When I was a teenager, now quite a long time ago, I was into Heavy Metal – particularly Iron Maiden. The very first album I bought was their ‘Number of the Beast‘. To all the parents worried about the Satanic influences in Heavy Metal all I can say is that it didn’t stop me becoming a Vicar. Then again, maybe that doesn’t reassure you…
Why did I like Heavy Metal? Doubtless lots of reasons: it was a bit rebellious, it caused some consternation, it was fun to watch, the lyrics told stories (not always good ones), it was dramatic and over the top but, above all, it was visceral; the music moved you both physically and emotionally. You couldn’t listen to it without some kind of reaction, you either loved it or hated it and I loved it, perhaps because others hated it.
Fast forward some 35 years (good grief) and I find myself in love with opera and, taking a cold hard look at myself, perhaps it is for many of the same reasons. Think opera is just fat ladies in fancy dresses warbling until the curtain comes down? Think again. Opera is rebellious, it causes consternation, it is fun to watch, it tells stories (not always good ones), it is dramatic and over the top but, above all, it is visceral; the music can move you both physically and emotionally. Remember those people who can break wine glasses just by singing at them? They are opera singers. Now imagine that you are the glass…
My first conscious encounter with opera was probably not Nessun dorma (although there is nothing wrong with that, I was just not into football) but was probably Ride of the Valkyries being blasted from loudspeakers out of helicopters in Apocalypse Now. See, this really is the Heavy Metal of classical music. I wanted to find out what that music was and, of course, this lead me to Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
I should confess at the outset that I have still never seen a live staging of the Ring Cycle. I came close this year (2018) but the Royal Opera House sold out before tickets went on sale to the public. I have learned my lesson on that front. Nonetheless my journey into opera proper began about 12 years ago when Radio 3 broadcast the whole 16 hour cycle in one go. This was not just music, this was a challenge of endurance! Of course I failed to listen to the whole thing (I had a young child for heaven’s sake) but it introduced me to a landscape, if not a world, that was new and exciting and needed to be explored.
In 2007 I saw my first ever live opera, which was an adaptation of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, at the English National Opera. Obviously it would suit the course of this narrative if I said that this changed my life and turned me into a massive opera fan overnight. Actually it didn’t. It was a slightly underwhelming experience but, then again, I also found the book quite underwhelming, so perhaps that shouldn’t surprise me.
Nevertheless, my exploration of this new musical landscape continued and on those rare occasions when Vivienne and I went away I would always seek out the local opera house. This led to some interesting experiences such as sitting in an opera house in Riga watching an opera sung in Italian with surtitles in Latvian and Estonian! That may sound off-putting but the music, the spectacle and the sheer joy of the experience more than made up for the lack of comprehension!
Then, some 4 years ago, we went to Rome for our 20th wedding anniversary. True to form I sought out a local opera house and I discovered a production of La Traviata which included dinner in one’s box during the interval. It was a wonderful evening and, although probably too touristy, it really cemented my desire not only to hear opera but, more importantly, to experience it.
At this point it would be easy to be stymied by the, apparent, sheer expense of going to the opera, particularly in dear old England. A quick look at the Royal Opera House website will show tickets on sale for hundreds of pounds a throw. For some this is doubtless a drop in the ocean but for most people, including Vicars, this is a huge amount to spend on a night out and would preclude seeing much, if any, live opera. However, when you dig deeper, there are many ways and means of doing this without spending a fortune. The higher you sit the cheaper the seats (many ENO seats in the balcony can be had for £12), the ENO also sell ‘secret seats’ which have often got us into the stalls or dress circle for £30, I have stood at Glyndebourne for £20 and, as an MA student, have had great seats at the ROH for £10. In short, if you know what you are doing, it is possible to go to the opera for less than the price of going to the cinema. And, having mentioned that, it is often possible to see opera at the cinema, as many now do live broadcasts from the ROH and the Met.
So the last couple of years have seen a veritable explosion of opera-going. I shan’t list them all now but personal highlights have included Salome at the ROH (they don’t come much more visceral then that) and Saul at Glyndebourne, which is completely hat-stand bonkers.
In addition to the ‘big’ opera houses I have also enjoyed becoming a Friend of Kentish Opera and I am looking forward to seeing their production of Carmen next year, as I enjoyed seeing their Cavalleria Rusticana & Pagliacci earlier this year. I am also particularly looking forward to seeing Faust at Glyndebourne next summer, which diabolical note probably brings us back to Iron Maiden!
I am a long way from being an opera ‘buff’, whatever that means. I don’t know all the composers, I don’t know all the operas or all the singers. But I do know that I love this musical world and I look forward to exploring it more and more in the future. In the meantime, if you hear of any tickets to see the Ring Cycle anywhere do let me know!