi) — tragedy. Meh. Good job on the Anvil Chorus, though, and it was nice to see a Korean singer as Manrico.
  • Der Rosenkavalier (Strauss) — reasonably good, but it dragged on a bit too long to hold my interest.
  • Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Wagner) — SPEAKING OF DRAGGING ON, GOOD LORD, RICHARD. I actually quite liked this! . . . except it’s literally five hours long. If somebody could figure out how to do an abridged version, I would eat it up with a spoon — because the material is good! I just want less of it.
  • Falstaff (Verdi) — also very fun, and based on The Merry Wives of Windsor. I was dubious at first of the 1950s aesthetic to the staging, but it worked.
  • Les Contes d’Hoffman (Offenbach) — we actually skipped Act 2, because my sister has seen this one and said it was incredibly boring compared to the rest of the opera. (Partly a matter of how it was staged.) I really liked Kate Lindsey as the Muse, and may wind up getting a short story out of it.
  • Le Nozze di Figaro (Mozart) — an older production (from the late ’90s). This one’s interesting because narratively, it’s a sequel to The Barber of Seville, though Mozart’s opera was written thirty years before Rossini’s. Almaviva is an ass here, but it’s very fun watching the women conspire to trick the men (something it has in common with Falstaff).
  • L’amour de loin (Kaija Saariaho) — this is modern, and by all rights I should not have liked it. The staging is gorgeous, using strings of programmed LEDs to mimic the sea; the music, however, is spectral, which means it’s discarded all your bourgeois notions like “melody” and “rhythm.” But it made pleasant enough background noise, and I appreciated that the characters were, as my sister said, more self-aware than about 95% of opera characters, despite also being on their way to tragedy. Also, this is only the second opera by a female composer that the Met has ever staged, and the previous one was in 1903. So that’s a thing. (Female conductor, too.)

Technically we also watched the first act of Borodin’s Prince Igor, but really we were just waiting for “Polovtsian Dances,” after which we quit out of it. (The plot bored us and the actual dancing was . . . not good?) And we watched the very beginning of Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles, just because the staging during the overture was absolutely brilliant: a perfect combination of lighting and wirework to make it look like you were watching pearl divers deep underwater.

Am I a fan of opera now? As a blanket statement, no; the entire swath of tragedy is still mostly uninteresting to me, after an initial sample where I assumed that was what I would like. But I have enjoyed enough of the comedies that I’m more actively interested in watching them, if the chance arises — which it is very likely to do for a while yet. If you want to dabble your toes in the waters of opera without having to leave your couch, this is a good opportunity to do so.

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