I was flipping channels the other night when I ran up on an opera. I watched it for a moment, until my back began to itch and my breathing became labored. These symptoms were my clues that an allergic reaction had commenced and that it was time to move on. I had tried, but once again, culture had eluded me.
I guess I don’t understand opera, which is a shortcoming on my part and no reflection on you if you do. Enjoy operas with my blessing if they are your cup of tea. But for me, an opera falls into the category of one of those things that is supposed to be good for you no matter how much it hurts, like getting shots, exercising, or eating brussels sprouts. It is sort of like when great-great-great Grandma Atkins lined up all of the kids twice per year to take their medicine. In the spring, everyone would get their noses pinched closed, and then a good slug of castor oil mixed with vinegar was poured down their throats. Then, come the fall, she dosed them all again with sugar dissolved in kerosene. Grandma started out with thirteen kids, but she was down to just three when the Great Kerosene Shortage of 1908 put a stop to her medicinal tomfoolery and spared my direct ancestor. But according to the wisdom of the day, she thought what she was doing was good for the little ones.
Anyway, for those of you out there who are mercifully unaware of the genre, opera is an art form that combines singing, symphonic music, and acting. It is not to be confused with Opry, which has a decidedly more country flavor and features cowboy hats. Nor should it be mistaken for yodeling, which it sometimes sounds like when the operatic types go for those high notes. It was invented in Europe during the dark days before radio, television, and movies were available, back when public entertainment generally consisted of viewing beatings, beheadings, hangings, and the ever-popular burnings-at-the-stake. Thus the bar for entertainment wasn’t set that high, and compared to the alternative activities, opera wasn’t a bad idea.
Historical European Person 1: What do you want to do tonight?
Historical European Person 2: I don’t know. I guess we could bet on who gets the Plague next.
Historical European Person 1: Naw, we did that last week.
Historical European Person 2: Well, I suppose we could sit home in the dark and eat beef tallow.
Historical European Person 1: Beef tallow gives me gas.
Historical European Person 2: You want to go to the opera?
Historical European Person 1: Bingo. I’ll go get my tie.
The odd thing about opera is that I like all three of its separate components — singing, orchestral arrangements, and acting — but when you combine them, I like them much, much less. It’s kind of like with lasagna, beef stew, and Raisinets. Each one of them is a favorite of mine, but if you stir them all together in a big pot before making me put on a suit and pay you fifty dollars to eat them, the sum of the whole becomes less than its parts (this phenomenon is actually an impossibility in the world of physics, which just goes to show what can happen when you go to the opera).
The worst opera ever written was a fifteen-hour-long epic known as Der Ring des Nibelungen by Richard Wagner. Richard Wagner was a nineteenth century German composer who by all accounts was not good company. His biography says that he was hounded by debts his entire life, which to me may be a hint that they weren’t exactly lining up to listen to operas even back during their heyday. He is known for his contrapuntal textures, chromaticism, and leitmotifs, and all I have to say about that is that I bet a good dose of sugar dissolved in kerosene would have helped clear every bit of it up. The title of his mega-opera loosely translates into “Holy cow, Helga, the boy has been into the absinthe again.” Actually, it was four operas joined together by a common theme of Teutonic mythology. Now, there was a great idea. Someone should have told Richard that with operas and volcanoes, more is not better. It took him 26 years to write the thing, and it has been called the most ambitious work of music ever written. Notice I didn’t say best. I said ambitious. The Titanic was ambitious, too, right up until the moment she slipped beneath the waves.
I used to spend a lot of time on the road, and I once watched Der Ring des Nibelungen over five successive nights while staying in a bad motel named Ed’s Beds in beautiful downtown Lufkin, Texas. Late on the fifth night, the manager — Ed’s son, Little Ed — found me wandering in a fugue state out under the motel sign. It seemed that I had absorbed more culture than one human being could be expected to bear. I actually had culture poisoning, which can be a serious condition when left untreated, and it may have gone bad for me but for the intervention of Little Ed. He calmed me down, and we went back into the lobby for some Eskimo Pies and one of Clint Eastwood’s most insightful and meaningful movies, “Dirty Harry.”
If I ever write an opera, I think I am going to name it after Little Ed. I will call it Der Motel des Little Ed. It may someday be considered to be my most ambitious work.