2000s Archive

An Affair to Remember

Originally Published June 2001

I have always thought that there is something inherently uninteresting about adults who attribute their shortcomings to their parents. That said, in this case I feel completely justified in pointing the finger of blame: I was raised to have no taste in music. It wasn’t exactly the fault of my parents, although they made no contributions to my early musical life. My mother owned two albums: The Sandpipers Greatest Hits and Barbra Streisand’s People, which she played to death. My father favored Julie London and any piano music that sounded like it was coming from a dark corner in a bar. But my stepfather, musically speaking, was the kiss of death. He kept the family radio tuned exclusively to that midcentury phenomenon known as the “easy listening” station, and we were not allowed to touch the dial. As a result, I grew up believing that music was something that needed to be turned off.

Then, two years ago, I started work on a novel whose heroine was an opera singer. Her career made sense for the plot, so I set out to do some research. I had heard a little opera at this point in my life. I had walked through rooms where other people were playing opera and thought something along the lines of: Oh. Armed only with astounding ignorance, I went to a music store and bought a copy of Madama Butterfly. At least I had heard of that one. With five different recordings to choose from, I deftly picked the one with the prettiest cover. At home, I put the CD in the stereo and began to fold laundry. I lasted about 15 minutes. The music struck me as impenetrable, unpleasant. Something that needed to be turned off.

Clearly, the music itself was not the place to start, so I went to the bookstore. This was not a scientific study, mind you. After looking at a dozen books that promised to explain opera to me, I again made a final selection based on the cover. In this case, I was in luck. I had chosen Fred Plotkin’s Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera, which I later discovered is something of a bible even for sophisticated opera buffs. What Mr. Plotkin offers is basically a college course in opera.

This time, when I sat down to listen to his first pick, Verdi’s Rigoletto, I was ready. I had read the libretto through once and now sat and listened while I read along again. I didn’t try to fold anything while the music played. And when Gilda and Rigoletto sang their first duet, their voices twining and leaping, I felt a catch in my chest. It was as beautiful, as moving, as anything I had ever heard.

With every opera I listened to, I experienced a cartoon catalog of emotions: Lights were flipped on, doors swung open. There was joy in both the music and the fact that here, in the middle of my life, I was learning about something hundreds of years old and completely new to me. Now that I knew what I was listening to, I developed the enthusiasm of a three-month-old Labrador retriever. I went through biographies of opera stars like Kleenex, many of my selections fueled by my passion for Maria Callas.

I continued through the course set out in Opera 101 and began branching out to operas suggested by friends. I fell in love with Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman. I saw the greatness of Verdi, hummed Puccini in the shower. I was crazy for Handel. I continued to sit down with the librettos: This is the key to learning to love opera. The music is often gorgeous by itself, but if you don’t take the time to find out what’s being said, you’re sacrificing too much.

The next logical step was to find a performance to attend, and it seemed to me that if what I was looking for was opera, I should go to the source. I’m not saying that if you’re searching for wonderful opera you have go to Italy, any more than you’d have to go to South America for a really great cup of coffee. But I went. And it was there.

One way to find great music in Italy is to blindfold yourself and throw a dart at a map of the country. Wherever it pierces the boot, there is sure to be extraordinary music. When I looked into how to go about getting tickets, I generally received the same advice: When you arrive in the city in which you want to see an opera, slip your hotel concierge a big tip and ask her or him to procure them for you. That may work, but it did not provide the level of security my cautious nature demands. If I was going all that way to see opera, I wanted my tickets before I got on the plane. Finally, I found John Grant of The Worldwide Opera Concert Information Service, in Spit Junction, Australia (www.wocis.com). I don’t know why I needed someone in Spit Junction, Australia, to book seats in a grand Italian opera house for me, but Mr. Grant was extremely helpful. The reservations came neither quickly nor cheaply, but they were correct in every detail, for which I was hugely grateful.

Along with my opera glasses and a nice dress, I brought my friend Karl to Italy. And you may think me a little overzealous, but before leaving I made us each a packet of reading material—a copy of the libretto for each of the operas we were going to see, from my very handy Book of 101 Opera Librettos, and a copy of a history and synopsis from The New Grove Book of Opera. In Italy, the descriptions of the operas in the program guides are usually in Italian, and they don’t have those incredibly annoying supertitles the way American opera houses do.

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