If you only have time to pay attention to one Metafilter post about opera, it could be this one
October 10, 2012 12:36 AM   Subscribe

Oh gawd, it's Cecilia.. with her machine-gun vibrato.
posted by ReeMonster at 12:36 AM on October 10, 2012

If I could do what she does, I'd definitely do it no less intensely.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 12:39 AM on October 10, 2012

That was an intense opera singer.
posted by bicyclefish at 12:45 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

If I could do what she does, I'd definitely do it no less intensely.

Judging from the way she's dynamically reconfiguring her chest cavity and airways, it appears if you could do what she does, you couldn't do it any less intensely.

I was totally not looking at her cleavage. Honest.
posted by clarknova at 12:47 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Divas are the same, everywhere.
posted by lipsum at 12:54 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

You may be interested in this male soprano who does a spot-on parody of Bartoli's delivery.
posted by Pallas Athena at 1:03 AM on October 10, 2012 [8 favorites]

I'm just saying, Cecilia Bartoli is a very intense person. I was at the supermarket and I cut in line in front of her, and I only had 14 items for the express lane, which requires 15 items. And her intense vocal objection made me go and buy another item.

That's how powerful she is.
posted by twoleftfeet at 1:21 AM on October 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

She was totally lip synching to a Qbert scratch track
posted by mannequito at 1:21 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wondered if she was trying to "act" - I'm assuming the lyrics were a monolog from some dramatic opera, was she trying to match her facial expressions to the supposed emotions in the song?

Otherwise it kind of just looked like she was just really surprised at the sounds coming out of her mouth or something.

Also at some points, she kind of sounded like a monkey.
posted by delmoi at 1:35 AM on October 10, 2012

I'm assuming the lyrics were a monolog from some dramatic opera, was she trying to match her facial expressions to the supposed emotions in the song?

OK, you opera philistines. You don't recognize Vivaldi's Bajazet when you hear it. Here's a version by Julia Kogan, who is a great singer, but Cecilia Bartoli's version is much better in my opinion, as long as you shut your eyes and listen, because if you keep your eyes open you will see her head spin 360°, so possessed is she by the music.

If you're going to understand opera, you have to understand Italian. For example, the main phrase of this song is "Anch'il Mar Par Che Sommerga". Nowadays it is simple to understand what a phrase like this means. You just put it into Google Translate, and you will learn that it means What Anch'il Tues Par Flood. Once you understand the meaning, it's pretty clear why she is so intense about conveying that meaning, because there is a flood coming on Tuesday. As I understand it.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:00 AM on October 10, 2012 [21 favorites]

I've heard that exaggerated facial expressions are how opera is done - is she over doing it? Seems fairly normal compared to other opera singers I've seen.
posted by Brent Parker at 2:03 AM on October 10, 2012

For anybody interested about that piece of music, it's Agitata da due Venti from Vivaldi's 'La Griselda'. Another, more elegant rendition, in Venice, at the Teatro Olimpico.

However odd her facial expressions, her dynamic voice has impeccable precision and control. I think it's exceptionally beautiful.

The song expresses being buffeted by winds and by inner conflict.

Lyrics in English:

Buffeted by two winds,
the waves rage in the stormy sea
and the frightened steersman
expects to be shipwrecked.
By duty and by love
my heart is assailed,
it cannot hold out, it seems to yield
and begin to despair.

In Italian:
Agitata da due venti,
freme l'onda in mar turbato
e 'l nocchiero spaventato
già s'aspetta a naufragar.
Dal dovere da l'amore
combattuto questo core
non resiste e par che ceda
e incominci a desperar.
posted by nickyskye at 2:04 AM on October 10, 2012 [6 favorites]

In order to understand this performance in context you need to know that a very small man with sharp heels is hiding under her dress and standing on her toes and tickling her calves with duck feathers intermittently.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:30 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I truly appreciate the honest attempts to help philistines like me understand opera.
Not sarcastic, I'm being sincere. Thank you.

Opera generally just sounds so unnatural to my ears that I don't know how to process it.
I realize that stage performers have to exaggerate expression to get stuff across.

