Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Donizetti's The Elixir of Love

AKA L'elisir D'amore by The Pittsburgh Opera

S and I went to the opera earlier in the week. First time I've been to the Pittsburgh Opera, and oddly enough, probably the first time I've been to a first rate professional opera. S had been invited, and although she did not take that invitation, we decided the night before that it would be fun to go. And S knows someone in the cast.

We arrived in the cultural district early, so after getting our tickets, we went to a nearby Starbucks to get tea and a scone. And we were greeted by someone we know from the PSO (is anyone surprised that we would be recognized in the cultural district?) who wished us a hearty 'Mazel Tov!' upon learning we were engaged. As performance time neared, and the PSO members left Starbucks, we made our way to the Benedum Center to take our seats.

I've been to the Benedum a couple of times, for performances of the Pittsburgh Ballet. Walking in, you have a hall that looks like it should host an opera (or ballet) right down (or up) to the chandelier and the gilt decorated walls. We walked up the many steps to our seats (we were in the cheap seats) and settled in for an entertaining afternoon.

The Elixir of Love is a comedy. The setting has been moved from an Italian village to a turn of the (20th) century midwest town a la The Music Man. We have the sophisticated and well read leading lady, who resists the wooing of a young man. A charlatan of a traveling salesman. The young man who is desparately wooing the sophisticated lady (as hero he is the tenor). And his rival in love (who is a bass) who is the dashing soldier. (the plot can be found at the link at the top.)

So, what is the purpose of transplanting the setting from the original rural Italy to rural America, after all, the libretto (lyrics) were not translated from the Italian, so you are still reading the supertitles above the stage if you want to know what is being sung. What is at issue (in addition to some level of relevancy, which I don't think is that big a deal) is the audience ability to understand what is happening. Just as in movies, an opera has the problem in that it has to tell a story, but only has a limited (ha!) amount of time to do it in. So movies or plays take care of this by providing a narrarator (or greek chorus) that can provide the backstory (think the opening crawl of Star Wars for an unsubtle example). Sometimes this is as a soliloquey (or a Gilbert & Sullivan patter song), sometimes in an early conversation between characters to provide the setting. Opera, because it is intended to be music, has more restrictions. So the setting provides the backstory. People who have seen The Music Man recognize the book reading as a sign of sophistication in the female lead (as well as the Disney Beauty and the Beast. It does not hurt that the original uses the same cue). Similarly, the charlatan traveling salesman is also readily identifiable. Dispite the language, you know that the sergeant is supposed to be an impressive specimen of manliness, and the ice cream salesman is probably not the epitome of success. And the story, with only a modest amount of attention, becomes understood and entertaining.

So, how would I consider this against the classical music (of all eras) that I've enjoyed for so many years? Of course, this is hardly a competition, as the forms are different. The biggest difference is the level of abstraction. As opera has actual words (and a setting and identifiable characters with characterizations) while instrumental music does not, it is obvious that classical music is more abstract. In itself, this does not mean any superiority. But there is a bit of forced thoughtfulness that is then required in the composition. And the need to transmit something (be it a story, an emotion, a feeling) without words to compensate for the separation between artist and audience imposes an intentionality to the work (actually, to be really honest, it does not impose the intentionality. But I tend to walk away from some such concerts wondering what I just sat through.)

To take a more accessible (evil word, there is nothing wrong with being understandable, as long as there is something meaningful to it) example, take photography. Photography changed painting because the aim of painting could no longer be purely representation of the physical world, because photography could always do a better job of that (and much more economically). And it is easy for anyone to think they are capable of taking pictures (even if they have to resort to the myth that all they need is properly expensive equipment.). But fewer think the same when using black and white. Because the additional level of abstraction (desaturation of color) forces the photographer to work with the other elements of the picture. And the task goes past making a visual record of something, to elements of composition, shape and texture. And the impact is greater. Not because of the impact of black & white per se, but the photographer who is practiced in black & white, has learned to create images in a different way (and this presumably carries over to any color work the photographer does). There are other areas that this happens. Computer programming is recognized as a craft that improves greatly as the programmer understands and applies greater levels of abstraction. The creative sides of business, engineering, law, social science all show the same (as opposed the technician view of all those professions that only looks at the application of techniques to a situation.)

But getting back to opera, while entertaining, I don't think I will be putting on the same level of attractiveness as instrumenal classical music. Because the additional abstraction appeals to me. To listen to a piece and wonder what was the story going through the composer's head, to observe my mind respond on an emotive level, and appreciate why it did so, to hear an artist work with a piece and take ink on a page that has been passed through centuries to create something slightly different then any performance before or since. This is something worth having and seeking in my life.
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