What I know about opera could fit into a single round of small talk. I once saw a touring production of Madama Butterfly in Omaha. My mother had a thing for Joan Sutherland and Kiri Te Kanawa. Our family’s LP collection included Puccini records alongside original-cast recordings of Broadway shows and Lionel Barrymore reading A Christmas Carol. Theatre I vaguely understood, but opera kept its secrets. More than any form of high culture, it made me feel like a philistine. While philistines may need an occasional reprieve from ignorance, I thought, a reprieve often amounts to little more than a lesson. It’s always hard to shake the suspicion that opera is somehow good for you; that one’s exposure to opera is an immersion experience not unlike a three-hour finishing school. Yet a first-time opera-goer does not, I decided, want to be edified. He or she wants to be left reeling.
Reeling—it’s what movie critic Pauline Kael considered the happiest state of mind when one is sitting and simply being entertained. It’s what I was hoping might hit me when I asked my friend Jenny, a poet, to the 248th performance of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot at the New York Metropolitan Opera. Neither of us had ever been to the Met.
Opera is, like civic symphonies and art museums, a cultural tradition of the sort one hears is always dying. Classical entertainments like opera have persisted through the centuries with some of the importance that European dynasties, for example, used to place on the acquisition of foreign languages. Human achievement of this magnitude claims a holiness, a power rooted in superstition and high respect; and most of us feel that if the world destroyed itself in a conflagration of war, we would all seek shelter amid the fallout of art, in crumbling museums and orchestra pits and ruined opera houses.
No one, I suspect, understood this better than Puccini. In late 1921, diabetic and riddled with cancer, he was desperate to compose his undisputed magnum opus, a “very entertaining” Chinese opera. He’d already supervised the productions of La Bohème (1896), Tosca (1900) and Madama Butterfly (1904), and while the Chinese opera—later called Turandot—would eventually take its place among Puccini’s masterworks, he would never see it. Lacking a proper ending, Turandot was abandoned upon his death (but finished by a qualified acolyte and performed in 1926 at La Scala in Milan). Our hearts should flee to Puccini’s sickbed. Here is the tragic mythos of an artist composing as if his life depended on it, knowing his time was up. Here, too, is the vision of a mortal man living in abject illness and seeking escape—escape into form, into imaginative rigour, into the service of a single overriding obsession.
Let us pause, at this point, to consider the mind of a composer. Puccini’s last opera owes its existence to a Venetian masque, a bowdlerized Taoism, Friedrich von Schiller and Carlo Gozzi plays, a medieval Chinese fairy tale of a cruel princess, a Persian legend liberally blended into the general action of The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night, and an overture written by a German no one seems to have heard of. These elements knocked around Puccini’s head for several years, combining at last in the simple tale of a handsome wag named Calàf who, seeking to woo Turandot, imperial princess of Peking, is forced to answer three riddles. Previously, failed suitors met with beheading. Calàf is brave and brilliant, however, and Turandot’s cold heart melts and they both sing at daybreak of the power of love. Along the way, fathers and court ministers and a charming slave girl all have thoughts on the subject. Love is dangerous, but to live without love is to live without meaning. The ministers travel in threes bleating, “Turandot non esiste!” (Turandot doesn’t exist!), “Non esiste che il Tao!” (There exists only the Tao!). Woven through the chorus is a reminder, both rosy and sad, offering another equally simple perspective: “La Vita e cosi bella!” (Life is lovely!).
But one might wonder—one unfamiliar with the visual and structural language of opera, that is—what this vision meant to a sixty-four-year-old provincial Italian suffering from throat cancer. Opera has always appeared from the outside to be a complex, orchestrated smash-up of sense-driven theatrics: dazzle and spectacle, colour and movement, brashness and intimacy, scope and sound. All of that and human voices so large that “voice” seems too puny a word to contain the innumerable variations that singers like Kathleen Battle or Dawn Upshaw explore with a single, inimitable turn of phrase.
Opera had once, in fact, been the aristocracy’s gift to an unlettered rabble, an arrangement neatly reflected in its template architecture: a flat, open area ringed with higher and higher levels of private boxes. The general layout is as recognizable as the inside of a cathedral. Cathedrals, too, were once intended to inspire a silent—or more accurately, obedient—reverence in the common people and a fear-by-association of those in power. Edith Wharton and Henry James understood the social paranoia that attends such reverence, which is, I’m sure, one reason several of their narratives unfold in opera houses.
Tonight, Jenny and I are part of the unlettered rabble, down in front. It’s a cold Wednesday evening in January. Turandot is sold out. Man-furs and herringbone and French silk and Upper West Side grandparents and attractive women in their forties: the floor show is the first wave of atmosphere, proving (as I suspected, having read James) to be as much a part of Going to the Opera as the overture, just as vital as the Met’s famous gold curtains are in inspiring the proper gravitas among the visitors. Across the aisle (row H) sits an old man with a white moustache. I nudge Jenny. “That’s Walter Cronkite.” Jenny looks at me. And?
