What is Opera? What is Life?
When I ask people about opera, generally the responses are negative, but I can tell that most people don’t know much about opera. How can they have such an aversion, with so little knowledge? Most of us first learned about opera through the many cartoons that parody opera. For instance, the 1950 Bug Bunny’s “Rabbit of Seville”, is based on Rossini’s 1816 comic opera, “The Barber of Seville”, which also contains the famous line: “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro”. In one sense, we all know opera: the music is used in movies, TV commercials and as background music while we shop, and dine at restaurants. We actually hear opera all the time, so why not go see an opera?
The most understandable complaint about opera is that it is too long, way too long like a Grateful Dead concert; 3 – 4 hours long. And if that’s not long enough, Richard Wagner wrote a 15-hour opera called “The Ring Cycle” and because no one can sing or sit for 15-hours, it is usually performed in four parts over the course of one week.
Santa Fe, New Mexico:
And just like opera, this newsletter will be very long and you can skip to information about birding, the Santa Fe Opera and photos of New Mexico by clicking here:
Santa Fe, New Mexico
. The Santa Fe Opera has not yet cancelled the 2020 summer season and we are still hoping to organize an opera and birding tour for August 16 – 22, 2020. But if it is canceled, we will push ahead to 2021. There is more info below the essay.
Wile E Coyote and Roadrunner:
The photo at the top of this newsletter, pictures a Greater Roadrunner, which is the state bird of New Mexico. In 1949, Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies started creating a cartoon which details the adventures of Wile E Coyote. Over the years we have watched the coyote, time after time, fail at his attempts to catch the Roadrunner and although he suffers many physical calamities, he is never really harmed; only humiliated and his self-inflicted humiliation is part of the drive to “get it right” next time. He is persistent, curious and intent on figuring out that desert road which leads to success: Roadrunner! On one of my tours in Olympic National Park, I took a group to the Salmon Cascades, to watch the salmon jumping the waterfalls as they migrate up the Sol Duc River to spawn. After I had spent a significant amount of time explaining the natural history of salmon and the remarkable journey that salmon make from the egg to spawning and death, one of the men in the group looked at me and said: “They’re fish, what else are they going to do?” I was a bit speechless and only replied, “yeah, I guess” because I knew he was right. And then he immediately asked, “Where can I buy a New York Times?” Perhaps the glass was half empty.
Opera has been around for well over 400 years; since 1597 and there are at least 44 major opera genres, with several hundred sub-categories. If you tell someone you like “rock music”, what exactly are you saying? There are already well over 200 specific rock genres. My favorite style of opera is Bel Canto, Italian for “beautiful singing”. For me, opera was at its best from the late 1700’s until 1924; the death of Puccini. Like anything, there are good operas and there are bad operas. You have to keep an open mind and keep trying and find a genre you like.
My Last Opera:
In late February 2020, I took a trip to Victoria, British Colombia to see an opera. The opera was called “Flight”, inspired by the true story of an Iranian refugee who lived at the CDG Paris airport for 18 years. I didn’t like the production; it was tedious and uninteresting and I left after the 2
act. Sometimes, that is how it goes.
Apex of Art and Life
: Interestingly, opera needs all art forms to exist: There is music, singing, speaking, acting, dance, poetry, lyrics, storytelling, play-writing, painting, carpentry, sculptor, prop making, fashion, costume design, sewing, interior design, engineering, architecture, lighting, recording, filming, sound effects, special effects, graphic design, translation, marketing, etc., etc. It takes a whole community to perform one opera.
Wagner and Opera Stereotypes:
Many of our stereotypes about opera come from Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” and even some of our stereotypes about Vikings, come from that opera as well. I haven’t yet seen “The Ring Cycle” because when it is playing, I either don’t have the time or don’t have the money… ah, such is life!
Another reasonable aversion to opera is that it is expensive. Opera Colorado in Denver once stated that each of the operas in their season costs about $1 million to produce and tickets sales only covered about 60% of the cost. The opera company is financially kept a float by private donors. In its hey-day, opera was the entertainment of the masses, for both the rich and the poor. But then along came vaudeville, which was eventually replaced by silent movies and then came the talkies…. By the early 20
century, opera houses were closing down and opera nearly disappeared because of the small audience draw and because of the expense of production. And so, opera became associated with the wealthier patrons of society. But many operas companies do offer inexpensive seats and some even offer “standing room only” for free. With the creation of computers and digital art, many opera companies use digital props and scenery, which keeps production cost down. Sometimes the digital art is really interesting and beautiful and sometimes it is terrible and boring.
