Nights at the Opera

In the first 28 years of my life, I went to the opera, oh, six or seven times. In the year or so since, I’ve been to 15 different productions.

My knowledge of the music is not deep. I can tell a Wagner from a Verdi, a Massenet from a Rossini, and I can spot a Puccini swell in my sleep (for those who can’t, imagine what Andrew Lloyd Webber would sound like if he was much better). But as my addiction grows, and addiction it is, my expertise stubbornly refuses to follow. A spattering of listening provides paltry relief against a void of ignorance.

This, then, is an explanation to myself, of why I’ve spent a working week in hot theatres just to hear and see an art form of which I know next to nothing, and an attempt to articulate why opera has come to mean so much. I have little of the vocabulary required to undertake such a task; coloratura could easily be a water-borne infection, had I not heard someone say it in a Covent Garden pub; a passaggio might as well be a corridor; even the aria, that staple of the casual opera buff, resists my attempts to define it. And everyone knows what an aria is.

Starting at the beginning might help. At a performance of The Pearl Fishers in the summer of 2010, in an English translation, something odd happened. Midway through act one, when the ill understudy for the aptly-named Nadir was croaking his way through what I’m pretty sure was supposed to be an aria, I realised that I was watching an absolute disaster of a show. By the time he had dropped out due to illness and a chorus member was singing from the side of the stage while reading the English libretto in his place, I was certain of it. I’m still not sure I recognise good tenor singing, but I do know that this was not it.

Far from dampening my interest, this horror-show piqued it. If I could be really disappointed by opera (as I never am by the theatre, which I expect to be bad), then perhaps there was something to it. And as luck would have it (well, not luck), I found myself a week later listening to Plácido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra in a semi-staged Proms performance at the Royal Albert Hall. If Nadir had lived down to his name, Simon was closer to the zenith. Domingo started out as a baritone, then became a tenor and sometimes a baritenor (which sounds like an American neologism, but isn’t, I think). In recent years, he has returned to straight baritone parts more regularly. So here we had one of the greatest tenors of all time singing a space-defying baritone, filling the hall even when singing in a whisper. For opera singers, volume seems about more than just loudness. I cried when Boccanegra died, slumping on a bench as the poison sweetened his expiring voice. I almost always cry at the opera.

Around this time I made a startling discovery. Having assumed that opera was an expensive love, a friend prompted me to discover the slips. Here, up high in the Royal Opera House amphitheatre, it is possible to get a bench seat (or a place to stand) at any performance for less than £10. At about £3.33 per hour, it’s much cheaper than the pub.

That autumn, I saw The Barber of Seville (which I knew already, from a wonderful episode of Bugs Bunny), Anna Nicole (probably the only time the Royal Opera House has heard the phrase ‘spunk-bags’) and Werther. That last gave me my first encounter with a top-form tenor (singing a tenor part) in Rolando Villazón. Quieter than Domingo, he nonetheless possessed a volume in his voice, a size of air, that coupled with studied verve to enthral us in the gods.

Next came Aida, and more expensive, Christmas-gifted seats. There are at least three sorts of people who go to Covent Garden, and my sort don’t tend to sit in the Grand Tier. The sound’s not as good, for a start, and though it improves the view of the stage, it makes it very difficult to watch the crowd (the octogenarian who bopped over an ancient libretto during Tosca; the middle-aged couple who sat on their hands after Anna Nicole, he embarrassed, she disgusted; the men who have shouted ‘Brava!’ before the end of every soprano aria I can remember; the amateurs in the slips, the lone, young women with their notebooks, the Morrissey look-alike with his Morrissey t-shirt and a Morrissey tattoo on his fore-arm,  the couple who moved down to spare seats in the orchestra stalls in the interval; the corporates, the critics, the shaded royal-boxers; the moneyed, the students, the sleeping, the second-half drunkards).

Aida was boringly competent, with the notable exception of Liudmyla Monastyrska, a late replacement in the title role, who made her Covent Garden debut with a vocal performance so entrancing it disguised the fact that she chose not to act the role (I assumed at the time that this could be explained by the lateness of her assimilation into the production, but she did, or didn’t do, the same as Lady Macbeth later in the year).

A throwback to the days when (I’m told) sopranos plonked their frame mid-stage and belted it out to the audience, Monastyrska is an extraordinary singer. A friend said she sang Lady Macbeth ‘as if her voice was made of blood’, which is right (though please let such a voice not clot!), and points to something I have learnt about my taste. The best sopranos are those that thicken their voices, like adding flour to a sauce, enriching and smoothing the notes whatever their pitch. Monastyrska’s sleepwalking aria in Macbeth (‘Una macchia è qui tuttora!’) embodied this, the viscosity of her notes acting what her physical being could not.

Incidentally, I have heard two other sopranos with this quality: Elizabeth Llewellyn, as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro, outdoors in Holland Park, showed-up an otherwise excellent cast with her voice as sweet as fondant; and last week, Angela Gheorghiu’s Marguerite seemed to carry her jewels in her throat during Faust (‘Oh Dieu! Que de bijoux’).

The more I go to the opera, the better I get on the singing. I know that the baritone and bass will always be wonderful, because their range is comforting, like a father reading to an infant. These voices contain unlimited potential to express good or evil, lasciviousness or Puritanism (Mephistopheles and Valentin in Faust are the two extremes). They have no truck with flakiness – flaky men are tenors, like Pinkerton in Madame Butterfly, which I saw done well in English at the Royal Albert Hall, and badly in Italian at Covent Garden. I know that there is normally a lead soprano, young and beautiful and often doomed, and an older, lower female, boisterous and bawdy (an innkeeper, perhaps, mother hen to sexy daughters, like in Peter Grimes).

But what about the music? Now, my lack of knowledge of orchestral music puts my opera vacuum to shame. Thankfully it’s pointless to talk about the orchestra in opera without acknowledging that the singing is integral to its power (though Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes stand proudly alone). So I won’t, suffice to say that a score is only as good as its conductor. I’ve tried so hard this year to work out exactly what a conductor brings to a performance, and I’ve failed. They are interpreters whose decisions about the music come from having a dialogue with it. An orchestral performance in opera manifests the conductor’s conversation with the principals, and especially with the composer. On that basis, and because I like good conversationalists, I’d very much like to talk to Antonio Pappano (musical director at the Royal Opera House) and Robin Ticciati (the new musical director at Glyndebourne, who conducted a wonderful Don Giovanni this year and is, depressingly, younger than me).

This month, I’m going to see The Flying Dutchman. Then there will be La Somnambula, while in the week before Christmas, I’ll attend my second production of La Traviata this year (in my defence, the first was a serendipitous accident in Italy). I’m even going to book The Ring Cycle, all 16 hours of it. Along the way, I hope to sort out my tessituras from my trills, my cavatinas from my cadenzas. Though it must be said: when it comes to opera, ignorance is bliss.