I also can't help but giggle at the parodies.
posted by lilywing13 at 2:52 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Opera generally just sounds so unnatural to my ears that I don't know how to process it.

This may not be the place to make this point, but opera is not as silly as it looks. If you've never been able to appreciate opera, I would highly recommend any decent version of Don Giovanni (with subtitles.)

The best opera has music and action, but it inverts these from the way they are used in modern entertainment. In modern movies, there is a soundtrack, and this can be a very important part of your experience while you watch a story unfold. In opera, the music is much closer to the front of the experience, and helps bring the action into meaning.

Historically there was a technological difference. Before motion pictures it was important to convey the emotional shifts of the story through the music, because the music could be conveyed by an orchestra, which could create a very loud signal through the performance hall, whereas the actors on stage, and the words they spoke, didn't have the same signal strength. If you were sitting at the back of the hall, the emotional transitions of the story were more strongly conveyed by the orchestra pit than the primary vocalists, or their actions, both of which were far away.

When you watch a movie, the camera can zoom in on the actor's face. This wasn't possible a few hundred years ago. Back then, you had to sit in a hall with hundreds of other people, maybe in the cheap seats in the back, and still make sense of what was going on. Have I made my point?

Don Giovanni is a great starter opera, I think, because it's a great action piece, with enough sex and violence to appeal to a modern sensibility, but it has that music that that little shit Mozart came up with, which works really well. Brilliantly well.

I'm not a big fan of Mozart, but you really have to listen to this opera (Don Giovanni), if you haven't already. Mozart, the little musical robot that he was, could phrase music to a very small degree. I mean, suppose you had a soundtrack that went with your life. "How are you doing today?" someone asks. You reply; "I'm doing well. But I need a coffee."

Mozart had the ability to take statements like those and directly translate them into music.

I mean, when somebody says "how are you doing today?", Mozart would create a sense of suspense through a progression in a minor key. When you reply "I'm doing well", Mozart modulates to a major key, but your need for coffee is reflected in a quick backtrack into a minor key.

You can hear this stuff, if you listen to it. You don't need to know anything about music.

And the very best operas were like that. Even the shitty ones were like that, because musical nuance was the best way to convey emotional depth before modern cameras allowed close-ups on the actors faces.

Opera is more interesting than you might think. Or see.

Listen to it sometime.
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:48 AM on October 10, 2012 [25 favorites]

Her constantly changing facial expressions and strange swaying give me the impression that she is peeing in public but can't help it or something. But yes indeed it's probably pretty hard what she's doing. I guess it's like doing 200 push ups inside your chest or something.
posted by Napierzaza at 4:49 AM on October 10, 2012

I slowly became interested in Opera by listening to the Saturday afternoon CBC/public radio broadcasts which have been going since forever, and last weekend the show was the excellent Don Giovanni, which as twoleftfeet recommends is a pretty good starter. The Milos Forman film of Amadeus is also worth a look.
posted by ovvl at 5:07 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

That was great fun!

She has incredible control... this is like the vocal equivalent of rhythmic gymnastics. I cannot imagine the skill and training it takes to reach this level.

Plus, she looked like she was having a great time, playing around with her awesome voice. If I could do this, I'd probably do it all day long, just because.

I thought I would find this funny, but instead I'm left with an urge to go see an opera. Because sometimes human voices blow my mind.
posted by kinnakeet at 5:11 AM on October 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Cecilia Bartoli is famous for a number of things. Among them are her peculiar technique and strange facial expressions while singing, and the fact that she is an unreformed mugger when it comes to acting.

As far as appreciating opera... First, opera is not for everyone any more than any other genre of music. Second, opera just like any other genre of music, requires experience, exposure and some education in order to appreciate it.
posted by slkinsey at 5:17 AM on October 10, 2012

I only had 14 items for the express lane, which requires 15 items.

What kind of supermarket express lane has a minimum requirement and not a maximum? I DECLARE SHENANIGANS ON THIS ANECDOTE.
posted by nathancaswell at 5:19 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've heard that exaggerated facial expressions are how opera is done - is she over doing it?

