130 – Kacenka’s Unconventional Guide to Opera (for Curious Beginners)

I must have been 15 or thereabouts, because I was already attending high school. There’s a theatre in the provincial town where I grew up, but it doesn’t have a permanent company, therefore the programe consists of performances of companies on tour from the capital or other bigger theatres. I was of course an annoying culture freak already as a teenager, and I’d see any play on the bill. I even had a boyfriend I’d drag along to every show back then. The poor guy was probably hoping for more than a kiss and a lift home, but I was blissfully oblivious to his hormonal activity and strangely unaffected by mine. To the point that when my mum tried to have that conversation and hinted to get me on the pill, I was thinking: “why would I need a pill to go to the theatre?”. Well, I made up abundantly for that lost occasion in the years that followed, possibly in quality of physical interaction, although on human level, he might have been the nicest and the most normal guy I ever dated. And so it happened that one night, Terrence McNally’s Masterclass was showing, a play where Maria Callas, the greatest soprano of all times, in the late years of her life gives a singing class to three students, explaining why simply singing is not good enough and in the meanwhile recounts the tragedy of her personal life. It was the first time I heard classical singing live, and I was mesmerised. After that night, I started reading up on opera, buying records…learning Italian. One could say that opera determined my future more than anything else, because if it wasn’t for the seemingly noble cause of “learning Italian because I want to understand the librettos”, I would have most likely avoided several rather unpleasant situations involving Italian men. On the other hand, I would have probably made many equally appalling mistakes involving men with other passports, so all’s good. At least they know how to cook in Italy. It could have been so much worse.

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L’Elisir d’Amore, Teatro Real, Madrid, 2019

And thus, the longest love affair of my life started. I’m back to music, by the way. It was like that “Do you like opera?” moment in Philadelphia. Love at first sight… sound. You don’t even need to necessarily know the story or understand the words, everything is already in the music, and when a single tone can touch your soul and make your heart beat faster, it’s just, well, perfect. Enough gushing. Fun fact (one you may not have experienced in real life): a true love never abandons you. True love knows no betrayal. True love always rushes to your rescue, when the times turn hard. In the current situation, the opera houses went dark for coronavirus closure, but not silent. You know how you people always moan that opera is expensive (which it is, true, but then there are over a hundred musicians on the stage and in the pit performing live, plus all the technicians), how you won’t understand the story, how you don’t have anything to wear, how there are no theatres near you? Rejoice, for these obstacles exist no more. Every cloud has a silver lining, goes the saying. For some people this may mean the free access to premium porn in some countries, for me it’s the fact that most major theatres in the world are streaming their productions for free (with subtitles). World’s most prestigious stages directly to your living room. Give it a go. Few links:

  • Wiener Staatsoper Vienna: a new performance added every day, available for 72 hours. Registration is needed, but no payment required.
  • Teatro Massimo Palermo: free streams available for 24 hours from the theatre’s home page.
  • Teatro Reale San Carlo Napoli: the house airs some of the old performances every three days at 8 pm CET on their social media pages (follow the link to see the programme)
  • Teatro La Fenice Venezia: puts a new stream on their Youtube channel every few days
  • OperaVision: this platform collects various performances from minor opera houses around the world. They also have a great section for people new to opera.
  • Staatsoper Unter den Linden Berlin: a different stream every day
  • Opera de Paris: a lot of digital content available on their website for free, but only in France. That vpn that you bought because you’re paranoid and definitely not to watch free porn may come in handy.
  • Royal Opera House London publishes some content on their website and Youtube channel, possibly something more in the BBC iPlayer, which would only be accessible from the UK (if you pay TV license).
  • I am certain many other houses joined this great initiative, and it is not my intention to hurt anybody’s feeling (for once), I will just mention one more: last but not least, Metropolitan Opera New York, who airs a different opera from their Met in HD series for free every night (7.30 NY time, so midnight here), available for 23 hours. Met in HD started in 2006, so they have a large catalogue of sublime performances to pick from.
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Il Trovatore premiere, Teatro Real, Madrid 2019

Music has made my prison bearable. When else was I going to see two top productions a day for free? Although, I suspect the stir craziness must be creeping in, because I applaud when the conductor arrives to the pit and I cheer the singers after the important arias and at curtain calls, I am moved to tears by their voices. To great joy of my neighbours, I sing along (all roles). I cry at crucial moments, and it’s not like something unexpected happens in the story, given I have seen or heard most of the operas before. I guess it’s going to be really serious when I start dressing up and putting make-up on before opening the Metropolitan’s web page. 

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Poliuto at Glyndebourne opera festival, with my friend Amanda, Glyndebourne, 2015. It must have been a bit chilly, clearly

Opera, above all, is a great source of knowledge and life experience, for it teaches us, that the male of the species has always been – apart from the obvious contribution to the reproduction of the species – utterly useless. I am now going to comment on random operas I have seen in the last few weeks. If any of you is still wondering whether opera is for you, hopefully my sarcastic remarks will awaken your curiosity and help you overcome your reluctance. After all, it’s just like Netflix: there is a story for everyone, only with better music. 

Short frame that fits most operas: If it’s a comedy, then it ends well, at least if you consider “happily ever after” a happy ending and not a threat, and the lead soprano marries the lead tenor. In other types of tragedy, the soprano and the tenor (who is normally useless) love each other very much, but are prevented from being with each other by the lead baritone (who is often repulsive, but at least not an idiot). At the end, the soprano dies, sometimes along with everybody else. So, the first lesson to be learned: The lead female never goes unpunished for her actions, good or bad, real or perceived, the lead man dies a heroic death. Sounds familiar, no?

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Aida in Holland Park Opera with my presciousssss friend Guido, London, 2015

The soundtrack to the first week of confinement consisted of all the major crowd pleasers the Metropolitan Opera included in their live streams, showcasing their major stars. Spoilers ahead:

Carmen (Georges Bizet) – I’ve always thought that if you’ve never been to an opera, Carmen is a great starting point. A gypsy girl gets involved with an officer, mainly because he initially shows no interest in her (rejection creates obsession, a mental note to the author of this blog). The guy is playing way out of his league and when he is rightly replaced, he cannot handle it. Ladies should take to heart some of Carmen’s tips about managing a break up: basically the hair of the dog that bit you…. Also, the piece clearly shows that when men catch a sniff of what’s between a woman’s legs, their brains go in short circuit. Shocker. Few years ago, Teatro Comunale in Florence had the bright idea to alter the opera’s ending and let Carmen survive. Their intention was fighting gender violence, which is the same nonsense as excluding Moby Dick from school curriculum for animal cruelty, because the murder is not the main problem. The real issue is men unable to handle rejection.

La Bohème (Giacomo Puccini) – the opera’s runner-up celebrity consumptive (seems appropriate to the current situation). The classic “boy meets girl”, boy’s a bigmouth and full of shit, girl believes him, but she also happens to be dying of tuberculosis, which the boy (who is only good at talking) cannot handle, so he (totally unexpectedly) starts behaving like a class A cock. When he finally grows a pair and starts acting like half a man, guess what? She dies.

Il Trovatore (Giuseppe Verdi) – If there is a guy hanging around under your window at night, something’s off. If there’s two of them, run. Just run.

La Traviata (Giuseppe Verdi) – the story of the most famous consumptive of all times. Has a guy ever asked you how many men were there before him? They all do, don’t they? (Never, ever, under any circumstance reveal the real number. Or any other number.) And then they act like they’re cool with it, that whatever has been, has been, and that the important thing is the present. Well, not only they don’t mean it, but the day will come when they’ll treat you like damaged goods. That’s the bottom line of the Traviata: even if God forgives, man never does.

La Fille du Regiment (Gaetano Donizzetti) – a genuinely funny opera, where no one dies, the story is bonkers, the music beautiful and there’s a girl with an entire regiment at her service. (If you’ve never seen an opera, this too is perfect for beginners.)

Lucia di Lammermoor (Gaetano Donizzetti) – the commentators commonly assess Lucia as a victim of men and circumstances. What’s the poor girl supposed to do? Stuck in Scottish marshes, falls in love with the only man around who she probably isn’t related to (therefore a sworn enemy), who sings one aria and swiftly legs it abroad in pursuit of political ambition, as they do, because there is always some pressing issue that requires their presence. He conveniently reappears at the worst possible moment as Lucia is married off to someone else (this time as a token of her brothers political ambition). Careless about politics, Lucia proceeds with the quickest marriage dissolution in the history of performing arts: with a little help of a dagger (and then pleads insanity). A word of advice, gentlemen: if your bride brings a sharp object to the bedroom on the wedding night, she’s either into some serious role playing, or she doesn’t like the idea of being married to you very much.

Eugen Onegin (Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky) – you meet a mysterious man, cultured and refined, that is for some reason single. The reason being no one can stand him. Or he has commitment issues. Or most likely both. And then he breaks your heart, making it sound like he’s doing you a favour (which he is, because it’s a bullet dodged). And then years later, he comes around scouting the terrain, curious whether the door might still be open. When this happens, you have to do exactly as Tatyana did: tell him to kindly fuck off. Because don’t be fooled: the guy still has the same commitment issues, but the knowledge that if he wanted, he could, is enough for his ego. Prick. Standing ovation for Tatyana!

Tosca (Giacomo Puccini) – one of the rare pieces where the tenor is not totally useless. Of course, the story is structured in a way that is seems Tosca’s pathological jealousy is solely responsable for the entire mess, but ladies, don’t be fooled. If you suspect your partner is cheating on you, then he probably is. The chance that the person he’s hiding in his summer house is not a lover twenty years his junior, but a political refugee recently evaded from prison, is literally zero.

