The Phantom In The Opera


I, unfortunately, cannot claim to be an expert in opera. Don’t misunderstand; I do like opera a lot. When I was younger, during my formative years, I did not have the luxury of studying music in depth. In school we did have music classes that consisted in learning a limited amount of the basic principles, but in those days we had no access to musical instruments, to music scores, to detailed understanding of the printed musical page. In high school my musical education consisted of being taken up to the school library at 3 PM during hot Friday afternoons and listening to long-play records of Beethoven or Mozart concertos. The room was right under the roof, the ceiling hot, the air was warm, we had eaten lunch, and somnolence invaded each one of us, thirty students about to graduate. I can assure you that this was better than having no musical education at all. I mention the preceding information to indicate that I was not able to learn reading music in the way I can read a book. For me, at least, music has no sound unless it is played by one or more musicians.

Having said what I just said let me be arrogant enough to state that although I am a total ignoramus in music, I am not a person void of musical taste or appreciation. During my very short spam (in geological terms) of living on this planet, I have had a very long relationship with music: music of all kinds. Even before I was a teenager and began to enjoy romantic boleros, I was already listening to some opera arias sung by Tucker and Pierce, and concert segments played by Rubinstein and Landowska. And it wasn’t because my parents were musical, but rather because I had an older friend that was inclined to classical music on the account that his two sisters were either a pianist or a singer. And then, came the boleros. Yes, in those days, love was played in music by way of lovely ballads in which the human voice sang a poem accompanied by a supportive and not invasive set of instruments, be it just a simple guitar, or a few other, but in all cases serving as background. The voice was the portrait; the background music was the frame for the picture. And so, it also was with the tangos and the bambucos.

The only full opera recording in my home during my childhood was Aida; a mammoth album, heavy on the account of the many 78-rpm records it held –why it was there I never got an explanation. Whenever I tried to listen to it, I got the message that it was too loud. During my last years of high school and first year in university I discovered the Zarzuelas, the 19th and early 20th centuries Spanish equivalent to musical theater in America. I can tell you that I enjoyed listening to zarzuelas, but just to be honest with you, so that you understand the depth of my ignorance, I though for a long time that “La Viuda Alegre” (The Merry Widow) was also a zarzuela, given that I had a recording sung in Spanish by a Spanish cast. Then, with a friend, we discovered a bar, a common, ordinary bar located in a seedy part of town. What was special about this particular bar was that for a quarter, the jukebox would play any one of some 100 opera arias sung by the super stars of those days: Tucker, Gigli, Tebaldi, Callas, Schipa, Fleta, Galli-Curci. My first live opera experience happened when I was about 17 years old, at the old Met: a performance of Tannhauser. As it turned out, a few years later I got married and was lucky that my wife also liked music, all kinds of music. So, for many decades since, we have been listening to music. I must declare that with the advent of ear shattering electronic amplification, with the dominance of the electric guitar and the percussion instruments and the screaming and screeching of the voice, we stopped going to live performances of popular music. But we continued going to live performances of symphony orchestras and operas and chamber music as well.

If you were to ask me what I like about music, or why do I like music, I would have a difficult time explaining it. I don’t find it relaxing. I don’t think that I like everything that comes into my ears, but there are fragments, passages of music that penetrate me, that resonate within my emotional self that I can report to you, without fearing commitment to a psychiatric unit, are like an injection of heaven into my veins. And there are rare moments when the experience, if just for a few moments, makes me approach the divine. Case in point, just recently we travel to San Francisco to experience Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux. It is a pretty opera, bel canto. What made it an unforgettable experience was Sondra Radvanovsky’s interpretation of Queen Elizabeth. Never had I been so touched by so much beauty and perfection of acting and singing. There were moments where I thought that it was a privilege to have lived just for those moments.

I cannot tell you which is better: an old bolero, a symphony, a concert for piano and voice, or an opera. I can tell you which is the most complex though. Opera is the most difficult form because within itself, it requires an admixture of various art forms. Opera needs of an orchestra, it needs of vocal artists, soloists and chorus, it requires actors, special lighting and it requires staging. Mind you that all of the above must be synchronized and congruent.

By now you must be wondering if I have forgotten what this essay is supposed to be: the phantom in the opera. But fear not. I am getting to it. Just keep in mind that phantoms, being what they are, can spook easily. So that if I am to be able to show you one, I need to tiptoe carefully.

Of course, one can listen to music in the comfort of home. These days, you can get an App that connects millions of musical choices to your own set of speakers in the living room and you can sit or lie down, dressed or naked, and just listen. But there are two factors that compel me to actually go to a live performance. First, it is difficult to improve the sound and sight of being in front of a set of musicians, and second if we all were to stay home listening to music, those playing the actual music would become extinct, starve to death, unemployed. So, I favor live performances. Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of people who prefer the comfort of home listening: it’s less disturbing, there are no people coughing, and so on. But to parallel the latter, I can only imagine a person suffering an acute appendicitis preferring to stay at home watching a video of an appendectomy in YouTube rather than having the real surgery.

