I want to love opera. . . really, I do.
I love the soaring arias, the rich baritone voices, the grand choruses blasting me with the glory of the music. I marvel at the accumulation of so much excellence and effort represented in every production—many lifetimes of practice and rehearsal on stage.
Beyond the music, I love the extravagant sets, the dazzling costumes! So many sensory pleasures crammed into a single event.
Are you convinced? I really want to love opera. And, I do . . . except for one tiny detail—the plots. Or, I should say, "the lack of plots." Opera plots stink. They are the dead fish of storytelling.
Honestly, with the amount of effort and money that went into the grand operas, couldn't anyone have thrown a few bones at a decent writer to put some story into it? Why not? Why pretend we're telling a story (sets, costumes, the fog machines for the love of Pete!), when we have to trudge through the misery of the opera plot?
True opera-lovers will call me a Philistine. What educated person needs a pedestrian plot—how obtuse! But, please look with fresh eyes at one of the greatest—the very best that the opera world produced: Verdi's Aida. (Sorry, Wagner will not even get an honorable mention here—nothing for the man who sweats syrup.)
I just saw a delightful production last week done by Utah Festival Opera. The performance was impeccable: brilliant soloists, huge choruses, exquisite sets—three intermissions! But, the excellent production couldn't overcome the genetic problem—the birth defect—no plot! Nothing happens on stage. The opera goes (roughly) like this:
- Collection of people on stage singing: La, Laaa. Something happened before the curtain came up, there was a battle, we are patriotic. Egypt is great. Aida fell in love. Things happened, but you missed it, because it all happened before this opera began. Laaaaaaaa!
- Re-arrange the same collection of people: Aaah, aaaah. I love Radames, but I long for my homeland. I'll never be happy.
- Turn set upside down for different look. Add another group of people—still everyone standing around doing nothing: Look at the Ethopian slaves. Aida's father is one of them. We're very sad. We long for our homeland.
- Re-arrange again: There was another battle. You missed it because it happened during intermission, but Radamses won again. BIG, AMAZING CHORUS—sounds like the end. . . (psych!)
- Out of love for Aida, Radamses accidentally reveals plans for the next battle. (Okay, I concede something did happen here.) He's condemned (offstage again) to die for his treason by being buried alive in a tomb. Oooohh, Oh!
- Aida sneaks into the tomb so they can die there together. Biggest opera of all time ends with the dying stars singing a diminishing duet. (No way is this the end!)
I left out all the meandering with the extraneous love interest that comes to nothing. (Gotta have something for the mezzo.)
You call that a story? I'm telling you, the opera emperor is naked, and we continue to shell out $50 a ticket (I sit in the cheap seats) for NO PLOT!
I would like to propose a solution to the stinking opera plot. (If I ever come into great sums of money, I will oversee this myself.) We need to rehabilitate the grand operas. Pay some seriously good writers to take the brilliant music of the masters and give us a good story already! So when it's over, we're truly satisfied; we've had a catharsis. Our bearings are reset, and we're ready to step back into life, invigorated, ready to live and love. Is that too much to ask? With the glorious music, it should be a cinch.
Take, for example, La Boheme, the most pathetic of them all, where the brilliant-music-to-crappy-plot ratio soars the highest, and the characters are so pathetic, you can't care about them at all. (Please . . . stay with me here . . . )
Mimi the seamstress is "co-habitating" with Rudolfo the poet and his student friends. They're all poor—too poor, in fact, for Rudolpho to pay for medical care when Mimi contracts the dreaded consumption. She coughs and coughs and Rudolfo sings that he can't stand to be with her anymore—her coughing drives him crazy and reminds him that he can't provide for her. (What a guy!) They agree to split up in the spring. (This is supposed to be romantic somehow. Go figure.) Mimi moves in with a viscount, but leaves him too (What a girl!) and wanders the streets until Rudolfo hears that she's homeless. He takes her back just in time for them to sing a glorious duet before she dies. (How noble!) The opera ends and we pretend that those people were worth all that breath. (Did you hear the thud?)
Imagine, now that Stephenie Meyer gets her hands on Puccini's music, and instead of the wimpy, Rudolpho, whining about Mimi's illness, we have the noble, self-sacrificing Edward, in all his luxurious restraint, coming to the rescue. Think of the tension that would snap into those soprano-tenor duets if they included Edward's thirst for Bella's blood, his longing for her scent and the tremor of her heartbeat. Instead of the village scenes, the school and Phoenix airport. Instead of the courtyard, the forest. Appealing, isn't it?
I know this would work.
Imagine that Orson Scott Card put Ender's Shadow into The Magic Flute! Honestly, I have no idea how that would work, but I'm confident that OSC could pull it off beautifully, and I'll bet he could do it without the misogyny.
Give Tosca to Frank McCourt, Turandot to Jeannette Walls, and to lighten it up, we could beg JK Rowling to re-do Faustus. And, just to be sure we've covered the whole spectrum, let Dave Barry re-write Gianni Schicchi—oh the humanity!
The writer in me screams for justice, but like any addict, I'll continue to feed on a drug I can't afford because I can't stay away from the music—I love it too much!