Full disclosure: I grew up with opera, it’s in my blood. Not in the sense that my parents are opera singers, they are not, but Italian opera has always been a passion of theirs, something to light the way even in the darkest of times. Verdi may as well have been a part of our family. His music was there for every occasion.
Naturally, I like others to open their hearts and minds to this art form that has always meant so much to me, to all of us. It just so happens I’ve been working on converting someone, and that someone asked if I would consider writing about opera on this page. I said that ain’t my purview, nor is it my style, so we compromised. It will be in the style of sit-down conversations about opera. Right here.
Hopefully our informal discussions can work to show that opera is for everyone, regardless of background or heritage. Am I some sort of expert? No. I’m only an admirer of great works of art, of great artists, and I want to share that with others. Maybe someone else can come to see what I see.
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Francis: Welcome to this inaugural “opera chat”. Should I welcome you or should you welcome me to the blog?
Traxy: Why not both? Thank you and welcome aboard!
F: Thank you. Glad to be here.
T: So you want to spread the gospel of Verdi?
F: Not necessarily. More of a Puccini guy myself.
T: How come?
F: More my kind of stories, I guess, or my kind of people. But anyway, before I lured you over to the side of Italian opera appreciation, what was your first experience of this art form?
T: Not counting seeing The Phantom of the Opera in Stockholm when I was maybe eleven, which isn’t opera opera, it was probably a college production of Così fan tutte.
F: How did you end up seeing that?
T: I don’t remember. It was at Ljungskile Folkhögskola some time in the 1990s. We knew someone who worked there, so our families went together? Something like that?
F: Did you enjoy it?
T: I don’t even remember what it was about, but I think it must have been in Swedish. The only thing that really sticks in my mind is that my sister burst out laughing at one of the lines and nearly ended up being told off for being disruptive.
F: Was it a funny line?
T: I don’t think it was meant to be funny, it just hit her funny bone, so to speak. Sometimes you get into these laughing fits that are hard to get out of.
F: I know the ones.
T: After that, I think it was in 2001 that I went to Göteborgsoperan with my dad to see The Barber of Seville.
F: Your dad took you?
T: Technically, I think mum was meant to go with him, but for some reason she couldn’t make it. He had tickets because he worked for one of the opera house’s sponsors and it was “sponsor night”. As I was the only offspring still living at home I got to go in my mum’s stead.
F: Did you enjoy it?
T: Again, I don’t remember much, but it was nice to do something, just dad and I. I remember there being subtitles above the stage, so we understood what they were singing about.
F: I agree, subtitles are an excellent use of modern technology.
T: I don’t think my dad was really into opera, funnily enough. It wasn’t really something I’d hear him play on his sound system, and he always had something playing. It’s fair to say he loved music, and he had a large collection of classical music.
F: What kind?
T: Lots of Mozart, but considering the amount of classical composers I know the names of, I think most of them were represented to some degree. I remember the yellow Naxos label on his LPs. Then CDs came along, and he collected a bunch of those as well.
F: Would you say that you got an appreciation for classical music through your dad?
T: I’m sure it influenced me, yeah. He also liked music from the 1950s and 1960s, which I do as well. I guess we’ll always have a fondness for the music we listened to as teenagers. Both my parents are really into country music, which I’m not, so it doesn’t work all the time.
F: Well, you need some room to rebel, right?
T: Yeah. I eventually got a CD box called Hooked on Classics, which … is a thing from the early 1980s. The basic premise is that they do these classical music medleys, but they’ve added a modern synthesiser beat to it. I think the songs would have been much better without it, in fairness, but I like the medley structure. You get a little bit of everything that way.
F: Any opera in that?
T: I believe there’s a track called A Night At The Opera, yes. It’s how I could listen to Carmen on Spotify and go “hey, I recognise this one!”
F: Ah, Carmen. Now there’s another operatic heroine dying tragically.
T: Opera has a surprisingly large body count.