Well, up to this point I have managed to get you out of your home and into the theater. It is time to go further. Once in the theater, things get more complicated because now you are not just listening but also seeing. I love to watch the musicians in an orchestra and their conductor. The way they move and the way they sound. In a recital, both the singer and the pianist interact not only musically but visually, and there is expression in their faces and in the way their bodies move. In an opera, all of the above get magnified and in addition, there is a piece of theater developing on stage, there is a story that is being told.

Now I will be blunt. Imagine that you are seated 15 rows from center stage during a performance of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, The Pastoral. Now imagine that after the first few bars of the second movement, one half of the musicians stand erect and urinate on their instruments. At this moment, I hope that even though you may find the sight extraordinary, you conclude that the performance has been ruined. N’est-ce pas? I would venture to say, even though I hate to put words in someone dead so long ago and so venerable, that even Beethoven would be disappointed with the performance. You may think me rude and crass for giving such a cheap and vulgar example. But remember, we are after a ghost, a phantom not easily caught and even more difficult to comprehend, because this particular phantom hides behind the disguise of musical and theatrical expertise. So now I will repeat the same set of events, your seat placement, the same symphony, the same conductor and orchestra. This time, during the second movement of the Pastoral, no musician stands to urinate, instead, the conductor hurries the orchestra so that instead of playing the movement as “andante molto mosso”, it plays it as “molto agitato”. First, not many people in the audience would notice anything abnormal. Second, the conductor disobeyed Beethoven’s musical indications. Third, some could say that the conductor took certain liberties to further the concept that the water in the brook (the running brook is the essence of the second movement) was running. Well, as you can infer from the above example, an insult to the composer’s wishes has been perpetrated, but now, in the name of artistic interpretation, it is being defended by some musical experts and some critics (and some friends and patrons of the conductor). Is the shadow of the phantom taking form in front of your eyes?

We need now a set of magical glasses, one that has been designed to make the unseeable visible. Let us move to the world of opera. And to make our task simpler, let me stick to 19th century opera. Please. A small parenthesis is in order. Does one see an opera? or does one listen to an opera? So, for the sake of my peace of mind let’s agree that one experiences an opera. So imagine that you have gone to the theater to experience Puccini’s La Boheme. It is the final act, and Mimi has coughed for her last time. All is silent. Everybody is there, Rodolfo, Marcello, Musetta, Schaunard, Colline, even the doctor, and of course Mimi. Rodolfo becomes aware that all are too quiet and runs to Mimi, realizing that she is dead, he grabs her and, giving his back to the audience, he sobs and cries his last two words: “Mimi…Mimi” while the orchestra plays the heart-rending final accords of the opera. If you are a human with a palpitating heart, your eyes are tearful. I have experienced many Bohemes in my life. Most of them well played and sung. And although I have cried in all of them, only one has given me a satisfactory closure. Why? I will save you time. Because during those last moments of the opera when Rodolfo holds Mimi after having called twice her name in a ringing high note, and is crying in desolation, only in one performance did Rodolfo (the tenor) shake his body as if he were sobbing. In all other performances Rodolfo’s body stayed motionless. I imagine the tenor thinking “…few more bars and I am out of here…did pretty good with those high notes”. No indication of pain during those last bars that Puccini so creatively placed at the very end; one of the most moving conclusions of any opera.

Now let us look for the ghost. It could be easily said: “forget it, it was a magnificent performance”. It could even be said: “yes, the tenor made a mistake; he should have been involved in the scene to the very end”. Yes. That is true, but it would be like blaming the messenger for the message. I say that there is only one person to blame (two if you are a stickler for detail), the Director. “Oh, you are nitpicking”, you may say. But I say no. First look at what the Director does. He earns his keep by conceiving how the opera story is to be carried out on stage. During rehearsals, he/she has told each member of the cast what to do, where to go. This final moment of despair at the very end of the opera is a grievous mistake of omission on his part. And if you want to go even further, also include the Conductor, for he allowed the atmosphere of the last moments to be broken by an important omission.

Now, you may be thinking that I am a snob. But I will show you that by tolerating this kind of mediocrity, the opera world has gotten itself into a deadly spiral. Oh, all sorts of explanations are given and we will go into some of them, but it is my belief that mediocrity is the phantom of the opera.

