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What’s a first opera for adults?

I think that the standard answer to the question: What’s a good choice for a first opera to see?–is usually either La Boheme or Madame Butterfly, both by Puccini.  They’re both fine examples, full of gorgeous melody, and definitely evoke an emotional response.  But really, the characters are kids–it’s easy to imagine that if it were being composed this decade, La Boheme would have ended up with a title like “Slackerz”, or, I suppose to be literal, “Slacker Girl”.  And Butterfly is supposed to be fourteen at the start of the opera!  Not that any fourteen-year-old in the world could sing the role.  And the problems of the operas are the problems of young people–first love and loss.  It’s not that they don’t move me, but–to the extent that I’m identifying with the characters–I’m looking back at a stage of my life that’s long gone.

For younger newcomers, however, they’re right on the money.  I’m going to indulge in an opera queen moment.  [Don’t worry, it’s mostly a pose for me; for the real thing, try Parterre Box.]  When I first moved to San Francisco and started going to San Francisco Opera, I saw a performance of Madame Butterfly with Catherine Malfitano as Butterfly.  My friend and I were sitting next to a couple of thirtysomethings, who said that this was their first opera.  They were very dressed up, and appeared to have begun the evening with a nice dinner.  By intermission, they were hooked.  And, at the end, I was crying, my friend was crying, and the young woman was crying hard enough that mascara was running down her cheeks.  But that night, mascara was running down all our cheeks.  The point is, in part, that she didn’t have to look like a young girl, but she had to be able to act a young girl.

And that acting is largely through the voice, rather than through the body.  Or, perhaps I should say, that the voice is ahead of the body.  There’s an Italian expression about opera: primo la voce–first, the voice.  We’ve come away from the notion that only the voice matters; but opera companies can still make the news when they base casting decisions on how a singer looks.  On the other hand, some roles, like Salome–who has to be able to do something with the dance of the seven veils–and even Billy Budd–he needs to have some of that doe-eyed innocence–seem to require certain physical types.  But anyone who can respond to the singing of Billy Holliday or Edith Piaf or k.d. lang–to name three–knows how singing can convey emotion.

So, you want to invite a friend to their first opera.  They’re old enough to have experienced love, rejection and betrayal, success and failure, hope, despair, and [let’s say] at least five of the seven deadly sins.  In other words, they’re an adult. I have two recommendations: Puccini’s Tosca and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.  Why?  First the Mozart.  It’s a comedy, in the old fashioned sense of ending with the marriage of Figaro [the Count’s factotum] and Susanna [the Countess’s maid].  But the central characters of the opera are the Count and Countess Almaviva.  They’re already married.  Indeed, someone said that they’re the only married lovers in opera.  But, at the start, the Count has fallen out of love with the Countess, and he’s trying his best to seduce Susanna.  She’s more than a match for him.  And she knows that the Countess hasn’t fallen out of love with the Count.  Indeed, we all know that–the aria where she tells us is ravishing [Here’s Kiri Te Kanawa, Dove sono].  Skipping over various subplots, Susanna writes to the Count, telling him to meet her in the garden at night, then Susanna and the Countess exchange clothes, so the Count ends up trying to seduce his wife.  He realizes that he’s been tricked, but more than that, that he does love his wife [and we all think that she’s worth a dozen of him].  He apologizes in an aria that some people say is the real “end” of the opera; but then there are subplots to tie up and the wedding of Figaro and Susanna to celebrate.  All this is just to say that this is a bittersweet comedy, and as such, is suitable for mature audiences.

Now for the tragedy.  In Tosca, the main characters are adult professionals, who all have work to do–indeed, we meet Mario Cavaradossi [a painter] at work in a church where he’s been commissioned to paint a portrait of the Madonna.  An old friend and escaped political prisoner [Angelotti] set the plot in motion–Mario tells him to hide at Mario’s villa.  But Floria Tosca bangs on the door as the men are working out the details, and she thinks that Mario is having an assignation with another woman.  Tosca is jealous!  She’s also the premier diva of Rome, where the opera is set.  The Baron Scarpia, head of the secret police and villain extraordinaire, sets a trap that catches all of them.  I’ve seen productions where Scarpia is played as a sadistic slimeball; but it’s much more effective if his surface is completely urbane, sophisticated, witty [and evil].  Think Sean Connery instead of Karl Rove–not that I’m saying that either of them is evil.  Scarpia knows that Cavaradossi is sheltering Angelotti, so arrests him.  Things go from bad to worse.  By torturing Mario, Scarpia gets Tosca to agree to give herself to him, the thought of which she abhors.  That evening, having gotten Scarpia to write out a safe conduct for her and Mario, Tosca stabs and kills Scarpia rather than giving in.  She races to the prison to tell Mario–Scarpia said that he needed to stage a fake execution at dawn and then Mario and Tosca will escape.  But Scarpia has double-crossed them, the execution is real.  Tosca leaps to her death from the parapet rather than being taken by the police.  On top of this almost grand guignol plot, there is incredible music, including two of my favorite arias.  One, when Tosca is having dinner with Scarpia, and bemoaning her fate…Vissi d’arte — I lived for Art [Here’s Maria Callas].  And the other is Cavaradossi in prison, thinking back to the nights that he and Tosca had spent in love…E lucevan le stelle — The stars shone [Here’s Placido Domingo.]   The legendary canard hurled at this opera is that it’s a “shabby little shocker”.  But, frankly, it’s one of a small handful of operas that I’ll go see, just about wherever and whenever.

Whether your choice is comedy or tragedy, I don’t think that you can go wrong with these two.

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