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Have you read this week's epistle from Jules?

Episode 127

The Nostrum Guide to Opera


     We can learn a lot from opera. We can learn in particular that there are two kinds of men in the world, and two kinds of women, and every person, male or female, is one or the other.

     We can also learn that writers of debate soap operas, one of the lesser known offshoots of grand opera, have a tendency to simplify.

     To learn from opera, first we have learn about opera. If you already have a complete collection of La Divina's albums, signed by both her and Ari, you can skip ahead a few paragraphs. Otherwise, we ask that you bear with us for a while (and if you're a regular reader, and you got through the previous episode, we imagine that bearing with us has become quite the habit with you).

     If you have never been exposed to opera, you must learn the following facts:

  1. The older Wagner got, the progressively worse his music got. By the time he wrote Parsifal, he was down to three melodic minutes an hour.
  2. Early operas are a lot of choral groups standing around singing. The difference between early operas and early oratorios is that some are called operas and some are called oratorios.
  3. Recitative (pronounced res-a-ta-teev) is when everyone in the orchestra takes a break except the harpsichordist and people sort of talk instead of sing while the harpsichord plays, but the sign outside the theatre said opera, and they can't just talk or the composer would be thrown out of the opera-writer's union.
  4. Andrew Lloyd Webber thinks he's Puccini. This means that any three hour performance has two good songs that keep coming up again and again (Webber) or simply two good songs (Puccini).
  5. Men didn't get real excited about careers in opera until this whole castrati thing became passé.
  6. Opera sounds the way it does because the singers had to sing loud enough to be heard in the back row over the orchestra. Opera singers look the way they do because they have to sing loud enough to be heard in the back row over the orchestra. If the microphone had preceded the invention of opera, Dame Joan would probably look like Calista Flockhart.
  7. Opera is an acquired taste. You must to some degree understand it before you can enjoy it, but occasionally a song is so beautiful, and so beautifully sung, that no education whatsoever is necessary. The same thing may hold true for Celine Dion, but we doubt it.
  8. n order to be a civilized member of Western society, you must know more about opera than the previous seven facts. If you have never done so, you should now go listen to an opera. As a beginner, you should kick off with Carmen, which is a very good starter piece, as you may already recognize some of the music. Unfortunately, however, the piece is in French, which is untraditional. Most operas are in Italian (including Wagner's Flying Dutchman, which is in German), so you might also want to listen to Rigoletto, the classic example of it not being over till the fat lady sings. And to conclude the listening portion of your education, why not give Don Giovanni a try (which, unlike Dutchman, is in Italian Italian despite being German). We'll wait until you get back.
     Wait, wait, wait. Mutter, mutter, mutter.

     There. That wasn't so bad, was it? The reasons people like opera are more complex than simply that the music is pretty, but nonetheless, the music is pretty (except for Wagner). But opera is more than just music, it is also story, and theatre. Big story. Big theatre. When we refer to something as theatrical, we mean it is somewhat stagy and overblown. When we refer to something as operatic, we mean that it is as stagy and overblown as a thing can get. Operas play out big themes at top volume, with very large performers twaddling around scenery resembling ancient cities or palaces or tombs or celestial gardens. Often there are parades with horses, elephants and camels. A couple of hundred spear carriers are always mulling around in the back of the set, ready to swing into a rousing few bars of the Anvil Chorus (FYI, unpaid fans of the art who have wheedled the administrators to let them stand on the stage in a toga just to see what it's like, are often sprinkled among these spear carriers, or supernumeraries, as they are called; try to do that at a Insane Clown Posse concert). Seats at your average major league opera house like the Metropolitan in New York City cost more than a pair of ducats to the annual Rolling Stones We're Not Dead Yet Tour, and they sell out twice as fast. Opera fans are rabid beasts, comparable only to ballet fans in their support of their favored art form. If you are a fan of rock, today you will kill for Britney tickets, tomorrow you will die for Phish tickets, and ten years from now you'll be happy to stay home and drink Budweiser straight from the can and watch the game, the pregame show, and the postgame wrap-up, and wonder how these kids can listen to this crap nowadays. If you are a fan of opera, you will subscribe no matter what it costs, you will try to improve your subscription every year by graduating to the seats of habitués recently deceased, until you are finally in the center boxes, enjoying your Tosca or Traviata until, bada boom, you're a dead habitué yourself, and your seats become someone else's tickets to paradise.

     You don't think the Three Tenors are getting by on looks alone, do you?

