Attend an Opera

I love the idea of dressing-up and attending a formal show. A play, or a ballet, modern dance, etc. But I’ve never been compelled to sit through an opera. I think I’ve been brainwashed by movies and television to think of attending an opera as an exclusively erudite pursuit. I also have a general rule, one forged by many hours being tortured by student performances and Disney films, that my enjoyment of anything plummets with even a hint that anyone may, at any moment, start singing.

List item: Attend an Opera

I’ve bought tickets for February 16th matinee of Eurydice at the LA Opera. At least it will be performed in English. Sort of a gateway opera. Why a matinee you may ask? Well, because I got excited by the available seats (front row center of the Loge level!) and neglected to check the time. I’d have rather attended a performance at night, since the glamor of the evening is half the experience, but let’s face it- once inside, it’s not going to matter. Comme ci comme ça. That will be the day before my birthday and, since Sylvia has no interest, I’m going to see if one of my oldest friends would like to attend (since she also likes to dress-up).

Side-note: since this list is meant to expand my horizons, today I learned the word ‘Lebrettist’, “a person who writes the text of an opera or other long vocal work.”. The Lebrettist of Eurydice is a MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’ recipient. So is the composer. I don’t know much about the program, but I do remember that Michael Moschen received that grant and he’s incredible. I hope this opera has juggling.

Update: A few things to discuss since I last updated this list item. First, my planned date for the evening needed to bail for work up in the bay area (of course, as things happen, she ended-up not needing to go), so I reached-out to a different longtime friend, Megan, who has a background in Theater Arts and is a frequent attendee of fancy pants shows. Second, not only did I screw-up the tickets by selecting a matinee rather than an evening performance, my front row Loge selections were actually BACK row Loge. It’s a wonder I was able to click the ‘purchase’ button without incident. As I’ll describe later, this proved more fortuitous than I’d have thought, but it was still a disappointing discovery.

Final Update. The Day arrived: We did it! We attend the opera. Check the box and move on, right? Well… let me go into a bit more detail…

Megan and I Uber over to the Dorthy Chandler Pavilion with around a half hour until show time. Enough lead up to walk around the opera house and get pre-show glass of wine.

Pre-Show Selfie. I’m Excited!

We chit chat a bit and make our way to our seats. Third floor. It strikes me as weird that our seats are in the back, but the view is still pretty good. Plus, I brought some old sportman binoculars to check out the action up close. The lights dim, we’re here!

Still excited!

The opening scene takes place on a beach, with Eurydice and Orpheus being all playful and talking about music (cute things like how Orpheus wants to turn Eurydice into an instrument and play her hair. Not creepy or anything.). He proposes. She accepts. The set is minimalist- sand colored fabric on the ground with a couple beach chairs and a flowing blue fabric hanging from the ceiling represent the beach scene. One aspect I wasn’t expecting was subtitles displayed above the stage. The opera is in english, but operatic singing is difficult to understand and it serves a crucial accessibility need, so it makes sense. But as the show goes on, I cannot NOT read them. It’s both distracting visually, but also undermines my appreciation of the performance because it puts emphasis on the words rather than the emotion emanating from the voices. While I understand opera is the vocalist’s (…and composer and orchestra’s…) medium, the subtitles looming large over the stage constantly put the words front and center. It’s like taking a safari ride through stunning wilds of nature and having a tour guide pointing out the features of the tour bus.

Subtitles!

I should take a moment to recognize my bias for a moment. The last time I was in an opera house, it was in Paris to see Alexander Ekman’s Play (despite being held at an opera house and having a name synonymous with acting, it was ballet) and the last performance I’d watched was NT Live’s Hamlet. Both were visually stunning, big-budget pieces. But more importantly, both, even during the most muted segments, were captivating. A lone dancer on a barren stage can demonstrate majesty. They can present the human body in a manner of control that transcends physicality. A lone actor under a spotlight, speaking words from a bygone form of English can expose truth from the soul. Performers can present a deep, emotional connection with nothing but force of will. They can be magicians who pull the human spirit out of a hat. I consider myself as ignorant in all the performing arts, but I was moved during each of those previously mentioned shows (and many more). I mention all of this because I don’t want you to think me a philistine when I tell you that we left the show at intermission.

