When I was a child, I remember seeing this commercial on PBS on a Saturday afternoon about opera. Specifically, about how ridiculous it is that the opera has a reputation for being “boring,” especially since the most famous operas are chock full of sex, violence, and murder. I get where that reputation comes from. It’s difficult to get engaged in a plot where you don’t understand anything the major characters are saying. Heck, I went to the opera once in the Czech Republic. The singing was in Italian, while the supertitles were in Czech, so I was utterly lost in two languages at once.
That said, I’ve been at least curious about getting into this opera thing for years. For example, a song from Madame Butterfly inspired the only bit of writing I ever got paid for (a poem which netted me a whole dollar bill!). I’ve attended a broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera, which was great, although somewhat pricey. However, when I finally got the chance to go see a real, live opera (with supertitles I could actually understand), I leapt at the opportunity.
Utah Opera put on a double feature at the Capital Theater. One of the shows, a comedic little episode called Gianni Schicchi, provides some much needed context to the operatic standard “O Mio Babbino Caro.” It is not, as I first suspected, a lullaby sung by a mother to her baby. Rather, it’s a plaintive plea from a young girl to her father, claiming that she will die if she can’t be with the man she loves. It’s, you know, dramatic and all, but in the context of a comedic opera, it carries about as much depth of emotion as Veruca Salt demanding that daddy buy her a goose that lays golden eggs NOW.
The real draw to me, though, was the classic Pagliacci. I’m pretty sure everyone’s heard of Pagliacci by this point. You know, it’s the opera about the sad clown.
I first encountered Pagliacci in that one episode of Batman: The Animated Series where the Penguin tries to show off for his date by singing “Vesti la Giubba.” From there, I associated the song with the cliches of opera – stilted, boring, overly dramatic, and inaccessible. And yet… in the context of the show, “Vesti la Giubba” is really unbelievable. A brutish man, completely and utterly destroyed by his wife’s infidelity, has to dress up in a clown outfit and make a buffoon of himself, because that’s what show business demands. It’s a real gut punch of a number, and it’s absolutely worth checking out.
But go to a live show, if you can. Operatic recordings are nice and all, but there’s something to be said for seeing the production live. If nothing else, watching the singers overpower the orchestra with nothing but their voices (no mics) is truly awe-inspiring.
Also, in commemoration of the occasion, I drew a sad clown: