I’m really into opera.
It’s one of those super dorky things about me that I shout from the rooftops. I gave speeches about opera in high school. I wrote research papers about opera in college. I frequently spend my weekends going to Met Live in HD performances at my local movie theater. When I’m at a red light and the car next to me is blasting bass-booming hip hop, I crank up “Un bel di” and laugh at the confused stare I get from the adjacent driver. Who needs Kanye when you can have some Puccini, right?
It’s weird, I know. Just roll with me for a minute.
Operas follow traditional theater conventions of comedy and tragedy, and the tragedies, well, they’re really tragic.
In La Boheme, Rodolfo’s pride and jealousy causes him to abandon his love, only to realize his mistake when his lover is about to die. Manon Lescaut loses her innocence to the life of luxury and ends up arrested for illegal gambling, dying after her time in prison. Rigoletto disapproves of his daughter’s boyfriend and hires an assassin to kill him; the daughter sacrifices herself for her boyfriend, and she is killed by the assassin instead. In Lucia Di Lammermoor, Lucia is driven to madness when she is forced to marry someone she doesn’t love; she murders him, dies from distress, and her true love kills himself. After her husband abandons her and then returns with a second wife, Cio-Cio-San commits suicide in front of his child.
Carmen breaks up with her boyfriend, who becomes jealous and murders her. Nedda is rightly accused of infidelity by Pagliaccio, who becomes jealous and murders her. Desdemona is wrongly accused of infidelity by Otello, who becomes jealous and murders her. (Clearly, this is a common theme.)
Reading the descriptions of these characters’ deaths, they all seem so outlandish and unrealistic. Obviously what makes an opera an opera is the overwhelming drama, and that’s reflected in death scenes – when Desdemona gets smothered by a pillow and continues to sing for 20 more minutes, it’s all but laughable.
Death isn’t laughable, and what can seem like mere fantasy fiction on the surface is actually a lot more reasonable if you take a closer look at it.
Like Rodolfo, people’s grief can be wrapped up with regret. Like Manon, people make mistakes that they pay for until they die. Like Carmen, my own friend, Morgan, was murdered by a jealous ex.
Albeit in a less dramatized fashion, the vices and virtues of opera characters exist in us all. Theater is designed to reveal themes and truths that are present in humanity – pride, jealousy, rage, love, redemption.
I adore the opera for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that it reveals the truths in me. It makes me feel them and understand myself better. It makes me grieve better. It makes me sing.