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An Ethnographied Night at the Opera

Douglas Van Hollen

Anth 62a Spinney

October 31, 2001

An Ethnographied Night at the Opera

For three hundred years, opera has been the music that accompanies the stereotype of the European upper classes.  Composers, actors, singers, musicians, and dramatists combine forces to produce an emotional effect on the audience that is unlike any other feeling in the arts.  The opera is a unique realm where acting and singing, seeing and hearing, soloist and ensemble, joy and despair all may be found in a single work of art.

Our destination is the Schubert Theatre on Tremont Street, in Boston’s theatre district.  This Sunday afternoon is cold and windy (held easily at bay by a hot chai from the nearby Starbucks), and sparklingly clear.  Two elderly scalpers hawk tickets for the opera outside the front entrance.  Although the performance is in less than an hour, we are unable to take our seat yet, due to what appears to be a V.I.P party going on just inside the inner glass doors.  Every now and then a tuxedoed server exits with a crate of empty champagne bottles.  The architecture of the building seems very old-fashioned but well-kept, and the electric brass lamps protruding from the whitewashed walls shed wide crystalline beams on the ornate scrollwork at the junctures of wall and ceiling.  Our ticket has cost thirty-nine dollars and our seats lie in the back row of the mezzanine.

As we ascend the steep curving staircase, the dress of the patrons seems to become less formal as one progresses from orchestra to balcony to mezzanine; we see dark stiff suits and tuxedoes on the first floor, three-piece and business suits on the second, and merely informal party-wear on the third: Most men wear dress shirts and ties, or collared shirts and sweaters; the women range from sweaters and formal slacks to dark flowing suits with silk scarves.  While a wide range of ages are represented, most of the audience members seem above fifty.  Everyone seems as though they belong here; nobody looks out of place.

When we are at last shown to our seat twenty minutes from curtain, vertigo nudges our side as we find ourself at least eighty feet above the stage.  Fortunately, the theatre is oriented in such a way that we can see every bit of the performing area and the orchestra pit.  We see in our program that this performance is of the rare French version of Don Carlo by Giuseppe Verdi.  The story concerns the prince of Spain who falls in love with a woman who for political reasons is obligated to marry Carlo’s father Phillipe II, King of Spain.  Thus Carlo is torn between love and family, duty and destiny.  The opera is four and a half hours long, and sung in French with English surtitles.  Our neighboring opera-goers chatter about which of the two possible endings the director has chosen to use in this production, and about how the leg room in these seats compares to that of other sections and other theatres.  The orchestra is composed of perhaps fifty players: violins, ‘cellos, bass viols, smaller sections of woodwinds and brass, and percussion.  Throughout our pre-show wait, their tuning and warming-up can be distinctly heard, a great credit to the acoustics (or perhaps just the sound system) of this old theatre.

Finally, the house lights dim.  As the conductor makes his way to the podium, the audience applauds.  We will applaud after an occasional section if the performance was especially skillful, but for the most part we are silent as the action unfolds.  After a short but moving overture, characters begin to appear on the stage.  Their monologues and dialogues are entirely sung, accompanied by the orchestra.  The performers on stage appear to be skillful actors, but since they can only communicate using sonorous musical exchanges, their actions and interactions are slowed and melodramatic.  The usual form in this opera is the following: a character will come forward and sing an aria, which is a song-like explanation of his inner workings and present situation; then several characters will engage in recitative, which is everyday speech that is sung and accompanied by sparser instrumentation.  Then the cycle starts over.  While Verdi does vary from this form with occasional ensembles of singers, the audience can expect basically this pattern to continue throughout the piece.  The orchestral music and melodies are carefully engineered to produce in the audience similar emotions to those being experience by the characters, and at several points, the whole audience seems to be in tears.  Opera is an art form that demands a certain level of scholarship from its audience in order to have the intended effects.  The man in the next seat conducts short passages with one finger, accenting notes exactly in time with the orchestra.  Another gentleman sings selections from the arias to his wife at intermission.  At the end of this musical epic, the audience applauds the performers as they each step forward and bow.  Some audience members who felt the show was especially proficient stand as they applaud to show their appreciation.  While the female lead and several other performers are black, the majority of the cast is white.  To the director’s credit, the black performers seem out of place holding royal positions in sixteenth-century Spain.  During the performance, however, race is easily forgotten as we are swept away in the story and the music.

Despite the almost oppressive air of sophistication and elegance, the audience definitely seems to be enjoying the performance; none of them look forced to be here and they certainly do not seem resentful about the fact that some research had to be done on this opera or that the performers are singing in another language.  Although this art form is more than three hundred years old, and this particular opera over a hundred, the performers are playing to a packed house of very expensive seats on a Sunday afternoon.  Some of this support is attributable to the composer, Giuseppe Verdi, who’s operas continue to be successful because of how comfortable his music sounds in this setting.  But unless a considerable amount of listening time is allotted to this genre of music, composers can be difficult to differentiate.  So for a narrow but elite slice of the population, opera remains the source of a wide gamut of emotional, musical and visual performances that continue to leave audiences breathless with excitement and tearfully affected.  For those who take the time to understand it, opera can transcend the culture it was created for, and touch us all more deeply than we might expect, given its stereotype of large women in Viking helmets.  If we push through the barriers set up by those narrow small minds, we can find music that persists in sounding new and fresh no matter what its age.

