“Do you like opera, miss?” is a question I was frequently asked by children in school whenever I put any classical music on for them to listen to. My usual answer was “Actually I don’t very much and anyway I am not asking you to listen to opera music.”
And it’s true – I don’t like opera music very much, but there are of course exceptions. I have discovered over the years that it pays to do some homework before you go.
When I was 21 I had my appendix out on New Year’s Day in St George’s hospital, Knightsbridge. Very glamorous outside, a workhouse inside. 40 women to a ward, a strict regime, and they kept me in for almost a week. No one worried about hospital bugs then. If you were a woman, it didn’t matter what was wrong with you – cancer, appendix, hymen resewing, hysterectomy ( my nearest neighbours – we were all kept in for ages; hysterectomy lady opposite was French and could only deal with the regime and the diet by drinking Martini Rosso from her medicine cup before and after every meal. She was very nice and shared with a favoured few – me included. I don’t remember it running out.) But I digress.
Generally speaking we were not encouraged to move around or communicate a lot. So there was nothing to do. Except read. So my friend Stephen – who had ambitions to become an opera singer himself at that time invited me to my first opera – on the day I was due to leave hospital –Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Wagner’s longest work. I was delighted to accept but the invitation had its conditions. Stephen brought me several volumes to read. The libretto. The score??? I don’t read music. Criticism and history and background. As I had nothing else to do I did indeed read most of them. The morphine was stopped so the best painkiller was reading. I read.
When we got to Covent Garden I think I was the only person there who knew exactly what was going on – theatrically, musically and historically. It was wonderful that I could recognise all the leitmotifs – but I don’t really want to do that again. I certainly don’t want that much time in hospital!
I’ve just remembered that that wasn’t actually my first opera. I went in Poland when I was 18 to see a dreadful production of Carmen – I was at the front and the conductor sang along with all the arias. She had a dreadful voice!
Then In Warsaw I was given a ticket to Penderecki’s the Devils of Loudun. This is what Wikipedia says about the production I saw: In Penderecki’s native country Poland, the first performance, which was held in Warsaw six years after its world premiere in 1969 and considerably less risqué, received generally very negative reviews. Even the composer himself did not think the work was performed successfully.
I found it hilarious – the story is traumatic and some of it is set in a church. A priest comes in to perform some rites – possibly satanic, I can’t be sure, and half the audience – who looked as if they had been bussed in from the countryside to fill the seats, started to cross themselves as if they were in a real church. I have never seen a thousand people look more bemused, especially when the nuns were planning unspeakable things.
Over the years, though, I have seen some wonderful productions – no, I am not going to list them all, though I could. About seven years ago my son took me to see an ENO production of the Magic Flute. My tutor at university used to wax lyrical about this opera to whoever would listen, so when I finally had the opportunity to see and hear it – in English, it exceeded expectations. The story is painfully silly, but the music is so uplifting and the words of wisdom interspersed with a lot of very politically incorrect advice, are still so true, that you come away feeling totally inspired.
And the same is true today. I was very kindly given two tickets for the General Rehearsal at the Royal Opera House. We had seats in the second row of level 1, so could hardly be better. It was sung in German with surtitles, so the lovely soft sounds of the original, together with the phenomenal music added to the pleasure, without my understanding being compromised.
The overture is long – but so uplifting. And then the set. the opening with the serpent – vibrant greens swirling away against the dark background immediately introduce you to the magic. It isn’t just a magic flute – but magic everywhere. The Queen of the Night (Tuuli Takala ) was superb against a magnificently starry sky and the biggest crescent moon you have ever seen. I was rather hoping she would be whisked away on it., but sadly she stormed off the stage on her own two feet. Her black costume and those of her ladies left you in no doubt who was the baddie in this show. Her voice was in fine fettle. Rather pretentiously I feel bound to record that she hit all the high notes in her two main arias perfectly – though my friend did ask why she had to extend the words so much.
This was a rehearsal so despite myself I was on the lookout for some blips. There was only one, when you could see all the cast’s feet just below one of the backdrops. But that didn’t hinder anyone’s enjoyment – and obviously won’t happen after the first night which I believe is on Friday.
I was very pleased that this was a truly sumptuous production. I like my stages the opposite of minimalist. Here everything was on a big scale. The moon, the sun, the temple, the big bed for the lovers. There was a lot of fun too as the traps were opened to provide small props.
The funniest part was Papageno’s suicide song – his cry for help as he tried to knot his noose around a big tree stump and waited for someone to stop him. The words are tragic – but the music is so ironically jolly. I almost felt like singing along, but you will be pleased to hear that I managed to control myself!
It was a wonderful way to spend a morning amongst hundreds of like-minded people. I looked around and not one person had their mobile phone on – that can’t be said for many performances anywhere else! I am very grateful to my daughter’s friend who let me have the tickets.