Two nights ago I took a friend to the opera. There is always a special moment for me when I go to the opera theater, a moment just before the orchestra begins to tune, when I feel entirely at home and even slightly entitled knowing that the music, the staging, the plot – in summary, the whole of the presentation about to appear before me – is that which I adore. I have studied it, I have stayed up nights unable to stop thinking of it, I have done it myself and loved it and hated it. I have spent thousands of dollars pursuing it and countless hours dreaming about it. But most of all, I have always been at peace with it as an art form. Only at the end of the previous school year did I realize I am also scared for it. And this fear, this tense nervousness in my chest, is that of a girl embarrassedly introducing her awkward and obnoxious little brother to her friends. I brought my friend to the opera to see a modern production, a world premier, an “audience divider”. And I was scared, not for the friend but for the opera. I begged it in my head to be beautiful, to be meaningful, or at least to be swallowable. But, alas, it was none of the above. I left the theater begging him to let me show him good contemporary opera, good music that hasn’t forgotten to retain at least a scrap of acknowledgement for the listener. But in his face I could see the “Too Late” expression and I knew his next words before he said them: “I guess I’m just more of a classics guy.”
As melodramatic as it might seem, that sentence makes me weightily sad. There is in opera, like in most any evolving medium, a historical trajectory that, contrary to popular belief, does not plummet to the ground in the early 20th century. Manically beautiful operas are being written at this moment. I want to scream it from the rooftops. There is a path, a sense, a scope: this trajectory that renders the good operas of the past century not only comprehensible but profoundly refined and evocative – like the latest model of a machine that was conceived over 300 years ago. In my opinion, enjoying an opera does indeed require a bit of context. For most that would mean understanding the plot, knowing the names of the characters, maybe the musical period in which it fits. But for me the necessary context is far more personal. When we enter an operatic theater we must know the context of the audience. We must know what the world had seen and what had not yet happened or existed at the time when the opera premiered. In short, we must control and selectively shatter our own disbeliefs. And by understanding that we the audience are at the furthest possible point forward in time, we can come to appreciate the capacity for intimacy contained in an opera of our own day and age.