F: It’s big on feelings in many ways. Did you expect opera to be about love and death as much as you’ve found?
T: Yes and no? I figured it was about love, and if it’s tragic love someone is bound to die, but I didn’t quite expect the large body count. Or how opera has a way of reducing people to tears because they bring out so much emotion. Nessun dorma isn’t even a sad song, and yet I’m bawling my eyes out listening to it.
F: Lockdown did a number on a lot of people’s mental health. That might have something to do with it?
T: It might be a contributing factor, but I think a propensity to cry over other things is more to do with that. Opera is meant to be emotional, so if you cry it’s only doing its job.
F: Which opera has made you cry the most?
T: All of them?
F: Sure, but specifically?
T: Does The Phantom of the Opera count?
F: You tell me.
T: Last time I couldn’t make it more than about ten minutes before having a breakdown that made me unable to continue watching, just because I knew a certain song later in the first act would cause me to cry.
F: How come?
T: Because it always does. The heroine is singing about how much she wishes her dead father was still with her, and the person who wrote the lyrics really knew how to express that feeling of loss, put it that way. Last time I heard that song my dad was actually still alive, and … now he isn’t.
F: So now it has an even greater personal meaning to you.
F: I know you find this topic upsetting, so let’s talk about something else. We talked about Carmen, which is a French opera, and we’ve talked about Italian opera, but what about German opera? What about that Wagner guy, huh?
T: I think he has written some extremely long operas, and I don’t really know why you need an average run time of five to seven hours to tell a story. Sitting through the entirety of the Ring Cycle would basically take the better part of 24 hours.
F: And yet you’re still planning on going to see a Wagner opera next year?
T: Because a friend of ours said she bought tickets before realising maybe her husband wasn’t interested in going, so I said if he wasn’t up for it, I’d be happy to go with her. Instead it ended up being decided that the four of us are going together. But yeah, I think we’re looking at between five and six hours.
F: At least the Italians will only keep you busy for about three or four.
T: Which is great! When it’s like six hours or more that just starts to seem a little self-indulgent on the composer’s part. Like four-hour films that really didn’t need to be four hours long.
F: Which is an entirely separate discussion. How come you started watching opera over the past year anyway?
T: Because I knew you were a big fan and I wanted to see what the fuss was about. I like classical music, as we’ve established, maybe I could like opera too.
F: You could have left it at one and decided enough was enough, but you’ve kept going.
T: I guess you could say I got into it. There are so many of those titles I’ve heard of through the years, but have no idea what they’re about, and I like to expand my horizons. Like, who or what is Aida other than the title of an opera? I had no idea it was set in ancient Egypt!
F: Aida is my mother’s favourite.
T: Al Capone’s too, apparently.
F: Okay, thanks, I’ll … let her know?
T: If nothing else, it helps to have someone to discuss them with as well. Oh, and that they’re subtitled.
F: You mean you don’t speak fluent Italian yet? I’m shocked!
T: Haha, no, I don’t exactly speak any Italian, in fairness. And without the subtitles I would have struggled to make out the words in La Bohème in that English version! Subtitles are amazing, I love them.
F: We’ve already decided which opera will be the first one we’re going to discussing more in depth here, but which one is the next on our to-watch agenda?
T: Il Trovatore, I think.
F: Verdi. Nice.
T: Hopefully. Then we’ll see if we can still get Così fan tutte, or if anything new has appeared on Sky Arts, or if we have to start looking at other streaming alternatives. Either way I’m looking forward to it.
F: Well, less so if it’s 24 hours worth of German self-indulgence …
T: No, I was thinking more of the Met version of Norma?
F: That sounds a lot better. I think this will do for now. Thank you for having this inaugural opera chat with me!
T: For the sake of anyone who might be interested, what are we discussing next time?
F: Norma, the Royal Opera House version.
T: Oh gods.
F: Precisely. That one. A presto!