Opera in a Chilled-out World
I am a huge fan of Metropolitan Opera productions and luckily there is a theatre only an hour away from our rural community which brings in the Met’s live theatre-transmission broadcasts. In January this year I made the trek over to take in Puccini’s Turandot.
Ten minutes into the opera, our modern-day sensibilities have been assaulted by sexism (why, says one of the male leads, would a man settle for one woman, when 100 different pairs of arms and legs would be far more interesting?), ageism (the male lead’s father is constantly referred to – in person – as ‘the old man’, worthy of one’s pity and comfort and not much more), racism (the Chinese ministers in the story have been ‘dignified’ with the names of Ping, Pang and Pong and the music framing them is with motifs with stereotypical staccato pentatonic open 5ths, etc.), and unproblematic violence (suitors not up to the princess’s standards are forthwith beheaded). How do operas get away with these ‘faux-pas’ in our ultra-sensitized world today? Was anyone else in the theatre squirming, thinking that the opera production should have been prefaced with a rider something like ‘views in early 20th opera may not be consistent with those 100 years later’, or that they should have revised the story or whatever was necessary to make it more comfortable for 21st century audiences to view? But that would still leave hanging out a mile the other much larger issue about opera librettos – the EQ factor of its principal characters.
EQ Factor of Opera Characters
From what I have observed, the principal characters in operas are notoriously lacking in emotional intelligence. A greed, a hunger, an ambition or a quest inevitably consumes them with passions we label ‘unhealthy’ today: anger, jealousy, resentment, lust, hatred, despair, intransigence, myopia (oops I guess that last one constitutes a flaw in general intelligence!). They’re either after a wrong woman/man, made a promise that costs too much to keep, have lost – usually by their own impetuosity – that which is important to them (love, power, position) or are gnashing teeth about anything which offends their sense of self-worth. Rare moments of beauty – the arias – are oasises of serenity in an otherwise sea of turbulent, self- immolating emotions: the spurned or deceived lover, the confounded or double crossed king, the shamed or rejected woman, the vengeful warrior, the spiteful crone. In an opera, emotions ignite the stage and drive the plot – the rants, the protests, the sobs, the mad scenes – carrying characters headlong into spectacular finishes that are more often disastrous than triumphant.
The dialed up emotion and some of the spectacularly stupid actions of the characters has the modern day yoga-practising, therapy indulging, self-help reading, spirituality-seeking audience member flummoxed and just a bit rattled. Guides to a happy life today – be they from cognitive behaviour therapists, positive psychologists, Buddhist practitioners, yoga mat dwellers – are urging us to cultivate our inner peace or ‘God within’ by weeding out emotions – anger, bitterness, hatred, envy, etc. – that will impede our connectedness with the world. By learning to discipline these emotions, our mind/heart is freed to tend to that which is healthy and sustaining. Mindful, self-regulated approaches to our relationships, our careers and our desires are the key to a quiet mind and a peaceful world. “May cool heads prevail”, “keep calm and carry on”: these mantras continue to be considered an effective way to deal with crisis, even at its most personal level. And of course for those therapies influenced by Eastern thought, it is only through eradicating ones desires and ego-identification that one truly achieves the emotional freedom needed to clearly see the way forward. How antithetical and unenlightened, then, are the outbursts of emotion, the cries from the depths of the soul that are the warp and weft of opera! It’s enough to make one blemish in, not sympathy, but embarrassment for our poor misguided divas. Perhaps they need to consider anti-anxiety medications?
The Story that Compels
But we continue to tolerate those self-indulgent, anachronistic displays of emotion because without them, we’d have a tepid story. To fill an operatic stage, to give singers a reason to plumb the possibilities of their instrument – without appearing to engage in one meaningless virtuosic display after another – we need to give them something to sing about. So the story needs to be dramatic, larger than life and replete with people with a lot more heart than sense. There’s no such thing as a cold and calculating hero, an unruffled heroine, an epic comedy – this is life at its most colossal, its most intense. These are not pleasant bedtime stories or Reader’s Digest selections, this is the stuff of tall tales, myths, legends, allegories, about mortals learning timeless, immortal truths. Perhaps our divas are just the stand-ins, the icons for human folly everywhere, allowing us to heed the lessons their stories portray. Opera heroes as scapegoats? As fallen angels? Or as momentary flashes of honesty from what has become an emotionally flattened, albeit much more reasoned world? Whatever it is, the carthasis effected by being in the presence of those who are expressing the gamut of what it means to be human – the dark and the sublime – is undeniable. I think it’s good to let it all hang out – in a gloriously constructed artform – once in a while. Besides, guaranteed, you’ll love the music. And the birdseye views of the costumes, the sets, the artists, the backstage activity during intermissions…