They climb the broad staircase to find a mob of socialites in the upstairs reception area, sipping champagne and chatting up what seems like an actual storm. Ben stops to study the crowd, launching into lesson mode.
“In understanding your cause, Jack, I realize that I have spent a lot of time on the rastafarian/bohemian/beatnik side of the equation, and I didn’t want you to think that there weren’t similar delights to be plucked from the land of the hoity-toit. There are, of course, many people who are here mainly to be seen.”
“And to have their cleavage seen,” says Jack.
“Yes! But I would bet that even the sixty-year-olds with the teenage breasts have a sincere affection for this artform, because there is passion in opera, and violence, and good old-fashioned smut! Not to mention heartbreakingly beautiful music. Be forewarned, however. Do not listen too intently; don’t get intellectual about it. Just soak it in. I think you’ll like it.”
They head downstairs to a side entrance. The theater’s interior is so stunning that Jack can’t quite maintain his balance. He decides to keep his eyes on his shoetops until they are safely seated. Once there, he lifts his gaze to the ceiling and finds one half of an African sun, rays of gold, orange and brown slithering toward the stage like desert snakes. The proscenium arch is outlined with Hellenic figures in gold plate. The ceiling over the balcony is covered with rough geometrics, painted in Western shades of green, brown, rusty red.
“This theater is…”
“Yes it is,” says Ben. “Seventy million dollars’ worth. And wait till you hear the acoustics.”
Jack glances at his program, filled with foreign words. He expects to be entirely lost.
“I expect you might feel a little lost,” says Ben. “Now, just to be clear, if you were at an actual opera, they have translations above the stage – supertitles – so there’s no reason you can’t follow the story. With a recital, however, you are sadly out of luck. Fortunately, you are seated next to a genius.” He pulls a small notepad from his breast pocket. “I brought this with me, and I will sketch a few notes as we go along. You will find a handy floor light next to your seat.”
The audience starts applauding, for no apparent reason, but then the conductor, a white-haired man with finely rimmed glasses, pokes his head over the railing of the orchestra pit. Two tall men walk to center stage, both wearing dark suits, and the conductor starts the unseen orchestra into a slow, sweeping intro. To Jack, it sounds like a sunrise. The black man, looking a bit like the pop star Prince, sings in a high voice to the other man, who has an olive complexion and curly hair, and responds in a lower voice. It seems as if they are telling stories to each other. Ben hands him a note: They’re talking about a hot chick.
The next performer is a slender Indian woman in a gown of burnt orange, singing from an opera called La Traviata. She begins with a stunning fusillade of notes that rankles Jack’s ears – he’s not used to such high, piercing sounds. Then she stops suddenly, and goes into a dreamy, waltz-like ballad. Ben’s note reads, She’s hot for a guy, but doesn’t want to give up her independence. Jack thinks immediately of Audrey.
The next piece is from Il Trovatore (which sort of sounds like “troubador”) and features a chorus of two dozen singers. The men are in tuxes, the women in various ensembles of black. Two of the men push carts onstage holding anvils. This seems very odd, until the refrain arrives and the men pound on the anvils with hammers. Jack recalls the tune from a TV commercial; the familiarity gives him a small thrill, an island upon which his hard-working senses can rest.
At the end of the anvil song, a slender woman in a spangled white dress comes out to sing to the chorus. What’s with all the skinny women? he thinks. Aren’t opera singers supposed to be fat? The woman has dark, angular features and an Italian-looking nose with a slight hook, giving her the appearance of a sexy witch. Next to the white chocolate of the Indian woman’s voice, hers is a dark mocha, and she seems to be telling them a story filled with foreboding. Ben finally scrawls a note and passes it Jack’s way: Downtrodden rebels led by a charismatic witch. And yes, you’ve heard the Anvil Chorus before.
It goes on this way for an hour and a half, different people singing, Ben summarizing the action. The music grows on Jack, and he begins to understand some of the things that the singers are after. Many of their notes have little lives all their own, growing and lessening like restless creatures. The best singers fashion their songs into conversations, as if they are simply talking in music and this is a perfectly normal way to behave.
