I was a latecomer to opera, not falling under its spell until my late forties. Why? Well, to my mind back then, opera was a foreign world, a musical universe in an orbit all its own. Countless opera fans worldwide treat this 400-year-old art form as a quasi-religion. They know the arcana of each opera’s composition, its performance history, major historical figures and hold passionate beliefs about how the music should be played and each aria should be sung. Such cult-like devotion, combined with opera’s centuries-old association with society’s aristocracy, made me think a guy from the West (not East) Side of Manhattan wouldn’t find opera to my liking.
Guys, don’t repeat my mistake and postpone discovering opera until late in life, or not at all. Let me offer several reasons that may convince young Chicago males to give opera a try.
Singers Are Athletes
When the weekend hits, most young men’s thoughts turn to sports. During the fall and winter opera season, that means the Bears and the Bulls. Compared to Derrick Rose or Devin Hester, opera may seem like a long shot. However, opera singers are athletes in their own right.
Like athletes, opera singers’ instruments are their voices. To be able to project their voice out to the rafters of the upper balcony’s last row without aid of a microphone is an athletic feat comparable to a running back or a marathon runner. All require great lung capacity, stamina and physicality. “These guys (and ladies) are strong,” says Roger Pines, the dramaturg at Lyric Opera for the past 15 years. “(To sing) Puccini or Verdi is a huge feat of singing force and power.”
I used to think the plots of most opera’s were outdated and overly melodramatic. They may seem so in reading the bare plot summaries but, on stage, the stories and emotions come alive in a larger-than-life way. You want stories about love, lust for power, sex, tales of the gods or the meaning of life? Opera has them all in spades. As Metropolitan Opera trustee and major donor, Agnes Varnis,
commented recently, “The opera’s like Broadway, only better. It’s got sex, it’s got incest, it’s got rape. You introduce young people to music, you’ve got them for life.”
Better than Broadway
Ms. Varnis’ non-PC remark hit the nail for me. Over the past five years, on semi-annual trips to New York, my hometown, I’ve bypassed Broadway in favor of seeing an opera at the Met. Such a choice has become a no-brainer because most Broadway musicals are retreads or not very engaging. And now that opera managers are engaging many more directors with theater experience, like Chicagoans Barbara Gaines or Gary Griffin, to stage new productions, the results on stage are more imaginative and gripping.
Opera usually has more complex, imaginative sets, richer costumes and a full orchestra of at least 80 members rather than a pared-down ensemble of fewer than 15 musicians. And the ticket cost differential is almost non-existent with premium Broadway seats going for $250 and up.
Better Date Cred
Tell that lady you’re trying to impress and move your relationship to the next level that you’ve got tickets to the Goodman and she’ll be pleased. But tell her to dress up because you’re taking her to Lyric Opera or The Met and your stock jumps dramatically. She may now see you in a brighter light, as being more sophisticated and with definite mating potential.
More Eye Candy
Besides staging more theatrically-attuned productions, major opera companies are busy retiring the old stereotype of the “Fat Lady” from the legendary expression, “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings”.
The days of Montserrat Caballe and Jane Eaglen-type leading ladies are numbered. That was the message conveyed in 2004 when a director at London’s Royal Opera House dropped Deborah Voigt from a production of Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos”, because she was unable to fit into a tiny black dress. Ms. Voight, seeing which way the opera winds were blowing, subsequently underwent gastric bypass surgery and has resumed her top rank as a slimmer, but no less dramatic, diva.
So, men, if you crave slim, believable, beautiful leading ladies, you now have divas such as Joyce DiDonato, Ana Maria Martinez, Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca and many others to galvanize your attention and win your heart. At the present time, through October 30, you can be mesmerized by the stunning Nadja Michael who is playing Lady Macbeth to a tee at Lyric Opera. I watched in fascination last week as Ms. Michael, sheathed in a super-sexy thigh-high slit dress, gave a tour de force vocal performance driving Macbeth to murderous mayhem. It was easy to see why Macbeth was a goner. What man could resist a woman of such wicked wiles?
Opera now offers more ogling opportunities for young males than in decades past and less excuse for dozing off after Act One. And, during intermission, keep your eyes peeled for attractive, unaccompanied females who might be looking for their next opera arm candy as well.
For those five reasons, I urge 21-35 year-old men to give opera a chance. It’s not your parents’ opera anymore. Creative general managers like Peter Gelb in New York along Bill Mason and Brian Dickie here in Chicago are re-configuring it to appeal to a wider audience to insure its survival. The music and the voices must certainly remain the primary driving force. But there are many changes that are being made to modernize and replace practices grown stale and reinvigorate the mission.
If you’re a neophyte, take in that timeless tale of passion and fickle love, Georges Bizet’s “Carmen”, Lyric’s next production. See why this tale of a sex-bomb, gypsy seductress is the world’s most popular opera. Katherine Goeldner (October-November performances) or Nadia Krasteva (March) should get your hormones racing. You can even fantasize that, while Don Jose didn’t have the cojones to tame Carmen’s love ‘em and leave ‘em ways, she might have met her match in you.
Note: If your knowledge of the operas at Lyric this season is rudimentary or nil, you can get up to speed by attending one or more of the six remaining talks in Lyric’s Discovery Series, led by Roger Pines. The next one is Nov. 8th on “A Masked Ball.” Call Lyric at 312/332-2244 to register. For tickets: www.LyricOpera.org.