Opera – a memoir

When I was thirteen, I went with my school friend, Beth, to see an opera at Lincoln Centre called Parsifal, an excursion arranged by Beth’s parents for us (but not for them). My parents eagerly accepted this sublime opportunity on my behalf. I should explain for those who find this proposition staggering in its insensitivity– that the first introduction to opera for two pubescent girls should be Wagner – that Beth and I inhabited what social trendsetters in the seventies, and now, perhaps, would refer to as the liberal, upper middle class, moneyed intelligentsia of the upper west and east sides of Manhattan.

In a bumpy, rattling yellow taxi with typically low suspension we ventured to the concert, after eating an early supper served, of course, by Beth’s family’s maid, to perch ourselves on seats in the Circle for what seemed an eternity. I was stiff with apprehension.

I did not know anything about opera, let alone that opera; I do not recall being aware of the story, its heroes and heroines, its religious meaning: the Holy Grail, the Holy Spear, Kundry, King Amfortas, Gurnemanz and Titurel were but names. I certainly was not a philistine by nature or lifestyle. I worshipped the joy of reading. I enjoyed the theatre, the movies, the ballet and modern dance (which we – the girls – were allowed to take at school in lieu of sport). But what I saw on stage and heard that night seemed to me an oppressive, foreboding and gloomy world of stasis. I felt as if I was drowning in quick sand and that every time I was about to grasp a tree root on the shore, mechanised steel girders came between the tree and me. The evening was also quite bewildering because in the yellow taxi Beth had said that she thought she was pregnant. As someone who still wore knee socks in winter, I was shocked beyond shock that someone from my world could be in such a state. She had met a boy at a dance at summer camp and begun corresponding. Immaculate conception? Beth left at 11 pm, well before the end of the performance, for the sake of the feared embryo.

I felt abandoned and miserable, intellectually lost and ashamed by my lack of appreciation. I wanted to go home and hug my Charlie Brown doll. Later, after the rapturous applause, in tears I hailed a yellow taxi on that bitterly cold, icy night and vowed in secret never to attend what was called the opera. (Beth, incidentally, brushed off my meek enquiry about the pregnancy; had nature  taken its course, or had she imagined this to impress me?)

‘It was quite unique,’ I told my mother at breakfast while eating my shredded wheat. In retrospect, I find it extraordinary that neither sets of parents ever sought to discuss the story and spiritual themes of the opera with us before or after our ‘experience’. The story indeed is one in which the values of charity, sympathy and sacrifice radiate. Maybe the parents, too, did not really warm to opera, their interest being a pretence. Were the tickets for Beth’s parents and they had decided not to go?

About a decade later, when I married and settled in London with my new husband, he, from time to time, would arrange for us to go the opera at the Royal Opera House; I remember enjoying the The Marriage of Figaro and L’italiana in Algeri. At our church, St George’s, Hanover Square, where Handel had worshiped, we heard many of his oratorios at the Handel Festival each year. At Glyndebourne, we hailed The Rake’s Progress. We sat in the front row at La Scala enraptured by Tosca. We became quite adventurous, seeing performances, for example, of John Adams’s Nixon in China, and Philip Glass’s Akhnaten and Satyagraha. Tansy Davies’s Between Worlds (about 9/11) was one of the most poignant and politically relevant operas we have seen. Cavelleria rusticana and Pagliacci could be easily transposed to 2017, to reflect the us and them perspectives poisoning our country today in the context of Brexit.

When we moved to Islington in North London, we discovered Grimeborn at the Arcola Theatre, the Black Robin opera group at the Rosemary Branch, and we never missed a production by OperaUpClose at the King’s Head. We are now supporting ‘Friends’ of the latter.

Hence, a short while ago, I greedily grabbed the opportunity – now this was a sublime operatic chance – to watch a rehearsal, with other OperaUpClose supporters, of Eugene Onegin. In a very warm and bright rehearsal studio at the Arcola, we watched how the Director, Lucy Bradley, with steely determination, interwove movement, music (just on the piano) and voices into a vibrant setting. I felt as if the human feelings of dismay, jealousy, anger, desperation and confusion were thickening the air – the atmosphere steamed with sentiment. Interestingly, the story has been transposed to suburban London in the 1960s, and there is not a huge chorus or orchestra. But being a newcomer to Eugene Onegin meant that I just accepted what I was seeing at face value and did not observe with thoughts of comparison or critique. I wanted to talk ‘some sense’ into Lensky and tell him not to be so self-indulgent and pull Onegin and Lensky apart when it was obvious that their foolish arguing could lead to a physical and potentially fatal fight. It seemed as if their muscular bodies were spiritually enflamed. Inside, I echoed the chorus when it essentially questioned why men are so enmeshed in territoriality. When Robin, the Artistic Director, gave me the musical manuscript to look at, I felt as if I was holding the Holy Grail!

Parsifal remains a hazy adolescent nightmare. I guess I also have had the fine fortune to find a good man, my Arthurian knight in shining armour, who won the battle against Wagner’s oppressive hold over me.