Opera is more than just middle-aged fat people in period costumes making funny sounds. An opera is a play, with a plot. The only differences between operas and spoken plays are: (1) operas are sung (d’oh!); and (2) they are usually sung in Italian, German, French, Russian, Czech or whatever other language they were written in. More operas were written in Italian than any other language. The Italians started the whole thing to begin with, and Italians are natural show-offs. The Germans tried to catch up, but they never quite made it. Their excuse was that they preferred quality to quantity. Actually, they were just being snobs.
Yes, there are some operas written in English. British and American composers popped up all over the place during the 20th Century, and they figured it would be silly to write operas in Italian or German when they had a perfectly good language of their own.
I know what you’re thinking: “Yes, give us operas in English, so we can understand what the hell is going on!” Think again. The diction of most opera singers is so bad that they might as well be singing in Tasmanian. They are more concerned with clear, ringing tones than clear, ringing words. This leaves beginner opera goers right where they began – confused.
Opera companies finally decided to do their audiences a favor and project titles above the stage. All of a sudden, people knew what was going on. They were even laughing at the funny parts (and sometimes at bad translations). In a supreme act of one-upmanship, New York’s Metropolitan Opera put their titles on the backs of the seats and gave each audience member the option to figure out how to turn them on in the dark.
What does all that have to do with the stories of the operas? Not much. I just thought I’d throw it in, for the hell of it.
Now that I got that out of the way, I’ll get to the point.
What’s the subject again? Oh yes – plots.
People think that opera is a high-classed art form, fit only for polite, pretentious society where people drink tea out of fancy porcelain cups and everybody has a lot of money to spend to make themselves look better than they really do. WRONG! Opera plots are full of things like intrigue, seduction, murder, suicide, incest, betrayal, attempted rape, grand larceny, deception, terminal disease and demons, all covered in a veneer of music. It’s as if the producers of the ID Channel decided to adapt their shows to the Hallmark Channel. You just can’t disguise ID Channel material, no matter how hard you try.
Example: Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto
If you take a good look at the libretto (i.e. “book”) of this opera, you notice that almost all of the characters are more or less repulsive. The only exception is the leading female, and she’s disgustingly naïve. Nobody’s perfect, but these people are ridiculous.*
Rigoletto is a jester at the court of the Duke of Mantua, sometime during the Italian Renaissance. The Duke is slowly making his way through all the good-looking women in his duchy. His excuse is that all women are unfaithful, anyway, so he might as well beat them to it. Rigoletto is a Don Rickles type of comedian, who insults everybody (except the Duke, naturally.) Everybody hates him. In addition to that, he’s a hunchback, which affects his self-esteem in a negative way.
Unknown to everyone else, the Duke has had his eye on a new girl in town, who turns out to be – of all people – Rigoletto’s daughter! The Duke’s courtiers, who are sick of all the Don Rickles jibes, kidnap the daughter, whose name is Gilda, and bring her to the palace. We don’t see what happens backstage, whether it’s consensual or not, but when Gilda comes out of the Duke’s apartments she is more experienced than she was when she went in.
Gilda ends up falling madly in love with the Duke. Rigoletto hires a professional hit man named Sparafucile to kill him.** Sparafucile owns a dive on the edge of town where a guy can get some good cheap wine and follow it up with Sparafucile’s sister Maddalena. The Duke is lured out to Casa Sparafucile. Rigoletto turns up, too, dragging Gilda along so they can spy on the Duke through a hole in the wall. Gilda sees the Duke trying to grope Maddalena, and gets very disturbed. She and her Dad go away, but Gilda sneaks back, overhears Sparafucile and Maddalena talking, with Maddalena pleading that SHE loves the Duke, so would her brother please not kill him, but kill someone else instead, like the next person who comes in the door. In a fit of self-sacrifice, Gilda knocks on the door.
A little later, Rigoletto comes to pay Sparafucile the other half of his fee and collect what he thinks will be the body of the Duke, stuffed in a sack, ready to be thrown into the river. When he finds Gilda in the sack instead, he goes crazy. By some miracle, Gilda is still alive enough to sing a final, tear-jerking duet before she dies.*** What happens to Rigoletto after that, we never find out.
Pretty sharp, huh?
*This opera is based on a play by the French author Victor Hugo, who also gave us Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. That’s no excuse for Verdi, but it’s an interesting bit of trivia, if you’re into that kind of thing.
**There was no Mafia during the Renaissance, but there was a decent amount of work for an experienced freelance assassin.
***Sparafucile obviously needs some practice.