For rock-numbed ears, 'Tosca' rejuvenates

A 20-something Monitor staffer shares his experience of attending a grand opera for the first time.

At first, I had trouble applauding.

Perched on a red-velour box seat at New York's Metropolitan Opera House, I sat awe-struck, humbled by the sheer beauty of Giacomo Puccini's "Tosca." A cascade of cheering greeted the close of Act II's aria, "Vissi D'arte," but the intensity of the moment called for solitude on my part.

Attending my first opera, I tried to soak it all in. The shimmering costumes, those daunting gold curtains, the staggering wealth of the patrons sitting next to me. No, this would not do. This was one experience I would not be able to intellectualize.

I decided to sit back and enjoy the rest of the performance. The bellowing voices I had derided earlier as acoustical pyrotechnics had softened my heart and melted my icy biases. The conversion was complete, but it had not been easy.

Back when lilting strings cued the first act, I had scoffed at my friend's pronouncement that "opera is the paragon of the arts." At first glance, it was impressive, but in the same way that French painter David's 19th-century neoclassical homages to Napoleon were impressive, yet strangely unaffecting. To my green senses, Franco Zeffirelli's museum-quality set and the Met's gold-leaf ceiling added to the opulence of the experience at the expense of my emotional enjoyment.

I found myself yearning for the passionate rock ballads in the musical "Rent" that had raised goose bumps the night before. In deference to opera's heritage, however, and the astronomical cost of my ticket, I strove to keep an open mind.

Puccini's opera promised emotional drama, and the soap-opera story that unfolded did not disappoint. The characters, Floria Tosca, a dainty debutante, and Mario Cavaradossi, Tosca's chivalrous lover, failed to capture the real-world romance of "Rent." But just as "Gone With the Wind" shone despite its shallow characters, so, too, was "Tosca" resplendent for its sweeping music and dynamic performances.

Plato's desire for "beauty in the inward soul" rang true as Tosca, played by the stunning Carol Vaness, captivated the audience with her empyreal singing of "Vissi D'arte." As her notes soared heavenward, my rock-numbed ears were baptized.

I drove away from New York in silence. The usual urge to sing along to my "Best of the '80s" tape collection was absent. As the white highway divider lines zipped past, my mind's eye flashed images of the Met: cathedral walls emblazoned with two Chagall murals; fiery portraits of opera legends who still give voice to the Met's hushed art gallery. Over the engine's drone in my mud-speckled '88 Honda Accord, faint echoes of Tosca's aria tickled my ears and left me smiling.

Operatic themes may not have much relevance to Generation X, nor will its music appeal to everyone. But for a culture steeped in Nine Inch Nails and Britney Spears, an afternoon in that musical palace offers rejuvenation of the highest order.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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