People who know me as a hard-core rocker who positively despises musicals might be surprised to find that I am a huge fan of opera. But they shouldn't be. Consider what rock music has come to: Joe Perry jamming with Sanjaya on last year's American Idol finale and Jimmy page "rockin' out" with Leona Lewis at the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. It's become a spectacle, but one without any edge. Gone are the days when Alice Cooper stunned audiences with the over-the-top theatrics of his "Welcome to My Nightmare" tour or when Kiss' massive black platform boots and flash pods seemed fresh and dangerous. So you could spend a couple of hundred bucks to see the Stones and you'd know all the songs, probably enjoy most of them, and see one guy working his ass off while five other guys just stand there playing. They'd hit most of the notes, and maybe you'd get lucky and the sound in the sports stadium wouldn't be too muddy. Or you could buy yourself a ticket for the opera and get state-of-the-art sound, a whole cast of singers working their butts off, a great orchestra, a world-class conductor and music that has stood the test of time. Not to mention everyone behind the scenes. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Opera requires singers with exceptional talent and years of rigorous, formal training. These days, it also requires singers who can act and, increasingly, who fit the part. Opera takes the human voice to the absolute limits of what it is capable of doing. It's quite something to experience someone on stage singing impossible and heart-achingly beautiful notes while stretched into an unnatural position that conveys the meaning of a scene and acting that scene convincingly in words, notes, facial expressions and body language as an equally trained orchestra, conductor and crew adjust to what is happening on stage.
Oh, but I hear you say, you can't stand opera. Yeah, I used to hate opera, too. I thought it sounded contrived and weird. Then a friend took me to the opening night gala to honor Placido Domingo becoming the Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Opera. It was opera's greatest hits performed by opera's greatest singers. I "knew" most of the songs from years of Kellog's breakfast cereal commercials and Gilligan's Island reruns. In the 60's and 70's, advertisers and television producers didn't want to pay fees for synchronization licenses to use original compositions, so they often used classical musical compositions that were in the public domain. The castaways on Gilligan's Island wanted to do a musical version of Hamlet? No problem -- the Torreador song from Carmen was perfect for both the "to be or not to be" and the "neither a borrower nor a lender be" speech. And I can't hear "Vesti La Giubba" from I Pagliacci without thinking of that guy from the 1969 television commercial singing "No more Rice Krispies! We ran out of Rice Krispies! My tears they will not stop... until I hear snap, crackle, pop." You'd be surprised how many opera arias you've heard in one form or another.
But I still probably wouldn't have liked opera. You know -- guy gets stabbed with sword, guy takes ten minutes to die, singing all the while. My friend explained it to me: guy doesn't take ten minutes to die -- his aria is his inner world, all that's going through his head as he dies. You listen to opera with your emotions. The stories go back hundreds of years. They're timeless. Okay, they're also sort of stupid, but the music elevates the simplicity of the story and boils it down to those emotions. And I've yet to hear an opera as stupid as America lyrics -- "And cause never was the reason for the evening,
or the tropic of Sir Galahad." Huh?!?!? But I digress. The point is I finally broke down and went to the opera and saw a God-awful minimalist production (no sets, just suggestive lighting) of Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice," based on the story of Orpheus descending to the Underworld to bring Euridice back from the dead. And yet, despite the horrid production, the moment I heard the stunningly beautiful aria "Che Faro' Senz' Euridice?" ("What Will I Do Without Euridice?"), I was sold forever, even though Orfeo ed Euridice featured a so-called "trouser" lead role, a part originally written for a castrato, but these days performed by a female mezzo-soprano in drag. They're quite enjoyable, but a little hard to get used to, so not the best first opera. Still -- I was hooked. Those were voices! Then I saw Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon perform Romeo et Juliette. Two good-looking young people, with great voices and lots of chemistry, singing amazing songs, not to mention doing one of the hottest love scenes ever while singing opera, in a production directed by the enormously talented Ian Judge (www.ianjudge.com). You know how the story ends, you've seen it a million times and still... everyone in the audience, including me, cried when Juliet died. Opera elicits strong reactions. And did I mention Anna Netrebko clad in nothing more than a sheet? Just a bit more erotic than David Bowie in a dress or the Red Hot Chili Peppers wearing only those strategically placed socks.
Actually, if you need proof that opera rocks, go see anything with Erwin Schrott in it. I first saw him in a rather weak production of Carmen and was floored by his performance. Carmen might have the most recognizable songs in all of opera. You've definitely heard the intro and at least two of the arias especially if, as noted above, you spent any significant amount of time watching Gilligan Island reruns. It's a great first opera to go to, about a teenaged gypsy who drives men to ruin, including Don Jose, who is a bit of a wimp and really should know better than to take on the toreador, Escamillo. Especially when Erwin Schrott is Escamillo. We're talking big voice, big presence, big charm -- in other words: rock star. So last season, when the L.A. Opera brought Schrott in to do Mozart's Don Giovanni, I had to go. And even though the production was one of those aforementioned, God-awful, minimalist productions, it was still wonderful. Schrott played Don Giovanni as an 18th century Gene Simmons in all his charming, womanizing arrogance (only a hell of a lot more attractive -- seriously, Schrott is a babe, although with that voice and that presence he doesn't have to be, it's just icing on the cake). The rest of the cast was amazing as well and it's Mozart! What's not to love? Mozart didn't write any show-stopping arias the way Puccini did, but he sure knew how to write stunningly complex and beautiful six-, seven-, and even eight-part harmonies and when you have a cast that can sing those parts and can act as well... heck, you can forgive the crappy production and then some. And Schrott has slimmed down and buffed up since his Carmen days -- he dominates the stage and you can understand why Donna Elvira carries a torch for him even after she learns that he's bonked his way through most of Europe with a little rape and murder on the side.
Seriously... I know opera is expensive, but you get a lot of bang for your buck, plus you get to sit down and there are no drunken assholes singing along out of key. Do yourself a favor if you live in a city with a decent opera -- buy a cheap ticket, sneak up as close as you can, and remember that opera was the rock and roll of its day. Two hundred years from now someone, somewhere might be performing the Rolling Stones or Aerosmith. Hell, two hundred years from now the Stones might still be playing themselves! But someone will definitely be doing Mozart. You should go and find out why.