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Why it’s hard not to love the dream-like magic of opera

Erin Wall plays Arabella and Jane Archibald is Zdenka in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Arabella.

Michael Cooper

The Canadian Opera Company has just announced a successful year: a small surplus for the season, with a record-breaking $13.9-million in total fundraising revenue. The general director, Alexander Neef, has had his contract extended until 2026. And you thought opera was a dead art.

You may also think it is rather daunting. It can be. I went the other night, to see a COC performance, and almost didn't. It's a hell of a commitment. A three-hour show, necessitating an early dinner, a supply of eye drops, cursing over recalcitrant cufflinks, anxiety in a streetcar stuck in rush-hour traffic getting there. Slight anxiety over who I might run into during the intermission – an angry ex, a withering enemy – because, after all, the event is primarily social, a hall of display. One sometimes wonders, at the end of a long day, if one really wants to go.

But sure enough, sitting waiting for the music to start, I felt that familiar yet so very rare sense of childhood excitement. I anticipated the sheer selfish pleasure of the music and my wonder at the voices and astonishment at the skill of the players, and I wanted to see the beautiful capes and hats and boots of the historical period being recreated, and I wanted to believe in the transforming perfect love that almost all the famous arias are about.

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Every seat was full.

This is hard to explain because opera is usually ridiculous in many ways. The stories are either implausible to the point of being silly or opaquely deep – and this particular opera was silly to the point of being ludicrous. It was Arabella, by Richard Strauss, at the vast and glittering Four Seasons Centre in Toronto. (It's still on for a couple more weeks.) The story belongs more properly to operetta, light comic opera, and yet this was played as deadly serious.

The plot hinges on devices that are impossible to believe – a girl is dressed as a boy her whole life, and nobody notices, even her best male friend (with whom she is in love), despite the fact that she is a soprano and has breasts. This couple hooks up in a dark hotel room, and the man makes love to her believing that she is her older sister. He never twigs. Great confusion ensues!

Even more fundamentally, people sing instead of talking, which we know isn't real. They don't even look like the characters described in the words. I don't know how many brave Siegfrieds or Don Giovannis I have seen who are played by balding and paunchy men; they don't exactly look like warrior heroes or seductive playboys. Young women are also frequently played by women in middle age. Every single moment of opera involves a suspension of disbelief on multiple levels.

Calls to make opera more natural, less artificial, began pretty much as soon as opera itself did. The Italians, who invented it, debated whether the drama should be more important than the spectacle in the 1600s, and every century after that saw a new movement to "reform" it in one way or another. "An Essay On the Opera" was published by Francesco Algarotti in 1755; it advocated minimizing ballet and returning to the basics of story, "without the risk of sinning against reason or common sense." The calls for making opera more "realistic" continued through the centuries.

Amusingly, a great master in the adaptation of implausible melodramas, Giuseppe Verdi, was famous for his verismo or realism. What we now think of as archetypal overblown opera was then seen as remarkably down to earth.

It is amazing how quickly, when thrown into the conventions of a highly stylized artifice, one's expectations adapt. After a few moments of seeing people sing to each other, one expects them to; one is watching a play not very unlike any other. Of course, we make the same psychic adjustments when watching Shakespeare: the kings and queens speak in poetry, unlike us, and that's just fine, we prefer them smarter than we are. Art presents idealized settings.

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What are we getting, then, when we let ourselves become immersed in an alternate reality? It is a place where the sky may be green and the air water and yet it still seems to represent our emotional reality.

Sometimes for a few seconds at a time I am curious about the plot, but most of the time, not much: I know what is going to happen anyway. I am there for the music and the unbelievable power of the voices – voices trained to do things unlike anything we hear voices do daily, and unlike anything I will ever be able to do. I am there for that otherworldly combination of sounds, of an orchestra playing together and a voice floating on that, unmediated by amplification, right in front of me. The textures that emerge are quite new and ethereal (especially when they are the lush and silvery melodies of Strauss) and they seem to form bright shapes in front of me. I can't get them from listening to my stereo or my headphones. (In Arabella, there is one tingling duet between two sisters – about the ideal man – that is as sublime and melancholic an aria as any in the canon.)

One would think that in an era of immersive realities, opera would have tried to aim for higher levels of verisimilitude, would have become grittier and true to life, but in the age of cinema, the opposite happened. Twentieth-century opera became more amorphous, less plot-driven. Watch something like Nixon In China, with its listless, meandering scenes and droning, repetitive music, and you will start yearning for a king disguised as a peasant and a letter given to the wrong princess. Opera does not attempt real social commentary or naturalism well: it is a heightened reality, a dream. Opera is crazy and intense like dreaming, another heightened reality, and we often wake from dreams wishing we could enter them again.

The median age of the audience was about 70. They are responsible for the $43-million in revenues that the COC earned this year. They understand the value of crazy.

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About the Author
Culture columnist

Russell Smith's most recent novel, Girl Crazy, is currently being adapted for cinema for New Real Films of Toronto. More

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