Tonight I am going to the opera. It will be my fourth.
The first was 25 years ago in Christchurch. Tosca at the Theatre Royal, the wonderful venue where I saw Basil Brush, Sonic Youth, Rowan Atkinson, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Del La Sol, Hot Gossip and the Violent Femmes. As that list might suggest, I don’t attend many operas.
My first was Tosca with my mother, a fan of light opera. She wasn’t that keen, but I was balls deep in theatre in those days, seeing every kind of performance I could. Mum adored Gilbert and Sullivan and saw The Phantom of the Opera several times. Sang Yum Yum in the Mikado at the Theatre Royal.
When the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company came to Chch when she was young, Mum camped outside the Theatre Royal to get tickets. No one did G&S better than D’Oyly Carte. In fact, at the time, they had an exclusive contract. When they went bust after the copyright lapsed we were plagued by endless touring Australian versions. I worked on their Pirates of Penzance with John English when I lived in Auckland. I was a wee bit star struck.
The second opera I saw was Boris Godunov at the Aotea Centre. Not a popular opera, but my brilliant flatmate, Simon, still knew it was Mussorgsky, so happily came along. I loved the story. Medieval Russian history sung in something other than Italian. While I couldn’t whistle a single note of Puccini’s Tosca, I often sing ‘Slava, slava, slava’ in that stunning sequence when the slaves sing of glory.
My third opera was ten years ago in Wellington, at the St James. Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, a story I knew well. I love the film by Ralph Fiennes, adore Pushkin’s original poetic novel, and often find it resonating in my life. Not that I have ever fought a duel, or been a Francophile aristocrat, but these themes are a constant in our home now that the musical genius of Hamilton has infected my family. Honour, snobbery, the danger of wasted opportunity. All find purchase in Titahi Bay as easily as Broadway and Tsarist Russia.
Tonight I am going to La bohème, and the wife is quite excited. She never thought she would get to see it; operas are rare and hard to put on. Which is why I always try to catch them when I can. The productions are huge; so much theatre, so many players. I can’t say that I know anything about this show, so it will be a bit of a surprise. The sur-titles will help (I must remember to take my glasses). Needless to say, I know Puccini is one of the most popular composers. When I stayed in Lucca, the small Italian town where he was born, I tried to visit his house but it was closed for renovations.
Tonight’s performance is at the Opera House in Wellington. The St James, where I saw the Tchaikovsky, is closed for earthquake strengthening. The Opera House is okay. It’s where I saw Courtney Barnett and Grease. Adam and the Ants and A Dead Dog in a Suitcase; a modern version of the first real musical from 1728, The Beggars Opera, itself a satire of Italian Opera . It was a brilliant show, more engaging than any opera. I wanted to see it again and again.
Which is the sign of a good show, for me.
But why compare? Is it the music or the theatre, the performance or the spectacle that draws you to a show? Do you just need something to hum, as the brilliant Sondheim likes to poke at? It’s an ever-changing mix, surely. And not knowing can be the best part.
Opera thrives on tragedy, there is something about the nature of music that allows the emotion to reach out and touch the heart. I once lived next door, unknowingly, to a house where a Chinese Opera was set. It was about a famous poet who had to flee after the Tiananmen Square massacre. When I found out about the tragic incident next door, I was glad that I knew so little. Some things just don’t need to be spelled out. Let the music do the work.
And so, on a spring day in Wellington, as the city is battered by hail, I await my fourth opera, and wonder about my fifth. I have done two Russian, two Italian; it is time for a change. Will it be German, French or English? Chinese?
We shall see, we shall see.