My Love Affair With Opera

I love walking into an opera house for the first time. I can equate it to seeing a new ballpark for baseball fans. Perhaps they see the green of the field and they are filled with excitement. For me, the colors of the seats, the decorations on the balcony and the anticipation of the performance causes my heart to race. I try to take it all in until my little seat feels like home. 

Just some of the opera tickets I have accumulated over the years

I enjoy arriving early to listen to the musicians warm up. I love to hear bits and pieces of the opera I am about to experience. People usher themselves in and take their seats. Some are dressed for a special occasion and others dressed for comfort. One of my favorite moments before the opera begins is the applause that welcomes the conductor. First, you can hear those in the balcony clapping because the conductor is seen from above first. I can’t help but smile when I hear the roar of those below joining the appreciation. I like thinking of myself as a single drop in a sea of pure joy. 

I have enjoyed operas in opera houses all over the world. The first opera I ever saw was in my hometown of Baltimore. I was 14 and had been given free tickets. The opera was Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and I left during intermission. (I was told afterward that the production had gotten bad reviews, so perhaps I simply left due to having higher standards. LOL)

Birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Salzburg, Austria

My grandmother gave me a cassette tape of famous opera singers singing well-known arias. I listened to it over and over again. At the time I really liked the voice of Kathleen Battle, Rene Fleming, Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. It became a dream of mine to see the Three Tenors in concert. At 16, I heard they were to perform in New York City and I wanted to go. My parents (probably rightly so) did not like the idea of me taking a bus to NYC alone. I was still determined that one day I would see them live. In the meantime, I would have to settle for watching them on the VCR tape I had acquired. 

In my final year of undergrad, I had to perform a senior recital. The concert had to include music from every era and it had to be in several languages. My favorite era was the romantic era; I loved the importance of virtuosity and this included voice. At the very end of my recital, I performed the two arias of Lui, the slave girl, in Puccini’s Turandot. The final moment when she kills herself by sword and falls to the ground, was the perfect way to end my performance. This final swoon was the last time I would ever take the stage. 

May 1996 – me singing “Steal Me Sweet Thief” from Menotti’s The Old Maid and the Thief

For my birthday one year, my good friend Chris gave me what would become my favorite possession: a pair of opera glasses he got from an antique store. They were beautiful and would follow me to almost every opera I attended. 

My beautiful opera glasses that have accompanied me over the decades

I named my first car, a teal Chevrolet Cavalier, Pamina from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). My second car, a bright red Honda Civic, received the name Carmen by Georges Bizet. My third, a blue Honda Civic, I named Violetta from La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi. My next car, a green Toyota Tercel, was Mimi from La Boheme by Giacomo Puccini. I gave the name Norma from Vincenzo Bellini to my gray Toyota Camry. The ruby red Toyota Corolla I owned briefly before losing it in my divorce, was named Tosca written by Puccini. And my current vehicle is a red Subaru Forester. I named her Grane, which is Brün Hilde’s horse in Richard Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen.

I even gave Grane a license plate!

At some point, I realized that my most of the cars I owned were dying in the same way as those of their opera namesakes. I crashed Carmen into the back of a truck on a highway in Connecticut. In the opera, she was murdered. My Violetta slowly died due to her exhaust issues. Violetta in the opera had tuberculosis that slowly and eventually killed her. Norma was traded in to buy Grane. Hopefully, whoever owns her now won’t have to contend with her dying by fire. I lost Tosca in my divorce. With any luck, my ex-wife won’t hit someone with the car and drive off a cliff. I bought Grane just after my marriage ended. I decided I needed support and reliability to get through the most painful time in my life. If my car is my horse, that makes me Brün Hilde, arguably one of the strongest women in opera. Eventually, she does die, but not for a very long time. 

My playbills from the Lyric Opera of Chicago

After graduating from college, I worked for Southwest Airlines for almost 6 years. During that time, I made full use of my free standby privileges. I would fly to Chicago for the day to see the opera matinees. In fact, I had opera subscriptions to several opera houses across the country: Chicago, Baltimore, New York City and San Francisco. And, I was also finally able to see the Three Tenors in concert, in Cleveland of all places. They sang to raise money for the Cleveland opera. 

