I feel that too many people have been making light of
the serious subject of opera. Recently, a critic pointed out that the fog-making
machine didn't work.
So what if the fog machine didn't work? After
all, when someone could actually be singing with a knife stuck through their heart, when they are
surely the suspension-of-belief we accept there is enough to carry the
day through a bit of extra fog?
In an opera production I saw some years back at Wayne
State University in Detroit, this process of suspension-of-belief reached
new meaning -- or should I say new heights?
The tenor was singing a long aria of many notes (all
of them devoted to the everlasting glory of the word "the" -- which in
German, can be Das or Die or Der ). Behind the tenor
was a painted set of a "stone castle wall," and above its doorway
were the castle's turret cut-outs -- the kind of place that characters
like Juliet hang out waving their arms and proclaiming their undying love
to all (in the case of some sopranos, this means to all in the next
Suddenly the set started to fall forward. As we
were suspending belief, none of us in the front row thought to warn the
tenor of the set coming down on him. And right we were!
The set hit the stage mightily, but the cut-out for the
turret was perfectly placed so that it missed him; although, had he
been stage-right or left just a foot or so, he would have been flattened!
What precision! This could be no
This had to be planned.
The tenor, however, was one of the "flying"
kind (cheaply imitated by the old banal TV show, Flying Nun), and
the cable that was attached to his back was activated as the set fell around
him. Up he went! Unfortunately, even in the best-laid plans of opera
sometimes, sooner or later, a mistake might happen!
The counterweight (a large cylindrical bag of sand serving
as a balance to the flying tenor's weight) got its cable tangled, and as
the tenor went up, the huge sandbag was descending, but now its path
was directly above him. It bopped him on the head, and he let out an
agonizingly beautiful E-flat (which has been permanently added to the musical
score of that opera ever since). His cable was jarred loose from his harness
hook, and down he freely plummeted and hit the stage, where he played a
really marvelous impromptu death scene.
The nicest touch of all was when the sandbag, now free
of the full weight of the tenor, fell freely and burst open over him, burying
him without further ado.
In all this the audience had the good decorum not to
utter a sound. When it comes to suspension-of-belief, this audience was
the best I'd ever seen. The hairs on their heads were also suspended. Needless to say, the reviews were equal to the
performance. However, a new tenor was needed for the next
Ah, opera! Has the world ever seen an art-form like it?
It's no wonder I spent 14 years to complete my own
opera (in 1968), composed in Mozartian style, based on a modern anti-war update to the
play Lysistrata, by the ancient Greek, Aristophanes. The
same opera company was going to perform it, but since the tenor rehearsing
it came unto an accident himself 4 days before opening night (ironically,
he was drafted), the opera was canceled and I was robbed of the chance
to see what this opera company would have done with Aristophanes' nude
Just to guess at what that might be like was enough to set the short hairs on the back of my neck to stand up and tingle. -- Bob Fink