Well, I watched President Obama smile broadly as he signed the boondoggle stimulus bill that sends us, our children, and grand-children for untold generations into economic slavery. This thing had better work, but I have no faith in it. Of course, Congress has no Constitutional authority to bail out companies or citizens who make stupid mistakes, but, then again, they don't have Constitutional authority to enact most of the social legislation they have enacted for the last eighty years or so. The federal Gummit continues to usurp the powers delegated to the states and denied to the feds by articles nine and ten of the Bill of Rights. But hey, it's hard to know what is in the Constitution when you haven't read it since you were in high school, and we all know how well teenagers pay attention to dry stuff like American history. The members of the great Den of Thieves don't amend the Constitution to get what they want, they just ignore it.
Last Friday, my wife, Chris, and daughter, Rebekah, went to the Ballet West production of Madam Butterfly. It was a wonderful production danced to Puccini's lush music, but I did miss the singing. Madam Butterfly was the first opera I saw live. The first memoir I wrote for my memoir class three years ago was about that experience.
Mia Notte Bella“Hey, kid, are you an usher?” asks the man working the push broom on the sidewalk in front of Melodyland Theatre. I guess I look like an usher in my dark brown, vested suit.
“No, I am here to see the opera.”
“You’re a little early aren’t you? They won’t open the box office for another hour,” he smirks as he pushes dust into the flower bed.
I am a little embarrassed, so I don’t answer. I ignore him and go stand in front of the poster display of coming attractions with my hands in my empty pockets. Empty pockets. That means something, but it doesn’t register. Too excited to think about anything but what is going to happen in a little over an hour, I sit on the cement bench next to the main doors by the box office. The push broom guy glances over at me and smirks again. Yeah, guy, I’m a little early.
OK, so I’m a lot early. I am so early that mine was the first car in the parking lot. After I had sat in the car listening to Beethoven on the radio for half an hour, mine was still the only car in the parking lot. That had made me nervous. I took my ticket out of my shirt pocket a couple of times to make sure I had the right day. Then I turned off the radio and waited there for a few more minutes. The late afternoon sun was heating up the car. I got out of the car, made sure the door had locked when I shut it, and took a walk around the theatre. The Saturday afternoon traffic on Harbor Boulevard a block away was a rhythmic hum punctuated occasionally with steam train whistles and bells from Disneyland on the other side of Harbor Boulevard.
This adventure began last Monday, during morning announcements. The student announcer mentioned that the office had a few student discount tickets for a production of Madame Butterfly staring Licia Albanese. I had just enough money in my wallet to buy a ticket- three dollars. Right after class I maneuvered my way through the crowded halls and across the commons to the office before they could run out of tickets. I was the only senior to buy a ticket. Heck, I was the only student out of 3300 kids to buy a ticket. Silly me for worrying they would run out of tickets before I got there.
Sitting on the bench, anticipation builds. I have seen a lot of plays and musicals in Los Angeles and Orange County, but this is my first live opera, and the principal singers are all Metropolitan Opera stars. I have heard these singers on the radio because I listen to the Saturday Texico Opera broadcast whenever I can. I bought the complete Aida album with Leontine Price a couple of years ago and have almost worn it out. I have excerpt recordings of other operas, and I have seen The Pearl Fishers on television. But this is my first in-the-flesh opera experience.
People finally start arriving. The box office opens. As more people arrive, the chatter grows louder as they stroll around looking at the spring flowers or mingle in casual conversation outside the doors. Everyone is dressed up: suits, ties, evening gowns. I am squirming a bit on the hard bench impatient for the doors to open into the lobby that encircles the theatre. I am ready to move inside to a padded theatre seat.
Finally! The doors open. I slide off the bench and blend into the first group of patrons flowing into the lobby. I maneuver to the left and find “Door B” where my ticket says I am to enter the theatre. The door usher tears the stub off my ticket, and says, “To the aisle on the right, please.” Another usher hands me a program and directs me to row five, section B. I slip into the row and ease into the third seat from the aisle. Melodyland Theatre is in the round, so all the seats have a good view of the stage. I have been here once before, last fall, when the drama club came to see Martha Raye in The Solid Gold Cadillac.
I sit. I wait. I thumb through the four page program and read the half-page insert.