Classical music, including opera, is not amplified in the theater. You are hearing the sound coming from the performers and going directly into your ears. Many people have beautiful voices that can sing the style of opera, but being able to project your voice to fill an opera house, makes all the difference to becoming an opera singer; it really is amazing and this is one reason getting a good seat is important. Usually the best seats for musical sound in an opera house are the center of the first balcony and often those are also the most expensive seats as well. Sound is often referred to in “Hertz” and/or “Decibels (dB)”, (not enough time to explain the difference….) but normal speech conversation is at 60 dB. Opera singers can sustain notes above 100 dB. To compare: Jackhammers are at 100 dB, a stock Harley-Davidson bike at 80 dB and a lawn mower at 90 dB. Sustained exposure of sounds above 90 dB may result in hearing loss. The human threshold for “sound” pain is at about 120 dB. Pick your opera seat wisely!
Most operas are performed in either Italian, French or German and these days there are “supra-titles” (translations projected over the stage) and sometimes small monitors on the back of the seat in front of you will translate the lyrics for you. So, don’t worry about missing the story-line.
Since many operas that are performed can be 100 – 250 years old, one way of “re-inventing” them is to change the props to reflect a different era. The music and lyrics (libretto) don’t change, only the scenery and fashion changes. For example: I once saw a version of “Carmen” (Bizet’s 1875 opera) and the characters had been transformed into 1980’s drug smugglers at the Mexican border. I thought it was great, but I met a woman a year later who told me about the worst opera she ever saw and it was that very same performance. One time, I saw a production of Mozart’s 1787 opera “Don Giovani” where all the props and clothes were changed to the 1950’s era. I thought it worked really well, but it was probably someone else’s worst opera night ever. Most of the time, however, I like “Grand Opera”, with grand performances, performed just how the composers intended.
My Early Music:
I remember sitting at the piano when I was 4-years old trying to figure out how it worked and trying to create the same beautiful sounds that my mother was able to do. I always loved classical music from the start, but I also liked folk music, especially Woody Guthrie music and the American history that he documented in song and all the musicians who followed in those traditions. I grew up on the north shore of Chicago, surrounded by art and culture and at the schools I attended, music and art were always as important as reading and arithmetic. But my favorite music memories are of hanging out with my older brother, listening to records and listening to music and events on the radio, like the “Concert for Bangladesh”. The first “45-record” I bought was Elton John’s 1972, “Honkey Cat”. I had a compact portable record player with a handle (I guess in case I needed to take it to a party for a game of Twister). The record player had a stacking spindle for LP records. The center hole of 45-records was too large for the thin spindle and so you would also have to purchase a plastic “45 rpm adapter” to be able to play 45-records. For larger albums, such as 33’s and 78 LPs, you could stack the records at the top of the turntable spindle and the “over-arm” would hold the records in place and the records would drop and play, one after another. If you put one record directly on the turntable, without locking the over-arm, the needle arm would continue to play the same record, over and over again. I would dance endlessly around my room while replaying “Honkey Cat” so many times that my older sister, whose bedroom was across the hall, would burst into my room threatening to break the record in two: “If you play that record one more time.…” On a visit to the musical instrument store, I purchased the sheet music for “Honkey Cat” and I learned to play it on the piano, to the great displeasure of my sister.
During the fall of 1981 I was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. While all my high school classmates were still seniors, I had left high school a year early to start college. On one of my first days walking down State Street, I came upon a quick-mart store and inside the long glass window was a poorly taped sign, made from tearing off a huge eight foot piece of “butcher paper” and with no regard for good craftmanship or style, it read in poor penmanship: “Life is like learning to play the violin in public”. I thought it would be only a matter of time before management took it down, because it was so sloppy and poorly made, but it was there for two whole semesters. I walked by that sign almost every day and I tried to focus on the positive, but I was 17 years old and scared of the long road that I saw in front of me.
