Opera Sucks

I would like to expand on one experience I had recently while visiting Paris. In the planning stages of our trip Mrs. Gorodish expressed a desire to see the opera. I had never been to the opera, but I responded, as I do to most of Mrs. Gorodish's suggestions, "what does not kill me makes me stronger." That's no joke; I figured that I might or might not enjoy it, but either way I would learn something.

You can buy tickets for the Paris Opera on-line. It turned out that given the constraints of scheduling, and our desire to see a show in the grand Garnier opera house (which was half the point), our only option was to see Gluck's Alceste (which I had never heard of).

Another decision to be made was whether to go for the moderately-expensive seats or the super-expensive seats. I let Mrs. Gorodish make the call, and she said go for the moderately-expensive seats.

Judging that we would enjoy the show more with some familiarity, I bought a recording and spent some time listening to it. After some minutes of this, Mrs. Gorodish turned to me and asked, "Is this what we're going to see?" Yeah, it's that kind of music. There's more to say about the music later.

So on the fateful day, we arrived early, and spent some time looking around the Opera house. This is something to see. The architect, Charles Garnier, worked from the principle that more is always better. The Opera house is the embodiment of magnificent excess.

Photo by Rose Trinh

The story goes that when Emperor Napoleon III beheld the Opera for the first time, he asked the architect "What kind of style is this supposed to be?" Quick-thinking Garnier replied, "It is style Napoleon III, your Majesty."

There's a reason why the Phantom haunts the Opera and not the stock exchange or the train station. The Opera demands a story that is grotesque and bombastic. This is not a criticism. Grotesque and bombastic is fun once in a while.

Note the colossal gilded figures supporting the ceiling:

Photo by Chris Chabot

I seem to be the first person to notice that Garnier was clearly inspired by the Gotham City of Schumacher's Batman movies:

Eventually it came time to take our seats. Our cheap seats were on the fourth-level balcony, which was pitched at least 45 degrees. The seats were closer together than economy class on an airplane. If you have somewhat long legs, your knees are knocking the back of the head of the person in front of you. On the other hand, the rather petite Mrs. Gorodish found her feet would not reach the floor. Being uncomfortable with heights, she felt on the verge of tumbling down the slope and over the edge of the balcony. I suggested she trot down to the front of the balcony and lean out over the railing to look at the famous ceiling by Chagall, but she was strangely reluctant.

By the time the show began we were packed in on all sides. And sweltering. Claustrophobes absolutely cannot go to the opera. Picture "the box" from the prison in Cool Hand Luke with classical music piped in.  

Credit where it is due: we did have an excellent view of the stage.

I knew already the music was not catchy but I consoled myself with the thought that there would be colorful costumes to look at. Hah! The entire troupe was dressed in black. The scenery likewise consisted of a few black slabs of plywood.

I recognize that so far I have talked about the circumstances attending the opera rather than the opera itself. That's what really counts, right? Let's get to that.

I note first of all that after listening to Alceste for several hours before my visit, and then attending the performance, at no time now or in the past could I under any circumstances hum a single phrase of it. Neither can Mrs. Gorodish. It is simply forgettable. By contrast, a modern musical show incorporates melodies which linger in the mindas the video above demonstrates (BTW I have yet to encounter any phenomenon of human experience which was not addressed in some episode of Seinfeld). 

(I concede that some other operas have yielded some rather catchy tunes.)

The Garnier Opera house is equipped with a screen over the stage which can display captions to the singing. For some reason this was not operating during the first act but then started up in the second. This did not improve things. As long as I could not understand the lyrics I could imagine that they must be something sublime and artistic. The captions ripped away that last glimmer of hope.

The plot to Alceste starts out like this. The king is deathly ill. The queen (Alceste) bargains with the gods to die in his place. The king, making a miraculous recovery, is first elated, then appalled when he learns that the queen must die. He kills himself. The queen then kills herself. 

Setting aside the question of the entertainment value of such a plot, in "opera time", it takes an hour and half to get through those five sentences. Because apparently being an opera composer is the original Lazy Man's Way to Riches. Say you want to write a three-hour opera. All you have to do is write a half-hour's worth, and then repeat it six times.

So a line like "Oh yeah, I'm gonna kill myself" is sung perhaps six times. And it's exactly the same, the music, the words, everything. Not that it was that interesting the first time.

Again, this repetitiveness seems to be peculiar to opera. Look up the lyrics to Master of the House, and you'll see what I mean. Whether or not you find them clever and interesting, you must at least admit each verse differs from the preceding.

Gluck seems to have missed the point that when a character threatens suicide again and again...and again, at some point it passes from pathos to comedy. Mrs. Gorodish had to keep shushing me to stop laughing.

Don't ask me what happens following the queen's suicide, because at that point intermission came. Mrs. Gorodish turned to me and said, "For the love of God, let's get out of here."

And indeed, as foretold, I stand here today stronger, because I went to the Opera and survived it.

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