Aiee! You can't make me like the opera (June 19, 2001)

Barbara Kay

National Post

I hate opera. I have tried it often enough to know for sure. Opera lovers -- like golfing nuts -- keep telling me I will "develop a taste for it" and to "keep at it." But I never had to develop a taste for reading books or going to the theatre; they tasted good from the beginning. The only reason I had in the past for feigning interest in opera was cultural insecurity. I assumed there was something wrong with me, because so many other people swoon over it. Now I am of an age not to care what other people like, and I am no longer ambivalent. I hate opera.

My husband, the musical one in the family, is in charge of our concert series tickets. On opera nights he usually finds someone else to go with. The other night he had not checked the program. I arrived at Place Des Arts with a premonitory sense of foreboding. Sure enough -- Elektra! Aiee! My husband said we could leave at the entr'acte. Once seated, we noted the program announced there would be no entr'acte. Our seats are mid-row with 15 people on either side. Trapped. Two hours of tragedy in song. In German yet. Wey ist mir!

If you don't know about Elektra, here are some of the leitmotifs: Blood! (Blut!) Blood leaps from his wounds! His head is gaping open from the axe wounds! Strangers in the house! Orestes is dead! I am alone! Agamemnon is dead! Clytemnestra must die! Happy is he who wields the axe! Orestes is dead, killed by his own horses! No, wait, Orestes is alive! He has killed the monster and her consort! With an axe! With lots and lots of blood! O triumph unforeseen! Now I am dying!

Those are the happy moments. I know it all comes from a classical myth, but I don't know why these ancient revenge myths have such a hold on the modern imagination. Revenge, sacrifice: oh yes, certainly these are eternal themes and all that, but considering the amount of blood, the depth of malice and the indifference to any post-Enlightenment values having to do with morality or responsibility, operas like this should perhaps carry an R rating. Fargo was just as shocking, but a lot funnier; you didn't need over-titles, and there was far less gore.

When I look around at the enraptured faces of the packed house, I have to wonder if I am empathy-deprived and emotionally stunted. I like to identify with at least one person in a drama (like the good cop in Fargo). None of the bloodthirsty Elektra gang is my kind of people. And -- I confess it -- call me a yahoo, but when Orestes's plangent "What have they done to you? Have they starved you? Your cheeks are so hollow ..." is delivered to the 300-pound Elektra on stage, I have to resist the urge to snigger. I know, I know, imagination is to opera as "Wa" is to Japanese baseball. I am without operatic Wa. I have seen La Bohème and its modern equivalent, Rent. Both seem to argue for the superior morality of the terminally ill promiscuous amongst us. Why can't I separate the aesthetics from the message like everyone else?

Back to Elektra. I suffered in silence for every single ticking second of this two-hour downer. I have to admit the orchestra did a smashing job. At the last crash of the cymbals I leapt to my feet along with everyone else, except my eagerness was about leaving while everyone else was applauding wildly, bravo-ing, and demanding further curtain calls. The man next to my husband confided that he had heard nothing to rival it since he was last in Florence. There was no gainsaying the shining light of true love in everyone else's eyes as we issued forth from the auditorium. Other wives turned to their husbands and murmured, wasn't it amazing? This wife turned to her husband, murmuring 'you will pay for this.'

Being middle-aged brings the freedom to admit the narrowness of your interests. I am constantly surprised, but no longer intimidated, by the catholicity of many of my friends' cultural pursuits. They are not shamming: They enjoy with equal vigour theatre, opera, chamber music, symphonies, art galleries, museums, photography retrospectives, poetry readings, really foreign films, and The New Yorker. I like The New Yorker, books and theatre and Mystery on PBS. Evelyn Waugh on audiotape, read by a seasoned actor: Now that's music to my ears.