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Can Operatic Zombies Cause You To Question Your Life Choices?

(this post was published on the Huffington Post)

I've written several articles that were apparently controversial about why Opera doesn't suck. Lately, there have been a lot of people posting things about how opera singers are hot now, so shut up about them only being fat and boring, but that's all been said and done. No, I want to talk to you about how you're wasting your $12.50 going to see Tom Hanks talk to a volleyball (okay, that is a really old reference to Castaway but I still want my money back) when there is this art form out there that you might think is totally bogus, but could actually change your life.

Yes, I'm biased. I'm an opera singer, so of course I think you should like it. If I were a golfer I would tell you that you should like golf, but then again I probably wouldn't need to because there are enough people out there who are obsessed with golf, and they frankly don't need your pity. Opera is a different story. It gets such a bad rap in this country that people constantly use it as the butt of jokes. Like how to torture your husband or how to break glass or how to be so bored you want to kill yourself. But then people will buy self help books like The Secret in the billions in order to try to find some sort of transformative experience in their lives (full disclosure; I totally bought The Secret when it came out and thought it was awesome until I realized it was not going to make me a million dollars after all).

So here's what prompted me to write this article at this moment. Right now, I'm spending the summer at Central City Opera in Colorado singing in an opera called The Barber of Seville. You know, Figaro, Figaro, FEEE-GAAA-ROOOO (think Bugs Bunny). The Barber of Seville is like the Golf of the operatic cannon -- it doesn't need you to like it because anyone who knows boo about opera has heard of it and most regular opera goers will flock to it anywhere it's playing. I mean, it's a masterpiece, so there's that, but we don't NEED you to come to our production. You can if you want, it's super funny and I'm wearing old timey underwear, but The Barber of Seville will continue to thrive whether or not you, oh Huffington Post reader, come see it.

But here in Central City, they are also producing another opera this summer; Our Town, composed by Ned Rorem, which is based on the Thornton Wilder play by the same name. And Our Town, like many operas that have been composed in the last century or so, is more like the Chess Boxing (yes, it exists, google it) of opera. The general complaint about opera is that regular people just won't "get it" and that's probably because they think opera is only from the olden days and only in foreign languages. That's not actually a legitimate excuse, but that's a whole other article. In the meantime, there's a whole bunch of operas that were written by American composers during the past generation that opera companies are afraid to produce because they fear nobody will want to see them. It's really a catch 22 situation -- without modern works that modern audiences can relate to directly, the art form suffers, but the opera companies have to sell tickets, and many regular opera goers just want to see the classics. Central City Opera, however, isn't afraid, and produces modern American operas very frequently.

But (as usual), I digress. Since I'm here at the festival, I had the good fortune to see a performance of Our Town. You may or may not know the play, or you may have just heard a monologue recited from it in your 8th grade drama class (hint; if you've heard of Grover's Corners, you've probably heard said monologue). For those of you who don't know the play, I'll give you a brief rundown of the events. Act One: Boy Next Door and Girl Next Door fall in love. Act Two: They get married. Act Three: She dies and comes back as a zombie only to realize that people just aren't capable of appreciating how amazing every moment in life is while they're living it. Okay, she's not exactly a zombie, she's just a dead person who talks to other dead people, but I really wanted to include the word zombie in the title of my article. What can I say; Zombies sell.

Anyway, I was sitting through the opera and really enjoying everything about it. I was appreciating the things about the play that moved me; the representation of love both young and old, the simplicity of life in a small town at the turn of the century, and of course the idea that we cannot comprehend all the magic that is contained in every single person's regular life every day. So why not just go to a play or watch the movie version of the play on Netflix and be done with it?

Well, there's something kind of indescribable about having these themes set to music, and not only acted but sung both purely and thrillingly by a group of incredibly well trained singers. Yes, these themes are relevant and moving to anyone who is alive, but seeing them enacted by voices that soar directly to your ears with no filter (because opera voices are totally unamplified) pulls on your emotions in ways you didn't realize were possible. When you hear Emily, the main character, talk about all the things she will miss about being alive as spoken text, it certainly moves you to think about those things in your own life. But when you hear her sing that speech, the agony and ecstasy of life seem to pour out of her soul and directly into yours. Yes, maybe I'm a little soft because I have a six month old baby, and maybe I'm more attuned to beautiful singing because I studied it my whole life, but emotions are emotions, and I believe that the unamplified singing voice can move a person in a way nothing else can. I'm not going to lie to you, I cried harder than my little baby does when I try to feed him green vegetables.

The singer cast as Emily in the production here in Central City happens to be a well-known and absolutely stunning soprano by the name of Anna Christy. The production is perfectly conceived with the simplicity of small town life bursting out into the cozy historical Central City Opera House. The singers are all first class singing actors and the orchestra plays beautifully and precisely. But none of these are reasons why you should see the production. You should see it because the combination of all the elements will remind you in the deepest recesses of your heart that life is precious and fleeting, and we need to experience it as deeply as we possibly can. And how can we access that immediacy of appreciating all life has to offer? Through art.

You see what I did there?

So even if you aren't near Colorado, just try to see an opera. It 's not Golf or even Chess Boxing, and it almost certainly won't have zombies. But it will probably make you feel something. And that's worth way more than $12.50. (Tickets to Central City Opera start at $20 and are available for all performances).

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Reader Comments (5)

So true!

July 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterElaine

Definitely, and if one is in Colorado, the Central City Opera is a wonderful place. I just saw
The Barber of Saville, and loved it. Bravo

July 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

I was in the chorus of Our Town my first semester of college and, while I already loved opera, it gave me a crash course in the wonderful world of new, (good), American opera. Here was a work that was challenging, but singable, beautifully written, dramatically compelling, and relatively easy to pull off. I wish more companies were producing this show.

I will say, however, that being in the chorus of dead townspeople and having to sit onstage, absolutely still, for 45 minutes was pretty harrowing. I spent the entire time worrying that I'd either fall asleep or have to go to the bathroom. Possibly the most nervous I've ever been.

December 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTimothy Madden

Great post and so true.

And John, The Barber of Saville was fantastic!!

May 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

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