Immediately I decide that, since Turandot lasts more than three hours with two intermissions along the way, I’ll gauge its success by whether Cronkite gets up to leave during the second break. General murmuring goes on until curtain. On the back of each headrest, a dark screen used for English subtitles is activated by the push of a button. I push the button once, then twice, then once more. The head in front of me turns to see who is pushing the button on his headrest. The house lights dim. The gold curtains open with a communal intake of breath. Jenny grips my arm.
Onstage appears an elaborate Italian vision of a Peking street, poorly lit and smoking and overfull with starving peasants. Franco Zeffirelli’s gargantuan set produces a number of ohs from the audience, and Puccini’s steady, ominous overture—“Popolo di Pekino!”—hums to life like a pulse. I squint, needing to let the show do its work without interference from expectation. I stop squinting: this group of starving Chinese peasants is the most well-fed group of starving Chinese peasants I have ever seen. One of them executes a suspiciously modern breakdance move in a stylized leap from a makeshift bridge. My heart sinks. I send a modest prayer to conductor Bertrand de Billy, asking him to help make this untested experience of mine overwhelming, to leave me stupefied and with a newfound ardour for life lived at an operatic level. Is this too much to ask?
One night at the opera taught me this: nothing is too much to ask. Calàf the hero lives for an ideal. So does Princess Turandot. Each character commits to these ideals against all wisdom, advice, even rote sense. Turandot’s cruelty to her suitors is a strictness of standards: only the best shall know me. Calàf recognizes an equal—he needs to break through the princess’s defence because, as George Mallory said of Everest, “it’s there.” The hero is willing to sacrifice himself on a single, reckless wish, just as the heroine is willing to endure a life of chilled solitude rather than love an inferior. Both are rewarded, in a sense, and for this reason Turandot is not a tragic opera. It is a myth—a pleasant myth with one soaring, gorgeous tenor line (“Nessun Dorma”) that even a philistine will recognize from its use in movies, but a myth nonetheless.
Myths need not make sense. Due to the speed with which most ancient narratives unfold, myths in fact have precious little time for rationalizing. Psychology is streamlined, replaced with observable behaviour, concluded in destiny. Daedalus and Icarus. Echo and Narcissus. Adam and Eve. Turandot and Calàf. Examples of fuzzy logic, all. And each one of them a tale in which “sense” emerges most clearly from feeling, from the unexpected flare of a moment. Icarus learns that a boy should heed advice from his elder, but who cares? Better to heed the terrible moment when Daedalus, suspended in mid-air and calling his son’s name, spots a pair of wax wings—work of his own hands—floating on the Aegean Sea. No wonder composers keep returning to myth as a primary source: the potential for tapping into grand emotion is enormous. Intellect is sidestepped in favour of the senses.
Yet an intellect is a pesky thing, resilient and dominating and a first line of defence against the suspension of disbelief. Watching a tenor, for example, who is several tens of pounds over “heroic” makes for an unfortunate episode of cognitive dissonance. One must overlook this on the grounds of physics: few voices of monstrous power are to be found inside lithesome, athletic bodies. Luciano Pavarotti, for example—a magnificent tenor, an imperious presence, one of the genuine lights of the age and an absolute mountain of a human being—could render the role of a young Romeo. Music students have termed this phenomenon the “park and bark”: a singer is called upon by the demands of drama to fight (or flee, woo, rape) but instead trusts his impeccably trained voice to do the heavy lifting, thus leaving him free to stand as immobile as an oak. Skepticism is sometimes hard to suppress at these moments, which of course does nothing to curb suspicions of one’s own philistinism. But a commonsensical approach to art is something opera repeatedly looks down on, and perhaps that’s as it should be.
Classical entertainments like opera are not good for us, I don’t think. They attract us at a level lost to common sense because even at their most inept, they flicker and spark with ideals. Not values so much—our popular culture embodies those just fine—but rather the collective wish of a species to be reckless, defiant, bombastic, soaring. Opera is one of the few arts that defines the size and scope of mortal life. Understanding it, in other words, is beside the point. I don’t want to get it any more than I want to perform in the chorus. What I want is the knotted, difficult strains of emotion that comprise one’s yearning for ideals—for love, for honour—and the performance of those longed-for ideals in a form which, by its very design, matches that yearning. This is what I learned, and it disturbs me. Because to supplant mere life with an ideal conjured from art, to succumb to a yearning for an overwhelming artistic experience, often leads to dangerous disappointment.
Walter Cronkite stayed through final curtain, as did Jenny and I. The soloists took their bows amidst a drizzle of bouquets and bravos. A peculiar fragrance of expensive cologne that has long passed from a person’s skin onto spun cloth surrounded our exit up the aisles.
Later, around midnight, I poured myself a drink and sat at the small and poorly lit table in my kitchen. My hard shoes rested in a corner. The Met program sat face up and unread. Calàf’s aria hummed around my head like an aural afterimage, over and over. I wanted to go to bed but couldn’t and felt an immense contentment. Life at an operatic level, I realized, is as strange and desirous as wealth and prestige are to the scrounger, the provincial who crashes the city gates. Eighty-four years ago, dying at home, Puccini dreamed his China. I began picturing another night in the near future when I might return, ignore the subtitles button and enter the dream all over again.