Runners-up in the Opera Now Montblanc competition
15 October 2013
Thank you to our many readers from all over the world who sent in their memorable encounters of opera.
My first time
I first experienced opera in an Iowa City living room. A friend of mine asked me to accompany him to a DVD screening at the home of an Austrian couple. I would be the only person who wasn’t, in his words, an ‘opera fanatic.’
I was anxious. I searched for opera information online. I learned new phrases: opera buffa and libretto and bel canto. I researched the history of the show we were watching, then listened to various renditions of the music we would be hearing.
The internet had no answers for one of my biggest concerns: what do you wear to a living room opera? I decided jeans and a sweater were fine.
The night came, and the four of us had a home-cooked Austrian dinner and then watched Così fan tutte on a flat-screen TV. I enjoyed the music, the production, and the acting (even though I didn’t understand a word of what I was watching).
Before that night, opera was something I thought I could only appreciate during opening ceremonies of the Olympics or when an opera singer released a new Christmas album. Before that night, I thought someone like me could never be cultured enough to ‘get’ opera.
To be fair, I still don’t ‘get’ opera. I’m not comfortable discussing the relative merits of the Italian and German style. I’m not interested in comparing Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and Anna Netrebko. They’re all great, to me.
I’m an uneducated beginner, but watching my first opera in an Iowa living room taught me to appreciate opera on my own terms. Feel like switching between arias and Jay Z on YouTube? Go for it! Don’t have enough money to visit the Lyric Opera for every show? Do what you can.
The lesson was: enjoy opera in living rooms, in theatres, or through live broadcasts of the Met at your local cinema. Rent a tux when you have to; but, if you enjoy it, find ways to experience opera on your terms.
Maybe someday I’ll feel educated enough to choose between modern or traditional stagings of classic operas (I think I prefer modern stagings ... but I love traditional too). Until then, I’ll enjoy it however I can.
Drew Cummings-Peterson, Iowa USA
A lingering memory
It was Nabucco in 1953, performed by what was at the time the pro-am Welsh National Opera company. It was at the Grand Theatre Swansea and I was just 14. My father persuaded me to go; he was a good amateur tenor of concert standard, but he couldn’t go with me as he was working night shifts at the local steelworks.
I caught the bus for an eight-mile ride into Swansea and queued. There was some advance publicity but we couldn’t book as we had no phone. It was a long queue and I was kept busy by looking at pictures of the stars – Ruth Packer as Abigaille and Tano Ferendinos as Ismaele. I can’t remember the others sadly. One comment in the queue was ‘any good tunes in this one?’ We also saw the chorus arriving at the stage door, many still in their work clothes.
The box office opened and I bought my ticket which was way up in the ‘gods’. The opera began. I was stunned; the colour, the sound, the costumes, the exoticism of Nebuchadnezzar’s Mesopotamia, couldn’t be further removed from the coal mining and steelmaking grimness of the lower Swansea Valley in the early ’50s. How did they manage to get the massive and monumental sets up there? How did the singers sing over the orchestra? When ‘Va, pensiero’ ended, there was silence and then a crash of sound I have never heard since – even when Wales beat England at rugby!
Then it was over. I left the theatre in a daze, got to the bus stop and found I had spent all my money on a programme and a drink. So I walked home, all eight miles, humming and singing all I could remember. I got home shattered and my mother frantic as it was after 11 at night and I had school the next day.
It was unforgettable, however, and I became an instant operaphile – and I still am at 74 years of age.
David Price, Tonbridge, Kent
A star is born
Cape Town as a venue for operatic productions is by no means a rival for the great companies operating at Covent Garden, the Met and other famous houses. Our currency is too weak, and our shores too distant to attract booked-to-the-hilt stars like Netrebko and Kaufmann.
Fortunately we have some enviable home-grown talent, though admittedly they operate out of more conveniently located cities like London and Milan. Thus it was that local opera lovers girded their loins and dusted off their finery when Pretty Yende and Colin Lee rolled into town for a concert performance of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, under the baton of Richard Bonynge. Front row seats were the only sensible choice
Colin Lee is a favourite in Cape Town, but it must be said that the evening was Pretty’s. She trained at the University of Cape Town some years ago, and it was clear from the start that here was an exceptional talent. Even so, her meteoric rise has taken our breath away. Is this the little girl inspired by a British Airways ad? There was a palpable sense of excitement. She just had to walk onto the stage to have us in the palm of her hand. And what a performance it was, her soaring lyric soprano washing over us, her clarion top notes sending shivers down our spines. I glanced at the audience behind me. The word swooning came to mind. During her mad aria I struggled to suppress hysterical giggles: it was so…well…insane. The standing ovation went on and on, and when Richard Bonynge warmly congratulated her, I couldn’t help wondering if he was remembering his late wife Joan Sutherland’s benchmark performances of this aria.
What an impossible task Colin Lee had, with so much of his role still to come, and after such a climax. So here’s my confession: Lee’s Edgardo stole the show. I’m a sucker for a lyric tenor, and what a lyric tenor we had! A friend commented to me afterwards that this thought kept on flicking through her brain: he sings like an accountant. She didn’t know that he is one, and it was meant (believe it or not) as a compliment. His passionate, effortless lyricism was so precisely rendered that I immediately understood why my friend had thought accountant. I’m sure that was Pretty’s mother sitting three seats down from me (didn’t have the courage to ask). She was the first to leap to her feet to give him the standing ovation he deserved.
I don’t need to tell you the rest: the clap clap, bow bow, trooping in and out, smile smile. The race to the car park. There’s something about world-class opera: it stays with you forever.
Rose-Mary Hyslop, Cape Town, South Africa