Without music, life would be a mistake. – Friedrich Nietzsche
The first image that comes to mind when I think “opera” is a scene in Anastasia, the animated film that came out in 1997. Anastasia gets all dressed up in pearls and a floor-length gown and watches the opera from a luxury box through a pair of gold binoculars. Since then, opera has meant elegance, finery, glamor, culture.
On Thursday, a colleague took me to the Met for a performance of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio. While it didn’t involve a floor-length gown or gold binoculars, it was absolutely stunning and also changed my schema of opera.
My coworker neglected to mention that her season tickets are in the front row. This gave me a view of the orchestra that I’ve never had, which was fascinating in itself. During intermission, for example, the musicians chatted to each other, took pictures, sent text messages, and suddenly became regular people. Other than a few small live music venues, I’ve never been close enough to a stage to watch orchestral musicians perform. To say that music is alive is to underestimate the role of the people who bring it to life.
I grew up listening to many of the Classical Kids cassette tapes – Beethoven Lives Upstairs, Mozart’s Magic Fantasy, Vivaldi’s Ring of Mystery, Tchaikovsky Discovers America, Mr. Bach Comes to Call were often our choice of car music. (Barenaked Ladies and Smash Mouth took over for a while after that, but I think we had CDs by then.) As soon as the Fidelio overture began, it was like being at a Beethoven concert. My knowledge of music theory is unfortunately limited and I can’t actually describe what “being at a Beethoven concert” sounds like, but I recognized him immediately.
The singers, of course, were equally amazing. Their voices were so big and so full of every emotion, making them instantly relatable and making the story easy to follow. I likely had a huge smile on my face the whole time. Live performance always has that impact on me.
Overall, the opera was far more approachable than I had expected. On the back of each seat is a small screen that you can choose to turn on to view the subtitles for everything being sung onstage. For Fidelio, the available languages were German (the language of the opera), English, and Spanish. The words are red on black screens that are constructed in such a way that it is very difficult to see the screen of the people next to you. Having the captions on is not at all distracting while also allowing the audience to follow tradition and watch the opera without translation.
There was something in Fidelio for everyone – unrequited love, ambition, crime, marital fidelity, revolutionary undertones. Opera is definitely an experience that I want to have again, which is feasible considering tickets at the Met start at about $30 for the highest section in the auditorium. Again, approachable. Who knew?
In addition to the opera, I was really interested in the audience. My coworker had told me to expect everything from tuxedos with tails to jeans and backpacks. She was not exaggerating. I saw multiple people who were clearly tourists and backpackers in the city for a few days, and multiple people who have clearly attended opera for decades and embrace all the glamor that opera has always had. My favorite by far was a couple in our row who were well into their advanced years and epitomized fabulous. He sported a tuxedo with a patterned cummerbund matching his bowtie and pocket square, and she wore a velvet pantsuit with a spangly rhinestone front and no back with a white feathered fedora. They were beautiful.
As far as cultural experiences go, I’m trying to do as much as I can for my time here in New York. I’ve been to live music venues, Broadway shows, comedy clubs, and now the opera. I haven’t seen a dance performance here so that’s next on the list.
Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent. – Victor Hugo