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2004-09-25 - 4:57 p.m.

Last night, I went to my kinda first opera. Kinda first in that in high school I saw a concert version of Carmen (no sets, no "costumes" except that the diva performing Carmen was dressed in red, the orchestra was onstage with the singers as opposed to in the pit, you get the ides) at the Majestic in San Antonio. The Majestic is one of the most beautiful theaters I've ever been to, being decorated as though it were some sort of colonial Spanish courtyard complete with a night sky overhead. It's gaudy and ridiculous and even has an albino peacock by one of the boxes, but it's pretty cool overall. I barely remember the concert, except that I wished that I could see a full on version of Carmen, with lavish costumes and crazy dance numbers. Real fuckin' OPERA.

So last night I saw La Traviata. And I thought it sucked.

I knew a little bit about La Traviata, enough to recognize the Brindisi, where people toast to the joys of pleasure and love, which are occassionally at odds with one another (too friggin' true), and the aria that Violetta, the ho in question (or rather, the demimondaine at the center of the action, so to speak) sings about trying to forget about the possibility of love and instead to focus on pleasure. I know this aria from its special guest appearance in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, when Guy Pearce gets up on top of the bus dressed entirely in silver and lip synchs to it, gloriously.

Yeah, both those songs happened in the first act, and it all went downhill from there.

As I was watching the performers sing about how "You've called us here, what do you want?" I began to get nervous, and to get even more nervous as my friends spoke breathlessly about the pleasure of the experience during the intermissions. They were all loving it, and some of them were even opera performers. To make me even more nervous, our intro-lit professor was in the audience as well, the woman who holds our careers in the palm of her hand. What would happen if she asked me what I thought of the piece later on? Would I be gripped by one of my more ill-advised needs to be totally honest and say, "Yeah, I think it blows." What was wrong with me? Is it possible that, after all these years of listening to Jessye Norman and Maria Callas CDs, of longing to see DivaLawya perform at the Met where she damn well belongs, of counting opera-films like Celestial Clockwork and Meeting Venus among my favorites, that I, owner of full cast recordings of Norman's Carmen and Cecilia Bartoli's La Cenerentola . . . don't like opera?

It's a terrifying thought, but I'm going to do what I can to refute it.

I think a problem may have been acoustics. I am used to me, in my room or my car, with the music blasting. If I'm going to listen to Wagner, I ain't gonna fuck around. As was, the music seemed a lot softer than I'd expected, without a lot of the punch I was looking for. Of course, that might also be a function of having only listened to CDs put out by the opera superstars. If you're used to Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Kiri Te Kanawa, and Renee Fleming singing these roles, are the San Francisco singers, as incredible as they may be, going to live up to your expectations? I might be such an opera lover as to be an inveterate opera snob. That's something to hope for, right?

It might also be that I might not be a big fan of Verdi. I'd never been that taken by Aida, which I often watched on PBS because it was one of the few operas that was shown on a regular basis. So far I've stuck to Puccini, Rossini, and Wagner in terms of what I listen to. I might not be a snob, merely someone with particular tastes. I mean, I don't like every rock singer out there, even ones that I can objectively recognize as talented. Why should I love all the great opera classics?

Having said all this, I think my big problems were with the storyline itself and the direction, which makes sense, considering that I am a director and hope to be a writer and literary critic someday. The storyline of La Traviata is as follows: there's this ho named Violetta--excuse me, courtesan--who throws a big party after she recovers from a nasty bout with consumption, which is what EVERYBODY in these operas dies from, with the exceptions of the murdered and the suicides. She meets this young dude, whose name I've already forgotten, and he tells her that he's been in love with her for a year, since he first laid eyes on her. Now, as one who does not believe in love at first sight (although I am a fervent believer in hate at first sight, but that's another entry), I was already suspicious. Anyway, after debating whether to give this boy a chance, she decides to run off with him to the countryside. She pays all the bills by selling off her stuff, since she figures she hasn't got long anyway. His dad shows up and convinces her to leave him because her reputation is keeping the boy's sister from getting married. He follows her to Paris, and she convinces him that she's fallen for this Baron prick, and he proceeds to throw money at her, saying he's paid her in full, if you know what I mean. Everyone at the party where this happens calls him a douche, including his own dad, who's decided that, if this ho is willing to give up everything that makes her happy when she's already dying, she's okay. He runs off crying, and you cut to the last scene where Violetta's dying at home. The boy and the dad show up, and although she thinks she's going to get better, she dies. The motherfucking end.

Now isn't that the shittiest story you've ever heard? Also, isn't it almost exactly the plot of Moulin Rouge? But see, what I love about that movie is that Baz Luhrmann spent the entire time deconstructing everything as he went along, so you were well aware of all the ridiculous elements of the story as you went along.

This opera, however, was presented in a traditional style, that is, subtle as a supernova. All I could pay attention to was the misogyny of the story, the way that this woman is expected to give up all of herself and fulfill the fantasies of these men in order to get into heaven. So after a while I decided to do the thing that would ensure that I wouldn't enjoy the show at all: imagine how I would direct it.

I do this a lot with shows I'm not enjoying. It passes the time. The only problem is that the more I direct the harder it is for me to enjoy a show.

My version of the opera makes it all about Violetta. It makes her love affair something that she enters into thinking that it will somehow cure her: how can God let her die now that she has found love. She isn't a wilting, tragic flower; she is powerful and defiant. You can totally do it considering the lines. She is not wilting and desperate for a father figure before the boy's dad. Instead, she challenges him. Have his cry of "Weep, weep for all the bad shit you're going through" be a command rather than an observation. Have her sing the lines "I'll do this if you embrace me as a daughter" be a challenge to the dad's bourgeouis disdain, not a plea for love. Instead of singing about how much she loves the boy while facing away from him at the party, have her sing them to him, and have HER leave at the end of the party. And most of all, when she says, "It doesn't matter how much we love one another, I'm going to die anyway," let that not be a moment of tragedy, but a moment of freedom, when she finally understands that she has been fighting against an inevitable death, and that her love for the boy was only a function of that. In other words, let's not sacrifice this woman to her love for this guy who treats her like a ho, even if he doesn't pay her. Let's make his love for her a commodity, something that she gives back when she realizes she is about to leave the realm of transaction. And have her walk offstage, leaving him holding her dressing gown, as she sings her lines about finding her strength, so that she has already died and is singing only for the audience, or for herself. Have her walk out through the audience, as a matter of fact.

If you don't know the show, take my word for it: my version is WAY better.

So either I hate opera, or I'm supposed to be directing it. It's an interesting dilemma, ain't it?

I'm going to keep trying to see shows this year. I figure it's the best way to find out my true feelings for this artform. If all these pieces are this overwrought, sentimental, and misogynistic--and they are, and I accept that--I don't have high hopes. But then again, I can get the CDs and imagine my own versions in my head, and try to convince someone to do my versions instead.

Having said that, no one is allowed to put on my version without my permission. If any opera directors are reading this, realize that I am entirely prepared to sue your ass. Thanks.

ADDENDUM: To Metameat, GreatSirG, and my demimondaine (high class ho) of a sister: I've just become a member of PhD Weblogs, at You should to, as should any other PhD students who might have their own journal/blog/online writing repository. Have yourselves a time.

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previous - next

The End - 2005-02-11
Let's Go on With the Show - 2005-01-30
The Curse, and This Bee's a Keeper - 2005-02-01
Sisters Lolita and Matronic Explain It All for You - 2005-01-31
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