Otello, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Opera
I’m excited because tonight I see my first opera. It’s a collusion between whim and good timing. I bought the ticket after narrowly missing the opportunity to see the encore of Parsifal, but then found an encore of Otello a few days later, an opera that seems like a safe bet because it’s an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, Othello. I can’t afford to go to the Met, but a movie theater is showing the opera live in HD as part of the Fathom Events series, which broadcasts operas staged at the Met worldwide. I shower and put on a button-up shirt with jeans – casual, but a step up from my typical lounging wear; this is an opera shown at a movie theater after all, and I don’t feel any pressure to dress formally. I have to check everything at least two or three times before I’m comfortable with the fact that I haven’t left anything important; I’ve never left my apartment without the keys, and I’ll be damned if tonight is the night I forget. When I step outside, I find that the button-up and t-shirt are not enough layers for the wintry air. However, I feel pressed for time and a flare of stubborn willfulness pushes me on in spite of the cold. I’m not going all the way up the elevator to the 5th floor to get my coat; it’s too far.
The subway ride is uneventful, but certainly cozier than out on the street. If I wasn’t so eager to grab a bite to eat before the show, I might treasure the warmth of the underground. Back on the surface, it’s almost bright as day. At least, it feels like that when first emerging into the light of Broadway glitz. If I crane my head and look between the skyscrapers, I can see the night sky. The sky seems blacker in the city because there are no stars; all the ambient light from the city makes them disappear. I decide to forego dinner when I see that the only fast food restaurant nearby, McDonalds, has long lines. Luckily, the theater carries overpriced food to sate my hunger and I buy a pizza and coke. Pizza, coke, and opera are the holy trinity of dining and high culture, I’m sure.
When I walk into auditorium 17, the first thing I notice is that there are more people than I would have expected. It’s not full by any means, but there are groups of people sitting in every row, and there are no middle seats left. It’s as if some people actually like opera and musical theater. The second thing I notice is that I’m the youngest person in the room by at least thirty years. It would be unfair to make comparisons to a nursing home if it weren’t for the fact that there’s a sea of white or graying hair and some of the men and women here toddle forward at that gait reserved for the elderly and enfeebled. You might think I’m being ageist here, but I’d actually love to talk to these folks about the opera. I’m willing to bet most of these people are avid fans of the performing arts, and I’m sure any one of these ladies or gents has a colorful story or passionate opinion about the opera. However, I’m a shy person by nature, maybe preternaturally so since I’ve made no friends in New York yet, and I make no effort to engage the strangers before the show starts.
I don’t know anything about opera, aside from what I’ve seen in old cartoons. I’m told that it doesn’t end until the fat lady sings, which seems unlikely to happen if we take into account how Othello ends. However, I’m hooked as soon as it starts. The stage is dark, but I can see the light on the actors’ faces. The orchestral music crashes and thunders like a storm and the ship’s crew sings fearfully, hoping they’ll survive the weather and that their Turkish enemies will sink. When the Turkish ship crashes and everyone realizes they’re saved, all sing “Vittoria!” in harmony. As the opera goes on, I’m ever more impressed by the music and singing. The vast chorus sings about a bonfire built to celebrate their victory, modulating their voices in a manner that simulates the flickering of the flame before fluidly changing into a rousing song about drinking. Even the sung dialogue has a dynamism that makes expository declamations interesting to hear. I come to realize that in the world of opera, singing is everything. Along with the musical accompaniment, the style of singing mimics the feelings and ideas that are portrayed by the literal words. Singing creates the reality of the story. I haven’t come up with a particularly novel idea, but the force of it hits me and sucks me in.
Another thing I learn about the opera is that there is little room for subtlety. Physical gestures are emphasized, characters sing directly about the action and their feelings, and the singing and music are effusive and dramatic. It’s a stylistic holdover from a time when there were no microphones, lighting was dependent on either sunlight or oil lamps, and if the actor wanted to be seen and heard, he or she had to act dramatically and sing loud. Although I can see the actors perfectly well on the movie screen – the cameras are zoomed in close enough to see the sweat on the lead actor Johan Botha’s face – I can appreciate what it must have been like for an audience over a century ago or even for the men and women sitting in the nosebleed section of the opera house; I’m pretty sure the opera house owners would object to me calling the upper balcony the nosebleed section. However, I think that the grandiose nature of the opera is beautiful in it own manner. In an age of sensational surfeit, the opera seems even more fitting for the modern day than it does for the end of the 19th century when Otello was first performed.
As the opera wears on, my mind begins to wander. I never totally tune out; in particular, the opera grabs my attention when Iago sings about how evil he is. Nevertheless, I find myself thinking about the play as much as watching it when individual songs start to run long, especially when Otello goes into another long song about how he doesn’t trust Desdemona. You better believe that I paid attention when Otello called Desdemona a whore, but suffice to say that I couldn’t keep my concentration on the opera the whole time. It’s not uncommon. Even during movies I’ll find myself drifting into an analytic mode, consciously thinking about what’s happening in the movie as it happens, occasionally breaking away to think about whether I should get up to pee or just wait. However, I never tire of Otello. The singing is subtitled on the movie screen, so I know what’s going on in spite of my total ignorance of the Italian language. It occurs to me that the reason opera is characterized as boring is because there’s usually no guide to what’s going on in the narrative. For those audience members who don’t know the story already, the language being sung, or don’t have an appreciation for operatic music, the joy of the experience would easily be diminished. Add to it that an opera like Otello can run up to three hours, excluding act breaks and the intermission, and it’s easy to see why many would be turned off by opera.
By the time the opera ends, I want to clap with the audience on the screen, but I refrain from doing so in the quiet of the theater. Contrary to what I might have expected, opera is a wonderful and dramatic art, not nearly as fusty and boring as most people make it out to be. Yet, as I shuffle out of the auditorium behind elderly folks chatting genially with one another, it occurs to me that I can’t recommend the opera to everyone. For sure, any fan of theater, musical theater especially, ought to go see an opera if they ever have a chance, especially if they know a theater that has a program like Fathom Events broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. However, I know firsthand that the opera is long and I found my thoughts wandering, even though I enjoyed it. I’m not so pretentious as to think that I’m any more cultured for liking Otello, but I’d recommend the opera to those with a taste in classical music and more ‘artistic’ works because the opera is not as easy and engaging as the movies. As with so many works of what is now called ‘high art,’ opera was popular music in its heyday and, though it has genuine artistic merit, I can’t say I blame anyone who decides it’s not to their taste; popular art cultures marches ever onward. However, if you are willing to take the plunge, check out your local theaters and try to catch an opera. You may find that you like being in a world composed entirely of song.