It's not just opera, any classically trained vocalist looks pretty damn odd at times, because they are changing the resonance cavities in their face and chest to get exact tonal qualities. That said, though they might look weird, they won't look as "dramatic" as an opera signer because the opera singer is also trying to convey the content of the lyrics.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 5:20 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

What kind of supermarket express lane has a minimum requirement and not a maximum? I DECLARE SHENANIGANS ON THIS ANECDOTE.

No, see, she was outraged that he was not using the ability to purchase items bestowed upon him by the Express Lane to its fullest. If he was not bursting forth with the maximum items, his worth as a human being would be in question, and she might have vibrattoed him to death on the spot... using only her eyebrow motions. She wouldn't actually have to sing, and indeed, wouldn't waste it on someone who didn't dare to use his checkout lane advantages to their fullest.

The same thing happened to me, only it was Richard Simmons who was buying a selection of greeting cards that played music or amusing sounds at the Target. He made it clear I had to demonstrate that I wanted that bottle of Diet Mountain Dew I was buying more than anything, or there would be a repercussion involving hugs and encouragement.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:37 AM on October 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have the amateur impression (sang in school choirs with some good conductors, we were up to semi-professional standard, that's about it, and by professional opera standards that's pretty ignorant) that her stance is probably about maximising her tone somehow - that head-forward, arms-out posture looks like she's stretching the capacity of her ribcage and loosening the muscles around her voicebox. Can anyone who actually knows opera let me know if that's right?
posted by Kit W at 6:13 AM on October 10, 2012

Try mapping her expressions to the following tableau:

Recently divorced woman goes out for drinks and has a few too many. Discovers the jukebox has "I Will Survive" on it and pumps several dollars into it. Starts singing along, and halfway through the second play through starts dancing on a table. Confronted by bartender, when she bobs and weaves drunkenly at him while she tries to figure out which of the three bartenders she sees is the one she should deliver her first punch...
posted by sourwookie at 6:51 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Anch'il mar par che sommerga quella nave che tu vedi dissipata da procelle. Poi la vedi, e par che s'erga presso l'altra in fra le stelle."

The ocean, too, appears to swallow the vessel that you see shattered by the storm. Then it reappears, and it seems to be raised to the stars. (translation from a CD libretto)
posted by gubo at 7:07 AM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

For those who find opera (all of it or some of it) unlistenable and melodramatic to the point of putting the Real Housewives of Milan to shame . . . someone will always be there to come along and say you don't know enough about opera, here's the artistry, here's the history, here's the story, you should learn to love this!

Yeah, well, I'm a classical music nerd. I grew up a classical musician, and in my efforts to become a composer I studied opera intensely, heard most of the major works (on the London stage as a teenager), read DaPonte's libretti in Italian, pored over scores from Monteverdi to Wagner, wrote extensive analyses of Don Giovanni and Aida, and even wrote my own little chamber opera, and staged a portion of it.

For most of the modern warhorses, I can tell you within a few bars of music what opera I am listening to and where we are in the score. I've seen some of the great singers and orchestras and I've been to the Met, Covent Garden, and even La Scala. No one can say I am simply unfamiliar with opera. To this day I am surrounded by opera scholars and a few opera performers in my day job. Some of my best friends are opera lovers and opera scholars.

And you could not pay me enough (ok, I exaggerate, $200 an hour should do fine) to sit through a live performance (let alone a recording) of any opera written before Satyagraha or Tommy now that I am nearly 50 and my time is too precious. You can have well educated ears and all the context you need and still find the stuff aurally unpalatable and the culture of its presentation (and its history) hopelessly (and this despite huge efforts to change this in recent years, and the forms roots in popular entertainment) unbearably, miserably stuck up, stuffy, elitist, and fake, not to mention colonialist, racist, sexist, and otherwise dripping in chauvinism.

Bartoli is a great technician from a great tradition of technicians. She's the Aretha of living Italian opera singers. I get it. I can appreciate (as a singer myself) what she is doing. But I give anyone who feels they don't know enough to be sure about this full permission (from the heart of the musical academy no less) to laugh your ass off at how silly it looks and overwrought it sounds. It's the product of an overwrought culture in an overwrought era.

