Tuesday, June 23, 2015

An Acquired Taste and a Song about a Sandwich


In honor of this summer's upcoming opera season, a column on the subject seems timely.


I’m told that opera is an acquired taste. I’ve sampled a number of operas by now and for the most part, my taste buds haven’t matured. In fact, I’ve concluded that I am a Broadway Musical person. I truly love musicals. But I do like classical music, too, very much, and there are many splendid themes I recognize from great operatic works. I guess the “wasted” piano and violin lessons and music appreciation classes in childhood did pay off in adulthood, in the form of simple enjoyment of the music, and in some absolutely memorable moments I will always cherish.


I suspect that with me, appreciating opera has something to do with attention span and bladder capacity. I can even quote an authority on this subject. Alfred Hitchcock said, "The length of the film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder." I just wasn’t meant to sit through long, long afternoons of opera.


The sad moment of truth,the knowledge that I probably wouldn't develop a passionate love for opera, manifested itself during a performance of Handel’s Julius Caesar several years ago. Before that I had tried, truly tried to understand opera. Besides, how could we go wrong with Handel, we thought when we purchased our tickets? How, indeed? We learned that with Handel's Julius Caesar we could go wrong. Very, very wrong.




The orchestration was gorgeous, as we expected from Handel, featuring the musical instruments of the period, but when it came to the plot and vocals and artists, oh, my! We spent a very long afternoon listening to a series of very accomplished singers perform a very long series of vocal gymnastics, one after another, while others stood perfectly still on the stage, holding torches and palm fronds. We knew they had wonderful voices too, these scenery-holders, as we'd heard them sing in another production, but for most of Julius Caesar they were relegated to assistant sword-carriers, which was a waste of talent, we thought. The production lasted for about seven hours. Husband will insist it was eight hours, but he is prone to exaggeration.


To add to our great confusion, the part of the great general, Julius Caesar, was sung by a true male soprano. The male soprano was authentic, too, in Handel’s day, we have since read, but this particular voice and the concept of a man singing in the the female soprano's territory were simply jarring to our uneducated eyes and ears.


The first portrayal of Julius Caesar I recall seeing on film was by Richard Burton, and Mr. Burton was no soprano. He didn’t even really sing (as we learned when he appeared on Broadway in Camelot), but who really cared? He was, after all Richard Burton, with that beautiful, rich Welsh-bred voice and articulate delivery, and he was undoubtedly and thoroughly masculine in presence. I have since read a biography or two mentioning him, and there was evidently no question about his masculinity, according to the many women who kissed and told. And kissed again.


On the other hand, the gender of Mr. Handel’s operatic Julius Caesar onstage that afternoon wasn’t all that obvious until we finally confirmed the presence of facial hair. When he opened his mouth and those first elevated notes poured out, well, as Husband protested, no self-respecting soldier would have followed that high C into battle, and I was inclined to agree. I’m sorry, I just didn’t buy it, and neither did Cleopatra, evidently; they didn’t come to a good end, and it took them two hours too long to reach that very unhappy conclusion.


I suppose that sometimes I can’t quite lose myself in the moment, as you must in opera, because I’m an author and editor, always striving for concise, clean language. It's important to be able to suspend belief in order to appreciate the opera, I think, for it is meant to be bigger than life. There are no small emotions, no small moments or gestures or steps, and surely no small notes, even, in opera. It’s all enormous in scope, to be acted and danced and sung and played out before our bedazzled senses.


Our local opera company is marvelous and deserving of all the many accolades it receives. The historic theater in which they perform is a jewel, and visiting performers often get misty-eyed when they experience its acoustics for the first time. We usually attend several of the opera productions each summer, though we choose the light/comic/operettas/Broadway musicals over the more ponderous Tales of Hoffman types.

One summer’s lighter offerings included the musical The Most Happy Fella. I’d heard of it many times but had never seen it, and I was looking forward to the evening. After seeing it, I'd have to say that The Most Happy Fella has a charming plot with a raggedly-stitched patchwork quilt of mismatched songs, including the haunting “Joey, Joey,” the fingersnapping showtune “Standin’ on the Corner, Watchin’ All the Girls Go By,” and a few others that feel more pure in the operatic sense, as if they’d wandered in from the wrong production and decided to stay anyway.


Some songs were in performed English, some were in Italian; the older sister from the Old Country did not have an accent, but her younger brother, the Most Happy Fella, well-a, he sure did have-a an accent. Nobody explained that one to my satisfaction. In fact, nobody even attempted to, that I recall.



