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  Founder: Len Mullenger

An Opera Gala

In the Gershwins’ Lady, Be Good Daisy and Bertie wondered, “Why are we here?” Sitting here tonight, we might well ask ourselves the same question. Of course the short answer is, “For an opera gala (as it says on the tin!)”. All right, so what’s a “gala”? According to the dictionary it’s “a festive or special occasion” (or, I guess, both). Fine, so we’re here to enjoy a celebration of opera. We’re going to listen to snippets from umpteen operas by various composers of diverse nationalities. 

Just a second: did I say “snippets”? Well, I suppose they would have to be, wouldn’t they? We haven’t time for whole operas, particularly if they’re by Wagner! Yes, but snippets - won’t it be rather like watching a whole evening of programme trailers on TV (a normal evening’s viewing, these days) - a whole pile of middles lacking both beginnings and ends, lots of incidents without binding storylines? That’s exactly what it will be like - which is why diehard “opera purists”, whose zeal borders on the fundamentalist, wouldn’t be seen dead at performances of anything short of complete operas. Borrowing Beecham’s turn of phrase, they would probably condemn opera galas as being “for people who don’t really like opera, but enjoy the noise it makes”. 

However there’s another angle, which supplies us a stick with which to poke the diehard opera purist in the eye. For over 500 years “opera” has evolved, continually dividing and mutating. It has become a jungle teeming with overlapping forms and styles: to say “from seria to buffa, from bel canto to verismo, from music drama to musical” would no more than scratch the surface of this argus of the Arts. The division in which we’re interested, almost inevitably, involves Richard Wagner. 

Up until he came on the scene, all opera worked by “numbers”. Every opera was built like a Lego house: arias, ensembles and even dramatic action sequences came in handy, bite-sized chunks. The main effect of Wagner’s symphonic concept was to remove the joins, fusing the numbers into a continuous drama. In this sense, Wagner and his followers are perhaps the most verismo of all. One consequence was that to extract “highlights” from their operas required surgery, hence Tovey’s reference to “bleeding chunks of butcher’s meat” and the relative absence of Wagner from opera galas. All right, but why did we have “opera by numbers” in the first place? 

At rock bottom, it’s because opera was a going concern long before extended musical forms came along, but this just begs the question, “Why wasn’t music drama invented 40 or 50 years earlier than it was?” Why not, indeed - with opera on the one hand, and plays and extended musical form on the other, the connection seems obvious enough. I suspect that the answer lay in a combination of tradition, utility - and of course money

Traditionally, the “numbers” formula worked. It provided shed-loads of opportunities for audiences to show their appreciation and, if they shouted long and loudly enough, it facilitated encores. It hardly needs saying that, in the days before recordings, little things like encores meant a lot. Equally, for huge lumps of the populace, getting to the opera wasn’t easy: cost, difficulties with travel and palace guards all got in the way. Composers and singers found it both useful and lucrative to be able to take successful numbers out and about, into the local concert venues - and into the popular domain. 

The “opera gala” must have emerged as an almost inevitable, simple distillation of this trend. Bearing in mind the massive popularity of this “extravagant and irrational entertainment”, the gala concert was a precursor of the modern “pop concert” and in fact, when you think about it, this operatic culture had - and still has - a lot in common with the modern pop-music industry. 

Now for the punch-line that you’ve probably seen coming a mile off. What really gets up the noses of opera purists is that we have opera galas not by accident or through cynical, exploitative commercialism, but by the express intent and design of the creators of the vast majority of operas, right down through the ages. That must take some swallowing. So, if you feel even the slightest, most momentary twinge of guilt at being here, forget it. Sit back, relax and then, secure in the knowledge that your neighbour won’t be an opera purist, immerse yourself in a whole evening of the lovely, luxuriant noise that opera makes. 

Verdi (1813-1901) - Overture: “La Forza del Destino” (1862)

“Accidentally” killing his reluctantly prospective father-in-law when caught eloping with Leonora, Alvaro flees from her vengeful brother Carlo. Eventually Alvaro has to kill him as well, but before dying Carlo manages to stab his sister. Forget the misappropriations of those lager adverts, because Verdi’s overture for this everyday story of country folk seethes with the violent passions of a plot-line that wouldn’t disgrace “Eastenders”. 

Mozart (1756-1791) - “Non più andrai”, from “Le Nozze di Figaro”(1786)

The action of this incredibly convoluted comedy takes place in a single day, but would require at least twice as long to explain! As a punishment for chasing anything and everything in a skirt, the page-boy Cherubino is condemned to regimental service by his master, Duke Almaviva. In this aria Figaro, the household’s valet, tries to “cheer up” the hapless lad. 

