A Night at the Opera

I’m currently taking an introductory seminar called, “A View from the Podium: The Art of Conducting.” Limited to freshmen, and only about 15-20, it’s a specialized class working with the Stanford Orchestra Director to learn about conducting. Watching tapes of the greats, determining their stylistic and musical differences, and such.

As part of that, we went in to the San Francisco Opera House to see “Appomattox,” a new opera by Philip Glass. The world premiere is actually on Oct. 5th, but we got in for a dress rehearsal, which is just as good, and helps make this review extra-special.

The other part that makes this review extra-special is that I have never seen an opera before. Musicals, yes, but definitely nothing like this. My ignorance kinda makes me feel bad about what I’m going to say next, but I’m an honest guy.

It was impressive. The singers and pit musicians were obviously all very talented, and the stage direction and acting were effective. I just didn’t get anything from it. The story focuses around the major dramatic figures of the Civil War, including Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Julia Grant, and Mary Todd Lincoln. The main narrative takes place in the last month or so of the war, and deals mostly with the issues and problems of the major characters.

When the opera began, I immediately thought of an incident during my senior year. I had declared a day, “Say everything in song” day, telling all of my friends about it and my intent on following it. I thought it would be a little weird, but doable. I very quickly learned that it really wasn’t. Normal speech isn’t conducive to singing. While people may have different tones and stresses in English speech, the patterns don’t necessarily fit with melody. Kind of the converse, if you take song lyrics and read them without the song, in plain speech, it still has a poetic, abnormal pattern to it.

That’s exactly how the opera felt. Everything fell between common speech and song. The performers were singing, with vibrato and everything, but their words didn’t necessarily fit with what the pit was playing. The shape of the sentence didn’t feel natural, and certain phrases just don’t seem to deserve singing. Several times, I felt like they could’ve changed a word here, or sang this pitch there, to make it feel more musical, but I guess that’s not the style of the opera.

But more specifically to the opera, it felt somewhat contrived. As a historical opera, some context is needed. It just didn’t fit. When Julia Grant went into a monologue about the recent past of Ulysses S. Grant, she didn’t add significant meaning to the play at that point. About the most that I got from it was a ping of joy when she mentioned tidbits of Civil War history that I knew.

Beyond that, I didn’t sense great value to it. As I noted in a previous cinematic review, some works leave me in awe afterwards. I don’t necessarily get it, but I know there’s something there. It’s like looking into a pool. In the shallow end, you know it’s not that deep. Looking into the deep end, you know it’s deep, but really don’t have a sense of how deep, how far it goes. This opera was a five-footer, at best.

A move I did like were some comparisons to modern events. Several scenes cut to future events, such as during the Civil Rights movement, telling the story of how issues in the African-American community resonated through history. Unfortunately, I also think those could’ve been better constructed.

But I definitely feel special having gone to see it before the big release. Mebbe it’ll be a big hit; who knows. Mebbe I’ll be like the people who wondered why anyone would ever buy an MP3 player from Apple. I didn’t quite get the musical experience that I needed for my class though. Actually, the opera seemed like an arbitrary move in general. Any way the wind blows…

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