On opera

opera-singer-1I have long believed that I should love opera. I’m a great fan of “classical” music (a fairly meaningless term, as it encompasses way too much), and view its existence as one of the primary pieces of evidence for believing life is not meaningless. One of the greatest experiences of my life was several years ago when I had the chance to participate in a special seminar on Beethoven’s string quartets. The class incorporated lecturers from various disciplines, and featured a visiting musicologist who knew everything there is to know about those quartets. Accompanying the class was our resident string quartet’s performance of the entire cycle. On successive evenings I was transported into a heavenly region of the soul, one that said everything that can be said about being an embodied mortal with intimations of eternity.

With all that passion, it seems I should love opera. My friends all told me so. But I have tried and tried, only to find it tiresome. The music, of course, is occasionally beautiful – but the drama is so slow, so uneventful, that I have felt the truth of what Mark Twain once recorded:

 “I have attended operas, whenever I could not help it, for fourteen years now; I am sure I know of no agony comparable to the listening to an unfamiliar opera. I am enchanted with the airs of “Travatore” and other old operas which the hand-organ and music-box have made entirely familiar to my ear. I am carried away with delightful enthusiasm when they are sung at the opera. But, oh, how far between they are! And what long, arid, heartbreaking and headaching “between-times” of that sort of intense but incoherent noise which always so reminds me of the time the orphan asylum burned down.”

So I was prepared to mark down “opera” as one of those things I just was not engineered to appreciate.

But this week I have subjected myself to Wagner’s Ring cycle – and behold! A breakthrough! I have discovered the key I needed to unlock the secret. I’ll share it here now, for anyone who is in the same position. The key is this: don’t watch opera as drama, in the way you’d watch a play or a film; listen to it as music – with a side accompaniment of a story, which only aims to offer some general themes for reflection. Put the music first, and maintain only a dim awareness of the plot.

I’m not quite through the cycle – Götterdämmuring lies before me – but I am savoring each moment, anticipating what is to come, replaying themes and ideas in my mind. Paradoxically, by paying minimal attention to the story, I am now fascinated by it. But I think it was the music that opened the door for me. It’s too early to say how much this new-found enthusiasm will translate to other operas, but I’m expecting it will. But even if I’ve only learned to appreciate The Ring, I’m glad for it.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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2 Responses to On opera

  1. Dennis Hermanson says:

    I enjoyed this entry, as it takes me, and you, away from understanding and into the realm of emotion. Opera is, at it’s core, emotion. Emotion in bravura singing, orchestration, opulent costume and sets. Presentation. Intensity. Human emotion. Portraying emotion in a theatrical manner. Opera.

    TYou understand so much in the way of developing a lineage of thought about meaning, and reality. While Opera is about life itself, the living, the emotion. In all its non-analytical, momentary beauty and tragedy. Flooding rather than the dyke. The beginner should learn to swim, not to sink in the specifics of non-understanding.


    As you are an expert, there are experts in Opera. I am not one, of course, and I don’t speak the languages of opera, mainly Italian, German, French, Russian. But we do need to remember that they were the movies of their time. And you don’t need to understand the language to know what is happening.

    You say, “The key is this: don’t watch opera as drama, in the way you’d watch a play or a film; listen to it as music –” and that’s true to the extent that it takes a beginner through the emotional intensity of the production.
    But inn effect, are you saying, ‘Don’t go to the opera, listen to the recording’? No, I don’t think so.

    The vision, the human reality of the performace is not to be ignored, or overlooked. If we are lucky enough to actually go to a real opera, as opposed to watching a DVD of one (a real movie, at that point) then the visceral experience is more than just listening. It’s watching. It’s “being there.” The expectant awareness of passion, and the human amazingness of seeing humans and instrumentalists create something magical. Indeed, overwhelming. “Real life” is almost never such a spectacle.

    Of course, the Super Bowl is an athletic opera of sorts, without the music, but with the emotion.

    Time to check into

    Thanks, Professor. A worthy Friday before the Super Bowl entry.

    Den NC USA


  2. Dennis Hermanson says:

    Forgive me a second reply, but this is a different take on the question of Opera.

    You wrote:
    Nietzsche and culture

    Posted in Uncategorized by Huenemann on March 3, 2008
    Lately I’ve been working on a chapter on what I’d call “Act 1″ in Nz’s life, in which he attempted to bring about a “cultural revolution” of sorts. To motivate the question, I felt I had to begin by examining culture more intuitively, before seeing the heavy burden Nz was to place upon it. Here is what I wrote:

    “Many of us see culture as a high level of entertainment. Low level entertainment includes cheap novels, television, pop music, stock car racing, and pizza. High level entertainment, or so-called culture, includes novels that are hard to read, foreign films, string quartets, modern dance, and haute cuisine. Whether one goes for low entertainment or high entertainment is supposed to be correlated roughly with the level of one’s education. There is no law saying this must be the case, and it often is not, but anyone can appreciate how surprising, charming, or even funny it is to imagine a busboy who loves Verdi, or a philosopher who loves demolition derbies. As unprincipled and silly as it may be, we do distinguish lowbrow from highbrow, and we usually associate “culture” with the highest brows of all.
    “Now this is totally wrong, and not because demolition derbies are inherently just as valuable as opera. It is wrong because culture has nothing to do with entertainment. Culture is the means by which a society connects itself with the problems of being human. We already know what some of those problems are – death, loneliness, and insignificance. These are problems that everyone has, of course, regardless of income or educational status. The only choice we have is whether we want to try to face them or ignore them. If we choose to confront them, explore them, and possibly reconcile ourselves to them, then we make culture. If we choose to change the subject, then we make entertainment. A cheap novel, a string quartet, a television show, and a modern dance may all be culture, or they may not. It depends on what they are aiming at. Are they trying to entertain us, or are they trying to open us up to the a richer inner world of struggle and doubt? Do they take aim at our surface, or at our core?

    I want to add to what you wrote above, is the difference between demolition derbies and opera as culture is…
    “where you grew up, and when…” I grew up watching Demolition Derby on TV back in the 1950’s, and heard Opera played on a record player by my father. So I had both as a way of life, and a way of culture. The busboy you speak of, in Rome in 1910, might have been very well versed in Opera, as a way of life. Culture, as one phrase put it, is Time and Circumstance. There is local culture, national culture, and now, web culture that is not really national at all. So we are growing into World Culture.
    That culture has nothing to do with entertainment, is abstracting beyond the obvious, and meaning. I can’t agree with that statement. Culture is simply time and circumstance, or “who, what, when, where.” It’s all culture. The highness or lowness is in critical analysis, and yes, significance. But meaning, value, those are again individual.
    And that bubble of the individual, being separate, or growing into a larger, bigger bubble. That is the question.
    Answers are abundant. Choice is everything.

    I look forward to other comments.

    Den NC USA


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