To discover the passions of opera, be patient

December 22, 1996|By Glenn McNatt

IF WE'RE SNOWED IN this Christmas like last year, I won't worry.

I'll just snuggle up in the den with our opera recordings and while away winter's solitude with Verdi and Puccini, Donizetti and Mozart.

You may laugh, and if you've never tried it, I can't say I blame you.

For years, I scrupulously avoided the impressive boxed sets of opera CDs lined up on record store shelves -- mostly, I suspect, because I felt intimidated by the language barrier posed by music composed to foreign words.

And to be honest, opera still has a big image problem in this country, notwithstanding the amazing popularity of Pavarotti, Kathleen Battle and other vocal superstars.

The reasons aren't hard to find. We are ostensibly an egalitarian society, yet opera is burdened by its European origins as a marker of caste and class privilege. It's easy to dismiss it as the pretentious pastime of frivolous elites and art snobs.

Still, over the years I've gradually come to appreciate the surpassing beauty of this most extravagant art.

Eventually, I realized that the sweeping passions of the great operatic heroes and heroines are musical counterparts to the noble stage protagonists of Shakespeare or the epic figures of Homeric legend.

Ironically, most of this change of attitude came about not through attending performances in the theater but by listening to records at home.

The first time I saw Puccini's "La Boheme," for example, was at New York's Metropolitan Opera in the 1980s. It was a time when the "purist" approach to opera still reigned supreme, and the company did not even allow surtitles -- brief translations scrolled across a screen near the top of the stage -- to aid uncomprehending newcomers like myself.

I squirmed in a cheap seat for two hours and wracked my brain trying to remember which bohemian was the poet and which the painter, and which one was in love with the pretty girl who would die of consumption.

As a result, I hardly heard a note of the music. So when I finally left the theater, and noticed a few people in the lobby still dabbing tears from their eyes, I was genuinely puzzled.

What was all the fuss about?

Even today at the theater, unless I know a story particularly well, I have to rely on surtitles to understand what's going on.

Mercifully, the Baltimore Opera Company has for many years provided surtitles as a matter of course, which has made opera here accessible to a much wider audience, especially among young people.

Still, I probably never would have persevered long enough to appreciate the Baltimore Opera Company's progressive policy had not a colleague piqued my interest with a casual remark about Maria Callas one day while we were lunching at a downtown restaurant.

After our meal we walked across the street to a second-hand record store, and I picked up an inexpensive recording of Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor," with Callas in the title role, tenor Giuseppe di Stefano, baritone Tito Gobbi and Tullio Serafin conducting.

At the time, I had no idea this was considered a legendary performance. I simply took it home, put it on and sat down to listen with the libretto in front of me.

The libretto, I should say, came in a booklet printed with the Italian text down one half of the page and the English translation on the other. Though I knew no Italian, I found the language close enough to Spanish that I could keep my place most of the time.

Then a wonderful thing happened.

I discovered that reading the libretto while listening to the recorded performance allowed me to visualize the stage and its trappings in much the same way that reading a novel makes one visualize the scene being described.

Listening and reading together required an act of imagination that conjured up an infinitely richer and more vivid experience than was possible by either reading or listening separately.

The difference in intensity was roughly comparable to the difference between one's response to a scene in a novel as one reads it and the way the same scene strikes one in its movie reincarnation.

No matter how artful the movie, it never seems to quite capture the emotional wallop of the original.

Listening to "Lucia" while following the libretto allowed me to hear for the first time how the drama was portrayed in the music, so that all the subtle shadings of character and plot miraculously found expression in the notes of the score.

As a result, the characters suddenly came alive, and all their joys and sufferings took on larger-than-life dimensions through the empathic amplification provided by the music.

This was a revelation to me. I had thought the foreign words would pose a barrier to comprehension. In fact, just the opposite occurred.

After the words' meaning had been grasped, they lost all significance, since the drama was completely expressed by the musical structures that sustained it.

After "Lucia," I went back to "La Boheme" and heard it with completely new ears. Since then, I've learned to love many more operas through recordings, and these experiences have greatly enriched my musical understanding and enjoyment.

That's why if it snows this Christmas, I can think of no better way to pass the quiet hours than by curling up with a beloved "Aida" or "Otello" and sharing an hour or two of the grand passions that impelled these immortal characters to their fates.

Over the years I've tried to explain this many times to my perplexed friends. But listening to opera while following a text in a foreign language still strikes most of them as a pretty tedious way of entertaining oneself.

"Sounds like work," they say.

By now, though, I've learned just what to say to such complaints: "It's worth it when the soprano sings high D."

Pub Date: 12/22/96

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