Starving bohemian artists living in drafty Paris attics in the mid-19th century, struggling to produce their art, falling in and out of love, sharing and suffering, living and dying, all done while singing. That’s La Bohème in a nutshell.
I am embarrassed, even ashamed to admit I’ve never been to the opera. Not to a live performance that is. For someone who has long enjoyed opera as music, and has a fair collection of opera on CD, that’s inexcusable.*
I’ve seen a few of the “big” operas on video – I had Madame Butterfly on VHS and still have Boris Godunov and Tosca on DVD and I’ve had a few others (including operetta) – but before this weekend, I had only seen Bergman’s 1975 production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at a theatre. And that was back when it was current. That’s going to change.
This weekend we went to the Metropolitan Opera’s live broadcast of La Bohème at the local Galaxy theatre. And all I can say is wow. Three and a half hours that passed by like 10 minutes. The music, the sets, the voices… wow. Why hadn’t I done this sooner?
The sheer power of the presentation on the big screen is hard to describe. There’s a closeness that being at a live performance can’t provide. The cameras capture the actors in an intimate way that someone in the nosebleed seats (the kind I could afford) cannot see. Plus the intermissions provide a behind-the-curtain look at how the sets are constructed and moved into place, at how the backdrops are furled and unfurled, at how many people are involved in the performance who you never see on stage. In the theatrical version you have a sort of third-person-deity seat to see the performance unfold.
I have at least three versions of La Bohème on CD, and its major arias on several opera collection albums. I’ve heard it dozens of times. But it never moved me like this.
Wow. Just wow.
Now, I realize opera isn’t everyone’s favoured choice in music. It’s difficult for little more reason than that it’s mostly in another language (a problem resolved in the MetOpera performances because subtitles translate the libretto, although it also tends to lose the poetry in the original). Sure, there are some arias that have gained popularity thanks to their inclusion in films,** but not many, and usually as either an abbreviated background tune in orchestral form, not the sung version.
Classical music is often seen as elitist, and opera is at the far end of that: snobbish, status-based, intellectual music. Entirely unfair.
A CBS News poll published in Jan., 2018, noted that classical music was popular among only ten percent of Americans (unsurprisingly, country music was top, at 21% and jazz was a miserable seven percent). That same month, Reuters and Forbes reported a Nielsen study that declared hip-hop as America’s most popular music in a rubbish poll that never even looked at classical or jazz, let alone opera.*** And equally lame and self-serving poll in the otherwise credible New York Times, last August, similarly focused on the icons of pop music, disregarding all the other genres.
Figures on Statista (source uncited, so the credibility is suspect) suggest a somewhat different outlook: classical comes in at 15% popularity, above hip hop, R&B and Christian gospel (14%, 15% and 13%), but below “easy listening” (19%). A German survey from 2017 put classical at 11.8% but opera only at 7.7%.
Country and hip hop. The mind boggles. If that’s really popular taste, it’s no wonder Trump won the US election. (The CBS poll, however, showed hip hop and rap at only 7%, below classical, which gives me hope for the future, albeit faint…)
Opera deserves better
Opera was popular entertainment for the masses – not the elites – long before radio and TV. The stories are full of love, jealousy, politics, friendship, betrayal, redemption, death – all the stuff of human life that figure in our novels and plays. Some are grand spectacles, extravagant epics set in royal courts and foreign lands; others in mundane rooms and offices, and some, like La Bohème, are set in dingy attics and streetside cafés. In some, the clothing is grand and elegant, in others just work-a-day dress for the period.
Opera was to its time what stage musicals and later musical films have been to the 20th and 21st centuries, and sort of what MTV and music videos were to later generations: stories set to music. (Well, sure, that’s not always true of a lot of MTV and music videos – most are simply self-promoting rubbish. But some are story-driven and those few are always the best.)
But the defining difference is the voice. Operas are showcases for the tremendous capabilities and range of the human voice.
The live broadcast we watched made it easy to understand the plot – such as it is – and what the characters were singing about. Unlike movie musicals, where music (and often dance) is a highlight between sections of spoken dialogue, every line in La Bohème is sung. Want to go out for a cup of coffee? What’s to eat here? I’m freezing. Have you seen Mimi? I have to finish writing an article. All sung. Some of the most moving arias are surprisingly mundane words sung with great passion. (The word opera is short for the Italian phrase, opera in musica, which means ‘work in song.’)
The earliest piece that can be called an opera was produced in 1597, during Shakespeare’s heyday, and it has continued ever since. Opera is like any other musical genre: varied. It’s not just one style or form or sound. There are many types of opera: comic, lyric, grand, bouffe, intermède, veristic, romantic and others. Some operas have dance, others not. A Mozart opera is very different in almost every way from one by Wagner or Puccini or Verdi.
The plot in La Bohème is constricted by the format. Even with four acts, you can’t go into great depth or length because singing every line requires more time than talking. So the details are trimmed, the storyline truncated. Basically the four acts are: boy-meets girl and they fall in love, friend of boy meets old flame and they fall back in love, both couples fall out of love and separate, lovers come together and are reconciled but first girl dies. The end.
