Wednesday, March 15, 2017

plates of spaghetti

Visiting Sydney without spending a night at the opera would be as unforgivable as passing up Verdi at La Scala while in Milan.

Well, almost. Italy is one of opera's natural homes. Not so much Australia.

Several years ago, I was seated next to the younger daughter of an earl at a London dinner party. She leaned over, with a conspiratorial glint in her eye, and asked: "Mr. Cotton, do you know why God invented Australians?" When I confessed my ignorance on the topic, she replied: "So Americans would have someone to look down on."

The tale, of course, says little about Americans or Australians, and quite a bit about a certain class of Brits.

But that may be why Australia is far better known for Crocodile Dundee than Dame Nellie Melba (she of the peach Melba and Melba toast fame), David Hobson, or Harold Blair.

Even though we are in Sydney for only three days, luckily the summer opera season is in full swing. And it was enough to part company with $306 (AUD) to sit dead center in the dress circle and spend two and a half hours with Giacomo Puccini, Rodolfo, Mimi, and Musetta. Of course, in La Boheme.

It also gave me an opportunity to see the interior of the opera house. Even though guided tours are provided, the best way to see any opera house is as a member of the audience.

The interior of Sydney's opera house is consistent with its modern shell. It has plenty of wood and plastic -- just as any respectable example of modern architecture would have. Sleek and clean.

But I was at the opera house to hear opera. Not as an architecture critic.

I am going to assume you already know the story of La Boheme. The piece has been around for well over a hundred years and has seen several incarnations. Rent, for example.

Let's be clear. Like a lot of opera, La Boheme is pure melodrama. True love on first sight. Mistaken intentions in relationships. And a tragic death from one of those diseases that lets divas continue to look pretty while singing high E.

There was an ironic moment in the opera tonight. In the first act, Rodolfo burns a copy of his play to stay warm. The stove produced theatrical smoke. Whatever the production used to evoke smoke caused several of the audience members to do their Mimi consumption impressions for three straight acts. I broke out in a coughing fit right in the middle of O soave fanciulla -- a bad omen of what was to come.

But the music is beautiful. I think it was H.L. Mencken that called Puccini's music "silver spaghetti." Whoever it was, he grabbed a perfect simile. The music is lush, and captures the tail end of the Romantic period just enough to give the tear ducts a good work out.

This production was refreshing. Well, the production and the audience. Opera was originally the music of the people. When the audience members heard something they enjoyed, they whooped for the singer or the orchestra. That was before the wealthy attempted to claim opera as their private domain.

The Sydney Opera House attracts all kinds of people to its performances. A lot of tourists. And a lot of people who arrive in the clothes they would normally wear on a Wednesday night. I found it refreshing that the people were taking back their music.

But not completely. Somewhere along the line, opera audiences became conformists on when to applaud, instead of expressing individual appreciation. Some of that comes from being chided by very stodgy rule imposers who berate people for being ignorant because they clap after a well-executed movement in a concerto.

There were many moments tonight when a smattering of applause would have been appreciated by the performers. But no one wants to be found out as not belonging in the concert hall.

Sydney is beginning to grow on me. If I have an opportunity over the next eek, I will share some Australian animal photographs with you.

But, for tonight, it is a time to appreciate the fact that Puccini left a healthy helping of silver spaghetti on my plate. And I licked it clean.

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