Freddy Mercury and Queen:
In 1977 the song “We are the Champions” was released. I have been hearing that song now for decades, but it wasn’t until I saw it performed in the 2018 motion picture “Bohemian Rhapsody”, that I really realized the significance of the line: “I consider it a challenge before the whole human race and I ain’t gonna lose”. In the movie, there is also a very interesting scene when Freddy Mercury is pitching his new album idea to the record producer, which includes opera references and the record producer responds: “Are you aware that no one actually likes opera?”.
My Turning Point:
The stock market crash of ’08, not my fault, had a terrible effect on my life (It is a very long story for another day) and by the end of 2012, I felt like I had failed at everything and I was never going to get it right; I started slowly spiraling down into an emotional slump. I was an adventurer, an artist and a traveler and often people would say to me, “You should write a book about your life” and I would think to myself, a book? A book about what? How I spent my whole life making the best out of a bad situation and making the wrong decision every step of the way? I had fallen in the tangles. In January 2007 I was in Guatemala City and one morning on an airport shuttle, at one of the stops, a man got into the shuttle and a woman on the bus cheerfully said: “Good Morning!” and the man replied, in a very gruff voice, as he flicked his cigarette at the sidewalk: “I don’t see what’s so good about it”. At the time we all laughed quietly to ourselves, but by the end of 2012 I had become that man. Life had become a series of one slap-in-the-face after the next stab-in-the-heart after the next moment of having the rug pulled out from under me. The Roadrunner had won and the weight of humiliation had become unbearable. I was tired, there was no light, there was no beauty; I was just going through the motions and I was ready to be done with all this messy stuff called life. At the time, I was living in Colorado and one great aspect about Colorado is that the “Front Range” has at least twelve opera companies (including universities) and there was always opera to be found anytime of the year and often every week. January 18, 2013 was my birthday and I decided to attend an opera at the Denver University Newman Center, performed in collaboration with the Central City Opera. The opera was the “Emperor of Atlantis” (1943) by Viktor Ullman. I went to the opera knowing nothing about it. The opera was strange, powerful and I didn’t understand it, but I couldn’t get it out of my head. I started researching and trying to learn everything I could about Ullman and his opera and it became a significant step in re-starting my life as I became obsessed with opera. That year I managed to see 24 live operas. Opera became like heroin to me; the more I had, the more I wanted, the more I needed, with every note leading to the next, there was no past, no future, only the intensity and beauty of the moment. Like sitting in the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris surrounded by Monet’s waterlilies and reflections, opera made me forget everything of the outside world and slowly, slowly the fog lifted, like the final scene in Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” when Chief finally breaks through the wall and frees himself, something he was capable of doing the whole time. “We forge the chains we wear in life” (Charles Dickens). And suddenly, it was spring everywhere, like time-lapse film photography; flowers popping open and the sweet smell of life and a cheery good morning on a breeze. I had found the key to the “Secret Garden”. (A great book, but “The Secret Garden” 1993 film directed by Agnieszka Holland is better.) And I am still here, still swimming upstream, but making progress.
(1898 – 1944) was an Austrian composer; only a few of his compositions survived the holocaust. On September 8, 1942 he was deported to the Theresienstadt (Terezín) ghetto and concentration camp, where he continued to perform and compose. At Theresienstadt he wrote the opera “The Emperor of Atlantis or The Disobedience of Death” with libretto by poet Peter Kien (who died of disease at Auschwitz in 1944 at age 23). On October 16, 1944 Ullman was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and 2-days later was murdered in the gas chambers. Before he left Theresienstadt, Ullman was able to give a few of his papers to a friend for safe keeping; the opera and other writings were saved.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: ‘Live in the moment, live in Eternity’:
In 1944 Viktor Ullman wrote an essay entitled, ‘Goethe and Ghetto’ here are a few excerpts: “Goethe’s maxim, ‘Live in the moment, live in Eternity’ always seemed to me to reveal the puzzling nature of art. Painting displaces the ephemeral, such as that of the still life with flowers that then wilt, or landscapes that change, the faces of people that grow older, or historical events of the past. Music does the same for the spiritual, for the emotions and passions of people. Theresienstadt was and remains for me a school that teaches structure. Previously, where one was unable to experience that weight of cruelty due to ‘comfort’, (this magic of civilization), one was allowed simply to disregard it; it was easy to create the beautiful form. Here, where artistic substance has to try and endure its daily structure, where every bit of divine inspiration stands counter to its surroundings, it is here that one finds the masterclass. I emphasize the fact that in my musical work at Theresienstadt, I have bloomed in musical growth and not felt myself at all inhibited: we simply did not sit and lament on the shores of the rivers of Babylon that our will for culture was not sufficient to our will to exist.” Little did Viktor Ullman know that nearly 70 years later, his persistent artistic endeavor would change my life, and over time, led me to a better life.
