One of my major inspirations is opera. I know many people aren’t mad about it. Indeed, even though I grew up in a family that loved classical music, my grandfather, a charismatic (and loveable) patriarch, detested opera and wasn’t shy about expressing his feelings. As such, I was a bit of a black sheep when I started listening to Bizet and Puccini in my teens (I know, I’m just so wild).
There are challenges to opera of course. It’s a stylization of life that many don’t find accessible. The fact that the voice acquires its full range and power when women are a decade or two older than the supple young characters they’re playing (ditto for men) doesn’t help.
All the same, the music takes me somewhere. Its distillation of moments of emotional power and intensity, around dramatic expressions of narrative, often leaves me on the edge of tears (or indeed, over the edge).
For instance, there’s a moment in Tosca when Scarpia, the villain (who happens to be the chief of the Vatican Police), sings an absolutely magnificent invocation. See, he’s fascinated by Tosca, he lusts after her, and wants to dominate her spirit. He’s a nasty piece of work, but it’s such a beautiful piece–potent and sinister, yet oddly moving in the way that it combines the sacred and the profane. It’s unquestionably my favourite moment in that entire opera (even though Tosca’s aria Vissi d’arte is more traditionally lauded). Tre Sbirri is on my “kickass opera” playlist and I’ve heard it enough that it seems to have enmeshed itself in my psyche.
Konstantin, the villain in Konstantin’s Gifts, and his obsessive love for Vasya, the protagonist. It’s different, of course–the setup and situation are not in the least similar. But the underlying obsession is the same. And this is where it began–in Scarpia’s obsession with Tosca, distilled into a a musical work whose beauty is the more resonant to me because it stands in opposition to the sentiments being expressed. The music serves as a subtext: its form, with the Te Deum as counterpoint, underscores the way in which Scarpia’s lustful obsession with Tosca has supplanted even his love of God:
NOTE: So if you watched the above clip, you’re probably wondering what I was wondering: WTF’s with the KKK people in the church? And in an adaptation of a Puccini opera, set in Rome, no less—not what I’ve ever considered to be a hotbed of the Klan. Turns out, the white hoods were markers of certain orders and confraternities in the Catholic tradition–so no, not related to the chilling symbols they became in North America, as a result of their being co-opted by violent racists. I haven’t seen this version of the opera–I’ve only ever seen it live–so I was rather puzzled by what the hell those guys were doing there.
As an aside, the fact that they’d stick with that detail, given what followed re the co-opting of the outfits, raises the interesting question of the tension between historical accuracy–it would be revisionist to take those guys out, if they were a standard part of a service at the time–and the distracting fact of their presence for a large swatch of the population. I saw that clip and was totally distracted from the performance by the guys in the hoods. I mean, seeing people dressed that way is deeply sinister and, if done casually rather than with intent, it is also upsetting and offensive to most people in North America.
It only occurred to me that such symbols, which seem so monumental and horrifying, might not be as offensive or disturbing elsewhere (bizarre as that may seem, to my culturally-entrenched perspective) when I saw those crazy Jackson Five guys in blackface on that Australian Gong show thing–and the Aussies seemed genuinely confused about why Harry Connick Jr. was so upset and offended by it (it’s on YouTube, if you haven’t seen it). I was watching the clip with my mouth open, thinking “how could this not be horrifying & upsetting?” The analogously offensive equivalent there apparently involves something similar in which white people dress as Aborigines. The other famous example of the relativism of such things is the swastika, which is an ancient Sanskrit symbol still commonly used in India. Hitler and his crazy Aryans-are-Germanic-rather-than-Indian thing, co-opted that symbol but good, and it takes some adjustment to realise that no racial/racist statement is being made when you see that symbol in India.
/aside on cultural relativism