BOSTON — Opera is perhaps the most intimidating of all art forms. To many, it is an audio wall, erected note by note and accessible only to those fastidious ladies and mustachioed men who drink tea with their pinkies extended and say things like, "ciao."
Such it was with me. Growing up in the Midwest, football and hockey were my grand productions, and the only Italian I knew was "calzone" and "Parmesan." Indeed, opera was somewhere between ice fishing and squirrel hunting on the priority list.
Basically, it was just too ridiculous - lavishly dressed men and women prancing about onstage, killing each other and singing about it. Back then, it seemed so contrived and unnatural.
A growing number of opera-loving friends successfully wore down my natural aversion to all things that cannot be preceded by dinner at McDonald's, and I agreed to go to a production. The choice: a Boston Lyric Opera performance of "Lucia di Lammermoor," a classic "bel canto" opera by Gaetano Donizetti. What does bel canto mean? From a limited amount of study and a quick pre-opera lecture, I think it means "James Bond opera": One that looks and sounds nice, but you shouldn't ask too many questions about the believability of the plot.
This being a seminal event in my young life, I decided to take it seriously. No one is quite sure how a first-time operagoer should approach the event, but Christopher Alden, the director of this version of Lucia, says he favors the kamikaze approach: "The best way is just to go."
That was a bit much for me. I opted for a more gentle transition, buying a "Lucia" CD beforehand and acquainting myself with it. And although the recording of Maria Callas gave me unreasonably high expectations for the opera, I still believe this is the best way to go.
That's because opera is so difficult to penetrate, you need any help you can get. Knowing what was going on was a great help. It allowed me to actually notice things like staging rather than just holding on for dear life as the opera rampaged through love, death, poverty, murder, marriage, and betrayal.
The production itself was interesting. Most of the opera-types I talked to disliked the staging - Mr. Alden set the piece in a dark, brooding, gothic setting. Not exactly something that conjured the words "bel canto." Yet Alden's efforts to make an essentially trite story into something of consequence through lighting and stage props was not altogether unsuccessful.
Yet the music is still what stood out.
Midway through the second act, Lucia (played by Dominique Labelle) is lying on the floor. Her lover, Edgardo (Stephen Mark Brown), has just entered unexpectedly and is about to learn that Lucia has married another because her brother (Eduardo del Campo) made her believe that Edgardo no longer loves her. Before Edgardo learns what has happened, he begins a song of such beauty and delicacy that it leaves the stomach hollow, the ears unbelieving. Lucia's brother joins in tenderly, followed by Lucia, then others, leading to a sextet that is one of the more memorable moments of the opera, and certainly the pinnacle of Alden's production.
To be sure, the opera sometimes seemed as if it was no more than pretty songs with little force of emotion behind it. Other times it seemed to be merely a medium for conceited verbal gymnastics. But in those moments, when story, words, melody, and music were in concert, it touched something so basic that it left me speechless. It was felt, not explained.
Like everything of value, opera seeks to attain perfection - a harmony of sound and inspiration that lifts its listeners above stale musical phrases and stereotypes into the sublime.
"It is not something you have to understand on a rational level," Alden says. "If you let yourself be lulled, opera can take you places other art forms can't."
This is why opera exists, and it is why my Nirvana CDs will be pushed farther back into the closet.