Saturday 29 October 2016

I hear the fat lady singing

Having always thought opera ridiculous and gardening dull, Emily Hourican finds a worrying new love of both

Emily Hourican

Published 25/05/2015 | 02:30

Richard Gere and Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman
Richard Gere and Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman
Emily Hourican

I have always wondered if I have what might be called 'soul'. You know, an instinctive understanding of the fine and beautiful things in life; something untaught, unforced, even unexpected? Well, there is, according to Hollywood, one sure way to find out: opera - the fastest way of sorting the exquisite from the uncouth.

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Take Pretty Woman. How does the film establish the fact that, although Julia Roberts is a hooker, she is also a person of quality and natural refinement? By taking her to the opera, where Richard Gere's personality-disordered industrialist patronisingly explains that some people just don't get this most rarefied of art forms. The lights go down, and, there on screen, from the opening notes of La Traviata, Julia Roberts is gripped, engrossed, living every moment as if it were her own story; laughing at the jokes, her tears rolling down her face at the tragic ending.

Revolting, really, but very much on my mind as I headed off for my own first opera experience recently. Puccini's Madame Butterfly (I suspect this is entry-level stuff; like Swan Lake for ballet amateurs). Now, as someone who veers towards the naturalistic, even gritty, in films and theatre, I have always presumed that the sight of people screeching about love and betrayal would make me laugh in mocking disbelief.

Instead - what do you know? - it turns out that I am Julia Roberts. A spontaneous lover of opera. I enjoyed every second of it, and was moved (nearly) to tears by the dastardly cruelty of Lieutenant B F Pinkerton. This is a matter of both pride and secret mortification. According to Hollywood, I have soul. However, when I examine my own life carefully, and put my new love of opera together with something else that is new and high up on my list of 'preferred leisure activities' - namely, gardening - then sadly, what the two together spell is not so much soul, as 'life stages'.

I didn't see this coming. How is it possible for me to have gone from having no interest in stuff like flower borders, soil pH, and generally tinkering about with trowels and rakes, to feeling that every moment not spent on my knees digging up weeds, or wondering would a clump of purple alliums look good at the back of a mixed border, is somehow wasted?

To go from sniggering at the idea of 'middle-aged fat people caterwauling at each other and pretending to be young and in the throes of first love', to wondering can there any more sublime expression of the intense tragedy and beauty of the human condition than that expressed through the arias of Puccini, Mozart and Verdi?

Suddenly, I am a walking cliche; something out of a Joanna Trollope novel or a Richard Curtis film. When I think about giving an account to my Younger Self - 'honestly, you'll see, opera isn't bad at all, and really, digging around with bits of earth is surprisingly good fun' - I cringe. A sea-change has been affected on my nature, without warning. As far as I can see, I went to bed one night as myself, with whatever haphazard bundle of personality traits and interests I have accumulated over the years, and woke up as someone else: my mother.

Now, I probably should have seen it coming (Oscar Wilde did try to warn me). After all, while many of her friends were changing jobs, husbands and hairstyles, driven by unacknowledged mid-life crises, my mother chose to divert her energies into creating the most beautiful garden out of what had been a muddy football pitch, while strains of The Magic Flute drifted out

of the house towards her.

And, truth be told, I get easily as much pleasure now from my hours choosing between various grasses and planning a trip to the Wexford Festival Opera (Tosca this year . . .), as I ever did from nightclubs or festivals.. Actually, if I'm strictly honest - and please never tell my Younger Self - perhaps I get a little more pleasure. For everything, and everyone, there is a season. This seems to be mine.

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