LC Van Savage
Tony, Opera And Us
Remember Tony Randal? Good actor and a very funny, droll comedian. I enjoyed everything I ever saw him in, and am seriously annoyed that he died. But before he did that, I became very interested in hearing him speak about opera. Tony Randal loved it with a huge passion, and seemingly knew absolutely everything there was to know about every opera ever written and everything about the composers, conductors, orchestra members, instruments, staging, crew, and of course, the singers. He patiently and most hilariously explained to us unbelievers that opera is far from boring, and convinced us of that fact by explaining that operas tell incredible stories, mostly risqué, raunchy, tragic and comical and that “most of them would be banned in Boston!” They never were, of course. Tony Randal, when he was on TV or the radio and began to talk about the art of opera, made it all sound so good for people like me who, until then thought opera was a bunch of caterwauling people who loved to show their adoring audiences how they could sing lustily while lying on their backs. With a sword sticking out of their bellies. With their sobbing, warbling lovers lying prone across their sucking chest wounds. Boring. ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.
My Staten Island high school and many others used to take all the kids in the 11th grade into the Metropolitan Opera in NYC to hear the dress rehearsals of whatever famous opera was coming up next. We got to sit way up high in the balconies off to the left—or right, whatever, and not one of us were there to get culture as our teachers and parents so desperately hoped. We dropped non lethal things like paper planes, candy wrappers, Raisinettes, the libretti and chewed gum over the railings and laughed wildly when we saw them land on people’s heads and laughed even harder when those heads turned and glared up at us and shouted things, and even gestured rudely. Delicious stuff back then. Oh such sweet memories!
The Met dress rehearsals were really fun. Yes, there were times when the conductor would actually stop the music and shout at us to shut up or get out, and we’d quiet down a little, suppressing laughter, and would then quickly start up again. Our teachers all but gave up. But the best part of those rehearsals were the emotions the singers expressed, and it was not usually in the context of the opera’s story; it was because the performers were so incredibly stressed about the rehearsal itself, and the slightest problem set them off. I will never forget the lead singer having a huge melt-down, falling to his knees and crawling toward the orchestra pit and the conductor himself, shouting and screaming in a most embarrassingly high-pitched shriek, shaking his fist at the man with the baton, stretching his arms toward him, pleading horribly in some foreign language, the conductor shouting back at him. And to make matters even worse, the crawling man was wearing a kind of tunic costume, and his knees got caught in it and the thing tore terribly with each crawl. We could hear it. One member of the chorus began yelling “Wardrobe!! Wardrobe!!” and straight out of central casting a little, skinny grey haired lady with a huge pin cushion on her wrist and a load of fabric pieces over her arms and shoulders came trotting out across that mighty stage straight toward the star of that opera, still on his hands and knees, still screaming at the conductor, his tunic in slices. Wardrobe lady fell to her knees next to the now weeping Divo and began to pin his torn tunic together. The great opera star finally stood, stabbed himself in the knees with her pins as he rose, took a deep breath and let out a roar that damn near shattered the chandeliers. It was a most gratifying performance. We all applauded.
When I was growing up, if one dared to confess that one disliked opera because one just didn’t get the story, not understanding German, Italian, French or whatever language in which the opera was written or sung, one was brought up smartly and was told to simply “read the libretto.” Good idea, but those operas are dark, and reading that small booklet was impossible. Flashlights, however small, were simply not permitted. So we just suffered through those torturously long performances trying to look as if we were absorbing culture, all the while planning our next adventures which we were determined would not include opera, and the sooner the better.
Finally, mercifully, some smart person figured the audiences would be much, much bigger and much, much more receptive if they could read subtitles as the opera was performed. Bless them. Mr. Randal used to talk about the importance of bringing opera to everyone, to the masses, that it should be a staple in all walks, that people should be able to attend in any manner of dress or in any manner of social strata, that opera, a most glorious, creative genre, was meant to be enjoyed and loved and learned about by everyone, everywhere. The entire world. I became a fan, an ignorant fan, and then a lesser ignorant fan when I could read the words above or below the stage or the screen, and I could follow the tale and could share in the torments on those stages. Opera is just engulfed in murderous, sexy, sex driven, anguishing, wretched, agonizing, suffering torments! How unutterably delicious!
Mongo and I have truly loved hearing the operas at the Regal Theaters in Brunswick. I mean how cool is it to show up in jeans, sit with a cauldron of popcorn on your lap, pay $20 apiece and hear the greatest operas ever written and the most glorious singing imaginable, up close and personal. It’s a luxury we never saw coming and we intend to remain devotees forever. What a thrill! And, at least for us, and we are card-carrying opera Cretins, we love going because the words are right there and we can follow the story every music-rich inch of the way. We love having our ears blown off by those glorious, magnificent voices. We love the ornate, fabulous costumes, the sets, the interviews, everything. It’s all done to perfection. And best of all, we don’t have to pretend we know what’s happening as we had to years ago. Now we know. Now we get to understand every single salacious, ribald, passionate scene. We are hooked for life! Thank you Tony Randal, for insisting that everyone give opera a chance, because just as we did, they’ll likely end up loving it.
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