Friday, May 27, 2011

Opera Notes

My wife likes for us to attend opera, so I go. Last week it was Mozart's Magic Flute which we'd previously seen in San Jose. The Seattle Opera production was better, the role of bird-man Papageno more clarified as comic relief. Anyway, I left the hall for home with a couple of thought-themes rattling around my head:

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Opera plots normally don't have much to them. Usually there's a love interest. That serves to generate some dramatic conflict of the expected sort, but other crises and twists are sometimes inserted despite the glacial dramatic pace necessitated by the singing.

Magic Flute plays up an idealized secret society comprised of wise, superior, truth-speaking, tolerant people who ... well, it wasn't clear to me just what they did except that they were able to exercise some sort of power in what remained an imperfect world in spite of that power. Much of the second act dealt with some sort of initiation process built around the love interest. Yes, opera plots are largely fantasies, but I find the idealistic secret society bit particularly archaic from the standpoint today's world. Legends and mythology I don't mind because they are timeless, but secret societies are too rooted in history for me to be pulled into the story line easily.

Secret societies were Hot Stuff in Mozart's day and this continued through the 19th century in the form of college fraternities, sororities and non-college groups as well. What really got me was the idealistic notion that mankind could be so perfectible, at least in the form of an intellectually and morally pure elite. People in their late teens and early twenties can still buy into this notion, but life experience and the reading of history combine to make me wonder what Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder were thinking. They were young and living in the Age of Enlightenment after all. But that "relevance" to their time negated the possibility of "timelessness" to their opera. That and the utopian notion of abolishing human nature.

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Another thought. From what I've read, European audiences up until nicely into the 20th century were quite capable of expressing dislike for theatrical productions by booing, hooting and even throwing objects onto the stage. At the Seattle Opera, audiences are prone to wildly applaud almost anything and never, ever boo or hiss. In fact, the only breaks in decorum I've experienced there were some loud whoops of approval during curtain calls.

Did those Europeans know something Seattleites don't? Which kind of audience reaction is preferable when a performance is sub-par? And just how can one indicate disapproval in such a polite atmosphere? Beats me.


dearieme said...

I've been in a Scottish audience - theatre rather than opera, admittedly - where people stood up and left. Even people who won't rise to that are perfectly capable of leaving at the interval. And once I was in a theatre audience for a comedy sketch show where people simply booed a great deal.

I've heard booing at the opera in Berlin. Mind you, it was an Italian opera.

mike shupp said...

Well, there's applause and there's applause. General rule, the leading singers and the orchestra conductor always get one solo bow, no matter how lackluster the performance (toss in another for the pair of singers, another for the cast as a whole, and maybe yet another for the three principal artists). Multiple appearances before the curtain, however, won't happen unless the performers are genuinely persuaded by the volume and manner of applause that their public does indeed wish to bestow a compliment.

At least, that's the way it has always looked to me.

Donald Pittenger said...

dearieme -- I notice that some Seattle opera attendees leave for good during one intermission or another. But it's hard to tell why. Previous commitment? They attend opera to show off, so put in a token appearance? They're too sensitive to handle the near-obligatory death scene at the end? Or just maybe they don't like the performance.

Mike -- Interesting point. A curtain call is a must, but its duration is a variable. I will pay attention to this in the future.