Yesterday was the first meeting of my opera class at Carthage, and it was a bit surprising to look out at the class and see two young women and thirteen young men. I seem to attract males to my classes, for some reason, and almost every class I have ever taught at Carthage has had more men than women, but this is one of the most heavily skewed. . . and I’m sure I have never taught my opera class to a group with this sort of gender proportions. And on top of that, only four of the fifteen students are music majors. The others are all athletes (football players, mostly) who were encouraged to take the course by Gary Williams, a friend of mine (and a fellow groomsman at Trevor’s wedding this past summer) who advises most of our athletes. Actually, I should not have been completely surprised. Gary bumped into me at Panera about a month ago and put a reassuring arm around me as he told me that five football players (on his recommendation) had registered for my opera class. . . as though to say “Good luck- You’re going to need it.” But in the very next breath he said that he was kidding and that in fact these were great guys and fine students who would enjoy the class – and he was sure I would enjoy them in turn.
And so far so good. I’m not sure I’ve ever stood in front of a more attentive class than I did yesterday afternoon, and if anyone was not paying the closest attention, it was a couple of the music majors. . . not a huge surprise, since I spent yesterday’s class talking about some of the most basic terms for music like Dynamics, Tempo, Dissonance and Consonance, the kind of stuff that the music majors know backwards and forwards by now. But the athletes were very quiet – and not in that droopy-eyed, wake-me- when-it’s-over sort of way, but rather in that I-don’t-want-to-miss-a-word-of-this sort of way.
The acid test, of course, comes Monday when we get that first quiz out of the way and we start listening to and watching Opera, probably the most misunderstood and most maligned of all art forms. I have been talking about opera enough over the years to have figured out a few things – and one of them is that there is something quite exciting and competitive about opera that I think these linebackers and centers can understand and appreciate – and I think that’s where we will begin.
As a matter of fact, I had that experience today at the High Definition simulcast of Lucia di Lammermoor from the Metropolitan Opera. The soprano singing the title role, Anna Netrebko, was off the stage for a large portion of last year, having a baby , . . and has not been back at it all that long, so as she approached the end of her big act one aria, my stomach in my mouth with worry and anticipation. Would she make it to that high D at the end of the aria or not? It’s the same way I feel when a figure skater is attempting a triple axel – will they land it or will they go splat? Well, Netrebko did not go splat. She nailed her high note and the place went nuts. . . and I think I will spend most of Monday’s class talking about that particular aspect of opera where singers are pushed beyond what is comfortable and assured to what is dangerous. Because there is nothing more exciting or impressive than when someone skirts the edge of a cliff and survives – or throws in one more unexpected triple at the end of the long program – or goes for an ace on their second service – or completes a pass in the end zone with 35 seconds left to play. That’s one aspect of opera that I really love – the sheer technical excellence which it demands and the very real possibility of failure which is always present in a way that it isn’t when Dolly Parton is singing one of her hits. (Most popular music, whether it’s pop or rock or country or folk, has a very approachable quality about it, in which you can sing along with it to a large extent. That’s part of what makes it popular. But opera, almost by its very nature, is not the kind of thing you sing along with – You would probably hurt yourself if you tried. In fact, it’s my experience that there is no other music genre which delivers that particular sort of electricity the way opera does. . . and I am banking on the guys in my class being able to appreciate that about opera. I’m talking about guys who don’t know a treble clef from a trombone case – – – but who know a lot about pushing yourself beyond safe limits.
pictured above: the curtain call for a Lyric Opera of Chicago performance of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.” It was a stupendous night . . . but also five hours long . . . so not the kind of opera meant for novices.