A Night at the Opera

Anne Branigin

 

This is an excerpt from an article published in TheRoot.com. Read the rest here.          

 

If I had to guess about my first real introduction to opera, it was back in the Napster days. I was in high school, and like many other kids who knew how to use the internet at that time, I was frequently solicited with musical requests once my parents got wind that there was a tool that could let you download all the Roberta Flack, Anita Baker and Stevie Ray Vaughan songs you could possibly want—and for free.

 

It’s how I learned about Edith Piaf, Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” and Luciano Pavarotti’s rendition of “Nessun Dorma.”

 

In an episode of the podcast Still Processing, New York Times writers Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham pay tribute to Whitney Houston. Morris, gushing about “I Will Always Love You,” says that there is a sort of chemical reaction that happens in your brain when you hear Houston hit those high notes. It’s the perfect way to describe how I felt about hearing Pavarotti hit that final chord change at the end of “Nessun Dorma,” and what’s kept me coming back to that aria ever since.

 

It’s been said that the sublime quality of Aretha Franklin’s voice comes from its ability to be many things at once: rich and earthy, clear and light. I feel the same way about Pavarotti’s tenor; it’s instantly recognizable. A voice that has both grace and power, heft and brightness. I didn’t know a damn thing about opera and can’t speak Italian, but by sheer repetition, I learned all the words to “Nessun Dorma.” And I know I’m far from the only one who’s experienced this.

 

When I saw that Turandot, the opera in which “Nessun Dorma” is featured, was playing at the Metropolitan Opera House, I knew I had found the perfect entry point into an art form that always felt a bit beyond my reach. I haven’t done a whole lot of fine-artsy things in New York City, and had resolved that I should do better with my time than sit in my apartment and scroll through Netflix. New York City is one of the places in the world where great opera is so accessible: It wasn’t difficult to find a ticket for a weekday performance for about $40.

 

It wasn’t until just before the night of the show that, prompted by a reminder email from the Met, I decided to review Turandot’s synopsis. As I scanned the plot points, my heart sank. Giacomo Puccini had set the opera in China; the story was about a foreigner in Beijing determined to win the heart of a Chinese princess who had a nasty habit of killing her suitors.

 

For the most part the world of opera has been insulated from the sort of widespread criticism that’s dogged film and television—primarily because it’s not as accessible to the American public in general, and people of color in particular.

 

The story was about a China of the Western imagination—a fact that I could live with because, as an Asian American in her 30s, I have lived with it; I’m used to being forced to see Asia through that lens. What stung was that I knew this work of art based on a Chinese city, centered on Chinese characters, would be played by white opera singers.

 

Asians are frequently erased in Hollywood, even in stories that take place in their cities and communities, and that originate with Asian or Asian-American characters. While some operatic performances have drawn criticism for leaning too far into caricature, for the most part the world of opera has been insulated from the sort of widespread criticism that’s dogged film and television—primarily because it’s not as accessible to the American public in general, and people of color in particular.

 

There are places that instantly make me feel as though I’m part of something much greater and grander than myself: cathedrals, mountains, the cheese section at Whole Foods. The Metropolitan Opera House instantly became one of those places.

 

There is a grand staircase that leads you to each level of the opera house, from the orchestra section to the “family” section—aka the nosebleeds—where I sat. It’s easy to forget you’re in the cheap seats because nothing about the Met feels cheap: The floors and walls are covered in red velvet. Chandeliers set the light off in a million directions. And from the top floor, you can look down upon the Grand Tier restaurant, where the clinking of silver forks and champagne flutes reminds you that there are people who go to opera houses just to eat.

 

Before the opera even began, I was in awe. And then Turandot delivered.

 

There is that collective hush when you know everyone’s eyes are anticipating the same thing, when your hearts are all in the same place (somewhere in your throat). Listening to “Nessun Dorma” with hundreds of other operagoers felt like that.

 

This is an excerpt from an article published in TheRoot.com. Read the rest here.

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