Also I find it very helpful to remember that the societies that perfected opera as an art form were widely engaged in colonialist genocide at the same time (which is why opera is political art, full of representations of exotic otherness for the self-confident European powers that patronized the form, and drawing on a long European history of attributing a state of being emotionally overwrought to women, primitives, non-whites, and other not fully modern types). Bugs Bunny basically nailed it in "What's Opera, Doc?"

It helps that I work in a world where "The Opera" is still held in traditional high regard as some sort of pinnacle of human artistic achievement.

Don't let anyone call you a philistine for not liking something. There are no objective canons of artistic quality, only subjective ones with armies, navies, public investment, and academic disciplines devoted to their preservation.
posted by spitbull at 7:10 AM on October 10, 2012 [15 favorites]

^ lol, sourwookie

Last year I went to see a mezzo-soprano lady performing with a piano accompaniment in a relatively small venue for an opera singer (about 200 seats). They filled the room with an incredible rich and intoxicating sound that I never wanted to end. I am surprised I didn't get the gout!
posted by asok at 7:11 AM on October 10, 2012

And here is a video of a bookish librarian...
posted by kenaldo at 7:20 AM on October 10, 2012

It's not just opera, any classically trained vocalist looks pretty damn odd at times, because they are changing the resonance cavities in their face and chest to get exact tonal qualities.

No, this isn't really how it works. There are some habitual things that classical singers do in the vocal tract in order to reinforce certain resonances, and there are things that we do with respect to the chest cavity in order to regulate sublottal pressure. But none of these things has to make the singer look particularly strange (especially as strange as Bartoli often looks). The thing to understand, rather, is that operatic singing is fundamentally a kind of highly controlled shouting. And people don't look "normal" when they are shouting. High notes and extremely loud singing engage more of the shouting behaviors and therefore tend to look less normal compared to middle notes and softer singing. But this is no different than the different ways people look when speaking with a normal tone and volume compared to the way they look when yelling to someone across a ballfield.
posted by slkinsey at 7:42 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

You could totally dub an early Jello Biafra performance over this and it would work perfectly. The mannerisms and intensity are exactly the same. Somebody please do this.

Ah, Dead Kennedys and opera, two great tastes that go great together.

I came here to say that, while it's perfectly ok to have likes and dislikes, it *is* possible to learn to appreciate and love opera. I'm someone who grew up in the lily white American suburbs, my only music background high school marching band and garage rock guitarist. Opera was something I never was exposed to and I always found it terribly off-putting, disorienting, and just plain difficult. But I also figured something with such a long, persisting history, with such dedicated, rabid in fact, fans, with productions so complex and expensive to put on, there must be something to it. My wife expressed on our first anniversary the desire to attend an opera and Seattle has a pretty good (I would now say great) opera company so I decided to go whole hog and got us Season tickets. Since then, I haven't missed a production in twelve years. But I did have to approach it as a new hobby I was taking up, rather than easy entertainment. I had to put in a significant amount of work up front before the pay off started to outweigh the work. We always attend with people who've been appreciating it much longer than we have. We go to some of the free lectures about the history of the opera that the Seattle Opera gives in the weeks leadin up to a production. We read the program and synopsis ahead of time and listen to the music ahead of time. Yeah, it probably means I'm simple minded that it takes this much just to enjoy a 3 hour performance, but it's something so different than anything else I do and can be so moving and intense, it's worth it. Rather than just going to a play for 2 hours, it's really much more akin to learning a new language or fixing cars, or becoming a backyard astronomer or whatever else it is that people work to appreciate. I'm not saying its impossible to enjoy one's first opera, but if you really feel like you "should" like it, putting a little effort into it may turn that "should like it" into "I really love it."

Also, there are some operas I hate. There are some operas that are "easy" (Carmen, Madame Butterfly) and some that are "hard" (any Wagner).

Opera: I totally rock that shit.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 7:52 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

For what it's worth, I can't sing this piece without making faces too.
posted by mazola at 8:02 AM on October 10, 2012

The change at 3:43 was beautiful.
posted by hanoixan at 8:08 AM on October 10, 2012

see also: Kimchilia Bartoli
posted by Thomas Tallis is my Homeboy at 8:09 AM on October 10, 2012

But none of these things has to make the singer look particularly strange...

