This past weekend, I attended an opera at the Met for the first time.
Let me get this out of the way: I am not an opera person. I have seen a few I’ve enjoyed (Jeune Lune’s Carmen, for instance), and many more that have bored me to death. Some have enraged me with the lack of connection I felt, sitting in the audience, striving to be involved. I have also seen a fair number which have been good — accomplished singing, imaginative staging, etc — but have failed to move me. I often feel academic about opera. I appreciate it from a distance, at times I even like listening to pieces outside the context of the stage (Parsifal, for example), but it doesn’t touch my soul. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I have decided that this is partially because I am deeply text focused, where there’s text to be had. The operatic delivery is what trips me up — I can rarely understand the words if they’re in English, and if they’re not, they don’t feel deeply connected enough to the storytelling as I read along in supertitle. I recognize this is my own failing. I have a hard time releasing my desire for the libretto to give me more than it’s designed to.
This is why I adore abstract opera — operas like those by Robert Wilson, for example; like those by Philip Glass. These operas do away nearly entirely with the traditional role of text, and so I expect nothing. I am free to float through the images, the shape of the music — the nature of “story” changes fundamentally.
I don’t know why, but Philip Glass’ music is the sound of my own soul. It resonates at the exact frequency of my heart strings. When I listen to it, I feel like it plays me, not the other way around. I first heard excerpts from Glass’ opera Satyagraha as a child, from a compilation cassette tape my father played on the hifi every once in a while. I didn’t hear it often, but it became so ingrained in my sense memory that when I rediscovered it as an adult, the first notes stopped me dead in my tracks. It was like I had been given the key to solve a mystery — I finally identified the chain of notes that ricochet around my mind.
When I heard that the Met would be remounting the 2008 production of Satyagraha (a collaboration between the Met, the National Theatre, and Improbable Theatre Co), I bought two extravagantly expensive tickets before even checking with my better half. (For the record, my better half loves theatre, and mostly detests opera.) This past Saturday, we found ourselves in red velvet seats, staring up at the crystal-bedecked sputnik chandeliers and the gold leaf ceiling, and I thought: “what have I gotten myself into? What am I doing in this high temple of opera?”
The house lights went dim, the orchestra came to attention — but didn’t play a single note. A man stood in the center of a raked stage, dressed as a young Ghandi. He opened his mouth and a clear note rang out, unaccompanied. By the time he got to the second note, I was full out weeping.
Weeping. Waterworks. Out of control, silent, unstoppable.
It was a shock — the notes grabbed me, shook me, turned me inside out. I could not believe it was happening (and I still don’t quite know how to process it), but I felt like in that moment, a tendon shot out from tenor Richard Croft across the abyss, penetrated my chest, and tethered me to the stage for the next 3+ hours. I don’t think I’ve ever felt anything like it, and I’ve seen my share of art that moves me.
I could go on about the powerful use of puppetry; the smart design overall; the singularly arresting image of Martin Luther King Jr. atop a towering pulpit, Ghandi leaning against it below, head bowed, as the sky behind them both changed from roiling storm clouds to clear sky…. There’s lots to say, and much to analyze. But for me, it was those first two notes that did me in, and made the rest simply the beautiful explication of a truth I had already comprehended.
What an utter and remarkable joy. I am on pins and needles for next year’s multi-city remount of Einstein on the Beach. 5 hours? You can have me for life.