Haven’t learned to love opera yet? It’s never too late

Carmen Giannattasio and Scott Hendricks in Puccini’s “Tosca” at the San Francisco Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Opera companies, including the San Francisco Opera, devote a lot of energy and attention to getting young people interested in this art form. They’re right to, too – as with any kind of enthusiasm, a passion for opera that’s ignited early tends to last a long time.

But you don’t have to be young to suddenly discover how much excitement, stimulation and beauty opera can bring to your life. It is a discovery that a person can make at any time.

Exhibit A: my mother.

My mother was already in her fifties when she first realized that opera was worth studying. She had always been an aesthete and a devoted intellectual – a voluminous reader, an avid theatergoer and especially the visual arts – but somehow opera was never quite on her radar. .

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Irene Roberts (left), Nicole Heaston and Nicole Cabell in Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte” at the San Francisco Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Then she met some new friends, including one who was on the board of a local opera training program. She went to a performance of Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte” and caught the virus. She began attending the local Metropolitan Opera auditions, which were open to the public.

Suddenly I started getting scouting reports from all over the country, like Mom was a freelance talent scout for a big league baseball team.

“I heard an incredible young tenor last week,” she wrote to me. “His name is such and such, and he gave an incredible performance of ‘Una Furtiva Lagrima.’ Keep your eyes peeled for this kid – he goes places.

Brünnhilde (Irene Theorin) wears Siegfried’s (Daniel Brenna) ring of power in the fourth part of Richard Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, “Götterdämmerung”, at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco in 2018. Photo: Sarahbeth Maney/Special for The Chronicle

It wasn’t the end, however. After a few years, my mother discovered Wagner, and especially the gigantic lyrical tetralogy “The Ring of the Nibelung”, and his commitment became even more intense.

It’s not an obvious gateway to this art form, to say the least. When I am asked for a recommendation for a first opera, I immediately opt for that of Puccini”Bohemian.”

The music is sumptuous, the drama fast and irresistible. Best of all, it’s a perfect blend of thunderous comedy and genuine tragedy. There is no other work in the standard repertoire that so completely embodies the showbiz adage, “You’re going to laugh!” You will cry !”

Arturo Chacón-Cruz as Rodolfo and Erika Grimaldi as Mimì in Puccini’s “La Bohème”. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

But it turns out these qualities aren’t equally appealing to everyone. For my mother, Wagner’s profound intellectual seriousness – the fact that his work is not only huge, lively and dramatic, but also inscribed in the history of 19th century philosophy – attracted her as a magnet. She still thinks “Bohemian” is sappy trash.

Because the simple truth is this: opera is such a wonderfully multifaceted art form that there is a way to access it that will suit every taste and every personality type. And sometimes those pathways aren’t apparent until your character is fully formed.

For the past few days, I’ve been approaching a few of my friends and acquaintances to find out how they made their way into the world of opera, and I was slightly surprised to learn how divergent their stories are.

A woman I know had a college roommate who played Mozart tunes as beautiful background music; she was a grown adult before realizing that opera also had a dramatic component. Another became addicted by a chance meeting with Alban Berg “Wozzeck”, whose dark psychological outlook and gnarled musical style resonated with his temper.

Alan Held playing the lead role in Berg’s ‘Wozzeck’. Photo: Kendra Luck/The San Francisco Chronicle

Some are captivated by the music, ready even to accept plots that they consider inane and illogical. During my daughter’s brief obsession with opera as a child, conversely, it was storylines that carried her along; the song was only a vehicle for these sinister and thrilling stories.

A friend says he first entered opera as a young adult and was captivated above all by the costumes. As companies try to cast a wider net for new customers, one likely strategy is to cultivate new plays, with stories designed to be relevant for modern times.

The fall season at the San Francisco Opera, which celebrates the company centenaryseems almost deliberately designed to exploit this multiplicity of approaches.

People with a taste for the new and unheard of will be drawn to the world premiere production of John Adams’ new ‘Antony and Cleopatra’. Verdi’s “La Traviata” (which is often my recommendation for a beginner second opera) combines psychological acumen, musical allure and glamorous spectacle in an irresistible blend, just like Tchaikovsky’s romantic “Eugene Onegin”. The airy lightness of Gluck’s mythological “Orpheus and Eurydice” is a foil for the opulent spirituality of “Dialogues des Carmélites”, Francis Poulenc’s account of the French Revolution.

And these are just the offerings of a single company, during one fall season. The world of opera encompasses so much more than that that it’s impossible to come completely empty.

There is something here for everyone, and there are a thousand roads leading to it.



About Madeline J. Carter

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