The point in the musical that I’m finally reaching here, the moment when time stopped in the theater and I lost myself in the opera, comes now. It was a song performed by a delicious trio of waiters. I don’t think they even had names, because, after all, though they were happy fellas, they weren’t the Happy Fella, even though their voices were richer and more powerful than The Happy Fella. Their names, as listed in the program, were simply Waiters One, Two, and Three. They wore white aprons tied just below their armpits, and held various articles of food in their hands, and from their energetic pantomimes even I could tell that the whole village was preparing for the joyful wedding feast to be held that night, and these three waiters were right at the heart of it.


Allow me quite a bit of literary license as I describe the scene:


The tables are heavy with food — every kind of food imaginable, including meat, breads, cheeses, fruits, vegetables,multi-storied pastries taller than I am, and, since the musical takes place in wine country, of course there is plenty of alcohol, which in the end causes its usual mischief, but I won’t give away that plot twist. Anyway, now comes the glorious song from the waiters, at least my version of it, and since it’s in Italian, I'm pretty safe offering my translation to most readers who don't speak Italian.


Verse One:


Waiter One: (holds up a loaf of bread) The hoagie!
Waiter Two: The hoagie!
Waiter Three: The hoagie!
Waiter One: The hoagie!
Waiter Two: The hoagie!
Waiter Three: The hoagie!
Waiters One, Two and Three: The hoagie, oh, the hoagie, yes the hoagie, oh, the hoagie . . . . . . . . (instrumental interlude) . . . ta-da!


Verse Two:


Waiter One: (holds up the mustard, but we can’t see a brand name) The mustard!
Waiter Two: The mustard!
Waiter Three: The mustard!
Waiter One: The mustard!
Waiter Two: The mustard!
Waiter Three: The mustard!
Waiters One, Two, and Three: The mustard, oh, the mustard, yes, the mustard, oh the mustard . . . . . . . (instrumental interlude) . . . ta-da!


This goes on for about ten splendid minutes as the three prepare what any clueless opera-goer can see is a sandwich, and we’re all getting very, very hungry, but we don’t notice the hunger pangs, because . . .


Waiters One, Two, and Three could be singing about raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens or the Dow Jones or Obamacare. It simply doesn’t matter. The actual assembling of the sandwich is a nice visual, of course, but those three marvelous voices, and the way they blend - - - even better than the mayo they praise so richly in Verse Three - - - well, if we could have specified an encore number (and we did applaud Waiters One, Two and Three very enthusiastically after that number, and again at the end, when they took their bows), it would have been that one. I would even have happily bought another high-priced ticket just to hear them sing what I called “The Sandwich Song” one more time.

I may not be a connoisseur of opera, and I don’t even like mustard, but for the chance to hear those three happy white - aproned waiters sing the praises of a garden-variety sandwich, well, I’d toss a bouquet of fresh parsley on the stage just to show my appreciation. The Sandwich Song was simply one of those exquisite show-stopping numbers you don’t ever want to end.


Several years later, those three rich, soaring voices still ring in my mind whenever I pass a Subway sandwich shop.


When art moves us, as this song did, it stays in our minds and gently colors everything else that’s there, for our lasting benefit. I felt that overwhelming joy when I stood before a Van Gogh painting for the first time in my life, and I felt it that afternoon when those waiters sang the praise of onions, among other ingredients; and perhaps that's why I had tears in my eyes, even all the way back in row M.


Ann Patchett, a lyrical writer, offers this beautiful paragraph in Bel Canto, a book I am now devouring for the second time just for the pleasure of it. Listen to her description of a group of people who have just heard the most famous soprano of their day perform for them, in a small intimate party setting:

Some of them had loved her for years. They had every recording she had ever made. They kept a notebook and wrote down every place they had seen her, listing the music, the names of the cast, the conductor. There were others there that night who had not heard her name, who would have said, if asked, that opera was a collection of nonsensical cat screechings, that they would much rather pass three hours in a dentist’s chair. These were the ones who wept openly now, the ones who had been so mistaken.



For me, that’s another one of those wonderful moments I'll remember, and it will gently color everything else that’s there—simply reading that graceful passage from a truly gifted writer. And that's how I felt when Waiters One, Two and Three graced us with their splendid voices. 




I’m sure Ms. Patchett would have loved my singing waiters, too, and their lusty Sandwich Song.




originally posted June 2008



1 comment:

Jen said...

I love Opera & Broadway. I always have...maybe its actually innate rather than acquired?