Maybe you have opera jokes. We did.
When the Pop Culture Happy Hour team planned a trip to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, we grudgingly served up to each other our dusty old gags about Bugs Bunny and helmets with horns and Pretty Woman and … have we left anything out?
We chose to see Rigoletto, precisely because it’s a classic. It’s real, hardcore actual opera. We didn’t want to be reluctant, or to insist that opera come meet us where we were. We wanted to dive in. All jokes aside, we really did want the opera experience.
The whole thing had begun with my colleague Stephen Thompson making a New Year’s resolution to expand his cultural choices, and specifically to see an opera. Here was our chance — why waste it?
The production of Rigoletto we saw was directed by Michael Mayer. If you’re not familiar with the story, Rigoletto is a jester who becomes embroiled in a series of mind games between men, ultimately at the expense of his own daughter. It’s very (very very) tragic, and yes, it has one of the pieces of music that even opera non-enthusiasts might know: “La donna e mobile,” which is familiar enough that there’s a clip of Enrico Caruso singing it right on the opera’s Wikipedia page. “La donna e mobile” is the kind of piece that might be part of a Saturday Night Live “Opera Man” sketch with Adam Sandler, by which I mean that when Adam Sandler returned this spring to play Opera Man for the first time in years, his bit about the Democratic candidates running for president was set to the tune of “La donna e mobile.”
What distinguished this Rigoletto was the staging: It was placed in Vegas, in perhaps the 1950s or 1960s. Rigoletto wore an argyle sweater. (With his hump under it.) Rather than being an actual jester in a court full of sycophants, he’s the only marginally cool, socially questionable member of a quasi-Rat Pack that surrounds the suave Duke. The set was decorated with neon lights, and a critical sequence takes place at (and in) the back of a car.
One of the surprises of the show for me was that this staging was carried into the translation that plays on the seat in front of you while you watch the opera. While some places use surtitles — words projected above the stage — to translate the (in this case) Italian for the audience, the Met puts a small screen about the size of a pencil case on the back of every seat, so you use the one right in front of you. It displays the words that are being said on stage. You have a choice of multiple languages, and the display is polarized, meaning you don’t see the displays to the sides of you, which would be distracting, but just yours (and the ones in rows directly in front of you, which are pretty easy to ignore, because they’re fairly dim). What I learned is that if you can follow subtitles in a film in a foreign language, you can follow an opera in a language you don’t speak very easily.
But what I meant about the staging is that because the setting is midcentury Vegas, the translation reflects that. So the words in English, just for example, might not be “Daughter, please give me your assurance that you won’t leave under imprudent circumstances,” even if that was the most precise translation of the Italian, but instead “Don’t go out there alone, baby!” The lines are simplified somewhat — the idea is not to reproduce the language, but to help you follow. And in fact, they’ll sometimes stop the translation, particularly if the refrain is repeating, in a way that seems designed to prod you to return your eyes to the stage if they’ve wandered. If it’s more important to see the action than follow the exact words, they’ll just stop giving you the exact words.
There might be people who would quarrel with that for reasons of precision. But for me, it felt like a sort of holistic approach to presentation, where the idea is actually to create the best experience, not to let you read the opera instead of watching it. Many of us have known the frustration of watching a film with subtitles in which an entire long line that clearly involves multiple phrases is translated as “Yes, of course.” But this is different. It’s sacrificing a measure of perfection for a payoff in beauty. Watch the stage, they seem to be saying. You know what’s going on.
There’s something of this attitude in the way the operation is run — which we got a chance to see when we toured backstage the day before the show. We spoke with a tour guide and with some staff members about how hard it can be to make opera accessible, and while some of that is for financial reasons, they were quick to say there are discount programs and student tickets and other ways to try to make opera available to more people. (There are also certainly more companies than just the Met, although it’s by far the biggest and most active one in the United States.)
But one of the challenges does seem to be a kind of translation — a way of making people feel welcome and confident. Opera still lives in a kind of in-between place where it’s not as mainstream as, say, Broadway theater, but it’s not quite as fancy-pants as people might be envisioning. Even people who attended the same matinee we did varied widely in how they were dressed, just to use one cultural marker of what audience you’re part of. Some men were in khakis and button-down shirts, and they seemed at ease, but there was also a woman who was in a full-out gown, despite the fact that it was 11 AM on a Sunday. The Metropolitan Opera is in a very interesting place right now: it’s very proud of the initiative that brings some of its productions to movie theaters for HD showings that make opera available to people who can’t get to New York at all — and there are fascinating stories about, for instance, how the HD productions shown on HD cameras on giant screens required an upgrade in wig quality, which makes perfect sense, once you think about it.
On wigs: They have a wig studio, of course. And a large dressmaker shop. And racks of clothes, and people hammering and welding and moving giant pieces of various sets, since they run multiple shows at once. There are elevators, there’s machinery — there’s even a thing called The Machine that they use for the ‘Ring’ cycle. You can read all about it; about how it weighs 45 tons and boggles the mind. I saw it on stage, at rest, and in that condition, not in use, it looks like a huge drying rack.
The whole place, really, is a massive, intricate machine filled with strange surprises. Here’s one: They showed us the animal entrance. That’s where they bring in horses, mostly, but you never know what animals you might need, so of course, if you are the Metropolitan Opera, you have an animal entrance. They showed us shelves full of books that were available to be read by workers idled during performances between which they’d have to hustle. It seemed appropriate that backstage at the opera, there seemed to be an entire collected Dune series. An epic loves an epic.
In the end, though, what matters is the art. And despite the jokes, despite having very little opera experience, despite my fears that I would feel left behind, it was a wonderful performance I felt entirely equipped to enjoy. Perhaps not to appreciate the same way an expert would, but to enjoy? Yes. I came away with thoughts about which parts worked best, which voices I respond to the most (higher ones, because lower ones strike me as indistinct rumbling), how the tragedy of Rigoletto embraces both the preciousness of women and the treatment of them as prop and property, and a lot of other thoughts not that different from the ones I have after an interesting film or a good book.
While it might seem like Bugs Bunny jokes were meant to play offense against the opera, they weren’t: they were defense. Was this not for me? Would I feel dumb or out of place? Would I feel lost? I did not. I felt quite welcome, and fortunate to visit a place so fully dedicated to such a variety of artistic pursuits. Sure, go for the voices. But appreciate the makeup artists who now have to serve both an audience seeing performers live on stage, far away, and an audience seeing perfomers shot in HD, their faces projected many feet high. Appreciate the people who build a set that looks like “Vegas, but make it opera.” Appreciate the person who decides that line should be “Don’t go out there, baby!”
You don’t have to go to the Metropolitan Opera. But maybe give one of the HD events a try, or find a city near you that has an opera company. I can tell you that at this production, there wasn’t a single helmet.