I respectfully disagree. Whether art song or opera, renaissance or modern, I find that singers are constantly doing things that make their faces look odd. Now some of those things are "normal" things we do ourselves every day to create certain sounds. Singers look odd for two reasons: one a very precise control over the sounds that the average person does not have which exaggerates the look, and the other, a strong variance in the timing - the sounds are either held much longer than normal or changed more rapidly than normal, which means a distortion in the transitions from what we're used to.

Maybe it's just me, but I always find watching classical singer (not just opera) distracting. It's better to just listen.

posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 8:19 AM on October 10, 2012

Don't let anyone call you a philistine for not liking something.

It's not the "not liking" that makes someone a philistine, it's the sneering contempt on the basis of nothing but the most superficial acquaintance. If you've tried something honestly and seriously and it's not for you, fine.

You're wrong, by the way, to suggest that opera is a more inherently conservative art form than any other ( Mozart's Nozze di Figaro is a notably "progressive" work in its day, and Verdi, similarly, was famously "progressive"). Of course, their mores are not the mores of an early 21st century "progressive" --but are you really suggesting that we ignore the entire history of Western cultural production because they're not sufficiently politically sound?
posted by yoink at 8:31 AM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Er, that's just the style, man.
posted by clvrmnky at 8:34 AM on October 10, 2012

Whether art song or opera, renaissance or modern, I find that singers are constantly doing things that make their faces look odd.

To the extent that this is true, I don't think it's unique to classical singing. Do a google search for "singing face." I think perhaps that the ubiquity of lip synching and music video has made people forget a bit what people look like when they're singing. Cecilia Bartoli doesn't look any funnier when singing than, say, Joe Cocker.
posted by slkinsey at 8:37 AM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I love Cecilia Bartoli and will hear no word spoken against her! She does have a very animated facial style when singing, though. If you put her and Jose Carreras on the same stage, I think their eyebrows would crawl right off their faces and go snog in the corner. But yes, to a certain extent, when you have those firey coloratura passages? You do whatever you have to do to get the sounds out clean and clear. It's not like your voice has frets.

I have loved her since I was 16; she was in town to do Barber of Seville with the Houston Opera, and through some connection with someone, she did a concert at my school's chapel service -- the Alleluia from Mozart's Exultate Jubilate and two other sacred pieces. Afterwards, she listened to my (quite good) school choir do a piece for her, and very convincingly pretended to be impressed, which was very gracious of her. I convinced my mother that all I wanted for my birthday was tickets to see her, and so we went and watched her sing Una Voce Poco Fa while sitting on the edge of the stage, putting on stockings, and without flashing the audience. Yes, her acting reached the cheap seats, but as someone in those same cheap seats, I was very grateful.

Not everyone has to like opera, not liking it doesn't make you some uncultured philistine any more than not liking acid jazz or prog rock or any other genre. But too many people dismiss it based on hearing the "Hojotoho" from Die Walkure, done badly. Yes, it has horrible racist, sexist, colonialist implications; so does all other Western Classical art, it was a horrifyingly racist, sexist, colonialist time. I still love the music, and I always will.
posted by KathrynT at 9:25 AM on October 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

One of the best things about my twenty year career as an operatic supernumerary was the psychedelic intensity of experiencing projection meant for the last row from three feet away. To be fair, it's a privileged position to be in, but one earned by countless rehearsals and endless drives into DC and Virginia, capped by the princely payment of twenty-five dollars per performance.

Still, I can never enjoy an opera from the house. It's just so...distant.

People can flubber on and on about that strangulated purveyor of Christmas albums, Pavarotti, all they want, but Domingo's the real deal, and boy, oh boy, when he's belting out Saint-Saëns three feet away from you with the same intensity of Tina Turner's twitchy Acid Queen, it's all you can do not to just rise up from the stage, carried on the waves of sound and energy, and slip into hyperspace.

They play big because the artform predates the camera, and because opera is fucking rock and roll. Even in the quiet, lyrical moments, you gotta be big big big.

