“You can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think.” (Dorothy Parker)

As any seasoned blog-surfer will tell you from bitter experience, it really isn’t a great idea to leave comments on other people’s sites when you’ve, um, had a few. This is a lesson which I forget at my peril.

Last Wednesday, Gert of Mad Musings put out a call for questions from her readers. Knowing what a huge opera fan she is, I dived straight into her comments box:

Maybe it’s because I’m a big classic soul fan – but when it comes to opera, I can’t get beyond those ridiculous artificial warbly voices. (To my mind, at least.) Assuming there is one (and I understand from yours and many other people’s reactions that there must be), how do you begin to access the emotional dimension?

Rambling, over-parenthesised (even by my standards), pretentious and needlessly provocative: yup, I was pissed all right. “Access the emotional dimension”, indeed. Even Uri Geller would have blushed at that one.

To make matters worse, the previous commenter had already asked the same question, but nicely. But you don’t notice these things when the blood has rushed to your head and your fingers are in full, fevered flow. (Use of alliteration, hem hem.)

Posted yesterday, Gert’s lengthy reply provides a useful insight into the mystifying world of the Opera Buff, her response to my “ridiculous artificial warbly voices” charge being particularly well made. Then, towards the end of the post, she says the following:

It also annoys me when people say “Opera bores me” and I quiz them about what they have seen, and it turns out they haven’t seen any. Not one, zilch. Not even on the TV.

On this score at least, I can claim to have made an effort – not once, not twice, but on three wretched, soul-sapping evenings which I’ll never get back in this lifetime. Let me take you through them, starting with the most recent.

2002: The Soldier’s Tale (Stravinsky), Buxton Opera House.

Older readers will have read about this before. For now, suffice it to say that I was fast asleep for most of the first half, before being sharply reprimanded by the man in front of me for jiggling my right leg up and down all the way through the second half, in an attempt to maintain alertness.

1989: La Traviata (Verdi), Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg.

Displaying all the sophisticated production values of the Harpenden Light Operatic Society’s 1978 staging of The Merry Widow (which I have excluded from this list on the grounds of Lightness), this stiff, stilted piece of souped-up Am Dram provided a good clue as to why the Mariinsky Theatre – home of the world-famous Kirov Ballet – has not been equally celebrated for its opera.

Once again, with an all too rare consistency that borders on the admirable, I was fast asleep for most of the first half. There was certainly nothing happening on stage which could possibly have roused me from my slumbers.

Perestroika still being in its infancy, there was no bar on the premises. Instead, the audience amused themselves during the interval by slowly pacing round and round the edges of a sizeable ante-room, in orderly rows of three or four abreast (strictly one direction only, no overtaking), occasionally waving graciously across the room at people they recognised. The whole thing had something of the flavour of a Regency period “promenade” to it, with the crinolines replaced by badly fitting crimplene. Sadly, this proved to be the most stimulating feature of the whole evening.

1981: Tosca (Puccini), some posh theatre in Portsmouth. Or was it Southampton?

The real reason I went to this: it would give me a chance to sit next to the guy I’d sort-of had sex with a couple of months earlier, so that we could play Ooh Is That Your Thigh I’m Rubbing Against Oh Well Never Mind games all the way through the performance.

(He was a shallow, shameless, sexually ambiguous tease who liked the attention but wouldn’t commit; I was 19, almost wholly inexperienced in matters of the heart, emotionally over my head, and basically totally f***ing desperate. But we’re here to talk about opera. Oh yes we are. No, I think you’ll find we are.)

However, not even the ready proximity of the betrousered limbs of my Dearest Him-bo was enough to keep me from slipping into the arms of Morpheus during the first half, such was the unremitting Sheer Bloody Tedium of the spectacle on offer. Call me ADD, but when it comes to dramatic entertaiment, I like it best when things actually, you know, happen. (I have the same problem with Beckett.)

As I say, consistency. Maybe it’s Pavlovian.

I’ve saved the most damning episode to last.

With the lead soprano indisposed due to illness, one of the great doyennes of the Welsh Opera had graciously offered to stand in at the eleventh hour. For the clued-up buffs in the audience, it must have been a great treat to witness her reprising one of her greatest roles, after all those years.

After all those many, many years.

Years in which – how can I put this delicately? – her physical charms had shifted from “sylph-like” to “ample”.

Now, there was one fact, and one fact only, which I knew in advance about Puccini’s Tosca: that, at the end of the final act, the heartbroken heroine would commit suicide by flinging herself off a high parapet.

As the Great Doyenne launched herself off the specially constructed tower and sailed towards the stage, her skirts billowing about her, I suddenly remembered the apocryphal tale, as told to me by my old German master, of The Tosca Who Bounced.

At which point, I got the giggles. Big time.

To the extent that people as far as two rows in front of me turned round and glared at the spotty youth who had single-handedly wrecked the tragic denouement of the entire evening.

I didn’t even get a snog out of him on the way home.


A few weeks ago, I struck a deal with an acquaintance of mine in Nottingham, who is passionate about the medium. He’ll take me to the opera, and I’ll approach it with an open mind – so long as he commits to seeing a live band with me at The Rescue Rooms, under the same conditions. There’s no hurry; he would prefer to wait until something really good comes to town.

He’s thinking that maybe something by Benjamin Britten might crack me open. As I once sang the lead soprano role in a Britten children’s opera and enjoyed it immensely (The Golden Vanity, prep school gym, 1974, didn’t see that one coming right?), he might be on the right track.

I’ll let you know in due course. Who knows, it might even be the start of a wonderful new chapter in my cultural life.

Then again, it might pay to sprinkle a precautionary gram of whizz into my Red Bull beforehand. Better safe than sorry, and all that. After all, I’d hate to be an embarrassment.

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