Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A night at the opera

Posted By on Tue, Mar 29, 2011 at 7:17 PM

It occurred to me as I listened to Sir James Galway (b. 1939) and the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra during their performance Saturday night at the Mahalia Jackson Theater that I almost lost this accessible escape. Today, our computerized society tugs at us, leaving little time without interruption. A concert, at least for me, is one of the few experiences that commands an effortless mindfulness, existing without the threat of a waiting message or pressing conversation.

As the perfected tone of Galway’s breath on his golden flute darted like a dragonfly* throughout the concert hall, I scanned the rows and noticed young and old, all of us abandoning cell phones and computers. A petite Irish knight, a veritable leprechaun, brought us together and stunned us with his technical prowess in a contemporary work by William Bolcom (b. 1938) and enchanted us with Danny Boy, a piece by Galway’s favorite composer, ‘Traditional.’

“Pray for Japan, for your country, for your family,” he told us. “And pray with your eyes open. The Bible says nothing about closing one’s eyes. It says ‘watch and pray.’”

I recall specifically the first time a song moved me to such a degree that I retained the echo in my mind for years, revisiting it still today as needed. Puccini’s Chi il bel sogno di doretto as sung by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, launched my still-novice interest in classical music and an on-going passion for opera.

A Night at the Opera, circa 1985, a painting and silkscreen benefiting the New Orleans Opera Association
  • George Rodrigue
  • A Night at the Opera, circa 1985, a painting and silkscreen benefiting the New Orleans Opera Association

At age nineteen, although groom-less, I chose Puccini’s aria from La Rondine as the music for my wedding, as I watched on screen when George Emerson embraced Lucy Honeychurch in a barley field. (…see E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View)

Two years later as a student in Vienna, Austria, I studied art history while waiting hours in line outside the Vienna Opera to pay one dollar three times each week. This allowed me the privilege of standing near the stage within the famous opera house. Dressed each evening in the same long black gown, I stood throughout the performances, as the music transformed my homesickness into ecstasy.

The Vienna Opera, by Auguste Mandlick, 1897
  • Hulton Archive, Getty Images
  • The Vienna Opera, by Auguste Mandlick, 1897

While my classmates enjoyed the nightclubs and late-night trains to Amsterdam, I expanded my small-town Florida Panhandle upbringing with opera at the Wiener Staatsoper. I saw Domingo in Puccini’s La Boheme, Carreras in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, Pavarotti in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, and many more classic performances and operatic greats, all multiple times. The following year, although happy to be home, I admitted to my mother,

“I will always miss the opera.”

Years later my husband and I attended a concert by The Three Tenors. We sat in prime seats, the tenth row center, thanks to a mutual friend who grew up with Pavarotti, knew of my passion, and surprised us with tickets. What struck me most was not the emotional power behind Nessun Dorma nor the bravado of O Sole Mio. As with Galway and our wonderful LPO, it was those moments that can only be captured in a live performance, the musicians' exchanges with each other and their reactions to their audience, that made this the single greatest concert ever.

The Three Tenors:  Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras, and Luciano Pavoratti
  • Reuters
  • The Three Tenors: Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras, and Luciano Pavoratti

Between songs, I looked from the tenors to my husband, unsure if I was more taken with the dynamics and interaction between the great talents on stage or the uncontrollable, exuberant laughter of the man standing beside me. He laughed without finding humor and without mocking; rather, he laughed out of perfect and undistracted joy.

On April 9th the LPO performs Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 7. I recall as a student in Vienna learning of his muse-wife Alma’s love affairs with several artists from the Vienna Secessionist movement, including Gustav Klimt (we all know The Kiss), architect Walter Gropius, and a passionate relationship with artist Oskar Kokoshka, resulting in his masterpiece, a painting of love, The Bride of the Wind.

Bride of the Wind, a self portrait with Alma Mahler by Oskar Kokoschka, 1914
  • Museum fur Gegenwartskunst, Basel, Switzerland
  • Bride of the Wind, a self portrait with Alma Mahler by Oskar Kokoschka, 1914

Mahler (1860-1911) struggled through personal trauma in his later years, particularly his daughter’s death at age five and his wife’s rather public indiscretions, made worse by Alma’s desire that he also take her seriously as a composer. After abandoning Symphony No. 7 for months, Mahler searched for inspiration in June of 1905, when he...

“…set out on a lonely hike through the mountains. On his way back as he was rowed across a lake, the rhythm of the oars suggested the slow introduction to the opening movement. He set to work in white heat, finishing the score, except for some fleshing out of the orchestration, by mid-August.” -LPO Program Notes by Joseph and Elizabeth Kahn

Once again, as with the knighted Irish flutist, the three Italian tenors, and a troubled Viennese composer, the drama of life mingles with the drama of talent and imagination, providing an escape for the rest of us.

Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)

*a simile borrowed from The New York Times, describing the way one’s eye darts over Monet's Water Lilies. Related post here

We are fortunate in New Orleans to have not only the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, but also The New Orleans Opera. This weekend The New Orleans Opera Association presents Verdi's Il Trovatore, featuring Mary Elizabeth Williams and Mark Rucker at the Mahalia Jackson Theater

For a related post, I hope you enjoy “The Muse” from "Musings of an Artist’s Wife"

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