I was once the lonesome guard in Tosca, and the massive red curtain whooshed up with a zzzzip you can only hear from the stage side, and there I was—alone on a rooftop, sipping coffee in a wash of doleful Rosco-blue light. In the rehearsals, the direction was almost a zen koan—you will be the most important figure on the stage, conspicuously up to nothing at all. I had a big tin cup, aged by the art director's magical toolbox into something ancient, filled with nothing, but it was hot, and it was steamy, and I was devoted to that cup with something like love on a cold, dark rooftop.

"Can you make that bigger," the director said, and I was years into my career as a human prop. They gave me these roles because I could handle them, and because I always knew my cues, and always knew to make everything so big you could see it from space.

Opera is fucking rock and roll.

"Like this?" I asked, and held the cup harder, and blew the presumed steam away more ferociously, and sipped at the most delicious imaginary beverage anyone had ever been served.


I'd started out less auspiciously. My very first opera was the '81 Bohème at the Kennedy Center, with amazing Zack Brown sets that were detailed in places the audience could never see and floated around on hovercraft pads between acts, and my director was Menotti, who was so freaking Italian and amazing that I started wearing my doubleknit polyester sport coat that my mom bought me to wear to my best friend's bar mitzvah to school every day, with my arms never in the sleeves, because that's what Menotti, goddammit. That would get me into trouble in the end, but my, how I was spellbound by Menotti.

He cast me as the paperboy in the fight scene in Act II, and in the first staging, I ran in and started to fight. The only thing is—I was bullied my entire life up to that point. When I fought, it was either to win, which involved biting and scrotum-punching, or to survive, which involved a lot of flailing, occasional shrieking, and open-handed slapping.

This, sadly, was not opera.

We went through it again and again, and Menotti flounced about in that beautiful coat that he wore over his shoulders like a cape, gesturing madly in a fusillade of swirling English and Italian.

"Make it beeeeegger! Fight to win!"

The chorister with whom I was theatrically involved was a bit tired of the endless run-through.

"C'mon, throw some weight into it!" he suggested.

I did, and I bit him.

That was not my intention, of course, but it was not appreciated, alas. Menotti replaced me with a little red-headed scrapper from the childrens' chorus and man, that kid was good, the little asshole. I retreated to the corner of rehearsal room #2 and it caught me completely by surprise when I found that I was choking back tears.

Rejected by Menotti.

The things was, he saw me there, pointed me out and had an animated conversation with his stage manager while I wiped my eyes and tried to look like everything was cool, because I was afraid I was going to be kicked out of the opera altogether. As it happens, Menotti was bothered that I was so upset by not being chosen and had his stage manager insert me into every act in the opera.

I had more costume changes than the principals, and I got a cape in Act II and Act IV—a goddamn cape. I was insane with that cape backstage. Every turn down every plain cinderblock backstage corridor, every moment in the canteen, picking out steamed vegetables, every visit to the bathroom—I worked that cape like a damn drag queen.

In thirteen years of my life, I'd never felt that special.

"Okay," Menotti said, directing me as I walked with my stage mother in Act IV, "make it grander. You and your mother are proud, despite your lowly station in life!"

Damn right we were.

Hell, I had to tone down the cape, I was so busy being proud despite my lowly station in life.

I was always a rapscallion, a treeclimber, and a rambling tale-teller, but Bohème is the dividing line between youthful excess and the genuine bigtime. My father was the majordomo in Act II, a boisterous Falstaff figure with a handlebar mustache that he wore both in real life and on stage, waxed into perfect loops, and dragging me down to the opera was his last ditch effort to bond with me.

As it turns out, it was a good gambit.

For twenty years, I had the best seat in the house, time and time again, and though those glorious singers are made up like worn-out whores when seen up close (and that's just the men) and the gestures and expressions and rolling eyes are absurd from arm's length, the power of being so close is impossible to properly describe. Sometimes you get into such a trance you almost miss your cues.

