Why are these four young people smiling so broadly? Isn’t it obvious? Because they’ve been watching Giuseppe Verdi’s magnificent opera “Aida” in a high definition simulcast from the Metropolitan Opera. (The large tub of popcorn is a bit of a giveaway that we weren’t at any opera house- but rather at our local movie theater.)
Kathyrn, Alex, Brittany and Wes are four of the students in my Opera Workshop class- and they’re the ones who jumped at the chance to see “Aida” courtesy of some free passes available through WGTD. (Several other students were interested but had conflicts of one kind of another.) One of them was very interested and excited about it until they realized that I wasn’t talking about Aida the Elton John musical- but rather Aida the opera by Verdi- but they were eventually willing to give this Aida a try.
As I saw these four students walk into the Racine theater, about five minutes before the start of the performance, I suddenly realized that until that moment I was absolutely convinced that if I could just get them to come see Aida- they would love it. But somehow seeing them actually take their seats in that theater made me realize that it was possible that one or more of them might hate every minute of it. (It’s sort of like a parent who assures their young child that they will love brussel sprouts if they only try a bite; the moment they actually try it is the disconcerting moment you realize that those brussel sprouts could end up sprayed all over your face.) I found myself muttering a silent little prayer that the singers would be healthy and at the height of their powers and that the camerawork would capture all of the grandeur of this magnificent production – and that all that and more would ultimately prove irresistible.
And lo and behold, that pretty much proved to be the case. We were seeing a magnificent production and a cast of supremely gifted singers who were really on fire- and then of course there was the incredible music of Mr. Verdi – and by the time it was all over, my four students – plus a private voice student of mine named David who was also there – had been blown away by what they had experienced. What was especially gratifying to me was how much they were talking about what they had seen once it was all over- mentioning specific moments that they had especially enjoyed or certain things that maybe seemed a bit strange or inauthentic. But it made it very clear that they hadn’t just camped out in the back row and fallen asleep or played Donkey Kong on their iPhones. They had watched this carefully and open-heartedly and really taken it in on a profound level – which is all I really wanted from them. The rest – whether or not to love it, hate it, or be indifferent to it – was of course entirely up to them. But I must confess to being SO very delighted that they loved it as much as they did.
“Aida” really is a great opera for neophytes- partly because it has lots of awe-inspiring grandeur, especially in a production like the Met’s. . . combined with many scenes that are very personal and intimate. And unlike quite a few opera plots, the story of “Aida” is pretty easy to follow. It’s the age old story of a romantic triangle. . . and of how messy and painful things get when people across a political and societal divide fall in love with each other. Maybe most important, it powerfully depicts how agonizing it is when a person is forced to choose between loyalty to their family & homeland and devotion to their lover. That is the heartbreaking difficulty facing Aida. And thanks to Verdi’s amazing music- plus his brilliant theatrical insincts- we feel Aida’s pain right down to the marrow of our bones.
But my favorite scene in the opera is the Judgment Scene from the last act. At this point, the Egyptian general Radames has essentially given himself up to the authorities, who arrest him and charge him with betraying his country. And as each of the three charges against him is read – and as Radames each time fails to say even a word in his own defense – Amneris – the Egyptian princess who loves him and whose hand in marriage has been offered to him – hurls out her fear and frustration with a voice as big as a mach truck. The woman singing Amneris, Dolora Zajick, is the greatest singer I’ve ever heard in this role, so watching her in her greatest role would be roughly akin to watching Roger Federer play at Wimbledon…. you sit there thinking to yourself, “I am so lucky to be seeing this.” (When I first got to the theater, my friend Marshall informed me that Zajick had cancelled her Aida performance the previous Wednesday- which scared me to death, because I wondered if she would cancel Saturday’s as well, or maybe be singing below her best – although Zajick on an off-day is still twice as good as most people on their best day ever. But Zajick blew through there like an F5 tornado, like she usually does.)
I’m reminded of something which came up in Pastor Jeff Barrows’s sermon at church this morning. It was confirmation Sunday, and as Jeff talked about the importance of them exploring new ways to live out their faith, he quoted a theologian who said that the opposite of Fear is not Courage. . . . but rather Curiosity. And my students from Carthage lived that out yesterday by taking in Aida not with a sense of dread and fear – “i’m know i’m going to hate this – wake me when it’s over” – but rather with a spirit of sincere, open-hearted curiosity. And look what happened: They fell in love.
pictured above: Kathryn, Alex, Brittany, and Wes- four students in my opera workshop at Carthage.