Sunday, February 07, 2016

Saturday Afternoon Opera

A Lifelong Companion

For many, even those who enjoy classical music, opera is a yet to be acquired taste in music. Remember Tony Randall of "The Odd Couple" and way earlier "Mr. Peepers" fame on TV? He was an opera lover of the first order even to being one of the expert panelists during the Opera Quiz intermission feature of the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. He did not discover opera until in his early 20s when my father, his unit buddy in the U.S. Army Air Corps stationed on Guam during World War II, challenged him to put aside his Beethoven and "try some really great stuff"; to join him in listening to a recording of Puccini's La Boheme. The rest is history.

Opera was not a taste I had to acquire over time. Rather, it was in the air I breathed from the very beginning. My first memory of listening to records at home comes from around 1952 when my parents purchased a Magnavox TV console which also included a radio and a turn table. In 1990 my father converted it into a cabinet for his stereo and later his CD player. Two recordings stand out in memory; the cast recording of South Pacific ( Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza) and Lily Pons' 78 rpm recording of the Mad Scene from the opera "Lucia di Lammermoor" with the Bell Song from "Lakme" on the flip side.  Pretty interesting combination, isn't it. My father's tastes were very eclectic.

Early on I was introduced to the very best, not at the opera house but by recordings and the Saturday afternoon Met broadcasts on the radio. Wherever my father was at that time his radio was tuned into WQXR with Milton Cross mellifluously giving a synopsis of each act and offering commentary. Occasionally Saturday afternoon might find me in my uncle's Buick sitting next to my Aunt Millie and begging her to tell the story of what ever Met opera was coming through the car radio. I listened to these opera lovers rate performances and compare singers. Soon I learned what to listen for and who I should be sure to hear.

Each year I check the Met broadcast schedule for the season and try to plan Saturdays based on the days of performances of favorite operas or singers. Yesterday was the regular "Cav/Pag" double header of two short operas, "Cavalleria Rusticana" by Pietro Mascagni and "Il Pagliacci" by Ruggero Leoncavallo. Yesterday I planned my long trip to visit my mother in a Brewster nursing home around the first half of the broadcast. "Cavalleria Rusticana" set in a Sicilian village and sung with a libretto true to the Sicilian dialect with which I am so familiar.

This opera is a small gem. The melodies are moving and soaring communicating beauty in a bucolic countryside, passionate love, religious devotion in Easter morning worship, destruction wrought by jealousy, and prayer of utter despair. The opera also sports a huge chorus which is used to full effect.

I few years ago I discovered a You Tube video of Franco Zefferelli's film production of the opera featuring Domingo, Obraztsova, Bruson and Pretre. It was filmed largely out doors in an Italian village. In this way the way film builds upon what is called the "verismo" quality of the opera which provides for a portrayal of Sicilian culture and customs with great realism. It is available at The technical quality of the film does leave a great deal to be desired but the music and the singing is great. But what makes it even more special are the visuals of the village and Sicilian customs of the period. This may be a small sip that will begin your process of acquiring a 'taste' for this evocative art form.

Note: Link to a synopsis of "Cavalleria Rusticana"

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