Sometimes, you'll be holding Domingo's wrist as he's in full voice, as Samson at the end of the line, and you'll just forget where you are until the moment when he breaks free (on cue) and flings his arms wide (on cue) and you are so in love with that perfect, unbearable moment that is simultaneously eternal and fleeting that it will catch you by surprise that those arms, flung open, have sprayed you with incredible volumes of salty tenor sweat. It will burn your eyes and leave a taste in your mouth, and later, you'll process what happened and think how odd it is that you, of all the dumb people in the world, just got a mouthful of Placido Domingo's perspiration, but it will not matter.

Life, lived properly, is punctuated by psychedelic extremes. Some people drop acid, but me—I had the whole wide stage, surrounded by an army of voices and carried by an legion of technicians and witnessed by thousands.

"Make it beeeeegger! Fight to win!"

I'd like to say everyone should see opera this way, but the proud and secretive corps of supernumeraries is already besieged with dilettantes and wealthy hobbyists with more enthusiasm than commitment. Watch any opera and you'll be able to pick them out right away—stiff bemused figures floating aimlessly in the periphery, looking small and too contemporary and so very, very beside the point.

I last set foot on the stage about ten years ago, having realized that being a burly guy meant I was pretty much destined for nothing but brute force roles—line soldiers, palace guards, and Philistine thugs, but opera is still in me.

As it happened, I corresponded with Menotti for years after that first Bohème. I wrote to him, apropos of nothing, explaining how I wanted to write an electronic opera, with futuristic music and films on screens. I'd never started to write one, but he was a tireless promoter of educating young people in music, and he gave me all sorts of good advice. I've written continuously and performed frequently in a spoken-word-and-soundtrack mode, but nothing that would ever be considered opera by anyone remotely literate on musical genres. Still, I know when to play subtle, when to make it beeeeegger, and when to bite a chorister, and those things go a long way.
posted by sonascope at 9:47 AM on October 10, 2012 [34 favorites]

...Kimchilia Bartoli

What's even funnier here is that Cecilia Bartoli is a woman singing a piece written for male soprano - probably a castrato. And "Kimchilia" (a promising young countertenor) is parodying a woman singing like a... well, a vocal drag queen. I think we have a opera performance positive feedback loop going.

That being said, if you think current opera performance is about upholding all that is bad about sexism, racism, colonialism, and so forth (and I agree, they are all undesirable and to be actively changed), look at Cecilia's album "Sacraficium". She clearly calls out the barbaric creation of such incredible voices, and the efforts it takes even the best living voices to master their artistic repertoire.
posted by Dreidl at 9:55 AM on October 10, 2012

Make fun all you want, I will always love Cecilia Bartoli. If I could be her, I would in a heartbeat. My pathetic mezzo is nothing next to her control over multiple vocal ranges. I love her expressions, the bigger the better. She forces me to enjoy her enjoyment of the music.
posted by blurker at 10:04 AM on October 10, 2012

I love the comical facial expressions. My first thought was Bartoli must be a Nina Hagen fan.
posted by dgaicun at 11:22 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is awesome. She makes the rest of the musicians and room seem out of place by not being dressed properly/an opera set.

God I forgot how much I love watching someone perform opera. A dear friend of mine sang opera before she decided her true vocation was as a cloistered nun, and since then I haven't seen much of it. It's no fun from the back row, which is what I can afford.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:13 PM on October 10, 2012


I can hardly express the glee with which I watched that. Fireworks! Explosions! Insanity! Fucking amazing!
posted by jokeefe at 12:39 PM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

They play big because the artform predates the camera, and because opera is fucking rock and roll.

Oh, how I stand and cheer this. I saw Domingo sing at the Met, from not the closest rows but the best seats we could afford and which were still crazy expensive, and it was worth every penny and so much more.
posted by jokeefe at 12:42 PM on October 10, 2012

Of course I was the person who was ignoring the preparations for Thanksgiving dinner last Sunday because I was glued to Götterdämmerung (check out those umlauts! So Black Metal!) on PBS and getting teary-eyed over a woman sitting on a mechanical horse as it was pulled around the stage. So yeah.
posted by jokeefe at 12:49 PM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

God, I have such a soft spot for opera. When I studied abroad in London, I spent most of my time going to free museums so that I could save my pennies for nosebleed opera tickets. Most of my college memories are forgettable (because: nerd), but I'll never forget the operas in London.

