College professors live for moments like the one I had at the end of my opera class Wednesday. First a reminder- my opera class this time around consists of four music majors and thirteen non-music majors. . . and the non-majors are thirteen guys – every one of them athletes and every one of them with seriously limited experience or even interest in music. But Gary Williams, Carthage’s academic advisors for athletes, knows that I am a professor who is more than willing to cooperate with athletes who have to miss class because of meets, games, etc.- and I’m also someone who tries hard to make things accessible and fun for the uninitiated student. So he advised these guys to sign up for my class, which can fulfill their Fine Arts requirement for graduation.
It has been tricky- The only time I’ve had non-majors take this course is the occasional theater major, so I have really had to alter the pace of how I proceed and what sort of basic information I cover. Stir into the mix some technical snafus that have all but ruined a couple of classes and it adds up to a complicated and challenging semester in a class I can usually teach pretty much off the top of my head, with my eyes shut. But for as tricky as this semester has been, I have really had a good time. . . and if those thirteen athletes are not exactly begging me for any extra opera tickets I might have, most of them are throwing themselves into this venture with a commendable amount of openness.
Which is not to say there haven’t been some almost scary moments. I think it might have been the first or second day of the semester that I showed the class an excerpt from Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” – a scene from Act Three which actually tends to make me cry, despite my best intentions not to – which is pretty embarrassing in front of football players and the like. (I stemmed the tears this time around better than I usually do.) We got done with this scene – I won’t go into what happens in it, except to say that it’s a typical opera scene in which the action takes quite awhile to unfold, nothing like it would in real life – and when it finished out and I asked for any reaction they might have, the only person who raised their hand to say something was an athlete who said with frankness, “that was stupid.” My blood sort of turned to ice-cold slush at that point. “How am I going to survive this semester?” I thought to myself. “Or how will they?” I asked in the next breath, because nothing brings out my inner Mike Tyson as when someone says anything dismissive about the art form that I love so much.
But that’s pretty much the last moment we’ve had like that- and even in that particular case, the student wasn’t just saying “it’s stupid” the way an eighth grader might call pretty much the whole adult universe “stupid” without really thinking. He was reacting to how it basically took twenty minutes for Manon Lescaut to get on a boat. That’s the way it is in opera. . . almost nothing happens in a hurry, which is what allows time for all of that musical gorgeousness to occur. Of course, if Eminen is your idea of great music, then a melody by Puccini is going to be about as pleasant or interesting as submitting to a colonoscopy.
Which is why I have been so pleased through the course of the semester that the students have come around, slowly but surely, to a grudging appreciation of opera. And once in awhile they will hear or watch something that they actually find pretty cool. Case in point:
Yesterday, we watched a couple of excerpts from Puccini’s one-act opera “Il Tabarro” – which means “The Cloak.” The central couple is a husband and wife whose marriage has floundered in the wake of the tragic death of their young son- and in the midst of that unhappiness the woman has begun an affair with one of the young men that works on her husband’s boat. I showed the scene where the husband tries to reach out to his wife (he’s been very bitter and closed off, which is one reason why the wife “strayed”) only to be rebuffed by her. . . and as she walks off, to go to bed, he furiously whispers under his breath “sguardrina!” which is Italian for “you whore!” and Puccini shifts from a tranquil e flat major chord to an ominous a minor- two chords that have nothing to do with each other, and that jarring juxtaposition of chords signals the sudden darkening of Michel’s heart. And a couple of minutes later, when his wife’s lover sneaks aboard the ship for one more rendezvous, he meets MIchel instead- who strangles him to death. And when the wife wanders out on to the deck of the ship to apologize to her husband, he waits a few moments before lifting his massive cloak to reveal the body of the lover.
It’s incredibly dramatic – especially in this particular staging of the opera from the Met, which features superb singing- actors who are expertly directed. And by the time the climactic events begin to unfold, you can hardly take your eyes off of the screen. And that’s not just opera nuts like me- but even these baseball and football players with no prior exposure to opera. I was very glad to see them (for once) with eyes glued to the screen, drinking in every moment. And I was especially pleased because this opera is near and dear to my heart – because it’s the very first opera in which I sang. I was a 23 year old grad student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and was given the pivotal role of Michel. It was a strange stretch for a young preacher’s kid from a little town in Iowa who had never strangled anyone before- nor ever called anybody a whore. Actually, that dramatic moment was unintentionally comical. In the English translation we used, Michel’s angry line whispered as his wife exited was “you harlot!” The director of the production wanted to change it to “you slut!” since that’s a word more readily understood and which would pack a sharper punch. Unfortunately, the opera opened shortly after the movie “Tootsie” opened nationwide, which had a famously funny moment in which Bill Murray’s characters walks in on roommate Dustin Hoffman when he’s in the middle of dressing in women’s clothing – and he says with mock horror “You slut!” Needless to say, when I said the line it got a few laughs. . . the last thing in the world you want at such a dramatic moment. So the next performance, we switched the line back to “You Harlot!” and by the last performance the director had changed it again . . . to “You Whore!” You never know what unexpected complications can arise, especially in the already complicated world of opera.