Even if Renee Fleming's performance at the Super Bowl hadn't introduced opera to the national conversation, I would be making this announcement: I love opera. And I am fully aware that that statement will make many people roll their eyes. It might make a lot of opera aficionados roll their eyes, too, once they learn that I don't have a particularly strong knowledge of the form, and that I have fairly scant experience of its actual works. There are certain operas I have seen (or listened to, as recordings) multiple times, but there are other important pieces in the genre that I am in no rush to get to.
But I love opera. When it comes to theater, I have little interest in musicals and grow uncomfortable when, taken to one, I hear the actors burst into song. Still, there is something about the complete musically immersive experience of an opera that neither needs -- nor asks for -- excuses. You go to the opera, the music starts, and it doesn't let you go until the very end.
There is nothing highbrow about my affection for opera. Yes, I have been moved to tears by the beauty of a singer's note. Yes, I have been frustrated by the speed at which the orchestra plays the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro (never quite fast enough). But I'm really in no position to judge the fine points of an operatic performance -- as is proven by the reviews I read after seeing a show. (I am almost always happier than the critics.) Instead, for me, opera offers the experience of the man sitting in the armchair in that famous Maxell ad. It's everything blasting at you: orchestra, powerful and un-amplified voices, sets, costumes, and often, the opera house itself. And because it's opera, the stories are big, the consequences huge, the emotions writ, sung and staged large. The most disappointing opera I ever saw was one that was sung gorgeously (Turandot) but staged in the old-fashioned way: singers just standing there, facing the audience, with nary a glance at each other as they professed their undying love. I like an opera that somehow manages to look and feel real -- real passion, real sorrow, real despair -- even through the most artificial of mediums ever (Wait, they're singing?).
Truth be told, though, in many ways, every opera I attend is somehow disappointing. Because none of them can match the experience I had while listening to a recording of The Marriage of Figaro borrowed from the library -- before I had ever seen an opera live. I was working on a small painting project at home and had the music playing late into the night in the kitchen where I sat. I was only listening with half an ear as I entered the third hour of the opera, but then suddenly there was a moment of such combined tenderness, sorrow, and sweetness that it stopped me still. I didn't dare move -- until the quartet of Count Almaviva, the Countess, Figaro, and Susanna had concluded and I found I had tears in my eyes. It's a beautiful moment -- of reconciliation and forgiveness that's reflected in the choral perfection of that section. I have heard it twice live (even once at the Met), and it is always wonderful, but it's never quite the same as that first time.
What I learned that night in my kitchen was to appreciate not just the greatest hits of an opera, but the whole thing, from recitative to aria. And in fact, I think that's why you have to go and sit through all three hours of an opera. Because it's one thing to hear all the lovely bits strung together in a recording of selections. It's quite another to hear the beautiful parts emerging from passages you're not really paying attention to. You sit there, looking around the opera house, maybe, or maybe even getting a little sleepy, or thinking of something else, and then it hits you -- beauty --and you're slammed into something that I can't quite explain except to say it's pure emotion captured in pure sound. This works if you listen at home, too, but you are less captive at home. At home, you can completely untether yourself from the music -- so much so that you might miss the beautiful moments because you had to take the garbage out or fry an egg. At the opera house -- or the movie theater where they're showing the Met in HD (why not have some popcorn with your opera?) -- your mind can wander but you're never out of reach of those beauty bits that smack you right in the heart.
So, go to the opera, to an actual opera house where you can enjoy the grandiosity of every level of the experience even from the cheapest seats in the house -- from the ritual of the summoning chimes, the receding chandeliers, the applause for the conductor, and the opening notes, to the shouts of "brava!" at the end (yes, people really do that). And if you can't go, get a full opera from the library -- no greatest hits, but the real deal -- sit yourself down to listen, and turn the volume up loud. See what happens when all that beauty catches you by surprise.