Monday, September 10, 2012

Doorways to the Spirit

I’ve never been a big opera fan. I did see the light opera The Mikado and later, Carmen in high school and remember being somewhat swept away in the color, motion, music and sheer pageantry of it all. But in general, the bizarre excessive vocal technique seemed something more for my friends and I to make fun of than aesthetically enjoy.

All this took a philosophical turn in the late 70’s when I traveled to India and Indonesia and saw the equivalent of their opera tradition—The Kathatkali Dance Drama and the Shadow Play Theater. Western operas suddenly seemed more bizarre than ever, such melodrama jumping back and forth to the extremes of human emotion, the ego enormous onstage and off (the Diva complex), calling attention to “Me! Me! Me! Look how I suffer! I will kill myself for lack of love! Or kill my rival! Or my lover!” The Asian equivalents had plenty of drama, but more the cosmic battles of the gods where Good vanquishes Evil, with cool-headed heroes maintaining poise and equanimity in the midst of the heated conflict. There might be a small tender love scene between Rama and Sita, but more a side story than the central piece.

I remember being in some place in Java back then where Indonesians were watching Marcus Welby on TV. My friend was translating their reaction: “They think these people are crazy, with their excessive displays of emotion.” Indeed, the Eastern aesthetic that I found attractive at the time was placing higher value on a kind of steady-state conciousness, the deep stillness beneath the rolling waves of emotion. I witnessed motorcycles crash into each other at intersection and the owners politely bow to each other as they dusted themselves off, people spill drinks on themselves and calmly dry themselves off with an apologetic smile. It was a refreshing change from the New Yorker City cabdriver mentality.

And the music itself reflected this, the cool, serene Javanese gamelan or the slowly unfolding Indian raga. The vocal qualities were on the soft side and the musicians expected to disappear into the music rather than call undue attention to themselves. Mellow drama instead of melodrama. By these standards, the diva opera singer seemed a weird beast indeed.

So yesterday was Opera in the Park, one of San Francisco’s fine traditions, a free outdoor concert of select arias five minutes from my house. I’ve gone for over a decade now and find it extraordinary to be in company with a few thousand people outdoors who are pin-drop silent for two hours running. In my advanced years, I’ve developed a taste for Opera and though by no means a regular at the Opera House, I’ve seen my fill of the classics and come to enjoy them, both the drama, storyline and theatrics and some of the most exquisite musical moments ever composed. (There’s an amazing scene in the movie The Shawshank Redemption in which someone manages to get an aria from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro pumped out over the loudspeakers. All the prisoners stop in their tracks and again are arrested, only this time aesthetically. Of course, pure Hollywood, but the point is well taken. It indeed is possible that this music can communicate beyond any taste or training. Especially if it’s Mozart.)

After dropping off the picnic lunch at the blanket we had put down in the early morning, we went to an Obama Rally in another meadow of the park. On the way, we passed two hot conga drummers practicing on a bench, a sax player in a tunnel playing a jazz ballad and then a fiddle/accordion/banjo trio at the rally playing Eastern European music. Three different traditions, each with their own history, aesthetic, musical values that take some time and training to understand and appreciate. But at the bottom, despite large differences between Bulgaria, Bird and Bellini, each is a doorway into the spirit and why not enjoy them all? Not all life is opera, but sometimes it is and sometimes it’s a Broadway musical or a gentle bossa nova or a sexy, spicy salsa number or cool jazz ballad. The more we learn what each music has to offer, the more we are prepared to enjoy it when we need it.

And so I walked back to the blanket and enjoyed two hours wrapped in the soothing sounds of the strings and lifted up by the high notes of the sopranos. The fog was mercifully absent, the birds gathering to listen, the champagne was flowing and crackers and cheese passed around. A grand time was had by all as we were walked through one a doorway to the Spirit and emerged refreshed. 

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