Puccini (1858-1924) - Musetta’s Waltz, from “La Bohème” (1896)

With Puccini came the flowering of verismo, the operatic forerunner of the thespian “kitchen sink drama”. This vivid tale of “bohemian life”, of artists struggling against destitution and of the doomed, consumptive Mimì, comes nearer than most to that domestic apparatus. Such is the work’s expressive power, and depth of characterisation, that this grimmest of all operas has become one of the best-loved. Musetta is a flirtatious “gold-digger” who eventually redeems herself in the final scene, but here boasts of her popularity, which she has plainly achieved by the most dubious of means. 

Verdi (1813-1901) - “Va Pensiero”, from “Nabucco” (1842)

Aspects of operas can find themselves co-opted for multifarious means. The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves was quickly adopted by the Italian Nationalists because it resonated with their desire for Italy’s re-unification with Lombardy, then occupied by the Austrians. With rather less sympathetic resonance, the same chorus was used to promote the soccer World Cup when it was hosted by Italy in 1990. It was almost poetic justice that the winner was Germany, which had at one time annexed Austria. 

Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) - Polonaise, from “Eugene Onegin” (1879)

The story of Eugene Onegin is a classic example of “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone”. When the young and naive Tatiana fell head over heels for him, he advised her to exercise more control over her emotions. Years later, when at a grand ball Onegin again encounters a now mature and self-assured Tatiana, it is he who is completely bowled over. As advised, she exercises control over her emotions and walks away. Ball scene? Ah, yes, that’s the excuse for this vigorous but poised Polonaise! 

Puccini (1858-1924) - “Volete che cerchiamo” to “Vissi d’arte”, from Act 2 of “Tosca” (1900)

Opera is loved the world over for its endearing portrayals of lust, betrayal, jealousy, conspiracy, greed, hate, rape, murder, and . . . so on! In the character of Scarpia, Chief of the Secret Police, Puccini and Luigi Illica give us one of the all-time great “unmitigated [insert your choice of expletive]”. This distillation of evil is not in the least averse to interrupting his supper to have Tosca’s boyfriend Cavaradossi tortured, whilst forcing her to listen to his agonised cries - and all to get the information he wants. Did I say “all”? Well, of course, there is something else he wants (see “lust” above). Having just had Cavaradossi dragged out to be hanged, he has all the leverage he needs: he calmly sits down at his supper table, and asks Tosca, “Shall we try together to find a way to save him?” - which is where we come in. As, one by one, Scarpia relentlessly lays down his trump cards discussion rapidly becomes violent argument - but even her impassioned repulsion plays into his hands: he is not of the “romantic candlelit dinner” school. Finally, exhausted by pursuit, Tosca appeals to God: “Why, O Lord, do you repay me thus”, at which point we take our leave. 

Puccini (1858-1924) - Te Deum, from Act 1 of “Tosca” (1900)

Just before the end of Act 1, Scarpia sows seeds of suspicion in Tosca, insinuating that Cavaradossi has been unfaithful to her. Thus he sets in motion the evil scheme that leads up to the contretemps in Act 2. And where does he perpetrate this wickedness? In church, that’s where - the man is bereft of any shred of decency. The Te Deum that ends the act is as near as this opera comes to a moment of light relief. 

Wagner (1813-1883) - Prelude to Act III of “Lohengrin” (1850)

I recall a scene in a TV “sitcom”, donkeys’ years ago: this chap is listening to a recording of Lohengrin - this very bit, in fact. In walks his “less cultured” pal, who comments that for once it’s something with a bit of life in it, much better than the usual morbid stuff. Suggesting that his pal should be less hasty, the chap moves the pickup on and we hear the strains of the famous wedding march - cue sudden look of abject horror on pal’s face! Of course, in a “sitcom” nobody worries that the wedding scene is in the previous act. Albeit operated on by his cleaver only at its conclusion, this hectic and exhilarating prelude is still a “bleeding chunk of butcher’s meat”. There are two versions: one which simply trails off “in a pool of blood”, and one in which “the wound is cauterised” by a surprisingly magnificent concert ending. Which will it be tonight? 

Puccini (1858-1924) - “Un bel di”, from “Madama Butterfly” (1904)

Butterfly’s première was hardly auspicious. The start was held up by the composer’s involvement in a car accident, and the proceedings were undermined by the audience’s farmyard impressions (patrons are respectfully requested to refrain from giving encores). The opera is perhaps the pinnacle of verismo, a sensitive but no-holds-barred examination of the all-too-real subject of “culture clash”. Rarely has the disparity between occidental and oriental attitudes to important matters such as commitment, duty, and honour been expressed with such heart-rending candour. In this aria, Cio-Cio-San dreams of Pinkerton’s return, unaware that during his absence he has found himself a “real” American wife. 