I know, I know: it seems pretty thin but it’s really rich and full of nuance and activity and passion and tears. Yes: tears. You may not be that moved hearing an aria on the radio or CD, but seeing it performed, hearing the passion in the live voices, seeing the facial expressions and reading the words so you understand what’s happening, is incredibly moving. As one musical site notes:
A complex, often costly variety of musico-dramatic entertainment, opera has attracted both supporters and detractors throughout its history and has sometimes been the target of intense criticism. Its detractors have viewed it as an artificial and irrational art form that defies dramatic verisimilitude. Supporters have seen it as more than the sum of its parts, with the music supporting and intensifying the lyrics and action to create a genre of greater emotional impact than either music or drama could achieve on its own.
There are four major performers (the two couples), two sidekicks, and two secondary characters (the landlord and the rich boyfriend) who have the main singing roles. The rest are either silent or part of the chorus. And what a chorus is it: in the second act, set on a busy Paris street with shops, street vendors and the café, there are at least 100 performers on stage at any time, many milling about, walking, browsing, sitting at tables as they would on a real street. We were stunned by the sheer number of people involved in this act.
Between acts, you are treated to scenes of stage crew moving sets (around 15 minutes per change, but worth the wait because the sets are stunning). This part alone was so fascinating I felt I could watch a show just about stagecraft and set design by itself. The Met employs about 120 workers – including carpenters and electricians – just to set up the stage, and that’s not including the costumers and designers, the orchestra, the chorus or performers. According to a 2014 story in the New York Times, the Met employs 1,600 full-time and 1,800 workers (with an annual budget of almost $300 million). And it can seat almost 4,000, according to the Daily Beast (their satellite live performances reach an estimated worldwide audience of 300-350,000, however in 70 countries).
The audience at the Galaxy was modest, filling perhaps half the available seats. And the average age was in the 60s or even 70s. I suppose it takes maturity to watch opera (we greyhairs are also audience is less likely to fidget with cell phones or natter loudly during the performances – the two reasons I generally don’t go to theatres for film these days).
But having seen one opera, we are eager to see more, to experience others in this rich genre. And we will: we’re hoping to get seats for the upcoming Cosi fan tutti and Luisa Miller operas at the local Galaxy (and while we’re at it, to see some of the Shakespeare plays also on the big screen…). It’s not inexpensive, but well worth the price. And seeing just one, my affection and respect for the Met has soared.
You may not like opera and even consider it elitist (it’s not), but believe me: see it once on the big screen and your attitude will be changed. I won’t promise you’ll walk out loving the genre, but you will certainly be more educated and appreciative, and at the very least, you will be awed and delighted by the behind-the-curtain scenes. But I also hope you will be, like me, moved to tears.
* A trip to the Toronto opera involves an overnight stay and dinner, so the cost to attend is difficult, given our reduced retirement incomes. But we will save for a future date. I am equally embarrassed to admit I’ve never seen an orchestral performance live, although I have seen small and chamber orchestras, and small classical groups live. And I have a rather large collection of classical music on both vinyl and CD, as well as listening to mostly classical music when I listen on the internet and radio. I have some catching up to do.
** I am appalled that many so-called “classical” music stations play film scores and video game themes in the same playlists as classical music. Sure, a lot of film scores are “easy” listening, and may even deserve air play, but they are no more classical music than an orchestral version of a Beatles’ tune is. They are as commercial as an ad jingle. A salient point was made by one music blogger:
Classical music’s biggest challenge is not ageing audiences, disruptive business models, institutionalised discrimination, unsatisfactory concert halls etc etc. The biggest challenge facing classical music is adapting to a society in which no one cares about anything except staying firmly within their own algorithmically defined comfort zone.
*** The Nielsen poll wasn’t based on asking people what they liked, but rather what the music industry was selling, which doesn’t actually reflect taste, just disposable income and the gnat-like attention span of pop culture. But pop music always outsells classical because it’s a market-driven industry that pushes the latest performers to sell more products. You can listen to a classic album over and over and over and never tire of it, but people tire rapidly of last year’s pop stars or the hits repeated ad nauseum on radio.
A 2016 report of music sales from Nielsen was far more inclusive, indicating both classical and jazz at only 2% of sales and streaming downloads, even below Christian gospel (a dreary genre). These surveys are, in general, bogus because they sales-based data does not definitively associate with long-term interests or trends. Simply because ketchup-flavoured chips are selling well at Wal-Marts doesn’t mean they are the nation’s favourite food.
Nielsen’s consumption-based poll said R&B was as popular as hip-hop, but they don’t mean the R&B that I grew up with, and that defined the genre – great singers like Al Green, Smoky Robinson, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, James Brown, Martha Reeves, Diana Ross or so many others – it means the derivative, pastel pap that is passed off as R&B today. And hip hop? To me, it’s country for urban dwellers: formula-istic drivel. But your mileage may differ.