When opera is composed, it is conceived as a concoction of story, music, lyrics, scenery, main singers, chorus, orchestration, stir carefully and enjoy it. It is true that during the period we are covering, censuring by Church or State played a heavy role as well, and often enough composers with their ingenuity were able to circumvent the latter –but let’s face it, even today, composers need to stay within a certain mine-free field of political correctness if they intend their product to see the light of day. The role of a Director is to bring life to the story within a theatrical context. And as I made you aware with the little detail of La Boheme, there are plenty of details that can and should be supervised so that the performance becomes impeccable, sometimes even if the dying soprano is 150 pounds bigger than she should be, given her final bout with tuberculosis. But if audiences become tolerant of mediocre performances, then the demand on the directors grows meager and it brings a new generation of directors that instead of seeing their role to bring about perfection on the original message of the opera begin to see themselves as “creators”. Their job is not any longer the intended, but rather to imagine a new way to present what the inner circle of cognoscenti informs us is an “old and tired version.” The outcome is Rigoletto in Las Vegas instead of Mantua, La Traviata within a semicircular white wall rather than in various elegant rooms in Paris and its countryside, Lohengrin with a brown horn and no swan in spite not only of the original manuscript indications but also of the sung text, and the list can be extended ad infinitum and ad nauseam. I am not saying that these presentations were not lauded by audiences, for they indeed were. What I am saying is that the new versions are extensions of the mediocrity tolerated in the old versions. If sobbing is void of movement, then a Duke can be a Mafioso, and a golden horn can be brown. They require that the audience be more tolerant or more ignorant of the original conception of their composer and lyricist. Psychologically, I see this trend as a compensation for the feeling of inadequacy that pervades most within the directors’ circle. But I contend that what they originally perceived was the lack of enthusiasm of the public vis-à-vis mediocre productions, and not that the public was tired of or incapable of relating to the original versions. Yet, what the opera inner circle was and is saying is that the public lacked the capacity to understand a father’s love for his daughter, or his desire to avenge her after she had been sexually assaulted by a noble man, just because they are dressed in 18th Century garb. A kind of perverted concept of misappropriation, were upon directors imagine that Rigoletto’s buffoon outfit acts as an impediment for the public to understand paternal love and pain. Solution for the problem: dress them in 1960’s garb and move Rigoletto from Mantua to Las Vegas; now, that same dazed public would be enlightened seeing that the opera characters were dressed as Americans in the 1960’s. Now we can relate! And by the way, take away the old costumes and armory and give all of them brown raincoats, making their vestments of undetermined age. Bravo. Let’s give the directors a raise both in status and salary. Eccolo!

To this very moment, the opera inner circle of machers (doers) is under the impression that the public does not go to the opera either because they cannot relate to old stories, old garb, old music, old productions; or because tickets are too expensive – but you and I know that going to a football game can be much much more expensive that going to the opera. So to fix the problem the inner opera circle commissions new operas and new productions of old ones, not considering that the audience –at least for the moment– will be comparing the new talent to the old talent; that presenting dissonant music with repetitive monochromatic notes, with no melody to a brain that is neurologically designed to perceive melody may not be appealing. Learning this new music presents singers with almost impossible demands, but having master it, turns for some into an attraction, sort of a variant of the Stockholm syndrome –plus the singers are not entirely free to point out the ugliness of the music to those in power positions controlling their future assignments and their very survival as singers.

In the meantime, as our public education drops or diminishes the classical arts from its curriculum, the digital revolution has invaded the ear space of children with the current popular music, hyper amplified, hyper battering, hyper spectacular. I will be willing to bet that the vast majority of the public is unaware of the incredible capacity and beauty of the electronically unamplified operatic human voice.

Perhaps the solution is not converting opera into a modern electronic dissonant crash but to maintain the standards set by geniuses, adding, selectively, once in a while the proven product of new geniuses. Perhaps the solution to attract new members to the opera audience is to not try to appeal and please everyone. As is well known, nothing can be all things to all people. Perhaps the solution, like often the evolutionary tree has shown, is to keep what works, maintaining them expertly functional. I am afraid we are inventing a new organ so that we can survive by breathing an imagined magnesium permanganate atmosphere that does not exist, and in the process eliminating our magnificent lungs that work so well with the current atmospheric mixture.

Opera is a jewel of inestimable value. It not only is a thing of beauty, but it nurtures the soul. When the composer and librettist operate at genius levels, the feelings that we experience can be amazing. Going to the opera demands of us to be involved visually, aurally, emotionally and intellectually. The more times one experiences and opera, the more nuances one discovers; details become revealed like if hidden jewels had been exposed by a rushing current. But opera requires excellence in presentation. Any given component of it can bring the audience down if it becomes too faulty. Within the opera theater, artists – and I mean all the members involved with the production from the main singers to the carpenters– bring to life the child in us adults, and during certain moments makes us forget all that surround us, it makes us feel closer to the divine. And yet, opera, the libretto, is just a book, a silent book that speaks nothing to most of us. It takes the mastery of the Conductor and the musicians to bring the music to life –if only for those few hours– and it deserves no less from the rest of those involved with bringing to life what its creators conceived. Let no phantom ruin the performance.
And with respect to the rest of us, it behooves us to imagine our city void of opera. Like any vulnerable species on this world, once it dies, it is gone. Opera needs to be kept alive by our contributions. An empty opera theater will not contain the sounds and images of glorious productions that once lived within its walls; it will only return the echo of our regretful weeping. Not even ghosts will inhabit it.

The End