It’s not that I’m incapable of appreciating opera as an art form. It’s that there was nothing in the show that was captivating. There were brief moments, but the whole was plodding, disconnected from any emotional connection, and lacked consistently compelling elements. The music meandered. The story, from Greek Mythology, has been adapted many times over the years (indeed, it’s the oldest surviving opera) and it feels overdue for an update. While the show is being touted for its novel approach of being told from the point of view of Eurydice (rather than the male lead, Orpheus), she never really develops into an independent character. She is always something revolving around her male counterparts: fiancée, wife, daughter. There was nothing as a character to connect with. Again, opera isn’t a play, so I’m not judging it on character development. It’s not ballet, so I’m not judging it on choreography. It is the medium of music, performance, and presentation. As a show, it just didn’t captivate me. The music was, without a doubt, performed at the highest level. The singers were of the highest caliber. Everyone involved clearly worked very hard at every aspect, but it didn’t add-up to something worth continuing to sit through (again, for me). What a horrible thing to say, but there we are.

Just before intermission, Orpheus plots to venture to the underworld to be reunited with Eurydice by falling asleep with a straw in his mouth so he can crawl through it to hell. I turned to Megan and asked, “think that straw thing will work? Because I’m about to try it.”

At intermission, everyone rushed to the bathrooms. The pre-show wine had been knocking at the door for the past half hour. This is where the back row seats were super convenient as Megan and I got to the restrooms before the throngs. I’ve never heard such a large crowd so quiet at an intermission. Usually the lobby is a din of conversation. Megan overheard the following conversation in the women’s room: woman #1 (cautiously) “so… what do you think?” woman #2 (very non-committal) “ummm…”. The men’s room was dead silent, but that’s usually the case.

Once back in the lobby, it took roughly 40 seconds for us to start heading to the door. Megan told me she’d stick it out, but was also down to take off. I told her I’m unfamiliar with opera, but that this show seemed… bad. Very astute observation, I know. We agreed that a cocktail was more desirable than returning to the show.

Pre-Drink selfie. I’m excited!

First stop was a bar that shall not be named, but the waiter described one of their drinks, in one of the most Los Angeles moments of my life, as “a kale forward cocktail”. For what it’s worth, I opted for a carrot-forward cocktail. It was very good. We stayed for a couple drinks before moving on to 71 Above, atop the First Interstate building (or US Bank or whatever it’s called now). The idea was to have another drink and then to find somewhere to have dinner, but one drink lead to another and we ate there. Chit chatted and had a grand time.

This is what a grand time looks like.

As far as the list goes, this one is done. I attended an opera, even if we didn’t stay. The evening was much more memorable than if the show had been just ok. Spending the evening with a good friend, catching up on her life and sharing mine is what makes life so good. Someday my brain will just give into that fact.

Would I go again? Absolutely. But I’d heed the advice I’d heard from many people: start with a classic. In Italian.

Difficulty: Easy. Luckily I live in a city with an opera house, but even my small hometown had opportunities to see traveling operas. Ticket prices can be steep, but lower-priced options are also available. I recommend sneaking in the back by carrying a tuba and saying you are in the orchestra. Or maybe pose as an oboe groupie (note: there is no such thing).

Lessons Learned:

  • You can still win while losing – While the actual opera was a bust, the evening was a memorable one due to good company and a willingness to change plans. Having options is also nice.
  • Once is a small sample size – While my in person experience was not the bee’s knees, the Metropolitan Opera in New York stared streaming older shows when the covid-19 quarantine started and I watched several of them, finding them to be compelling in a way that Eurydice was not. This included classics and English shows.
  • The right companion matters – Have you ever invited a friend to watch a movie or see a band that you like only to have them hate or ridicule it/them? As good as it is to share experiences, it’s equally important to share them with the ‘right’ people. Many of my friends had no interest in going to an opera. Had I gone with them, it would have been a nightmare. Likewise, some might have been more resistant to cutting bait and ditching-out. Megan was the perfect person to have this experience with. Pick your companions wisely.