When you become old enough to appreciate opera

As mentioned in a recent cross post, my grandfather died twenty years ago, while my most of the family was attending a wedding in Switzerland. As the patriarch of a large family (13 children and 32 grandchildren with my grandmother), his passing had quite an impact.

Grandfather was very fond of opera. I never knew how he acquired the taste for it, but he was a very cosmopolitan man. Then, Bangkok was a Western-culture backwater relative to La Scala or Bayreuth, so any occasion to see opera he appreciated keenly.  He also had no compunction about buying 10 tickets whenever there was some sort of performance coming to town, and then requiring all his progeny to accompany him.

Once, it was a film of Don Giovanni (Kiri Te Kanawa was in it) being shown at the Alliance Francaise on a weeknight.  “Can’t I stay home instead and not go?” I grumbled to my parents.  If you were a fifth-grader like me, wouldn’t you have preferred to stay home and watch a Chinese martial arts TV show, rather than a bunch of bewigged fops singing in a language you didn’t understand with music you never heard?

“No, Grandfather bought tickets. We have to go.”

I was bored sh-tless. Even worse, I was really cranky that I was missing my TV show, and I vented my feelings by kicking the seat in front of me. Something Ramona the Pest would have done. As I was wearing my sturdy school shoes, they made very satisfying thumps. My parents scolded me afterwards.

Today, I still feel guilty for having disturbed whomever it was who had the misfortune to sit in front of me that night. Because I’ve evolved to become one of those people who carry a folding fan to the opera, not because I have affectations of looking like a cartoon-dowager-at-the-opera, but because it serves a practical purpose: to tap people to let them know to shut up or stop using their smart phone while the performance is going on. Now, those are the sources of crankiness for me!

The next command attendance from Grandfather was better: a live performance of Hansel and Gretel, the opera by Engelbert Humperdinck (not to confused with the pop-singer of the same name.) At least this opera had a plot I was familiar with. But even more eye-widening for me was the double cross-casting: the role of Hansel was played by a woman, and she was Japanese. I find out now that the role was always intended for a mezzo-soprano. But the sight of an Asian singing in a German opera, I spent the whole night trying to wrap my head around that concept! This was an inkling awakening to the concept that you didn’t have to be white to be cast as a white character . . .

My grandfather was very lively and energetic. He walked fast and didn’t like sitting still. When he was felled by his first heart-attack, he was not happy to be trapped in a hospital bed for days.  “Go and buy me some opera, like Rigoletto or La Traviata,” he groused.  My aunts searched high and low for cassette tapes of opera for him: Bangkok was the kind of town where you could buy pirated cassettes of Teresa Teng or ABBA on any street corner, but Verdi was like hen’s teeth.  Eventually they found some. Grandfather gained a modicum of solace listening to opera on a walkman while imprisoned in his ICU. Unfortunately, at this age he was also rather deaf, so he blasted the volume to the max.  This disturbed the other patients in the ICU, so they had to move him to a private room!

The autumn after Grandfather died, I bought a student subscription to the SF Opera, at 75% off the regular price. It seemed too good of a bargain to pass up, so I splurged on orchestra seats.

In keeping with the spirit of Chinese ancestor worship, I took Grandfather along with me to each opera, in the form of a photo of him. The more conventional offerings to our dearly departed are food and fake money, but I felt he would enjoy the opera just as much. This gave me a modicum of solace after his death, by doing something that would make him happy. The last time I had seen him was after I graduated, just before I left for the Trans-Siberia train ride. He had been very disappointed that I was going to graduate school for engineering afterwards

By then, I was in my early twenties. Attending the full season of opera, as well as seeing other musicals (this was the golden era of Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon), I found myself enjoying opera: how the music, acting, staging and even the singing in a foreign language could convey such emotional arcs that were universally understandable and moving.

(Likewise, when I went to Suzhou for the first time in my mid-twenties, I was enthralled by all the gardens. I was blissfully content to sit for hours in each one, just savoring the atmosphere. If I had visited Suzhou at an earlier age, I would have been really bored by the gardens. So I’m glad I visited them when I did, at a point where I had matured enough to appreciate them.)

I could just as easily credit Merrie Melodies cartoons for sowing the seeds of familiarity with operatic chestnut tunes, but I think the early exposure from Grandfather’s forced-fed introductions to opera had one very important impact on me: I was not intimidated by the idea of going to opera, or any other sort of live cultural performance.  I went one step beyond: I have no problems going to see a performance by myself, because there’s no way I could get 10 of my nearest or dearest to go with me! And I do often go solo; sometimes Joe would just have a more enjoyable afternoon watching football at home!

I actually almost never go to the SF Opera anymore, the hassle of going up there, and the cost, etc.  But earlier this month, I saw Rigoletto for the first time. I never knew what the plot was about, all I knew was the “la donna e mobile” song.  And at 50% off Travelzoo discount, we splurged on box seats! I went with Truc; she’d never been to the opera before, and wanted to go, but didn’t have anyone to go with.  “Anytime you’re going to the opera, let me know because I want to come along.” Truc enjoyed it, although I told her she was a bit spoiled for sitting in box seats for her first-ever opera. From here on out, if she sits in orchestra or nosebleed seats, it won’t seem as good.

I did bring Grandfather’s photo along as I usually do when I go to an opera, but now I really missed him being around. I wish I could have asked him why he liked Rigoletto so much. The storyline is a bit more disturbing and complicated than the usual tragic-lovers tale. Were there particular elements he particularly empathized with?  I did like it though, so much, I wanted to go see it again the next night, even by myself, but the discount was no longer available so I didn’t go.

Funny thing is, I was telling my other friend Robynn afterwards about going to the opera. “Oh,” she exclaimed. “I’ve always wanted to go to the opera. But I can’t find anyone to go with me.” If only I’d known!

Or, if only everyone had a slightly eccentric grandfather like mine.

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