Opera has always been hard on its heroines. They generally die by violence. Either they are ravaged by consumption, or stabbed, or shot, or poisoned.
As a lukewarm opera buff, I have always resented this almost inevitable denouement. Though the stage may be littered with dead at the end of the last act, I pretend that it ends happily, and "everybody goes to the seashore," as Melina Mercouri said of the bloody endings of Greek tragedy in "Never on Sunday." After all, they all get up to take a bow, don't they? Ironically, this crude dispatching of the female lead produces one concomitant reward: just before she dies, the heroine invariably sings an aria of transcendent beauty, one that reflects the composer's highest art.
Thus, though it is traumatic when poor Madame Butterfly commits hara-kiri, stabbing herself in the gut, we find some compensation in the fact that she has just unburdened herself of her frenzied swan song, saying goodby to her child. Not the most beautiful aria in "Butterfly," I concede, but what can we expect of a woman who is about to plunge a knife into her belly?
After one has sung a piece like that, what more is there to do but die?
I was caused to reflect on this phenomenon the other evening when my wife and I attended a concert by B. J. Ward at Tom Rolla's Gardenia club on Santa Monica Boulevard.
Ms. Ward performs at 5 p.m. on Sundays. One may sip a drink if one likes, and afterward omelets prepared by the proprietor are served. The evening is over at 7:30. For one who has endured four hours of "Tristan and Isolde" with nothing but a hurried glass of wine between the acts, "Opera and Omelettes," as Ms. Ward calls her show, is a pleasant escape.
The club is very small. Ms. Ward had no microphone. She needed none. She leaned against the grand piano in a sequined white satin blouse and form-fitting black pants and gave us an hour of opera and stand-up comedy.
Unlike the traditional grand opera diva, Ms. Ward is trim and slender, and one is surprised that such a petite body can produce such sound. Her patter balances the elegance of her singing. Ms. Ward has been around a while, in night clubs, Vegas, television, Broadway and stock. Her first break in New York was as the girl in "The Fantasticks." She learned to sing opera by singing along with the monthly Columbia Record Club albums. Not having a critic's ear, I can't compare her with the great ones, but how many of them can deliver a funny line and serve you omelets afterward?
Ms. Ward told the familiar story of the overweight soprano who played Tosca in New York. She had stabbed the lecherous Scarpio, seen her lover shot by a firing squad, and in desperation thrown herself over the castle parapet, supposedly to her death. But she had antagonized the stage hands, and they had substituted a trampoline for the mattress that was supposed to cushion her fall.
She no sooner vanished over the parapet than she bounced up again, and again, to the astonishment and delight of her audience.
"She was never able to sing in New York again," Ms. Ward lamented.
"Grand opera was the soap opera of its day," she said. "Love, hate, murder, deception, passion--that's what opera's all about. Passionate characters searching for new ways to break the 10 Commandments."
Ms. Ward pointed out that it is more often the woman who dies in opera than the man. She then sang arias by half a dozen women who die on stage--one of tuberculosis, one by suicide, one by poisoning, two by stabbing, and another, the storied Tosca, by trampoline. It was a lot of fun.
For an encore Ms. Ward said she would attempt a duet from "La Traviata," singing not only the part of the doomed Violetta (consumption) but also of her lover Alfredo's father. It was the duet in which the father persuades Violetta to give up Alfredo to save his reputation.
Ms. Ward planted her feet and looked bearish when she sang the basso part of Alfredo's father, but it wasn't convincing. I was thinking she ought not to have tried it.
Suddenly an enormous bass voice burst out from the rear of the cafe, picking up the father's part. A very large man in a brown tweed suit left his table and walked to the piano, where he joined Ms. Ward in finishing the duet. It was touching and splendid.
After the applause subsided Ms. Ward introduced her rescuer. "Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. John Cypher."
John Cypher, it turned out, was a professional opera singer who currently plays the general in "Major Dad."
Afterward I went up to Cypher to congratulate him on his performance and found out that he is a neighbor of mine, on Mt. Washington.