Note: When I say such things as "my love of opera," I do not meant to imply that I actually know anything particularly about opera. I've never studied it, certainly can't sing it (Ha!), and have only seen maybe half a dozen live operas in my life. But lack of official knowledge has not prevented me from developing a love for this most wonderful of all musical genres. So, let me take you for a little stroll down memory lane . . .
My first encounters with opera were probably not all that unlike your own. I was brought up on Looney Tunes cartoons, and there is nothing Bugs Bunny likes lambasting as much as a good opera. (I mean, does anybody ever listen to Ride of the Valkyries anymore without unconsciously muttering, "Kill da wabbit, kill da wabbit, kill da WABBIT"?) Much as I still appreciate the humor of those cartoons, I will admit that they helped instill the idea in my head that the grand opera was really quite a laughable affair and not meant to be taken seriously. All fat ladies bursting at the seems and sweaty gentlemen grumbling about death and whatnot. Not particularly interesting.
Oh, how wrong I was!
My first serious encounter with opera happened when I was eleven years old and I came upon a simple piano version of the Puccini aria, "Omia Babbino Caro." I learned to play it and thought it perhaps the most beautiful song I had ever heard!
Several years later, feeling a bit embarrassed because opera wasn't "cool," I asked for a Puccini CD for Christmas. Upon receiving it, I snuck down to my room (and my little black boom box) and popped it in, eager to see if the sung version of the song was a match for the piano tune I knew and loved.
And so I was introduced to Kiri Te Kanawa and her rendition of this song.
I was absolutely breathtaken! Who would have thought a human voice could sound like that? Who would have thought a song, so simple and short, could pack so much emotion?
Thus a certain curiosity was wetted. Maybe opera wasn't such a laughing matter after all? Maybe Bugs Bunny didn't have it all figured out . . .
Soon afterwards, I had the opportunity to attend a performance of The Barber of Seville. During that performance I learned another wonderful thing: Opera can be both breathtaking and hilarious! I mean, why did Bugs Bunny need to spoof anything? The original is much funnier.
Even the tragic operas aren't all about tragedy. I was introduced to an old movie that featured this particular song from Gounod's Romeo et Juliette, and I was swept away in the melody's effusive joy!
Oh, but the tragedy in opera is real. The thing is . . . it's not necessarily all worthy of mockery. The first time I heard Puccini's (yes, Puccini again . . . he really is my favorite by a long shot) "Un Bel Di" from Madame Butterfly, I wept. The heartbreaking longing this woman expresses in these soaring movements . . . you don't have to understand the words to feel her pain and her desperation as she insists to her handmaiden: "One fine day, we will see . . . He will return!"
I still cry every time I hear that song. If I could ever learn to write the kind of emotion Puccini puts into his music then I will consider myself a true novelist!
The next song is a special one to me for a slightly different reason. I was a bit obsessed with this number right around my freshman and sophomore year of college (No, I was not a cool kid at school. I was so weird in fact that I was interviewed as an "international student," and had a difficult time explaining to the interviewer that I was from Wisconsin. Sigh).
Anyway, the song. This amazing piece by Saint-Saens is the absolute epitome of all things romantic.
Suddenly French class meant a whole lot more than it had!
Okay, I'm sure I've inflicted enough opera on you for a lifetime. But there are so MANY wonderful pieces I would love to share. This doesn't even scratch the surface of the beauty, emotion, humor, and drama to be found in this wide and wonderful world. I'll end now, however, with a song that even non-opera lovers know and love.
If forced to pick a favorite operatic piece, "Nessun Dorma" by Puccini (yes! Puccini again) would probably be it. I had the privilege of seeing a performance of Turandot live the summer before going away to college. And while my companions tended to laugh at the gaudy costuming, the plump soprano, the staging, the effects, the dramatics . . . I sat there weeping at the brilliance of this music I had already learned to love, performed in context by amazingly talented men and women who had studied for years to achieve the vocal control necessary to communicate such tremendous feeling.
I ruined a good pair of white gloves that night wiping away mascara (because, yes, one must wear long white gloves to the opera).
So there you have it: a smattering of my musical love. Are any of you fans of the opera? Any pieces you'd like to share?