La donna è mobile

In Celebration of Esoteric Spectacle: Operatic Observations

This piece was originally published in September of 2013. Consider reading it alongside Laura Tokie’s opera piece, also originally published last year and available for you again on the homepage. 

The only sport I can watch with any amount of interest on television is soccer and, on a good day, basketball. But golf? No. Baseball? No. Football? No. I simply can’t. I’ve tried, and I’ve been told what I’m missing, but nothin’ doin’. I watch soccer because I played for many years. I am a minimally “educated” viewer, while I know that there are skills and abilities that are invisible to me as an uninformed baseball-watcher.

Because I study modern and contemporary art, my entire life has become a struggle to justify specialized and particularized practices and argue for their wider relevance. Mine is a precarious position, defending esoteric spectacle and informed viewing while trying to stamp out the rampant privilege and elitism that so often accompany. And visual art isn’t the only realm in which I do battle—happening to love opera doesn’t help.

I used to hate opera. I mean, they sing in shrieking voices and clomp around and get all melodramatic. I could handle “opera lite”—some Bocelli pop, some Pavarotti arias—but I left the vibrato and the breastplates to rich old people. Then I spent a semester in Florence, and had to choose an elective: it was either a studio art workshop or History of Italian Opera. Since any pedestrian on the street has as much artistic talent in her pinkie finger as I do in my entire body, I chose the academic course.

Our class learned about the different voice types and periods of Italian opera. We suffered through early Baroque pieces, and zipped through the classical and Romantic ones. We attuned our ears to the new sounds of 20th century works. All along the way we tried to note as many of the myriad variables as we could about every production—the conductor, the director, the singers, the orchestra, the sets, the costumes, the lighting, the stage. And that very little survey—that introduction to the broadest of concepts in the most superficial of ways—has made all the difference.

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A key factor of our pleasure in art is our recognition of it and in it. When you turn the second corner on the fifth floor of The Museum of Modern Art, you’ll see a crowd clustered with smartphones and digital cameras around van Gogh’s Starry Night. Starry Night is not, in my opinion, the best painting at MoMA. It’s fantastic for many reasons, but that’s not what is compelling people to photograph it. Two years ago Placido Domingo complained of exactly this effect to Stephen Colbert, of all people —how “La donna è mobile” is “so known that the whole evening the public is sitting in the auditorium, and when it comes “Ta ta ta re ta la, pum pum…’ everybody says ‘Rigoletto!’ And it is in the fourth act.” We respond more easily to what we recognize, but we can’t recognize something without exposure to it. That anticipation of the audience for “La donna è mobile,” so rightly frustrating to Domingo, is also why Rigoletto is one of the most-performed operas worldwide.

After reading Laura Tokie’s recent piece on “What’s Opera, Doc?” , I found the short online and watched it for the first time in probably 15 years. Within seconds I was cackling out loud at the send-up of Fantasia in the opening, and, in one of many nods to Wagner, Elmer’s use of “Ride of the Valkyries”. Next I recognized Siegfried’s horn call in Bugs Bunny’s first recitative, and appreciated the parodic twisting of words and pauses to make his lines fit the tune. Then the clichéd operatic reveal of the beautiful woman (Brünnhilde on her white stallion, Grane), although this time it is the horse who has junk in the trunk. Elmer and Bugs’s duet (“Oh Brünnhilde, you’re so lovely!” “Yes, I know and I can’t help it.”) mimics hundreds of love arias whose sentimentality I’ve laughed at or cried to. And the balletic interlude had me reminiscing about my annoyance at the Act I Nutcracker duet that I watched at least five years in a row at my old dance studio—the overly aestheticized “pursuit” and “submission.” I quickly remembered another classic episode—this one a parody of Il barbiere di Siviglia—and settled in to enjoy it just as much.

I’m not really a music person: I have little experience with theory, and none with composition. I know that I’m missing a lot when I watch opera, the same way I know that the intricacies of NASCAR racing technique escape me. But, at least for me, the little work I’ve done has so far been enough, and only spurred me on toward more. I have become accustomed to the singing style; I respond to the stories and the lyrics; I critique the costumes and the design. When I read reviews by Alex Ross I know I’m not perceiving a tenth of what’s there. Yet in the end that’s exactly how I know it’s so rich: even though I’m watching and listening with insufficient eyes and ill-informed ears, I am engaged.

We are in the positions of historians as well as viewers and participants when appreciating the art-ifacts of an earlier time. Sometimes they’re wrapped in funny clothes and odd singing voices, sometimes they’re mysterious sacred objects, sometimes they employ arcane language and passé literary devices. But always they are created by humans, and always they touch something human in us. And sometimes we can’t find that something until a bunny points the way.

photo by: mt 23