Monday, July 9, 2012

To Music with Love

I went to see Woody Allen's new film To Rome with Love last night with Mr. Opera. Good lord, was it funny. I was glad that Mr. Opera has taught me a thing or two about opera because some of the jokes would have gone over my head a few months ago. Perhaps the funniest subplot of the film is the mortician with a beautiful voice who can only sing in the shower. Woody Allen plays a retired man who had worked in the music business producing operas in rather unusual ways (Rigoletto in white mice costumes, Tosca in a telephone booth). When he overhears the singer belting out an aria in the shower, he becomes determined to make him a star, but when he goes in for an audition, he can't sing. So Woody Allen's character comes up with the idea to put him on stage in a shower, where he sings beautifully. That sets up the funniest scene in the film, when the mortician sings Vesti la giubba from Pagliacci while putting shaving cream on his face instead of clown makeup, and when he murders his wife and her lover, the actors have to come up to the shower so he can stab them. It makes a mockery of the whole tragedy.

(Here is Pavarotti singing Vesti la giubba. Everyone will at least recognize the line at the 1:56 mark.)

Viewers need not know Pagliacci to appreciate the film as a whole, as there are many other subplots going on, and seeing an aria performed in a shower is funny in itself. The film is loaded with stars: Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penelope Cruz, that chick from Juno, and some famous Italian actors.

But why can't most Americans get the opera jokes? Why was I never exposed to opera as a child? Why is opera considered an elitist type of music? Mr. Opera is a sports loving, beer guzzling funnyman who grew up in a modest home, far from the stereotype that Americans hold of opera aficionados. But he is from an Italian family, a nation that has a healthy appreciation for all things beautiful, and music is no exception. (Somewhere along the way he found that his propensity for loudness was a gift and his voice could rattle houses, and he became opera.)

These days I cringe at the thought of the music I liked as a child and wonder how I ever found rock bands like Winger and Warrant appealing. Fortunately I discovered U2 in high school and moved on to better rock bands. But it was still rock, and rock singers, well, anyone can do it. They sing easy melodies. Many can't read sheet music. Few are talented singers. Opera, now that takes talent. It takes years of training and is physically demanding, requiring the same level of maintenance of the body and voice as an athlete would care for his muscles. The masseuse is a part of the opera world, and warming up and stretching is vital to one's career. The risk of injury is great, as Mr. Opera can attest to.

So why is this art despised by so many Americans? Why do we no longer appreciate music in this country, the land of jazz and blues and rock and roll? Why are music programs in schools always the first to go in budget cuts? Why do we not expose our children to Puccini and Verde and Bach and Beethoven? Why do so few Americans know how to play an instrument or sing a harmony? Why do people limit themselves to one music genre instead of appreciating music in general? Why does today's popular music seem like it's more of a fashion accessory?

In the autumn of 2007, I was standing on the balcony of a guest house in Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria with a group of Bulgarians who had grown up in communist times. I'd always thought it funny that Eastern Europeans listened to pop music that was a decade or two old, never quite grasping the fact that they had missed out on it when it was originally popular. These Bulgarians were somewhat different, though they were big fans of ska, which had been popular in the States in the nineties. But they were musicians. They could pick up a guitar or a trumpet or a tabla and play whatever you asked of them. Well, that day when the sun was shining over the valley stained with autumn and the hearts of citizens were preparing for another winter, we heard the reverberations of a brass band from somewhere within in the city, and the souls of those Bulgarians who'd been bounded by the shackles of communism during their childhood were set free. "It's music!" one of them said to me, and we stood on that balcony and listened to a brass band playing at a ceremony for the university and I thought, wow, the power of music over the human soul is incredible.

I have a lot to learn about music, but there is one thing I do understand and have known for a long time. Music is the language of the divine, the translation of emotion into something tangible. That we as a nation seem to have discarded it for pidgin pop is indeed a tragedy worthy of any Italian stage.

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