Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Probably my favorite part of summer--fine, probably the only part of summer I like--is the abundance of free outdoor performances. Individually, these can be hit or miss, but collectively they constitute a really great source of (usually free) entertainment for several months. A special favorite of mine in recent times is New York Classical Theatre's crazy on-location Shakespeare; Prospect Park's Celebrate Brooklyn series is also frequently a winner (Powaqqatsi with live accompaniment by Philip Glass et al, anyone?). But for this post I'll zoom in on one particular performance: the Met Opera recital yesterday at Summerstage.

This one was a bit tricky for me. I like music, and I like free events in the scenic parks of this fine city. But despite many attempts by fine and upstanding friends of mine, I am not much of an opera fan. (Though, as will not surprise regular readers of this blog, I do like some 20th century opera. Nixon in China! The Nose! On occasion I will even venture into the late 1800s with, say, Eugene Onegin.) Even with these reservations in mind, I figured a recital would prove less exacting than a fullblown opera.

My assumption turned out to be pretty well-founded. There were plenty of pieces that failed to move me (that duet from Lucia is just tooooo long), but some, like a couple of songs (can I call them songs? sorry if I am committing opera heresy) from The Magic Flute, were just plain fun. Others, like a set of Bolcom's cabaret songs, I found really compelling. And so I've spent a little bit of time trying to figure out why this was the case. I have a couple of theories.

First, the charming and talented Nathan Gunn gave some introductory remarks to the Magic Flute and Cabaret pieces. It's possible that that helped put them in context for me and made them more enjoyable. But I don't think that's the full story...

...because, earlier in the evening, M.-- bemoaned the fact that the program didn't provide plot descriptions for the pieces performed. I, however, didn't think that would put a dent in the fundamental problem--plot description or no, the lyrics are still in Italian or French or whatever. (Though I took French for many a middle-school year, my ears are not up to deciphering the operatic in anywhere near complete fashion.) This is less of a problem when you are At The Opera for real, with a program and supertitles. But even so, I think the language barrier poses a difficulty. It's funny because I've said on occasion that I prefer foreign films to English ones because I can read them (i.e. their subtitles). But for an opera, I think there's just too much going on. How can I take in the music, the plot, the set, when I'm busy just trying to decipher the words?

And so I'm left with the simple conclusion that I liked the cabaret songs more because I could understand what they were about. This must be something of an oversimplification, because I did not loooove the musical theater numbers that cropped up more near the end. (I have gradually come to realize that I don't necessarily like musicals per se; I'm just attached to ones I've worked on.) However, I do think it's an important point. Obviously, not understanding the words is not an insurmountable deterrent to the enjoyment of opera--tons of people attended the concert and I can't imagine they're all fluent in Italian; also, half the time I can't understand the words, or at least the meaning, of pop songs, and that doesn't stop me from listening. But it certainly creates an obstacle that keeps me, for one, from full enjoyment of the music.

Maybe, and I've thought this before, I just need to attend an opera a whole lot of times--once to get the sense, once to listen, once to focus on the visuals (how I wish I could have done this for The Nose especially). Though I'm not sure repeated exposure could really make me love Italian opera or, God forbid, Wagner...

(By the way, plenty more concerts and plays afoot. Hit me up if you are interested in such things!)

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