Let me try to take your mind off, well, everything, by telling you how I came to love opera. I'd never been to the opera and did not grow up listening to opera. Opera was not on my radar until an exceptional and very kind teacher (shout-out to all of you out there) noticed my intense and judgmental eldest child's interest in slightly less intense and judgmental Nordic gods and took my 10-year-old to see Siegfried. That's how it started.
My child took to Wagner. A book about the Ring cycle was well received at Christmas, which was good because Christmas was always a tough nut to crack with this kid. My eldest was born fairly fancy-resistant. I, on the other hand, came to motherhood brimming with fancy, dying to share the world's whimsy with my offspring, and quite sure Christmas was the ideal time to do that.
Unfortunately, I learned – by the time my child was three – I'd given birth to the Richard Dawkins of Santa Claus.
Christmas, I was certain, was also about candy and my child did not like candy.
"My child took to Wagner," I have now typed, and "My child did not like candy."
This is a strange tale for strange times but all of it is true. I tell my kids I only had children so I could be the mum in the checkout line who says "Hey! Should we get a chocolate bar?" before my children even asked, let alone begged, and then I could eat some of it. Grown up, but still angling for that Oh Henry.
My youngest was all over that and still is, but my eldest always said, after a moment's thought, "No, let's not get a chocolate bar."
Every Dec. 25, one child's stocking was found filled with chocolate snowmen, Quality Streets and candy canes and met with delight. The other child's stocking was filled with jars of exotic salsa and bottles of obscure hot sauce and met with skepticism, although the goods were coveted nonetheless.
Anyway, a year or so after that introductory Siegfried, I read that the Canadian Opera Company was staging the entire Ring cycle and I felt maternally obliged to take my child to all four operas. A chance like that, I feared, might not come around again.
I read that Wagner fans were coming in from all over the world for this event and here we were in Toronto anyway and so I looked into going. But times were quite lean at that time and, upon investigation, I realized there was no way I could afford to buy us tickets.
Then, and how I did it I will never know – in one of those moments I can only compare to a mother lifting a car off her child – I found strength I didn't know I had, and I up and convinced the editor of a local paper that what she really needed was a review of the Ring cycle written by a small child.
To their infinite credit, the Canadian Opera Company, when the editor approached them, agreed that a child's reflections on 15 hours of German opera was exactly what the city's readers were missing, and provided us with tickets.
"How could we not have seen this before?" they practically said. "What, after all, is Der Ring des Nibelungen but Harry Potter in German, with substantially more self-immolation? You get to work, child."
If other legacy media is paying attention, the Canadian Opera Company can teach them a lot. The COC does a fine job of getting the next generation of subscribers out to their offerings, ensuring a future for what it is they provide. Rather than deciding that older people go to the opera and so young people will naturally go to the opera once they're older too, the COC works to get young people out to opera right now. It's kind of a happening scene, the Canadian Opera.
With all the amusement options available these days, assuming the next generation will just come your way in time is not a safe bet. Instead, the COC offers an under-30 rate, as low as $22 a ticket. None of the seats are terrible. The sound is great. It feels as if there is space, both physically and intellectually, for newcomers. Not that the operas suffer endlessly awkward and belaboured "updates," but the staging is frequently inventive. They feel relevant. A lively Twitter feed invites people out to various free lunchtime performances. A 20-minute talk precedes each opera. And while so many entertainment venues are just a seat and a line-up for the bathroom, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto, which houses both the National Ballet and the COC, is a wonderfully social space. It's mingly.
I, however, did not know any of this when I learned the COC had agreed to let my child and I attend the Ring cycle, I only knew I had to go and see the Ring cycle. All of it, in the space of less than a week. The way I saw it, having my first opera be 15 hours long was trial by aria. I was filled with dread, dread I hid from my child, much like the book I brought to Das Rheingold on our first night out – thinking I might be able to slip into the lobby after a while. But here's the thing. I loved it. I loved all of it.
I was sold on opera from that week on and almost never miss one now. I still know almost nothing about opera and possibly this only makes me like it more. "That was a good song," I sit there thinking. "Oh! That was another good song." I never look at the reviews until after I've seen the show. It's just me and the opera for the night.
I have mostly struggled with contemporary theatre because when I'm at a play, someone always seems to be asking me to suspend my disbelief. My disbelief is a weighty beast. Most of the time, my disbelief is just not going anywhere. I usually feel as if a play is trying, very hard, to convince me of something. I feel the pressure to believe the moment the first actor walks on stage. The considerable efforts of his movement coach – whom, experience tells me, he likely refers to as "a genius" at parties – are apparent to me in every step he takes.
During an opera, my incredulousness feels like an asset. I know that guy on stage singing is not an actual viking and he knows I know he is not an actual viking. We're all in this mostly surreal thing together at the opera.
I never cared for musicals. With few exceptions, they make my teeth hurt. A guy I dated when I was in my teens was forever trying to sell me on the merits of Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire movies and the like. I remained entirely unmoved, a philistine in his opinion.
"You don't understand," he'd lecture me when I expressed concern over the fact that everyone in whatever movie he'd chosen who wasn't singing was tap-dancing.
Tap-dancing, for heaven's sake. And yet, I was expected not to run out of the room screaming.
"It was the 1930s," he'd say, "times were very tough, and these films were escapist fantasies that offered people relief!"
I came to believe the Great Depression was actually a fairly affluent time. People were just sad because their movies sucked.
Last weekend, I saw COC's The Magic Flute. I know it's not an original thought but The Magic Flute is enchanting. As is my tradition, I went to the opera that night thinking I did not want to be there, my mind very much somewhere else, and I was quickly swept right in. I smiled like a goof most of the way through the production. Sometimes it made me laugh and I'm still surprised at how intensely romantic opera can be.
Toronto is cold these days, grey skyed, with little snow, and at some point we seem to have decided to make most of our buildings out of green glass. The city is slowly turning the colour of an old Mason jar. You feel the chill and the barrenness and the ordinariness of it all the most just now. But then, in the middle of that, there is the opera; every winter I find it again, a weird, warm bright flame.