I happened to watch a DVD of Verdi’s Don Carlos, a French production with superb voices and subdued staging (no garish costumes here…) and up close on the screen, the hyper-acting and extreme emotional expression meant for the stage got me thinking. The operatic language manipulation actually helped: even though the libretto was in French, which is my mother tongue, I was unable to follow the lyrics without subtitles, and this actually made it easier to listen to because I followed the music rather than the story. Opera singers go for sound effect rather than accuracy of pronunciation, and the old-fashioned plots consequently become somewhat irrelevant and only serve as vehicle for those magnificent voices.

Indeed, the Western tradition of vocal performance is powerful, even to someone like me who loves Chinese opera and Noh theater. A heroic premise is required to launch the voice into grand mode, and in our world, what’s heroic? The operatic form was created as entertainment for the European aristocracy that supported it. As a consequence, its stories revolve around values such as honor, pride, obedience and social status versus motives such as passion, anger, jealousy, revenge, cruelty. Some operas were downright political (Da Ponte for Mozart, Tosca, Fidelio) and they survive as such. But many humorless librettos border on the ridiculous, unlike Shakespearean theater which is actually existential – Hamlet still qualifies as a skull-loving punk. Grand opera was already out of date nearly a century ago, when the Marx Brothers released A Night at the Opera. I observe television commercials as a barometer of mass-media propaganda, and I noticed one recently featuring a fat lady on a balcony holding a high note, outlasted by… a pink piece of gum.

Between the heroic and the ridiculous, what is the place of grand opera in our modern sensibility? Strong emotion itself seems out of date. Emotion belongs with shrinks. It is something nasty, something that makes you dysfunctional, inefficient, disabled. As perceived in the mass media, our society is sentimental, not emotional. People will cry over a cat who saved its young from a fire (from a story on the news), but crimes of passion are in the realm of psychiatric evaluation. In our highly policed society, the heroes are the detectives, the crime scene investigators, the scientists, the doctors, rational-minded people who keep their emotions in check – not the people who commit violent crimes. The problem is, how does ‘just the facts Maam’ translate into heroic delivery?

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