Opera: Remembrance in three acts

Bird-catcher as youth.

Given the lapses already revealed, I should hesitate before admitting love of opera. Caution, however, is not a watch word when one is born with sun and four planets in Leo, five if you count little Pluto. Off we go.

I think it started in ’66. Say age eleven more or less. One Saturday I slowly panned the FM tuner on my mother’s big stereo console, looking for something to spice up life in La Porte, Texas. None of the snatches was engaging until a broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera burst from the left end of the dial. I knew about The Met. I had read about The Met. That it reached into Texas was a revelation. I had read about opera. I had heard performances by concert bands and symphony orchestras, and choirs with soloists, and I had seen plays—and ballets, which is another reminiscence for another time. I imagined I knew what opera was about. One more in a life list of mistaken assumptions.

What work was performed? I cannot tell you. I want to say Carmen, but I do not actually remember that. What I do remember is ruckus and blare and rumble and the power of sudden soft and quiet, and language I could almost but not quite understand—so it might have been French—and a tableau unfolding through artful sound. Like other kids along the Houston Ship Channel, I loved rock-and-roll ferociously, but this experience started global elbows prodding a small town world. Here was a phenomenon that blew all the senses. My father never even shouted to turn it down.

Opera was a largely uncelebrated love during years in La Porte. It had no detectable fan base in the community with whom to share. When I was thirteen I did say something unguarded about Wagner to my Uncle Dennis in New Orleans, who then held forth on the composer for at least a half hour. That was the first I knew of his passion for the Ring cycle. My aunt, it seems, had an inflexible rule that no opera could be played when she was in the house. It must be a communicable virus. The woman to whom I was once married insisted the same.

The year I learned to drive, my parents gave me season tickets to the Houston Grand Opera. My first date with the girl I remember as my high school sweetheart was also my first time in a theater to experience one of these spectacles live: Donizetti’s La fille du régiment (The Daughter of the Regiment). Not long into the second act, my date kissed me without warning full on the lips. I think there may have been more music and singing before the ovations. Something kept happening on stage for a while, I’m pretty sure. To this day I maintain that La fille du régiment is the best Donizetti. On this point there is simply no argument. Also, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly makes for good smooching. FYI.

Undeniably, the magic of a girlfriend willing to share those season tickets lay in the operatic—maybe operettic—cast of the relationship. Purely on impulse, before better judgment could intercede, I asked someone a full step higher on the high school attractiveness scale and a full step closer to the center of Cool if she would like to go to the, um, opera. As soon as the words were out, I wanted to take them back. I wanted to revert instantly to the goofy guy who was sometimes a hoot and always willing to help with geometry. I wanted to undestroy the trust and tolerance just exploded. I wanted to suck all of being with me under a rock before she could realize I was an idiot. Then she said, “Yes.” Color your hero too dumbstruck to panic.

The memory resonates with a subplot I consider among the greatest ever, sung or otherwise, that weaves through a favorite singspiel, The Magic Flute. You may know the story of Prince Tamino, a dull paragon worthy of the Marvel universe, who proceeds by predictable courage, dedication, resourcefulness, strength and purity to win the hand of an equally stale Princess Pamina. Only Mozart’s music could breathe life into that exhausted plot. Far more interesting is Tamino’s sidekick, the bird-catcher, Papageno.

Boastful, cowardly, opportunistic and false, Papageno is set as Tamino’s companion with a promise that if he can win through their trials, act with courage, stay true, and basically prove a better person than he has ever shown, he will be rewarded with his perfect companion. What I love about the story is that Papageno fails every test. He fails utterly. The only thing he manages to prove is that he is unworthy of his promised reward. By the rules as they have been played, he does not deserve his perfect companion.

Here is the wonderful part. His perfect companion, Papagena, falls in love with him anyway. She doesn’t love him because he deserves it, because he doesn’t and he knows it. She loves him because she likes him, bird-catcher though he is. As if she could tell that maybe sometimes he’s a hoot and good at geometry. Loving for no good reason, she holds out hope to the rest of the bird-catchers. However slight, there is always a chance. Amidst all the ruckus and blare and rumble of Habdvarsha, there is always a chance. I tap magic bells.