An older gentleman usher at Rigoletto told me I looked "very healthy"... I think it was a compliment.
posted by the littlest brussels sprout at 1:07 PM on October 10, 2012

jokeefe, my husband was almost completely unfamiliar with opera before I married him, save one high school trip to go see the dress rehearsal of The Magic Flute. But one of our friends got us a gift certificate to the opera as a wedding present, and I hauled him along to watch Carmen, which was what the Seattle Opera was showing at the time. I knew he was familiar with some of the basic tunes, and I sang "Habanera" and filled him in on the plot as we drove down to the opera house, and thanked him for putting up with one of my great passions and told him he could get to pick the entertainment next time we had a date night.

He motherfucking sobbed. And when the Opera called to ask us how we liked the show and see if they could sell us tickets for the next gig, he eagerly said "yes yes yes!" and I walked in just as he informed me that he had bought tickets for Ariadne auf Naxos.

"Oh, dear," I said. "OK, darling, here's the thing: I know you loved Carmen, which is great and awesome, but Carmen is a pretty easy sell, all things considered. Not every opera is so easy to love. Ariadne does not really have what you'd call a straightforward plot, and a lot of the music is less. . . tuneful. I'm not saying I don't want to go, because I do, I just want you to be prepared."

Well, he loved it. And that summer, we got tickets for the Ring, which he loved, I think he wept his way all the way through Walkure. We were opera subscribers for years after that, until I had a baby and going to the opera became a much more difficult proposition. In all that time, I think the only opera he really didn't enjoy was The End of the Affair, which was awful (self link there, full disclosure), although he wasn't real thrilled with Cosi fan Tutte. As soon as the children are older, we'll start going back. I miss it.
posted by KathrynT at 2:54 PM on October 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

And you could not pay me enough (ok, I exaggerate, $200 an hour should do fine) to sit through a live performance (let alone a recording) of any opera written before Satyagraha or Tommy now that I am nearly 50 and my time is too precious. You can have well educated ears and all the context you need and still find the stuff aurally unpalatable and the culture of its presentation (and its history) hopelessly (and this despite huge efforts to change this in recent years, and the forms roots in popular entertainment) unbearably, miserably stuck up, stuffy, elitist, and fake, not to mention colonialist, racist, sexist, and otherwise dripping in chauvinism... (more...)

Ah, come on. If you just don't like the yelling, then fine, you sure won't be alone.

Anyone with some grasp of world history understands the tragedy of Western Colonialism, which continued through the 20th Century and is still continuing today in different ways, so if you want to disavow an entire musical genre just because of your distaste for the politics of the culture in which it was created, you might as well plug your ears with wax and quit listening to (virtually) all music ever made (including the classic Bugs Bunny shorts arranged by Carl Stalling).

I just find it really odd that you seem to hate every Opera before 1969? And yes, there are some European Operas which dealt with exoticism/non-Western cultures in awkward and offensive ways, but I try to view them in a context which doesn't mean instantly hating everything if there a part that I don't like. Sometimes the librettist is stupid, sometimes the librettist is striving imperfectly towards something, and sometimes the librettist tries to address the issue of colonialism (like Satyagraha, (which is pretty cool if you like the style) but which was hardly the first Opera to address these issues in critical way). (In theory I could go on about cultural appropriation because the librettists for this work did not live in the same culture that Gandhi did, but hey).

Also, many Opera lovers will often admit that the plot is often nonsense. It's part of the genre. If they're oblivious to The History of Colonialism and contemporary social inequalities, then they're almost like ordinary real-life voting humans.
posted by ovvl at 5:40 PM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

KathrynT-- that's a wonderful story and bravo to your husband for jumping from Carmen to Ariadne in one leap-- it took me years. I'm buying tickets for the Seattle Ring next August, and am already in a ferment of excitement.
posted by jokeefe at 9:39 PM on October 10, 2012

nickyskye "Agitata da due venti" means "These two large Starbucks coffees have made me jittery."

Which explains the video.
posted by La Cieca at 11:37 PM on October 10, 2012

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