Soon they are down to the final piece. A man and a woman enter the stage; the man carries a chair, which he places at a spot that seems to be preordained. The man has a medium-sized torso and legs, but his chest is quite broad; he has thick, slightly wild brown hair, and the kind of neatly trimmed beard that seems typical of opera singers. The woman is short and busty, dressed in a blueblack sequined jacket and a long, dark skirt with a slit along one leg. She has thick, dark hair arranged in a fanciful up-do, dark eyes, a broad nose. When the man comes to take her hands she smiles, her eyes squinting pleasurably. He gestures toward the chair; she sits to listen to him.
The man’s voice – what they must call “tenor” – has a bright resonance that stands out from the others. With a gun to his head, Jack would say that it has a “ping,” an electric quality that slices through the air. He reaches the crest of the song, a melody that rises and falls like an arch, holding his arms as if he’s about to embrace someone. Ben passes Jack a note: Trying to impress hot neighbor-chick with life story.
He ends with a grand flourish. After the applause, the woman rises to tell her own life story. But of course, thinks Jack. This is every first date I’ve ever had. She is timid, unsure, but her emotions seem to take hold of her; as her singing rises in force Jack notices something extraordinary about the woman’s voice. It’s nearly radioactive. It doesn’t merely slice the air like the man’s voice, it spins wildly, like those whirligig rockets that shoot away from the center of pyrotechnic explosions. The woman shapes her phrases like the other singers – lessening, growing, slipping away, returning from nowhere – but she gives no indication of working at this, and somewhere through the Italian words, Jack understands her completely. She is smitten with this new man, but also afraid – that he will discover some dark, secret thing about her, that she will scare him away. As a poker player would put it, her “tell” is her tremendous passion – it’s not entirely appropriate to the moment. She seems to realize this herself; at the end of the aria, she rambles into a string of small, apologetic syllables.
The audience responds with thunderous applause; several people down front stand from their seats. The woman keeps her eyes on the tenor, staying in character. It must be very difficult, thinks Jack, to take all that love without exploding into ecstasy. Finally, the orchestra starts back up, and the man sings a swaying melody, the tone of which is something like, “What are you worried about? Everything will be fine!” (Oh yeah, he’s in love.) The woman joins in, and then they do an unusual thing: they link arms and walk offstage. Even after they’re out of sight, they continue to sing, the woman rising to a high final note, the man just beneath her. The notes go on and on, and when they finally cut off the audience lets out a roar, punctuated by individual exclamations of “Ho!” and “Woo!” A woman behind them yells “Brawvee!” which makes no sense at all. The man and woman return onstage for their bows; after a moment, they’re joined by the rest of the evening’s performers. The audience rises, section by section, until they’re all on their feet.
The applause goes on for a long time. Jack finds his arms tiring out, and as he lets them dangle for a moment he realizes that he has not yet received his note from Ben. When he looks to his left, however, he finds Ben transfixed by the scene, clapping wildly, tears streaming down his cheeks. This opera is strong medicine, thinks Jack. He shakes his arms and goes back to clapping.
They follow the crowd as it oozes from the theater, and Ben cuts left to the restrooms – a welcome vision for Jack, who has watched 90 minutes of opera directly following an enormous Thai iced coffee. Back in the hallway, Ben leads him outside to a patio area covered in squares of blue-gray granite. Ben stops to study a wall fountain, rivulets of water murmuring a tall rectangle of black stone.
“That last piece,” says Ben. “Puccini. La Boheme. The Garret Scene. Most astonishing stretch of melody in opera. Three ‘hit songs,’ one after the other: ‘Che gelida manina,’ ‘What small, cold hands’; ‘Mi chiamano Mimi,’ ‘I call myself Mimi’; ‘O soave fanciulla,’ ‘Sweet, beautiful girl.’ The poor poet Rodolfo discovers a neighbor girl, Mimi, whose candle has blown out. He tells her of his life. ‘I am a poet. How do I live? I live!’ She tells him of her life as a seamstress, and all the sweet little things that bring her joy: the rooftops of Paris, the first light of spring, rosebuds in a vase. What she doesn’t mention is that she is dying of consumption, which is why she pays such close attention to these small things. And then poof! Rodolfo and Mimi are in love, and they run off to the Café Momus to join their friends. Love happens very quickly in the opera. It’s partly a technical problem. It takes much longer to sing words than to speak them, so everything must be compressed. But still, it’s always a… surprise… when it comes.”
Note: the final tenor/soprano duet describes a performance at the Opera San Jose 25th Anniversary Gala with two of my best opera friends, Christopher Bengochea and Barbara Divis.