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Comic Opera: The Splendid Anachronism

“If you don't like opera, why do you go?” People have been asking me this over the years because of this tendency I have to make fun of it. It so happens that I like opera and I like to make fun of it. That's one of the things I like about it.

Unless you're sobersided beyond belief, you have to admit there's something inescapably comic, even ludicrous, about this particular art form. All those fat sopranos falling into the arms of skinny tenors who try not to stagger under the load. And fail. Conversely, all those fat-bellied tenors trying to get close enough to a skinny soprano, if any, to embrace her. Heroes and heroines stretched out on the stage, fatally wounded, singing at the top of their lungs for 20 minutes as they die.

Contradictions by the score: opera houses jammed to the rafters and still losing money. In a recession, people lining up to buy high-priced tickets for a show presented in a language they can't understand and, if it's in English, it's worse. Standees stacked three deep, half a block from the stage, straining eyes and ears — and feet. In an age of supersonic speeds, an entertainment as slow and cumbersome as a dinosaur which it sometimes resembles in everything but longevity.

Grand Opera has been pronounced dead more often than the dodo, but it not only survives, it flourishes. Why? Because in an age of schlock, it's the real thing. In a “cool” world growing cold, it is blood-hot. Compared to the tawdriness of TV and the plastic corridors of high-rises, it is still grand and romantic. And finally, there is the genius of the music and the integrity that goes into its presentation.

Even when they are bored by it — and much of opera is boring — and the maligned “people,” whose brains and judgments supposedly have been beaten to pulp by Modern Life, respond in growing numbers because they know they are being treated to something rare, special, unusual, even bizarre. As W.C. Fields said about sex, “I don't know whether it's good and I don't know whether it's bad, but I do know there isn't anything quite like it.”

As I started to say at the beginning of whatever I'm trying to say here, the funny thing about opera is that you can make fun of it while still respecting (and even enjoying) it.

If there is a six foot woman in the audience she will be wearing her hair piled another 12 inches on top of her head — and you'll be seated behind her. If you don't get her, you'll get the crazy guy whose hair runs north and south, three inches on each side. A woman you've never seen before will fall asleep on your shoulder and here you have to go to the bathroom even though your favorite aria is coming up and if you leave you can't get back in until intermission anyway.

People snore, stomachs rumble, the barking coughs sound like mating season at Seal Rocks. The opera drones on through a dry spell. You stare at the ceiling to stay awake, thinking about the chandelier hurtling down, as it did in the Phantom of the Opera. You are directly beneath it. You straighten up: the music grows glorious again, the singing brilliant, the harmonies rich enough to make you cry, even though the libretto at this point reads, “Here King Flouristan orders the death of Prince Dristan, unaware that he is actually his own wife, Queen Bufferin, in disguise, who as she dies sings the unforgettable aria, 'Ou est la route a Brisbane'.”

We sat through five hours of 'Parsifal.' “What's it about?” someone asked Robert Cromey, beforehand. And he replied, “About two hours too long.” But he is wrong. It's not too long at all and besides it's another example of how to have fun while being deeply moved.

‘Parsifal’ is Wagner at his druidical, mystical best or worst. So there is this opening scene in the forest. The longer you look the more the scene begins to resemble the Bohemian Grove. There ensues a lot of mumbo-jumbo in guttural German, a long ritual involving what purports to be the Holy Grail. Okay, so it’s initiation night at the Grove, except that everybody seems reasonably sober.

The acolytes open the mysterious receptacle to reveal the Grail itself. All your life you've wondered what the Holy Grail looks like and there it is. It looks like the sign on a tenderloin “cocktail lounge” — an oversized Manhattan glass glowing with a huge cherry. You can see the electrical cord running across the stage. Our hero raises the glass with a visible effort and cries his heart out because he was expecting a martini. (It sounds better in German.)

But five hours! A tremendous achievement. Five hours in which to make mistakes, like dropping the Grail or dumping the wounded knight out of the stretcher, or falling off the tilted stage. And yet there were no mistakes and the music was unfailingly sublime. Thank you, Richard Wagner, singers, musicians, listeners, guarantors, ushers, impresario Kurt Herbert Adler. Thank you all for these riches. And for the laughs too.

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