I've spent a lot of time at the opera the last couple of weeks.
Actually, I haven’t actually been at the opera. More accurately, the opera has been coming to my house, thanks, of course, to the internet, which is gradually taking over entertainment these days.
It all started when I learned — by way of the internet, naturally — of a free app that I could download to my trusty iPad or iPhone. The app would allow me to check out the catalog of the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York, and choose an opera from a long list of videoed live performances by the Met. I could watch a few operas free for a week, and if I decided I enjoyed them, I could pay them a few bucks and watch operas for a whole month.
OK, I thought, I’ll give this a try. Over the next two weeks, I managed to watch six operas, composed by six different composers in three different languages, one of which I actually speak. Six operas is, to the best of my memory, one more opera I had watched in my life prior to my discovery of this app. I remember a touring performance of “The Barber of Seville,” when I was in college, three operas in Billings and one Christmas performance of “Ahmad and the Night Visitors” brought to Worland by community concerts.
Some of you are probably wondering, “Why would anyone watch even one opera, let alone six in two weeks?”
Well, I don’t really have a good answer for that, exactly. I do like the music, especially the aria Nessun Dorma, even though it’s sung in Italian. I have enough residual high-school Latin to know it’s something about sleep, but otherwise, I’m not sure what the tenor singing it is talking about. However, the melody is wonderful, and when I hear it, I find myself envious of any tenor who is able to hit those high notes and project his voice like that.
Seriously, though, I really did find the operas entertaining. English subtitles and the actions on the screen told me what was going on, and I got a bang out of the extravagant costuming and staging, especially in the Italian and German operas, which were all comedies filled with ridiculous activity and confused characters.
The most interesting opera I watched was based not on fairy tales, silly comedies or even the one tragedy, based on Shakespeare’s “Othello,” but an American opera sung in English, called “Dr. Atomic.” This opera explored the emotions of atomic scientists Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Heller, Gen. Leslie Groves and Oppenheimer’s wife as the first test of the bomb they had created. The characters had different expectations and fears about the bomb’s power and its consequences. This opera didn’t have the best music of the six, but it was far and away the most dramatic.
Talking about opera brings to mind a basketball coach back in the ’70s, whose team was behind in the championship series of the National Basketball Association. There were only a couple games left to play when a news guy asked the coach what he thought were the chances that his team could come back and win the series.
The coach, as one would expect, said he wasn’t worried about being behind, because, “The opera ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings.”
Well the phrase caught on, and for a few years, people repeated it in all kinds of situations. Then it seemed to fade away, possibly because it’s somewhat offensive. It’s not only sexist in singling out women and mocking them for their figures, it also stereotypes female opera singers in general.
I don’t recall any fat women playing pivotal roles in my six operas. In fact, the only fat people I remember singing were men, especially the well-known tenor Placido Domingo, who had a cameo role in one of the operas.
I enjoyed the operas, and plan to watch more, and one I’ll be sure to watch is “Nixon in China,” based on Nixon’s history-making trip to Communist China. It seems like a strange thing to write an opera about, but then, so was “Dr. Atomic,” and it occurred to me other instances in our national history could be turned into operas.
Take the recent tussle between our president and the Democrats in the House of Representatives, for example. I’m not sure if it should be a tragedy, a comedy or some sort of compromise, but it could make a dramatic opera. President Donald Trump and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi would, of course, be the lead characters.
Even so, though, I’ll bet nobody ever says, “The opera isn’t over until the president sings.”