Bizet (1838-1875) - The Toreador’s Song, from “Carmen” (1875)

If the scenario was updated to something like the present, then surely the shallow, big-headed twerp that is Escamillo would be a stereotypical “pop star”. As we know, this gaudy and glamorous toreador turns the free-loving and flighty Carmen’s head away from Don José, whose intense but dull doting readily converts into consuming jealousy. Escamillo’s head-turning song is appropriately gilded, an irresistibly attractive bauble. I applaud the supreme irony that sees Don José playing out his final murderous confrontation with Carmen against the background of Escamillo basking in empty adulation. 

Massenet (1842-1912) - Méditation, from “Thaïs” (1894)

This is about as much of Thaïs as most of us get to hear these days - performances are rare, recordings more so. The reason is partly the plot, which is improbable even by operatic standards. It concerns a fourth- or maybe fifth-century monk who, in the course of converting a courtesan to Christianity, rather foolishly allows himself to fall in love (tut-tut!). The twist is that he succeeds too well: she is so thoroughly converted that she becomes a nun. This intermezzo from the second act originally gained fame as an arrangement prepared by one M. P. Marsick, and has since been re-arranged for just about every ensemble imaginable. Thankfully, tonight’s performance will be rather more faithful to Massenet’s exquisite melodic invention than any arrangement for tin whistle, ocarina, banjo and accordion! 

Dvorák (1841-1904) - Song to the Moon, from “Rusalka” (1901)

Based on Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, the libretto transplants the location to Bohemia and substitutes a “Rusalka” (a kind of water-nymph in Czech mythology) for the original mermaid, but otherwise leaves the storyline intact - and oddly sparing of the usual “endearing qualities” of opera! The enchanting Song to the Moon comes fairly early on, as Rusalka entreats that silver orb to reveal to her the dwelling of the mortal object of her love. 

Verdi (1813-1901) - Posa’s Death, from “Don Carlo” (1884)

Don Carlo has one of those baffling plots, a union of amatory intrigue, supernatural intervention, and international politics (which on its own would be confusing enough). Don Carlo is betrothed to Elisabetta, whom he has never met. When they do meet, entirely by accident and each unaware of the other’s identity, naturally they fall madly in love. Then the Spanish ambassador turns up and points out that, to secure peace between France and Spain, she is to be wedded to Don Carlo’s father, King Filippo. Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa and the Don’s best pal, persuades him to divert his energies to the cause of Flemish independence. I hope you’ve got the idea, because we’re only part way through Act 1! Anyway, multitudinous machinations later, Rodrigo, having incriminated himself to save the Don, cops a bullet from an Inquisition soldier. Soon after being freed, Don Carlo is caught with Elisabetta by Filippo and the Inquisitor, but is rescued again, this time by the ghost of his grandad who draws him into the safety of his nice, cosy tomb. 

Mozart (1756-1791) - Papagena and Papageno’s Duet, from Act II of “Die Zauberflöte” (1791)

The Magic Flute is a wonderfully dotty fairy-tale having, in true comic opera and Whitehall farce tradition, an impossibly convoluted plot-line. Papageno, a birdcatcher who becomes Prince Tamino’s side-kick, is a carefree soul with only a few weaknesses, like good food and fair damsels. Towards the end, having failed an initiation, he is paired off with an old lady. Resigned to his fate he promises to be faithful to her, whereupon the old dear is transformed into a young and beautiful Papagena - who promptly “disappears”. A couple of suicide attempts later, three genies let on to Papageno how he can get Papagena back. He waves his magic silver bells, and soon the happy couple start to plan their life together, and set up home in a bird’s nest. Please, don’t ask! I’m simply telling you how it is! 

Verdi (1813-1901) - Triumphal Scene, from “Aida” (1871)

Egypt and Ethiopia are at each other’s throats. Radamès, the young commander of the eventually victorious Egyptian army, is caught in a love-triangle between Princess Amneris and Aida, her Ethiopian slave. Naturally, and unbeknown to just about everybody, Aida is the daughter of Amonasro, the Ethiopian king. Naturally, and unbeknown to just about everybody, Amonasro is lurking among the captives. A recipe for disaster if ever there was one, and we are not going to be disappointed! With dramatic eloquence Verdi first builds the situation, creating the tensions between the characters. Slap-bang in the middle of the opera, he places his high spot, a public spectacle which defines the depth of the descent into the intimacy of the final crypt scene. For maximum contrast, that public spectacle simply must be utterly breathtaking in its sheer opulence. Now, take a deep, deep breath . . . 

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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