My playbills from the Baltimore Opera in Baltimore, Maryland

After working at the Baltimore Washington Airport for three years, I moved to Hartford, Connecticut to help open the station at Bradley International Airport. While living there for almost three years, my grandfather and I had a subscription to the Hartford Opera. Going to the opera with my Grandpa were some of the best memories I have of him.

My grandfather and I had a subscription to the Hartford Opera for two years.
My playbills from the Connecticut Opera in Hartford, Connecticut – beautiful memories

My airline job also allowed me to inexpensively travel abroad to experience operas in Europe. I waited in line for four hours at the famous Vienna opera house for a standing ticket to what became my favorite opera: Tosca. I also saw an amazing production of Norma at the Bayerische Oper in Munich. What a wonderful time in my life!

The ticket that would change my life: a “Stehplatz” (standing place) ticket at the opera house in Vienna

One of my favorite opera experiences was stumbling into the little Italian town of Lucca only to discover that it was the birthplace of my Puccini. I took in every step that I took (I was walking on hallowed ground after all). I read everything in the museum, I visited his statue and even stopped for something to drink at Caffetteria Turandot. I purchased a copy of an old poster advertising Tosca. That poster moved with me from place to place for a couple decades before I finally bought a house. I had it framed and put in my kitchen.

Posing with the statue of Puccini in Lucca, Italy
Me with a Caffetteria Turandot menu in front of Chiesa di San Michele in Foro in Lucca, Italy
Poster bought at the Puccini Museum in Lucca, Italy

And because I had a subscription to the New York Metropolitan Opera, I was invited to their Gala. They were to perform Tosca sung by none other than Luciano Pavarotti, Maria Guleghini, and my favorite bass/baritone at the time, fellow Baltimorean James Morris. I simply had to go despite the expense.

The hours just before the gala performance were intense as opera-goers all over the city were waiting for the “will he, won’t he” announcement, as to whether or not Pavarotti would perform. He had been sick. Every patron in the opera house sat on the edge of their seats wondering if indeed he would sing. But, we all knew the answer the second the general manager walked out on to the stage: Pavarotti’s understudy would take his place and sing the tenor role of Mario Cavaradossi. A collective disappointed groan followed the announcement. We were then told that an Italian tenor, Salvatore Licitra would take his place. Still disappointed by the news, no one seemed interested. 

When Licitra first entered the stage in the first act, we welcomed him with light applause as is custom at the Met. After all, it was his debut at arguably one of the finest opera houses in the world. Everyone sat with bated breath wondering if he would meet the high expectations of an already disappointed crowd. His “make it or break it” moment came with Cavaradossi’s aria “Recondita armonia”. I was blown away with his voice. And I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. The applause after his first aria lasted a full minute, as did the audience’s appreciation after his first duet with Ms. Guleghini. And rightfully so, Licitra received a standing ovation at the end of the night. What a memorable experience!

The opera house in Munich, Germany – I was told they display this ring whenever they are performing Wagner’s Ring Cycle

The next chapter in my life took me overseas. I moved to Berlin, where they have not one, not two, but three opera houses. I frequented the Deusche Oper during my time there (the ugliest opera house I’ve ever seen by the way), and learned to only go to the Komische Oper whenever they performed an opera written in German due to their policy of singing every opera in German, regardless of the language it which it was written. I’m sorry but singing Tosca in German is a sacrilege. Staatsoper Unter den Linden, my favorite of the three opera houses in Berlin, saw me at every single production they had for three years. As I side note, I loved how I could step outside for a brief minute during an intermission to buy a big soft pretzel with salt and mustard. Such a German experience.

Some of the playbills from the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, Germany

I happened to get a job teaching English to the set designers at the Komische Oper, which allowed me to receive tickets to dress rehearsals. I saw Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail. The very modern production was directed by a Spanish conductor whose name escapes me…and rightfully so in my opinion. He wanted to introduce violence to the stage and in doing so added text not originally written. Many people left this production in disgust, even in mid-show, slamming the door behind them. I was not pleased either. I don’t want to see the tenor sing an aria completely naked, nor do I care to see a man slice off a woman’s nipple. What’s the point of this added gruesomeness? I was also given tickets to an excellent production of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck

Signed program by tenor Gabriel Sadé from Israel. He sang the Cavaradossi role at the Dresden Opera House. Because the folks I was staying with knew him personally, I was able to sit in the best box seat in the house and got to hang out with him afterward.

