Music Hath Charms
I grew up listening to opera. Every Saturday afternoon at two, during the season, the Metropolitan Opera of the Air filled our kitchen with music. My mother would raise the volume really high for favorite pieces; at intermission we listened to Milton Cross host the Metropolitan Opera Quiz, with famous guests who knew a thing or two about music. The show was fun, civilized, and it formed in me a lifetime’s passion for music.
Listening to hours of opera recordings and seeing perhaps a few dozen performances at the Met, the City Opera, and a few other places did not make me a music critic, just a fan. But since moving to the suburbs forty-five years ago, I have seldom gone to see an opera at the Met. Tickets are expensive and getting there from here is not only tiring, it leaves you hostage to a train schedule. And, in case no one has told you, the opera crowd is an older crowd.
What changed everything a few years ago was the arrival of large-screen HDTV performances in theaters. Now, you can live a thousand miles from the Met and still see a simulcast performance of your favorite Verdi or Wagner or Mozart opera just minutes from home in a local theater.
I went to the first local broadcast at Fairfield University and it was a mob scene. No one anticipated such a stunning turnout and, with no reserved seating that day, everyone was anxious to be near the head of the line. The crush of gray-haired old folks with canes, walkers, crutches, and wheelchairs was so great that I thought they had emptied out all the nursing homes in Fairfield County. (I feel it is okay to say this because this is the voting bloc to which I belong.) In any event, it was Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment and it was heaven. For opera lovers it was paradise indeed: a small theater, close to home, with no bad sight lines and tickets priced at $20. Performances now are routinely sold out.
When a neighbor’s plans changed last week and I had a free ticket to see Don Giovanni, it was a mere stone’s throw from home. Both the singing and the acting were superb, maybe even stupendous. As a musical experience it was to be in marked contrast to the performance of Jersey Boys which I saw just four days later, a birthday gift from my two oldest grandchildren.
Jersey Boys, the story of Frankie Valli and The Four Season, is as much a morality play as Mozart’s portrayal of the dissolute nobleman Don Giovanni and his fearsome end. The guys from Jersey, of course, got a much happier ending. And why not? They were four scrappy, talented kids from nowhere–gritty neighborhoods in and around Newark. They made mistakes, some worse than others, but they ultimately handled the trials and temptations of fame reasonably well. It’s a great story and is everything musical theater should be.
Without taking anything away from the dozen great opera performances I have now seen on the big screen, I felt the rocking, stomping, live energy of Jersey Boys to the bone. This was a different kind of stupendous, but stupendous it was. The connection between actors and audience was palpable. It was the real thing.
The camera can only partially capture the heat of a brilliant performance. When I saw Renata Tebaldi as Violetta in La Traviata years ago I was seated so close I could hear her shoes squeak on the stage floor. My cousin tossed flowers at her as she took her bows. It was unforgettable.
Even badness is more memorable when it is live. Once, after a meal of truly terrible Chinese food, I went with friends to a truly terrible amateur performance of Lucia di Lammermoor. The production embarrassed everyone except its benighted cast and its director, who should have been shot. Its awfulness gave it high entertainment value, and my friends and I still reminisce about it.
Yes, I plan to continue going to HDTV performances of the Met. They have enriched my life. Along with a few other souls, I get into the operatic spirit by applauding when the live audience at the Met applauds; it gives me a feeling of connection. I love to shout “brava” when a soprano belts one out the park. And as I learned from those Jersey boys, once in awhile ya gotta get the real thing.