The stage is set like a Japanese garden, and the lighting gives the impression of evening sunlight filtering through trees. It reminds me a bit of the Japanese decorations for the junior/senior prom theme “Sayonara.” I wonder what Karen McNeil, my prom date, is doing tonight as the small orchestra starts tuning up. I wonder if I had had enough money for two tickets if she would have come with me. She likes popular musicals, but she’s not really into classical music.
None of my friends and none of my family like opera, and they can’t understand why I do. It’s hard to explain why it is so enjoyable for me. Once I got hooked on classical music, opera seemed to be the next step for me. I know that there are many people who like classical music but don’t care for opera. To me it is the ultimate theatrical experience: the heightened sense of drama, or melodrama, the characters, the staging, the voices, the extreme emotions intensified by beautiful music. I have always been a sucker for schmaltz, so it doesn’t matter how outlandish or sentimental a production might be, I’ll most always enjoy it; and, unless a production is completely awful, I have a complete suspension of disbelief.
The lights dim. The conductor comes out, and we acknowledge him with polite applause. Everything is silence . . . the music begins. Now there is no reality except for what is happening on the stage, in the music, in the voices. Life is wonderful.
The action in act one is stopped a few times by applause, almost like the audience has control over how the plotted events of the story will proceed. In act two, the emotional tension is building as Cio-Cio San (Albanese) refuses to accept the fact that she has been abandoned by that bounder Pinckerton. She begins to sing softly “Un Bel Dì.”, a melodious whisper murmuring over the tremulous strings of the orchestra. Her voice rises with strength and power until she pulls out all the emotional stops and soars triumphantly into the climax of the aria. Almost before she hits the final note, the audience explodes. I am on my feet with the rest of them cheering and clapping. The man next to me yells, “Brava! Brava!” I hear others calling out the same. I am too self-conscious to yell “Brava” myself, so I clap louder. My hands hurt, but I keep clapping. Albanese is bowing to each section of the auditorium. Several people throw roses onto the stage, and she gracefully picks them up. The conductor tries to proceed, but we drown out the orchestra. From across the auditorium I hear someone call out for an encore. In a moment, I am yelling “Encore! Encore!” and clapping to the rhythm of this powerful chant along with the rest of the audience. The conductor, surrendering to our demands, nods his head to the audience, then, turning, nods to Albanese. He faces the orchestra and holds his baton at the ready, waiting for the audience to settle back into our seats. There is a cough here and there as the rustling fades, and it is silence again. The introduction of the aria begins, and she sings again those hopeful words: “One beautiful day, we shall see a strand of smoke arising over the far horizon on the sea, and then the ship appears …”
The last act is hard to get through. I didn’t bring any Kleenex. I struggle through the last half of the act trying to keep my tear ducks under control. I have done my opera “homework,” darn it! I know the plot; I know the characters; I am familiar with the music. I just want to enjoy the music and the voices and not get emotionally involved. But that darned Puccini music sucks me in, beats me up, and leaves my heart beating painfully in my throat, my face flushed, my eyes rheumy. When the final dissonant cord rattles through me I am emotionally exhausted, but I jump to my feet with everyone else, cheering and clapping.
This spiritual and emotional cleansing, this catharsis, is what opera is all about. Non opera lovers might feel the same at a raw, emotionally charged sporting event where two closely matched teams clash on the brittle edge of exultant victory or humiliating defeat. In an opera, regardless of the interpretation of the production, there is no question about how it will end: it’s in the script; the plot is always the same. But as with sport, it is the glorious struggle to reach that end which is so satisfying.
I relax in my seat watching the rest of the audience flow out of the theatre with happy after-the-show chatter and laughter. My hands are red and throbbing from clapping. Finally, I leave my seat and amble out into the cool May night. It is long after midnight, and there is a moist, early morning chill in the air. The parking lot is quickly clearing out as I saunter to the car savoring mia notte bella, my beautiful night.
Then I remember: empty pockets.
Stunned, I lean against the hood of the car and take a deep breath to clear my mind. The last few cars rumble out of the parking lot abandoning me to the dark beneath the faint glow of the lampposts. I stride anxiously back to the theatre, the joy of the evening trammeled by my stupid carelessness. I take my emergency dime out of my wallet, put it in the pay phone, and dial the number. After a few rings my dad groggily answers the phone.
“Dad, I’m sorry to wake you up, but I locked the keys in the car.”
 Licia Albanese, b. 22 July 1913