It's becoming clearer to me all the time that fascination with opera is not something you casually admit to friends. I am a charter member of a generation nourished on Smokey Robinson, Chicago and the Buffalo Springfield, and I'd be afraid to ask some of my friends if they've ever seen Placido Domingo sing "Pagliacci." They might say Gesundheit .
It's an unfortunate fact that in American society opera often is thought of as an admirable, yet mysterious and unfathomable, art form. Lots of people think it's typically odd that the tenor gets stabbed and, instead of dying, he sings.
But opera, I've found, can be a lot of fun if you learn to watch it the same way you watch baseball. Baseball, even the die-hard fan will agree, is not a game of endless electrifying excitement. A scoreless, four-hit ballgame in the sixth inning finds most of the fans in the beer line waiting for . . . the Big Play, which is why people buy tickets in the first place. The fans will think it's a pretty good game if they get to see a home run, a couple of slick double plays and a circus catch at the warning track. The rest of the time, taken up with watching monotonous games of catch between two sets of pitchers and catchers, will seem worth it in the end.
Likewise with opera--"Turandot," for instance. Just when the audience is starting to get sick to death of the chorus screaming for more beheadings to please the bloodthirsty heroine, the hero steps up to the footlights and sings "Nessun Dorma" (which translates, appropriately, as none shall sleep ), a blow-the-doors-off tenor aria and the operatic equivalent of the grand slam.
Also, as in baseball, it helps to know the operatic rules--the basic scenario, if you will--that give the whole production continuity. In baseball, a hotly disputed call will always bring the manager screaming out of the dugout. The catcher will always lift his mask before he spits. Vin Scully will always start off by saying, "Well, hi everybody."
The constants of opera are just as rigid, and just as characteristic. For example, the scene of the action is always exotic. Operas are set in a Paris garret or a Spanish cigarette factory or on Mars. Never in a Fresno Burger King.
And, in a tragic opera:
- Everyone will be plunged into terrible trouble almost from the opening curtain. From then on, things will get worse.
- Main characters are never killed by being shot, beaten, trampled, drowned, asphyxiated or blown to pieces. They are always stabbed or poisoned so they can linger.
- Lovers are smitten at first sight and are always star-crossed. They are later stabbed or poisoned by jealous rivals.
- Someone will be betrayed and thrown in jail.
- After everyone has sung at least once, there is usually a parade or street revel, to give the chorus something to do.
- Everyone will die in the end.
In comic operas or operettas, on the other hand:
- All action hinges on flirtation and libidinous pursuit.
- Every character, at one point or another, will appear in disguise and fool everyone, even his or her lover.
- All police officers, bureaucrats, jailers, politicians, clerics and holders of titles will be portrayed as idiots.
- Any confusion will be fueled by liquor.
- The hero will get the girl.
Both baseball and opera are, at their respective cores, pretty simple undertakings. In baseball, one player tries to throw the ball in such a way that another player can't hit it safely. In opera, one singer tries to convince the other of his undying love before he gets killed.
Puccini, of course, will never replace Sandy Koufax in the hearts of most Americans, and "La Boheme" will never outdraw the Dodgers. But I believe it's no accident that Koufax's grand passion is opera. And it's no accident that the Yankees win when Robert Merrill sings the national anthem. And who could deny that Luciano Pavarotti and Tom Lasorda are brothers under the skin (a lot of skin)?
Maybe someone--maybe Leonard Bernstein--will compose an opera about baseball and unify the two great pastimes once and for all. The tenor could sing an aria titled "Kill the Umpire" and, for the first time in history, someone could actually do it.
Of course the umpire, with his dying breath, would eject him.