Monday, October 29, 2007

A Night At the Opera

One of the more obvious advantages to being a grad student, apart from the poverty-level income and institutionalized servitude, is the flexible schedule; working yourself into a blurry, caffeine-fueled, jargon-filled haze can be done at any time of the day or night. (Who am I kidding? Night. Night before it's due.) This means that when a friend emails mid-afternoon and says something along the lines of, hey, I'm free tonight, let's go to the opera, you can think, well, I was going to sit here in this chair all day transcribing, sure, why don't I go into the city and buy some opera tickets? And then, in the space of an hour, you can throw on a fancy dress, pack up your laptop, hop on the train, and move the whole analyzing-Sundanese-front-vowels operation to another chair, this one in the San Francisco Public Library, to wait for the opera to start.

My friend Steve is the opera fanatic; I'm the one with a student ID card. Last Thursday, it was a match made in heaven: I wandered into the San Francisco opera house shortly after he emailed and wandered out with two tickets to that night's performance of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), in the 9th row of the orchestra section, for $25 each, thus saving us--well, him--$125 a ticket.

I was quite excited about the evening, partially because I got to wear my fancy black cleavage-baring dress, partially because I do love me a Stevening, and partially because I have always wanted to go to the opera. And, really, if you have to start someplace with opera, where better than Die Zauberflöte? This was especially true for me, since I spent a large portion of my childhood falling asleep to "Mozart's Magic Fantasy," a version of The Magic Flute adapted for children, which means that I entered the opera house with a knowledge of the plot, a love for the music, and a strange subconscious expectation that all the songs would be in English. (Childhood habits die hard, apparently.)

Not, of course, that a cursory knowledge of the plot helped me anyway--I spent about the first half of the opera thinking, huh? before I realized that it wasn't my fault: The Magic Flute is, as far as I can tell from reading about it later, trippy. Maybe it was partially the fault of the performance, which emphasized the bright and happy fairy tale aspects to the piece, at the expense of the moralistic good-and-evil tone that it acquires in the second half; while Papageno's comedy bits were spot on, by which I mean brilliant, and had the audience--at an opera!--laughing out loud--at an opera!--this tendency to laughter whenever Papageno was on stage made the meaning behind the tragic arias of the young lovers, and Sarastro's preachy bass solos slightly, well, risible.

This may be a pity, perhaps, if you go to the opera for your moral education. For the rest of us, though, and you may decide I'm a total Philistine for saying this, the entertainment and musical value of such a piece matters far more. The tragic arias, particularly Pamina's solo "Ach, ich fühl's, es ist verschwunden," were beautiful, and Sarastro's bass rumbled appropriately in songs like "O Isis und Osiris," accompanied by a chorus dressed in shiny golden robes and purple plastic wigs, like ancient Egypt as envisioned by the costume director for Star Trek. That may sound strange, and I know it does, but it was strangely beautiful, all that gold and purplish-blue floating about on stage. Also strangely beautiful were the gilded boat floating high above the stage and carrying the three young boys whose light young voices acted as a sort of chorus ex machina, preventing characters from suicide and despair; the enormous pyramid in the center of the stage, whose between-scene transformations set the stage, quite literally, for varying aspects of the plot and music; and the host of enchanted hybrid animals who appeared as Tamino played his magic flute, the crocoguin, and the giraffestich, and the whole pride of upright lions, prancing and swaying their way across the stage to the rhythm of the music. Strange, yes, but it was beautiful, all of it, and magical indeed.

And not strange at all, of course, was the beauty of the Queen of the Night's famous aria "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen." I know my love for this song probably marks me as shallow and inexperienced, but I will freely admit to being the sort of opera neophyte that is utterly blown away by a human voice singing notes that high. If the stage design was the magic, this aria is the flute; even while watching Erika Miklosa's diaphragm move during the coloratura passage, I could hardly believe it was her singing that. And during every single one of the many minutes since Thursday I've devoted to watching YouTube videos of the piece, I've thought the same thing: incredible. Simply incredible. I get chills every time.

Whatever else I could say about the performance--the acting was good, the pace maybe could have used a little work, the singer playing Pamina was upstaged in nearly every scene--let me end with this: I sat through the entire three hours without once being bored. Sure, the little grad student voice inside my head was whispering the whole time, "Sundanese! Sundanese! Why aren't you transcribing?" and the little Bruce Willis fan voice inside my head was whispering, "Why isn't she blue, à la The Fifth Element?" and the little linguistics grad student voice inside my head was whispering, most insistently of all, "Listen to those people mangle their palatal fricatives! Palatal, people, palatal! Not post-alveolar! Aaaargh!" but, really, what are a Protestant work ethic, a love for action movies, and a trained ear for fricatives when compared to Mozart? Nothing. The performance may not have been perfect in every way, but the opera is, and, in the end, my evening was. Thank goodness for a flexible schedule.


Anonymous said...

that sounds like fun! when my best friends and i lived in the same city, we'd take full advantage of student discounts and see the symphony a lot (we know one of the first violins, and made him feel like a rock star whenever we went). and since UGA doesn't have an expiration sticker on their ID cards, i full intend to take advantage of more student discounts for another year or two, despite having graduated. should i feel bad about this? ...nah.

Jan said...

Thanks for a vicarious trip to the opera. . . and for a great example of what a good conclusion should be. May I borrow it for show-and-tell?

ambrosia ananas said...

I look at this title, and then I have Les Mis stuck in my head the rest of the day.

Glad you got to go to the opera.

thefinitemonkey said...

Wow. Way too bad you're all the way across the country from me, because from your writing you sound like the woman of my dreams!