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La Bohème at the Royal Opera House, London, 2015

Week two – the Met decided to bring out the heavy artillery. I know that every true opera lover adores Richard Wagner, and I do enjoy the music (in small doses) I just cannot bring myself to endure 5 hours excluding intervals in the theatre. Therefore at first I welcomed the “Wagner week” at the Met, as this was going to be the only chance I was ever going to get to see the Ring in its integrity, given all this time on my hands. The thing is, it’s the story that isn’t all that exciting. If a composer writes 16 hours of music, one would expect at least a little bit elaborate plot. But Rheingold: literally nothing happens. It’s like the first episode of a new season season of Game of Thrones, when two years have passed since the previous one, so they just have to remind you who is who. A dwarf renounces love to steal some gold and casts it into a ring that will give the wearer the power to rule the world. Die Walküre: over two hours (out of total five) to tell us that Siegmund wants to shag his sister (knowing she is his sister, I told you this was like GOT), then he does (off stage) and further two hours later comes the only exciting bit of the opera. Siegfried: five hours of faffing about slaying a dragon (alas, off stage again) before the story reaches the narrative point: the only thing Siegfried (fruit of the incestuous liaisons from the previous episode) is afraid of is, wait for it, a (sleeping) woman. Obviously. Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods): our hero who made it to the season’s finale reveals himself a treacherous weasel (they blame his change of character on a magic potion, because men acting like twats on their own account are unheard of, magic needs to be involved). Then everyone left alive dies in a spectacular blaze and the audience is left with an urge to conquer Poland.

Romeo and Juliette (Charles Gounod) – Clearly, fake news were a thing even in the middle ages. So people, if you hear a story, always – ALWAYS – confirm it from several independent sources before acting upon it. Also if you think that faking your own death is a good way to achieve being with your sweetheart, make sure he understands the plan, because, well, they are not very bright, are they.

Elisir d’Amore (Gaetano Donizzetti) – our lead tenor is a nice guy head over heels about young local entrepreneur Adina, who on the other hand doesn’t give a flying toss (because, let’s admit it ladies, we don’t really like the nice guys). After ignoring her relationships advices, like “sod the faithful love, changing lovers every day works just fine for me”, the guy gets hammered, in a fit of dutch courage discovers he has testicles, and everything works out just fine. Alcohol: helping people to have sex since the dawn of time.

Madama Butterfly (Giacomo Puccini) – CioCio-san is a 15 years old geisha marrying an american naval officer, who reveals himself a complete arsehole in the first sentence he speaks (on top of being absolutely fine with shagging someone barely out of their childhood). True to this premise, he knocks her up and promptly pisses off, which for him means the marriage is over (omitting to mention it to the poor girl), only to return three years later with his new american bride. Still unable to act like a normal human being, he sends his wife to deal with the ex (basically, to take away her son, adding an insult to the injury). Ciocio-san instead of using the dagger to rid the arsehole of his jewels, which would be the right thing to do, to prevent him from reproducing his genes if nothing else, sadly commits seppuku.

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La Fille Mal Gardée at the Metropolitan Opera with my best friend Eva (so technically Deux Filles Mal Gardées), New York, 2016

Norma (Vincenzo Bellini) – the lesson to be learned here is “never trust Italian men”. Technically, this one’s a Roman, but that only proves that they were not to be trusted long before Italy even existed. The rest of the story is a classic: two children later, Norma is exchanged for a younger model. While having the sleazebag executed is perfectly understandable, killing herself alongside him may be a bit of an overreaction.

Macbeth (Giuseppe Verdi) – I think we are all familiar with the infamous power-thirsty king of Scotland. When baritone Željko Lučić was interviewed about his role few years back, he gave this short (yet somewhat unsurprising) statement: “It’s all her fault”. Course it is.

Turandot (Giacomo Puccini) – last but not least (this post is getting long), opera’s twat-in-chief. A prince travels incognito to another country because he heard there’s a princess who doesn’t want to marry. She clearly has better things to do, like run an empire. To make her point, she slays her suitors. I mean, it’s not hard to get the message, right? Something like: I am not ready for a serious relationship, back off. Mate, there’s a pile of corpses in the garden, which bit did you not get? But no, one hair of a woman draws more than a pair of oxen (woman being a synecdoche here). Our hero spares no cost in pursuit of the princess’s virginity, including getting his old father killed in the process, along with a girl who for some reason sincerely loves him (I guess appalling taste in men is something a lot of us have in common).

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Turandot at Expo 2015 season gala opening, La Scala, Milano, 2015
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and the dress in full

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sarcastic comments apart, I hope I managed to make you laugh a little bit and awaken your curiosity about opera. May the music (any music) make your confinement more bearable.


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