Finally, the truth about opera ... ARIA HAVING FUN YET?
By Tony Kornheiser, The Washington Post, Sunday, January 19, 1997
I have never been to the opera, but like any reasonably educated and sophisticated person, I have a basic layman's understanding of this ancient, subtle, dignified art form. All the men look like Dom DeLuise. All the women look like Hagar the Horrible's wife, Helga. Everyone wears goat antlers and sings loud enough in Italian to awaken Nelson Rockefeller-and then after the show they meet at a buffet and eat fried food until they explode. And all the stars are temperamental: They storm in in a huff. They storm out in a huff. They refuse to perform if their dressing room doilies are the wrong color. Sometimes they just stride right into the audience and knee people in the groin.
So you see, I was hardly a "rube" when I attended my first recital by an opera singer the other day. The singer was Denyce Graves. The Post has already reviewed this performance, but I am sure the discerning reader has been awaiting my personal judgment on Ms. Graves's oeuvre, and here it is.
Ahem. This is one major babe.
That concludes the artistic criticism portion of this here column.
So here is what happened. Denyce comes out onto the Kennedy Center stage accompanied by her pianist, and she sings a short selection from a Spanish opera. It takes two minutes. People clap. And she sings another two-minute election. And people clap. A third. People clap.
Then she and the pianist walk off the stage.
And I'm thinking: That's it? I mean, I'm not sure the automatic dimmer on my headlights has gone off yet.
So I turn to the woman next to me, who I as and she's got a bosom you could set a tray of drinks on, and I say, "Is that it? Are we out of here? Because I've got time to drive to USAir Arena and catch the last half of the Bullets game."
The woman looked at me as though I were a spittoon, and explained that in recitals the singer takes small breaks.
Sure enough, in two minutes, she came back out, and sang some more.
Of course that left me wondering what she did backstage. What can you do in one minute? A drink of water you could take right onstage. Even the president of the United States does that. Perhaps she was allowing herself a few
moments to practice the accordion.
Anyway, in two minutes she was back, repeated the same routine with a French opera, and later a German opera. What I found strange was that at no time did she yap with the audience. No schmoozing. She simply sang.
Not that I thought a star of Denyce Graves's stature would stand there between songs and say, "So these two Chinese guys are sitting at a Starbucks in Buenos Aires..." But I thought she might say something to the 2,500 people in the room.
So again, I turned to the woman next to me, and I inquired if Ms. Graves was going to do any yappadoodle.
"Yappadoodle?" she said.
"You know, say 'hi,' tell us about the trip in on 495..." The woman began scrutinizing her ticket, hoping, I suppose, that she had gotten her seat assignment wrong.
Apparently, yappadoodle is not done.
So I settled in. And as you know Denyce Graves's voice is spectacular. It's so clear and clean you feel you can see through it. And I lost myself in it, even when she was singing in German, which is not the language of love-because every other syllable sounds like you're hawking a loogie. The program lists all the lyrics, so I can report them verbatim. Try pouring the wine, dimming the lights, and crooning out this to your sweetie: "Meine liebe hat Schwingen der Nachtigall. Und wiegt sich in bluhendem Flieder. Und jauchzet und singet vom Duft berauscht."
Personally, I think they make a mistake providing translations of the foreign lyrics. Here's a lovely-sounding phrase in Spanish: "Tu cintura vibra fina con la nobleza de un latigo." Here is what it means: "Your waist oscillates like the damask of a mast."
My point is, there should be some mystery with these opera lyrics. Opera lyrics should be intimidating. For example, I am nervous about calling them 'lyrics.' I'll probably get all sorts of letters from snobby readers who will say, you moron, words in an opera aren't lyrics, they're schweissengluepfauchenperpfuelen.
Anyway, it really bummed me out-to use a technical opera phrase-to learn that the lyrical thrust of most operas goes like this: "You've left me. I am worthless. I intend to gouge out my eyes with one of those fire pokers, then fall off a cliff, and die in the weeds like a wildebeest. You've got to change your evil ways, bay-bee."
In all, I really enjoyed myself, even if there was no yapping. I happily joined the others in giving Denyce Graves a standing ovation, and I restrained myself from holding up a butane lighter and screaming, "Hey, hot lips, do 'Louie, Louie.'"
I eagerly picked up the concert review in the next day's paper-and read that I was a complete Philistine for clapping between songs in a set. Apparently, you're not supposed to do that either at a recital. How are you supposed to indicate your appreciation for the performance, clear your throat? Blink your yes rapidly? Hold one finger in the air, like you're signaling the waiter or he check?
If the singer is not supposed to acknowledge the audience, and the audience is not supposed to acknowledge the singer-why go? Why not just buy the CD?