On Being an Artist:
To paraphrase the writings of many artists who survived the holocaust: It is to say that they were stripped naked every day, both physically and emotionally. There was nowhere to hide and nothing to hide behind. There were no comforts to console them, no culture or social customs to control them and their pure and raw nakedness was for all to see. With all facades taken away, many artists found truth and beauty in the face of death. Alice Sommer, a concert pianist and holocaust survivor, lived to be 109 years old. While imprisoned at Theresienstadt, she continued to perform and create music. She once said: “It is up to us whether we look at the good or the bad…Even the bad is beautiful.”
Wagner and Schindler’s List:
In 1993, I moved to the mountains of Estes Park, Colorado and my first job there was the manager and projectionist at the local 3-plex movie theater and the movie, “Schindler’s List” had just been released. Before the start of the movies, we would always play music over the stereo system and we often played classical music because it would be the least to offend anyone. One evening, before the start of Schindler’s List, a woman came out of the theater and was furious and yelled at me for my ignorance and insensitivity for playing Wagner before the start of the movie. I had no idea what she was talking about, the only thing I knew about Wagner was that he composed classical music, I didn’t even know he wrote opera. And that was just the start of a very bad night at work….
Reel to Reel:
The theater I worked at had standard film projectors, for old style Hollywood “reel” film. The problem with that, however, was that sometimes the film broke. The film would get caught in the old projectors and sometimes pieces would jam up the mechanism and melt from the heat of the projector bulb and most of the time it turned into a huge mess because although the film platters quickly stopped spinning, the weight of the film could sometimes pull hundreds of feet of film off both of the working platters, with both ends of the film ending up in a tangle on the floor. There were times that it was so bad that parts of the physical film had to be cut out and thrown away.
Platter to Platter:
Movies arrived at the theater via the Hollywood distributor who would ship the movie film on reels, in “cans”. Most movies were about 9 – 12 reels and it was my job to splice the reels together and then reel (spin) the whole film onto a horizontal 72-inch diameter platter. The “platter stand” had three of these platters stacked vertically, with about 2-feet in between each platter. When showing a movie, the physical film would leave one platter, then wind through the projector and then get reeled back onto a different horizontal platter. It was a great system, when it worked….
Job Related Nightmares:
On the night of “Schindler’s List”, at some point during the movie, the film broke. Usually when that happened, someone would come out of the theater to tell me the movie wasn’t working, but apparently that audience thought it was some kind of artistic interlude and continued to sit there in the dark for nearly 15 minutes before I was informed that the movie had stopped. I ran up to the projection booth only to find both ends of the broken film in a huge tangled pile on the floor. Anytime the film broke, it might take 10 – 20 minutes to untangle, re-splice and re-thread the film through the protector. Over the course of my job, I slowly became proficient and fast at fixing the film, but some nights it was awful. And for some of my assistant managers, it was more than they could handle and often it was easier for them to simply issue refunds and “call it a night”, and it was my job to fix the film the next day. It was very common that I would have dreams about work and running up to the projection booth only to find a huge pile of film on the floor, like some kind of sci-fi movie, the film would be alive and sometimes there was a hole in the roof or the whole roof was completely gone and film was getting sucked out of the building like a tornado…. These intense dreams plagued me for nearly 2-years after I quit the job. I was never the same after that job.