While living in Europe, I was also able to visit other opera houses on the continent steeped with opera tradition and history. I saw a few operas in Munich, a terrible production of Tosca in Hamburg, Peter Grimes in Paris, La Taviata in Warsaw, Il barbiere di Siviglia in Weimar and Tosca in Dresden, to name a few. 

La Traviata ticket and program from the Warsaw Opera House in Warsaw, Poland
The opera house in Warsaw, Poland

I left Germany to move to Toronto with the Canadian woman I had intended to marry. I lived there for 6 years and had a subscription to the Canadian Opera Company for several of them. They often performed modern productions of classic operas and I wasn’t impressed. Call me a traditionalist, but I don’t want to see La Traviata set in a leather bar. Since moving away, I’ve heard that the quality and choice of opera productions has improved. During this time, I also managed to get over to China, where I saw a Peking Opera performance of Chinese opera in Beijing. Even though virtually every aspect of this musical art form was quite literally foreign to me, I still felt at home somehow.

Me in front of the Peking Opera n Beijing (with ticket in hand)

My life was void of opera during the 2.5 years I lived in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I’m extremely happy for all the experiences I had in Southeast Asia, but upon return to the States, I very quickly sought out opera again. Since I had settled in Florida’s Bay area, I saw many operas at Opera Tampa. I have also seen a few operas at the historic opera house (with beautiful Spanish architecture by the way) in Sarasota. 

A major opera event in my life was experiencing Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen in its entirety. This consists of four operas each lasting from 3 to 5 hours. My opportunity came when tickets went on sale at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. I had to submit my name a year in advance and hope that I got tickets. I spent the entire year preparing for this ultimate opera event. I studied the leitmotifs (a musical technique that Wagner invented whereby a musical line is connected to a performer, idea or feeling), I learned about the storyline and I even sewed my own pillow for the event. I figured I might need one with all that sitting. When I discovered that I had gotten the tickets, I booked a hotel room just across the street from the venue. This truly was the ultimate experience and I came away with a real sense of accomplishment.

Ready for Das Rheingold, the first opera of Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Met!

Opera has helped me get through difficult times by facilitating my strong emotions to flow. When my wife left our relationship, for example, I was tasked with separating our belongings. With each piece of furniture I contemplated, it was hard not to recall when we first bought them. One of the most poignant moments was looking at the little table and chairs that we bought from Ikea for our very first apartment 16 years prior. It was the first piece of furniture we had ever bought together. Seeing the table standing alone in my otherwise bare house, I couldn’t help but think of Adieu notre petite table, an aria from Jules Massenet’s Manon. I studied the table and allowed all the memories to flood my mind and thought of the oh-so-appropriate lyrics to the aria:

Farewell, our little table,
which brought us together so often!
Farewell, farewell, our little table,
which for just us two seemed so large!
It’s unbelievable, but we take up so little space…
especially when we’re embracing.
Farewell, our little table!
We used the same glass,
the two of us, and when each of us drank,
we tried to find the other’s lips.
My poor friend, how he loved me!
Farewell, our little table, farewell!

Most recently, during a solo trip to England, I added a new opera house to my ever-growing list: The Royal Opera House in London. (Fun fact: ice-cream is served during the intermission.) I saw Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten, an English composer. It is my opinion that it is always better to see an opera in the country in which it was written. It’s not that performers in other countries can’t do a good job, it’s just that there is a better understanding of the role by those whose identity is wrapped up in it. For example, Pavarotti did a great job as Tristan in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, but let’s face it, people would rather hear him sing Italian operas. The best German operas I ever saw were in Germany, for example Der Freischutz at the Komische Oper in Berlin. Equally, I wouldn’t trust any European opera company to successfully take on American operas like Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess or more recently Terrance Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones. 

Waiting for the house to open at the Royal Opera House in London, England

So, what’s next for me on my opera journey? I want to experience Wagner’s music at the opera house he designed in Bayreuth, see an Italian opera at the La Scala opera house in Milan and enjoy an opera at the famous opera house in Sydney. My opera glasses will be in tow and I will add the programs to my opera box, which is filled with a lifetime of wonderful memories.

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