Opera for the Uninitiated

Opera for the Uninitiated

I’ve blogged before about my opera class at Carthage, which consists of four music majors and twelve non-music majors. . .  and the non-majors are about as NON-music- major as they come.   But these young athletes are doing pretty well at grasping an art form which until February 6th they knew absolutely nothing about.

Their first exam of the semester was  yesterday,  and I lived up to my reputation as a nice guy who injects a fair amount of fun into each class, assigns almost no homework,  but  who likes to give BIG tests – but most of the guys came through in fine form.   What really made me smile was the last section of the exam,  in which I showed excerpts from five of the opera videos we’ve watched in class – and they had to identify each of the operas, choosing from a list of eight possible titles.   I just finished correcting the exams tonight and was delighted to see that 14 of the 16 students got all five video excerpts correct –  which as far as I’m concerned ranks right up there with the four-minute mile when it comes to impressive breakthroughs.  And on the off chance that you care,  the five operas in question were: Don Giovanni,  Cosi fan Tutte,  The Return of Ulysses, Orfeo ed Euridice,  and Dido & Aeneas.   I am relieved that they are paying such attention through this first portion of the semester when we are making our way through Early Opera, which even I find to be a bit tiresome after awhile.   (My former WGTD colleague  Bill Guy used to describe difficult, challenging interviews as “heavy lifting” – and I guess I would have to say that a fair amount of Early Opera is Heavy Lifting as well – for me as the teacher as well as for the students.)   Little do they know that the roulades of bel canto are next, followed by the powerful theater of Verdi,  the transcendent profundity of Wagner, the heart-wrenching passion of Puccini, the soaring thrills of Strauss,  and the startling  originality of 20th century opera.  And when we get to the comprehensive final exam in May,  they will be shown a dozen operatic excerpts representing the full sweep of all we have studied this semester – – – and rather than running from the run,  screaming,  I am willing to wager that these young men will know the difference between Salome and the Barber of Seville.   Not that they will necessarily love them or even like any of these operas. . .  but I hope that they will have a deeper sense of understanding and appreciation for this art form.

By the way,  last night was an incredibly wild night at the Metropolitan Opera.   It was opening night of a new production of Bellini’s “La Sonnambula” – a very odd version in which the opera took place in a rehearsal room.  From all accounts,  the production was HATED by almost everyone in the audience,  and when the design team came out onstage during the curtain calls,  they were booed as though  disgraced NFL quarterback Michael Vick (of dog fighting infamy) had just shown up at the Westminster Dog Show. I am excited to tell the class about this,  and I’m hoping that I might even be able to find a sound byte on YouTube to play for the class-  because I think they may find it intriguing that an opera performance could inspire that kind of outrage.   (Just as a wonderful performance can inspire delirium.)  Like it or not,  opera fans care about their favorite art form the way Packer fans root for the Packers – to the point where you cheer yourself hoarse when you’re thrilled with how things are going,  and feel like jumping off a bridge when things go south.    The neophytes in my opera class are not likely to be such rabid opera fans any time soon-  but I hope they will be roughly akin to the young woman who knows absolutely nothing about football until she starts dating the quarterback and decides to learn all she can about the game.   (Or how about the guy who dates a figure skater and decides to learn how to differentiate between the salchows and the axels.)   If that’s the goal,  I would say that we’re nicely on our way.

pictured above:  some of my non-majors taking the first exam.