Looking past the cover: Part One

The image to the right of these words is of a book.

The actual book is not important. The fact that it has a cover is.

I don’t know if the book is any good. I can’t tell that simply from looking at the cover. To find out if I like the book I have to open it, read it; follow the dialogue and then – not always at the end – put it down and make a judgement upon it.

I’m off to see “Carmen” tonight. My judgement already is that I will not enjoy it.

What I know of Opera North’s “Carmen” is through the snippets I have read online – including a set of fairly prosaic reviews and claims it is “sexy” and not suitable for children. Yet my pre-judgement has not been altered one bit by the reviews, nor its 12+ certificate – my judgement is based solely on the cover; the fact that it is an Opera.

But then are all Operas alike – or is there, like they claim about whisky, an Opera out there for everyone?

My experiences of Opera have been limited to two – “Madam Butterfly” at the Royal Opera House and the “Barber of Seville” at the Arena di Verona.

The first was a Christmas present for Amy. The seats were on the back row; looking over the shoulder of Zeus on to the stage. My dodgy knee gave way half way through. The pain was excruciating, and at one point I thought I would go out for the interval and not return; Propped up against the bar, waiting for Amy to reappear. It was the knee, guv; honest!

Thankfully there was a paid standing area just behind our seats. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a petit Eastern tourist, who I immediately offered my seat to. A thousand thanks and nods later, my leg was straight – the pain subsiding – and the thought of an evening at the bar declining with each passing aria.

From my new position, what struck me as being more peculiar than standing at the Opera was the fact that most of my fellow spectators, were staring at a laser display screen on the back of the seats in front. There they were, at the Opera – in what is a marvellous setting – with singers and performers giving their all on stage; and they are following the words on a screen no bigger than a ruler. Why not simply sit at home, read a book whilst having Maria Callas sing Pucini’s greatest hits on the CD player?

No screen for me. I wanted to engage with the action. To see the lips move as the words came out; to appreciate the effort that had gone in to the stage production. Surely that was the reason to be there?

The second effort was in the even better setting of Verona’s first century Roman Amphitheatre. It was a glorious, warm mid-summer evening. The day had been a scorcher and, even in the cheap seats once more, the atmosphere of the crowd was bubbling away nicely in anticipation.

We got there at seven and sat down on the polished stone steps, worn smooth by the feet of the servi, plebs and middle-class Opera fans for the past millennia.

As I said, we got there at seven. By eight, the only excitement was to be found in the crowd. With the heat from the day rising from the stone seats, and the warmth of the evening still with us; the cramped conditions on the upper deck was starting to affect a number of spectators. Regularly a paramedic would rush up the stairs to attend to a fainter – read: fainters – they were dropping like flies; more cold beer over here please.

Eventually, as the sun went down and the moon formed a natural spotlight, the Opera finally got underway. No laser display screen here – this was all about the spectacle of the performance, the stage design and the music. Or I guess it should have been. From our view point it was more, tiny people moving amongst large shrubs, singing with gusto but not really making a connection with me. At one point my over active imagination hoped for an ancient Roman trap door to open in the middle of the expensive seats; with gladiators, lions and other beasts of the Empire rising from them and laying waste to the nobs. It didn’t happen.

Only more signing then confusion was to follow. The prima donna sang – the crowd roared “Brava!” Some of which then got up to leave; before hastily rushing back when a prima uomo burst in to voice. “Bravo!” they shouted, and once again got up to leave, before finding the nearest vacant space to catch the next female response. It was like Tennis Opera and the crowd were the ball. We left just before 1am.

I enjoyed Verona for the experience of being there, more than the Royal Opera House, and definitely more than both operas. What I found on both occasions was a sense of longing – to understand what was being sung, and why it was being sung? If it is hard to follow the language, no matter how great the stage direction, it’s still hard to work out why a woman is crying or a man storming off.

It was as though my eyes were open, yet disconnected from my brain. If Opera, for a pleb like me, is merely about people moving around on stage whilst singing an indecipherable song, then I’m not sure I will ever grasp it. I don’t want to follow the “lyrics” on a screen like a karaoke machine. It hardly seems worth being there if I do that.

Opera North are challenging people to be indifferent about “Carmen”. It is clearly an adaptation that hasn’t sat well with some, but then maybe I am not an opera traditionalist; certainly not a fan. Will the way they have treated “Carmen” change my opinion of Opera forever, driving me to check out edgier productions, with “sexy” settings and age restrictions applied?

It won’t, unless I challenge myself to look beyond the cover.

I am an invited guest of Opera North through the wonderful The Culture Vulture website, who try desperately to engage the art world with clueless philistines like myself. My requirement is to simply blog about my experience – of which you will find in Part Two

2 Responses to “Looking past the cover: Part One”
  1. Lee 09/02/2011
    • Chris 10/02/2011

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