I was bumping a little Turandot the other day, as one does, when I was struck by something.
I really fucking love opera. And many people think that this is really weird. It’s been kind of a running joke among my friends for years, that I would do something like rocking La Boheme at parties, or getting into brisk arguments about cultural appropriation in Madama Butterfly in English class, or that people would come by the house unexpectedly and I’d be in the shower, blasting Götterdämmerung. When I acquired a car, I would be just as likely to be blaring Deborah Voigt as Orbital.
I have a deep sense memory for opera. It’s something that I can’t even fully articulate. It just feels like it is inside of me, and I feel this sense of connection, of coming home, when I hear opera, whether it’s in live performance or a recording, a snatch of a song out a window or a dedicated listen in the living room. It’s not necessarily comforting, opera is also challenging and demanding and it insists on being given careful attention, but it is familiar, and, in a way I can’t quite describe, deeply satisfying. For me, listening to opera is like taking a cool dip in a briskly moving river. It’s refreshing, but I also have to keep my wits about me.
I grew up listening to a pretty eclectic assortment of music. My father plays the jazz saxaphone, so I listened to a lot of jazz[1. And loathed jazz until I reached my 20s, which is really a pity, because I got to hear some really amazing jazz musicians in performance and didn’t appreciate it at all.]. My father also introduced me to classical and baroque music, to both the European and Chinese opera traditions, to Greek music. I didn’t really listen to much pop until high school, when I fell deeply in love with both pop and electronica and remain so to this day, and I think people honestly find that even more perplexing than my adoration for opera.
People could get it if I was just a classical music nerd, setting aside the Chinese opera thing as some sort of weird anomaly. But how can I go from Ke$ha to Puccini?
It’s actually easier than people seem to think. What attracts me to music is less genre than emotion, and beats, and, yes, sometimes, a certain amount of prowess. A lot of the music I listen to is actually created by classically trained musicians, whether or not it’s classical, and it shows. They’ve done their legwork, and they take the music in really interesting and exciting directions. And even when musicians don’t have that classical training, they do have that emotive skill, the power to write something that speaks to me. That same transcendent experience I get when I hear someone really nailing the Queen of the Night’s aria also soars through me when I’ve got ‘Handlebars’ on full bore, even though these come from very different musical traditions.
Curiously, I am not a fan of musicals. I’ll go a step further: I loathe musicals with a fiery passion. My friend Tristan loves them, and this was also a running gag in high school, that I could love opera and hate musicals. I can’t claim that musicals don’t create the same technical challenges for the singers or that the compositions don’t require skill, because they do. I think it might be the sheer level of camp, and something about hearing lyrics in English, forcing you to actually recognise the camp.
It’s easier to take things seriously when you get the emotion, but not the actual lyrics, and also, I like serious music, and musicals are often not very serious; the ones that are serious feel forced and campy to me even though they are not meant to be. I mean, opera librettos are really ludicrous. People sing the darndest stuff, and they manage to do it with a straight face. Something about hearing that level of melodrama and actually being able to understand it is just sort of embarrassing. I want to pat the singers on the heads and go ‘there there’ in a way that I don’t do when watching equally ludicrous and unbelievable things on the stage at War Memorial.
I suspect that if I had been introduced to opera when I was older, I might not have gotten so into it. My love of opera is very much tied in with my relationship with my father, and I am really fortunate to enjoy a relationship where we like a lot of the same things. Well, ok. I like many of the thing my father likes, although he doesn’t necessarily return the sentiment; he isn’t a fan of a lot of the music I listen to.
But, growing up with it, growing up with the assumption that of course I would like it, created a deep love. It’s the same love I have for listening to baseball games. I have no interest whatsoever in baseball and don’t follow it at all. But when I hear the announcer’s voice, I drift back to so many evenings in the Tin Palace when my father would flick on the game and it would hum in the background while we puttered about, and sometimes during late games, I would fall asleep listening to that sound, and it was oddly reassuring; people were out there, doing things, and the world was still spinning.