Movie Theater Jobs:
Why wasn’t anyone watching the film in the projection room? Where I worked was a very small theater, in a small town, with a small budget and we simply couldn’t afford to have an employee “baby-sitting” the projectors. Speaking of the moving theater employees, 95% of the concession job applicants I received were sophomore guys, usually 15 - 16 years old, which was another reason I couldn’t sit in the projection room: My employees, a group of teenage boys, could create mayhem when you least expected it. But one thing I always kept in mind, however, was that for most all of my employees, it was their very first job ever and I was not only teaching them how to work at the theater, I was teaching them what it meant to have a job and what it meant to work for a living.
Kentucky Fried Chicken:
My very first job was at KFC during one summer in Waupaca, Wisconsin and I was 16 years old. I remember how fabulous it was that we got to take home the extra chicken, literally “buckets” of chicken. It never occurred to me that after taxes, my take home pay was only $2.98/hour… the free chicken was awesome! I also remember especially liking to wash the windows and making everything shiny, clear and clean. Ha! How somethings never change.
Wagner, Hitler and the Nazis:
Richard Wagner (pronounced “Vahgner”) lived from 1813 – 1883, he died six years before Hitler was born. Wagner was not a Nazi as many believe, but Hitler was a huge fan of Wagner and often the music that was played at Nazi events was Wagner’s. And beside the musical association with the Nazi Party, in 1850 Wagner wrote a very hateful essay about Jews and music. There is a lot of controversy and discussion here as so to whether the works of a hateful artist should be “disqualified” and it is certainly very personal to many people. If the art is great, do we ignore the personal life of the artist?
Until recently, public performances of Wagner’s music were banned in Israel and although performances now occasionally happen, the performances usually provoke protest and anger. It is a very difficult decision for many musicians and opera singers, to perform Wagner.
I Want My MTV:
In 1982 I was a student, living in Madison, Wisconsin and I had a friend who moved out of the dorms, into an apartment, that had a color TV and cable TV!! Wow, cable TV! One day when I stopped by to visit, she was watching a show called MTV; we were hooked, we couldn’t stop watching. The videos at the time seemed like pure genius, they were mini musicals, complete with dancing and adventure. During school breaks when I stayed at my parent’s house, I would buy VHS tapes and tape the MTV channel. Michael Jackson was the “King of Pop”, we were mesmerized by his “moon-walking” and he was one of my favorite MTV performers. But now when I listen to my Sirius Radio stations and Michael Jackson’s songs are played, I have to change the channel. For me, I can’t separate the possible crimes he may have of committed in his personal life from his music. In 1989 Salman Rushdie offended Muslims with his book “The Satanic Verses” and many Muslims called for his assassination, including Cat Stevens (although Cat Stevens later said he meant it as a bad joke). Because of this, many people took their Cat Stevens albums and tapes to the streets and sidewalks to be smashed and steamrolled. For me, it was more my style to take the records to the used-record store and trade them in for new music. Later I would have to re-buy all my Cat Stevens music on cassette tapes, only to have to re-buy my entire music collection a 3rd time on music CDs. I am committed not to buy everything again for a 4th time. Luckily, I never owned an 8-track player. If you have any remaining questions about art and life, I recommend the 1971 movie “Harold and Maude” directed by Hal Ashby.
Italian: Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini. German/Austrian: Mozart and Wagner. French: Bizet. (Just to name a few). Beethoven only wrote one opera, “Fidelio”, and he was never happy with it. It took him 12 years to write and several versions of the opera were first performed from 1805 – 1814. It is one of my favorite operas and there is an excellent version which be found on DVD, produced by The Metropolitan Opera, released 2003 and conducted by James Levine.
There are opera companies and clubs to be found in cities, small towns, churches and schools. Some of the best and memorable operas I have seen were at very small venues, with only a few performers, few props and a small ensemble of musicians and sometimes only a piano. Search for opera in or near your community and you might be surprised what you find. I’m not going to list a bunch of operas you should see first, because just as in life, you must find your own way.
Fiddler on the Roof:
“Every one of us is a fiddler on the roof. Trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck…. Be happy! Be healthy! Long life! And if our good fortune never comes, here's to whatever comes. To life, to life, l'chaim.”
Thank-you to all who strive to create art in the face of “Life”.