Sunday, November 30, 2008

Opera as Hyperbole

Applications!!!! Here enjoy one of the essays I wrote!

We are drawn to the opera by the reflection of society that fills the mind as it fills the stage. We go for the music, we go for the glamour, but most of all we go for the stories. Everything about life is amplified at the opera, the stories are grander than our lives, yet we can see pieces of our lives on stage; and it is this, that draws us back again and again. Opera fills our lives with the drama that we secretly wish was our banality. When one thinks about it carefully, no one would really want to be any character on the stage. Too frequently they lead heart-wrenching lives ending in tragedy, and even the happiest ending is earned only by slogging through, deception and temporary heartbreak – no sane person would ever go through all that, no matter how enticingly romantic the scenario. But we do not think about it, at least not at first, because we are far too caught up in our envy of characters that lead such romantic lives.

It all started as an academic experiment in Italy, but it quickly became a national pastime. An evening at the opera house was a regular excursion. People went to see their favorite stars, listen to their favorite arias, gamble, eat dinner, watch the ballet, rub shoulders with the who’s who of society – not to mention enjoy a heated building. Going to the opera was not just about seeing an opera, since you frequently saw the same opera several times a season. The music provided a backdrop to the social scene that was unique to the opera. This changed in the Romantic era as the composer gained greater importance and the composer’s music was considered an extension of their genius. Going to the opera became what we are familiar with today: dark theaters, a performance of one piece, the attentively silent audience devoted to the piece. Opera’s role has certainly evolved, but it has never lost that luster and prestige, and it continues to be a place to look for the important figures in society.

In many ways this movement away from social atmosphere to a polite adulation of genius explains opera’s fall from the social heart to the demesne of the socialite. Fewer patrons mean more expensive tickets, forcing – or allowing – opera to become more and more exclusive, and leading to fewer patrons. There have been efforts again in the last 20 years to change this: opera singers are expected to have an excellent grasp of realistic stage acting, and directors’ artistic visions are gaining importance over those of musical directors’. Perhaps the best move that has been taken to remove the exclusive image of opera, reduce the cost, and entice new patrons to the art has been the Met’s live broadcast of its performances to movie theaters. Once past the barricades of social exclusivity, opera goers can once again be privy to the grand stories of opera.

Opera like all art-work is a chance for the artist to hold a mirror to society and reflect us all – the good, the bad, the tragic, but most importantly, the truth – for those who will look. The image is not a realistic one, but one seen through the lens of hyperbole. Political turmoil in Italy transforms into the struggles of the Hebrews exiled from their land; lover’s quarrels are amplified as the heroine’s last whispered breath passes like a kiss over her lover’s lips. Even now, we see the cool post-minimalist interpretation of the creation of the atomic bomb and the decisions of an American president. In short, the real becomes more than real; it becomes hyperbole.

What causes this hyperbolic representation of the world and life to resonate with the audience is the music. We have all experienced the transformative power of music, and opera uses that power to bend the audience to the composer’s will. We don’t mind that it takes Manon ten minutes of crawling across the Louisiana plains to die, because we are entranced by the music that binds it into a single, all-too-short moment. Her anguish is our anguish, and it is the music that makes it true. We experience the story in the character’s moment, not the audience’s. And this, I believe is the most magnificent power of music.

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