An opera singer lives in my apartment block, one apartment over from me, and two floors up. I hear him practising occasionally, and all it takes is the initial sound of his wonderful tenor voice cutting like crystal through the air to make me throw open the door to my terrace so that I can hear him more clearly. It’s a sound that never ceases to lift my spirits.
In the wake of the untimely death of opera singer Cara O’Sullivan last week, I have been playing a lot of opera music these past few days. I’m no expert, mind you, when it comes to the finer points of this particular musical genre; I was in my late 30s before I discovered the joy of it, thinking throughout my teens and 20s that it was too elitist. How wrong I was.
There is such a lot of nonsense talked about opera – not least that specific and often trotted out accusation that it’s elitist.
What it actually is, is incredible drama, with all aspects of the human condition acted out in an extraordinary musical form. It’s all there – from love and loss and desire and passion, to jealousy, tragedy and utter heartbreak. Soap opera of a sort. EastEnders with arias.
Opera music is common in the everyday – in advertisements on television and in the films that we watch. Just think of La Traviata in Pretty Woman, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in The Shawshank Redemption, and Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana in Raging Bull. Not surprising, really, when you consider that, as an art form, it was once synonymous with popular culture. Still is, in many places in the world.
My operatic love affair began in earnest while on a visit to St Petersburg in 1999 when I was converted by a performance of Boris Godunov (even though these days it would be far from my favourite opera) at what was then called the Mussorgsky Theatre. On a freezing cold November night, men, women and children of all ages flocked through the streets of the city to the performance, just a regular night out for the locals for whom going to the opera – where prices were kept low for Russian citizens – was just like a trip to the cinema for the rest of us.
More recently I witnessed similar scenes in the opera house in Zurich where I couldn’t take my eyes off one little girl (no more than six years of age) as she and her slightly older sister hung over the balcony, mesmerised by the music and the drama playing out down below them.
Opera is for everyone. Some operas obviously have more appeal than others but all you have to do is give it a chance. Remember how Luciano Pavarotti’s rendition of a Puccini aria in front of a World Cup soccer audience gave us a glimpse of that reality. For if his performance of Nessun Dorma could transfix thousands and thousands of football fans at Italia ’90 and in homes in front of television screens around the world, then what, you’d have to ask, is not to like about opera?
Apart from the wonderful musical compositions and the exquisite vocals, it’s the universality of the stories that do it for me. For who hasn’t known a woman abandoned for a younger lover, just like Norma in the Bellini opera that bears her name? Or a family where the son or daughter’s choice of partner doesn’t please their parents – like Alfredo in La Traviata? Ordinary, everyday problems, conveyed in an extraordinary way.
I spent years avoiding opera, but what a journey of discovery it’s been since that night in St Petersburg. Whether just listening to the music, attending performances in every foreign city I visit or heading to the cinema for streamed performances from Milan or the Met, I can honestly say that, despite my limited knowledge and my late arrival to the opera party, it has definitely enhanced my life.
What I’m hoping for now, as the evenings lengthen and the temperature rises, is that my tenor on the top floor might take requests, so that we can all leave our windows open for a glorious night at the opera.