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A NIGHT AT THE OPERA

 

 

 

 

I turned off the television following a re-broadcast of “Schindler’s List.”  Though I’ve seen it several times over the years it always leaves me speechless for a while.

“That wasn’t much fun,” I finally said to my wife, Katie.

“There’s more to art than just enjoyment,” she sagely responded.

“I know,” I said, like a petulant child. “But who aims to torture the audience?”

We smiled at each other and said, at the same moment:  “Iris.”

 

*****

During a visit to Rhinecliff, NY last summer, our friends, Donna and Rick, invited us to join them to see an opera at Bard, the local college, where a Frank Gehry-designed concert hall anchors a scenic campus.  Though fond of classical music, I’d never attended an opera in person.  When I heard about the evening, I assumed we’d be seeing one of the anchors of the repertoire, something by Puccini or Verdi or Mozart.  Boy, was I surprised!

 

*****

 

“Who?” I said.

“Mascagni is the composer,” said Katie.

“I’ve never heard of him,” I said.

“I’m sure the opera will be enjoyable,” she said.  “After all, it’s a summer college presentation called ‘Iris.’  It’s probably a comedy.”

“That’s true,” I agreed.  Mascagni, I speculated, was probably a pop sensation in the 1890’s.  We shared a great dinner with Donna and Rick and then drove to campus. After admiring the beautiful setting and building, we filed inside.  We found our seats, the lights dimmed and the orchestra commenced an overture both melodic and romantic.

“This will be nice,” I thought.

Suddenly, the melody stopped and a discordant murmur issued from the strings.  The curtain lifted to reveal two performers, a man and a woman, dressed in rags. They appeared distraught, thrashing and wailing while hidden figures above them atop a wall ripped pieces of paper and dropped them, like confetti, on the performer’s heads.  For several moments this activity held my interest. Unfortunately, it continued for twenty minutes.

Katie and I looked at each other and fought the urge to laugh, as though we were Mary Richards at the funeral of Chuckles the Clown.  (If you’ve never seen it, go to YouTube).  The “action,” if that is the right word, never changed much over the next two hours. Rags and debris, cries and moans, deaths and dismemberments.

Occasionally, the music swelled with snippets of melody, but they never lasted long.  What kept us in our seats was the expectation that relief must be on the way.   A happy ending must be just around the corner.  But, no, Mascagni had different ideas.

At intermission, during which a sizable portion of the audience departed, I read the detailed program notes. Mascagni, it turns out, had early success.  His opera, “Cavalleria Rusticana,” remains a beloved favorite to this day.  But he came to believe applause during his operas was insulting and intrusive.  Therefore, he constructed his later works to minimize the possibility of adulation.  Each time the music in “Iris” built towards conventional beauty, Mascagni brought it down with a crash.  Any time a singer appeared to be on the verge of an ovation, he or she retreated offstage to be replaced by a scene both ugly and sad.

“How did ‘Iris’ become popular?” I wondered.

It didn’t, is the answer provided by the program.  Its most recent revival was in the 1930’s in Europe when, perhaps, discordance seemed de rigeur.  Personally, I will be surprised if “Iris” is revived again in this millennium.

As to Mascagni, he was confident his new ascetic aesthetic would become popular.  He felt “purity” was a virtue greater than “beauty.”  It’s not up to me to declare he’s wrong.  Time has told the tale.  Mascagni’s contemporaries, like Puccini and Verdi, are still famous and beloved.  Beyond his youthful “popular” works, Mascagni is forgotten.

 

*****

 

Following the opera, Rick and Donna took us to an on-campus tavern and performance space.  A rock band played loudly while a mostly college-age crowd danced and drank.  Normally, this is not my scene and I would seek a fast exit.  But this time, I enjoyed watching everyone have fun.  The mood was festive.

“Sorry about the opera,” said Rick. “We had no idea.”

“No problem,” I said.  “I suffered for two hours but gained a memory to last a lifetime.”

 

 

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BASHFUL LIPS

Only through default and seniority did I find myself the first trumpet in my high school orchestra. It was not that the other two trumpeters had more talent or less talent than I; it was that NONE of us had any talent whatsoever. So, since I was the only senior, I was designated first chair. As such, when the holiday show loomed, I was responsible for playing the melody line for a brass quartet that serenaded the audience with Christmas carols as they found their seats.
Our quartet stood in the rear corner of the gymnasium beneath a practice basketball hoop and adjacent to the restrooms. The guests were mostly adults, accompanied by their children, who had been urged to attend by their teachers. While holiday shows at schools with major musical arts programs are doubtlessly entertaining, perhaps even thrilling, my small school produced a show more out of habit and obligation than inspiration. Accordingly, I approached my star turn unenthusiastically. Since the carols were familiar and musically simple, my conscious anxiety level was minimal.
My sub-conscious apparently felt differently. As Mrs. Arditi, the Spanish teacher/orchestra conductor lowered her baton to launch our version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” I pursed my lips over the mouthpiece, positioned my tongue properly between my teeth, blew, and… absolutely no sound issued forth.
The trombone and second trumpet beside me soldiered on, “boo, ba, boo, ba,” etc. Even Jimmy Prall, the French hornist who had never in his life hit a note cleanly and on time, was producing sounds. But from the first trumpet, nothing, nada, zilch.
People turned to stare. Mrs. Arditi appeared to be apoplectic, her face contorting as her eyes grew huge. “Boo, ba, boo, ba,” my cohorts continued. I blew harder and… nothing. I became tenser and tenser, my face red with embarrassment and exertion, but still, not a sound. I took the trumpet from my lips for a moment and tried to separate from my own body. I thought it might help if I could witness the calamity that was occurring to me as though it were happening to someone else. I glanced around for an escape route. I feared Mrs. Arditi might faint.
The “Merry Gentlemen” finally rested, though my non-performance meant that no one in the audience was aware of the identity of the intended piece. My three cohorts turned towards me and tried desperately to stifle laughter. Mrs. Arditi instructed us to turn to “We Three Kings of Orient Are” and screwed up her face as though to beg my cooperation.
I shrugged helplessly, hoping for a better result. Alas, none came. Our quartet commenced another carol without a melody. I pursed my lips. I sucked in more air. I blew harder. Nothing. Some of the audience began to titter and point. Mrs. Arditi stopped us in the middle.
“I’m so sorry,” she announced to the audience. I heard some scattered applause and relieved laughter. But most people quickly returned their attention to their conversations and their
search for seats. I knew that my musical performance career had ended that evening. The next day, I saw Mrs. Arditi in the hallway and told her I was sorry.
“What happened?” she asked.
Lacking any explanation, I decided to try humor. “I thought I was playing ‘Silent Night.’”
For some reason, she was not amused.