Life Lessons

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Operatic Expectations
May 4, 2006

My general knowledge of operatic and musical terminology is quite limited, so please pardon my choice of words.

What does a middle-aged, suburban-born mother of two who has never been to an opera imagine when she thinks of "Opera?" Though my mother loved opera and certainly exposed her children to what she could within the confines of our suburban home, my expectations were limited, definite, and wrong.

If I had to sum up my expectations with as few words as possible, I would use this list of adjectives: pompous, overpowering, lengthy. My image, of course, always centered on a large, female viking with a horned helmet and embarrassing chest armor, belting out one series of mysteriously arranged notes after another with no intelligible lyrics while backed by an intense orchestra. Let's face it, that image is just plain scary to a kid.

So now I am middle-aged and have seen my first opera in person. I thoroughly enjoyed it! As a matter of fact, I have never enjoyed being wrong so much in my life! I saw (Thank you, Lillian and Alan) "The Abduction From The Seraglio" last night at the Harris Theater in downtown Chicago. My general impression might be summed up as "Mozart's version of a modern musical," if you promise to include a huge helping of respect for Mozart's works in that image.

Pompous? Never. This performance was much like a modern musical as far as the acting and costumes were concerned. The over-grand movements, over-acted emotions, and overly-lengthy vocalizations of conquest I expected were not there. I have enjoyed a few stage plays in my life, and I have to say I saw some inappropriately pompous moments in a couple of those, but not last night.

Overpowering? Not. The voices were real, and large, and beautiful, but the range of volume and emotion in their use pushed the potentially overpowering parts into appropriately sized corners. The music was, well, Mozart, but to be more specific, it was beautifully complex and had its own ranges, making it a central focus for me at times and blending it into the background of the story at others. I never felt I had to escape any aspect of the performance. I never thought, "Don't you think that's a bit much?"

Lengthy? Not even close. This opera lasted just over two and one-half hours, including intermission. And within that similar-to-movie span, I never considered time. I never wondered how long any one portion of it had continued, much less how long the whole performance was taking. I never looked at my watch until we were heading for our car at the end, and I could have, since it has a luminous dial.

There are parts of the experience for which I had no expectations. It had never dawned on me that they would not be singing multiple verses of tunes, like in a musical play. How do they ever memorize all the ever-changing lyrics and melodies? How do they ever train their voices for all those feats of vocal acrobatics? The orchestra and conductor performed so wonderfully, I would have been content with only a concert to enjoy. How many times would I have to see the same opera before I really experience everything? Stage sets are always interesting, but this set was gorgeous, and beautifully intricate yet simple at the same time. How did they imagine so much potential in a garden wall?

The single, most surprising time for me was a particularly lilting, three-note section of Konstanze's sad song that I could literally feel. It repeated a couple of times with different notes, and each one was an emotional connection for me. We all know sad songs, and happy songs, and songs that tell stories, but that simple, repeated tug at my heart was wonderful.

I am not qualified to critique any one aspect of last night's performance. I just know my first "Opera!" was thoroughly enjoyable . . . that's certainly an inadequate term! It was just wonderful, and I never expected that.

Valerie Mockaitis

Copyright © 2006 Valerie Mockaitis
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