Friends of ours are meeting at a house in the Cinque Terre region of Italy. Before that rendezvous, one couple is going to Venice and plans to attend an opera at La Fenice. Another couple is in Milan and will attend a performance at La Scala. My exposure to opera is limited, but surely it would be exciting to hear music in these famous theaters.
I have never attended any European opera performance although I have enjoyed tours of both the Vienna State Opera House and the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples. I have attended a few operas at the Metropolitan in New York City and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Some I have truly enjoyed, and others I truly tried to enjoy. For the last few years, my opera-going has been confined to the simulcasts of the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday afternoon performances, shown in HD in local movie theaters. Where we go, the sound has been superb, at least to this very untrained ear, and seeing the performers up close, something I never get at a live opera, has added a new dimension to the singing and the acting. Intermissions, which can be lengthy at an opera, have been much more enjoyable than at a live opera. For the HD showings, there are interesting, educational interviews with the principal singers or with those who designed the project or behind-the-scenes look into the Met. And you can pack food and eat it during the performances. But there has been a consistency in my opera attendance no matter the venue. Whenever I have gone, I have thought of Neil.
Neil and John owned the house next door to where we rented our first Brooklyn apartment. We became friends. Neil was a professional, classical singer. He had many different gigs, and often when he thought the music would be special, he would tell us to go, which we usually did. He sang regularly at a synagogue and at Trinity Church. Each year he sang with Alvin Ailey, and it was because of Neil that I first saw this dance troupe, which opened a new artistic high for me. (Perhaps the job that most excited Neil was not for classical singing, but when he backed up Pink Floyd at the Fillmore East.) Neil, not surprisingly, had lots of friends who were professional classical musicians, and one of them was thrilled when he finally got hired fulltime for the chorus of the New York City Opera, partly because he now got benefits including health insurance and partly because it gave him something like a regular paycheck.
Neil, on the other hand, did not especially like opera and generally avoided singing in them. However, once in awhile, he would be added to the chorus at the Met, including one time for a performance of Turandot. This featured a long staircase to facilitate the entrance of the eponymous princess. The soprano, wearing an enormous headdress, walks on those steps singing the opera’s signature aria. Neil was positioned on the steps without a safety rail, twenty or thirty feet off the stage. He was scared to death and thought he might not be able to sing. The soprano was from Nashville making her Met debut on the national Saturday afternoon broadcast. She walked down the stairs with what appeared to be about fifty pounds on her head. Neil said his heart was pounding with his own fear and nervousness for the debuting soprano when in the midst of her aria, she turned to Neil and asked him, while chewing gum, in a southern drawl, “How’m I doin’, honey?” Neil said that he started to laugh. He had to stifle it in order not fall off.