As part of my Non-Western Musical Traditions course in my sophmore year in college, we were asked to attend a number of musical performances, any kind at all, and to analyze it from the perspective of an ethnomusicologist (which was a term invented about six months previous; kind of a mix between an anthropologist, a music critic, and an asshole).  This was written on Halloween 2001.  A week or two before, I had attended the Boston Lyric Opera performance of Verdi's Don Carlo, the French version.  I see now that I was experimenting with Gonzo journalism, and to some success I think.  But it's clear that I'm shoehorning this approach into a strict structure indoctrinated during high school.  Note how I put the proper apostrophe in "'cello".

For three hundred years, opera has been the music that accompanies the stereotype of the European upper classes.  Composers, actors, singers, musicians, and dramatists combine forces to produce an emotional effect on the audience that is unlike any other feeling in the arts.  The opera is a unique realm where acting and singing, seeing and hearing, soloist and ensemble, joy and despair all may be found in a single work of art.

Our destination is the Schubert Theatre on Tremont Street, in Boston’s theatre district.  This Sunday afternoon is cold and windy (held easily at bay by a hot chai from the nearby Starbucks), and sparklingly clear.  Two elderly scalpers hawk tickets for the opera outside the front entrance.  Although the performance is in less than an hour, we are unable to take our seat yet, due to what appears to be a V.I.P party going on just inside the inner glass doors.  Every now and then a tuxedoed server exits with a crate of empty champagne bottles.  The architecture of the building seems very old-fashioned but well-kept, and the electric brass lamps protruding from the whitewashed walls shed wide crystalline beams on the ornate scrollwork at the junctures of wall and ceiling.  Our ticket has cost thirty-nine dollars and our seats lie in the back row of the mezzanine.

As we ascend the steep curving staircase, the dress of the patrons seems to become less formal as one progresses from orchestra to balcony to mezzanine; we see dark stiff suits and tuxedoes on the first floor, three-piece and business suits on the second, and merely informal party-wear on the third: Most men wear dress shirts and ties, or collared shirts and sweaters; the women range from sweaters and formal slacks to dark flowing suits with silk scarves.  While a wide range of ages are represented, most of the audience members seem above fifty.  Everyone seems as though they belong here; nobody looks out of place.

When we are at last shown to our seat twenty minutes from curtain, vertigo nudges our side as we find ourself at least eighty feet above the stage.  Fortunately, the theatre is oriented in such a way that we can see every bit of the performing area and the orchestra pit.  We see in our program that this performance is of the rare French version of Don Carlo by Giuseppe Verdi.  The story concerns the prince of Spain who falls in love with a woman who for political reasons is obligated to marry Carlo’s father Phillipe II, King of Spain.  Thus Carlo is torn between love and family, duty and destiny.  The opera is four and a half hours long, and sung in French with English surtitles.  Our neighboring opera-goers chatter about which of the two possible endings the director has chosen to use in this production, and about how the leg room in these seats compares to that of other sections and other theatres.  The orchestra is composed of perhaps fifty players: violins, ‘cellos, bass viols, smaller sections of woodwinds and brass, and percussion.  Throughout our pre-show wait, their tuning and warming-up can be distinctly heard, a great credit to the acoustics (or perhaps just the sound system) of this old theatre.

Finally, the house lights dim.  As the conductor makes his way to the podium, the audience applauds.  We will applaud after an occasional section if the performance was especially skillful, but for the most part we are silent as the action unfolds.  After a short but moving overture, characters begin to appear on the stage.  Their monologues and dialogues are entirely sung, accompanied by the orchestra.  The performers on stage appear to be skillful actors, but since they can only communicate using sonorous musical exchanges, their actions and interactions are slowed and melodramatic.  The usual form in this opera is the following: a character will come forward and sing an aria, which is a song-like explanation of his inner workings and present situation; then several characters will engage in recitative, which is everyday speech that is sung and accompanied by sparser instrumentation.  Then the cycle starts over.  While Verdi does vary from this form with occasional ensembles of singers, the audience can expect basically this pattern to continue throughout the piece.  The orchestral music and melodies are carefully engineered to produce in the audience similar emotions to those being experience by the characters, and at several points, the whole audience seems to be in tears.  Opera is an art form that demands a certain level of scholarship from its audience in order to have the intended effects.  The man in the next seat conducts short passages with one finger, accenting notes exactly in time with the orchestra.  Another gentleman sings selections from the arias to his wife at intermission.  At the end of this musical epic, the audience applauds the performers as they each step forward and bow.  Some audience members who felt the show was especially proficient stand as they applaud to show their appreciation.  While the female lead and several other performers are black, the majority of the cast is white.  To the director’s credit, the black performers seem out of place holding royal positions in sixteenth-century Spain.  During the performance, however, race is easily forgotten as we are swept away in the story and the music.

Despite the almost oppressive air of sophistication and elegance, the audience definitely seems to be enjoying the performance; none of them look forced to be here and they certainly do not seem resentful about the fact that some research had to be done on this opera or that the performers are singing in another language.  Although this art form is more than three hundred years old, and this particular opera over a hundred, the performers are playing to a packed house of very expensive seats on a Sunday afternoon.  Some of this support is attributable to the composer, Giuseppe Verdi, who’s operas continue to be successful because of how comfortable his music sounds in this setting.  But unless a considerable amount of listening time is allotted to this genre of music, composers can be difficult to differentiate.  So for a narrow but elite slice of the population, opera remains the source of a wide gamut of emotional, musical and visual performances that continue to leave audiences breathless with excitement and tearfully affected.  For those who take the time to understand it, opera can transcend the culture it was created for, and touch us all more deeply than we might expect, given its stereotype of large women in Viking helmets.  If we push through the barriers set up by those narrow small minds, we can find music that persists in sounding new and fresh no matter what its age.

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