April 01, 2020

Opera-free airwaves sorrowful

After learning of Maine Public Radio’s decision to drop its Saturday afternoon opera broadcasts, I felt myself slipping into a state of dudgeon.

Had they removed “A Prairie Home Companion,” let’s say, or even “Car Talk” from the public radio line-up, I might have felt simply angry or resentful. But losing the Metropolitan Opera – that was a cultural affront that called for nothing less than dudgeon, a word derived from the French “en digeon,” referring to one’s hand on the hilt of a dagger. Is there an emotion more appropriately operatic than that?

The more I read of the decision – that the live broadcasts would be replaced by a mixture of talk radio and canned pop music – my dudgeon got high enough that I flirted with the idea of subjecting my family to an entire evening of protest opera. I would go home, fire up the stereo, and fill the house with my favorite tenors and sopranos, their voices all blending into one huge chorus of solidarity for Maine’s opera-deprived minority. For my private “Opera Aid 2000” benefit concert, I would get out a few big guns for an all-out aria assault: Placido Domingo, Kiri Te Kanawa, Jose Carreras, Renata Scotto. And for the finale, I’d pump up the volume and let Luciano Pavarotti belt out “Nessun Dorma” until the pictures leaped from the walls and the dirty dishes rattled in the sink.

But I didn’t do that because I know from experience what happens whenever I try to indulge my passion for a bit of spirit-lifting operatic extravagance. My son would retaliate by cranking up the volume on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” the dog would start howling, and my daughter would put her hands over her ears like a Gap-clad prima donna and launch into a melodramatic swoon that Puccini himself would applaud.

“Please! No more opera!” she would wail just as Luciano was swelling his bellows for the booming crescendo. “Anything but that!”

Opera, as I have learned and MPR recently confirmed, is not a musical form appreciated by everyone.

For much of my life, in fact, I regarded it as the conceit of wealthy urbanites for whom a night at the opera was merely an occasion to don tuxedoes and gowns and peer at one another through little jewel-encrusted binoculars. The concerts I’d always favored, on the other hand, were often raucous affairs where fans whooped, stamped their feet, sailed Frisbees and never once yelled “Bravo!” Then one Christmas, about 10 years ago, I happened to catch a TV concert that featured Signore Pavarotti singing with a large choir at his ample back. White handkerchief in hand, the beefy tenor threw back his head, opened his throat, and let flow a stream of the most exquisite musical sounds I’d ever heard. As the crystalline notes soared high above the choir, I realized I had become hooked on the beauty of the unadorned human voice.

From then on, I searched out other celebrated voices and steeped myself in famous arias. The more I read up on the stories that great operas told, the more I realized that they weren’t elitist at all. Their themes were common to everyone, of any age, even if the performers seemed to go to extraordinary lengths to ham them up beyond recognition. There was love, hate, jealousy and revenge. There was triumph and loss, beauty and honor. And in the end, when all that despair and high dudgeon finally boiled over onstage, there was death by sword, guillotine, poison, bullet, club, snake bite, hanging, starvation and old-fashioned heartbreak. Who could ask for more?

And now that the long-running broadcasts from New York have been taken away, and with them the opportunity to imagine that even people up here in Maine could have front-row seats on the grand spectacle if they wanted, opera seems to have become a privileged form of entertainment all over again.

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