     But the chief issue we promised to address in this diatribe is how we can learn from opera that there are two kinds of men in the world, and two kinds of women, and how every person, male or female, is one or the other. Yes, we did say that at the beginning of this episode, and now that you've listened carefully to Don Giovanni and Carmen, you'll be able to understand our analysis.

     There are two kinds of men in the world: Don Giovannis, and Don Joses. There are two kinds of women: Carmens, and Micaelas. Everyone else is a variation on the theme.

     First, the Don Giovannis. The men who attract women indiscriminately. The seducers. The lovers. The Don Juans (Don Juan and Don Giovanni, if you were sleeping through every semblance of language class your entire life, are the same person). They have confidence. They exude brio. They love life, and they love women. And women fall at their feet without a second thought. In real life, there are seventeen Don Giovannis. Six of them are in Hollywood; two are in Washington, D.C., and the rest are in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Neither Australia nor Antarctica can boast a one.

     Second, there are the Don Joses. These are the poor schlubs who respond to any woman who smiles at them for any reason whatever. They are seduced by the grocery clerk who tells them to have a nice day. In sixth grade, when a girl tells them they are going steady with her, they believe it. With every passing year, whatever any girl tells them, they believe it. The only thing they don't believe is that any female might seriously be attracted to them, although they may spend their entire lives acting otherwise (Don Giovanni's don't strut -- they don't have to; Don Joses strut, because they're afraid of what might happen if they don't). Everything they know about relationships is what their women tell them, if they have a woman, and what they wish a woman would tell them, if they don't. Don Joses are notorious for marrying the wrong woman, and are responsible for, in America, the fifty percent divorce rate, because Don Joses never do their thinking with any part of their anatomy above their navel when women are involved. In real life, there are six billion people in the world. Half of them are men. Of that half, three billion, minus seventeen, are Don Joses.

     Next, the women. First, there are the Carmens. The seductresses. The women who lure men to their dooms and then cast them off like old mantillas when the novelty wears thin. The women who exude vigor through every pore, who represent the primal source of life, the ones the hapless Don Joses have been fashioning little goddess statues after since time immemorial. In Nabokov's classic, the record Don Jose Humbert remarks on in young Lo's collection is an opera somehow specially reformatted for children. He refers to it as dwarf conductors, but its name is Little Carmen.

     Little Carmen… We wonder if there's a message in that somewhere.

     The other sort of woman is the Micaela. The girl next store. The virtuous one. The one who will wait forever. The one the DJs put on a pedestal and worship from afar. The one who is best suited to be the mother of their children, while somehow also remaining a lifelong virgin. Except, of course, it is always the Micaelas who fall prey to the Don Giovannis. Fortunately, there are only seventeen Don Giovannis, and no matter how efficient they work, they can only debauch so many Micaelas in a given lifetime.

     In terms of numbers, men, and specifically Don Joses, divide the world fairly equally between Carmens and Micaelas. Bad girls and good girls. Fifty-fifty, right down the middle. In real life, these numbers may be quite different, but it doesn't matter, because it is only how they are reflected in the eyes of men that separates a Carmen from a Micaela. One Don Jose pictures yon lovely as a Micaela, while the Don Jose standing next to him sees a viperous Carmen. Which one is right? Since each will act accordingly, they create the Carmen or Micaela in their own minds, and it matters little which the woman actually is.

     In other words, men know nothing about women. What they do know is usually imagined, and often false. Women, complex creatures who are no more categorizable into two groups than are stars in the heavens, have known this since the telling of the first creation tale. They're used to it. Men, on the other hand, are basically simpletons, who can have enormous talents. They can write transcendent music like Carmen or Don Giovanni. But can they understand anything about the true relationships between a man and a woman?

     Ask any woman. If she says yes, you have found yourself a Micaela. It will be years before she starts complaining to you that you never listen to a word she's saying….

     We now return to our regularly scheduled soap opera, already in progress.

Have the Three Tenors been arrested on tax fraud charges yet?

Did Wagner go around humming that stuff all day?

Who has the catering account backstage at the Met, and how can we get a piece of that action?

Did Pagliacci eat at Cafeteria Rusticana? (with apologies to Robert Benchley)

Does this have even the remotest thing to do with forensics?

Next week we presumably tie advertising and opera together in an episode written by Guiseppe Verdi: "Aida Lot, Uida Little."

Go to the next episode due Oct 20, 1999.