Phenomenal points of entry

On the phenomenal points of entry in opera…

When? Often. Should be often, will be more often if you’re open to them. Especially if you seek them.

Where? Everywhere. Open your soul! Mindfully so.

To sleep…not an option. Per chance to dream…close.

Delimited by my title, the discourse here is on the phenomenal experience of opera and their entry points*

A phenomenal point of entry is the moment in an opera in which you and the performance connect emotionally, psychologically, perhaps even spiritually. The music, the voices, the drama, the performers, the sets and costumes, some mix of these, whatever, come together, maybe even all at once. The moment coalesces into a true Maslovian peak experience. You're now in the 'zone.'

Before a point of entry opens for you, the last act was ‘nice,’ at least that, one hopes, but now, as the lights go down for the next act, maybe you’re thinking about something you forgot to say to your friend during the intermission and actually a little peeved that you’ll have to hold that thought until some 40 minutes later. But if you’re thinking about this matter and how you're going to phrase it, and about your friend's reactions you’re not in the moment of the lights going down in front of you and the next act about to begin. The lights down should be a cue to get into the zone again, but only if you've been there before.

Then comes the ‘point.’ You can feel it. The point of entry is when the very portals of your aesthetic soul open. You are now receptive, exposed, emotionally raw, ‘at one’ with the moment. Everything is ‘on,’ everything tingles and glows. The voices, the singers' interactions on stage, the phrases in the orchestra, the body language of the conductor, the sets, the colors, even the shadows on the sets seem very charged. It’s electric. You shudder; you weep.

Hopefully you are not alone: you sense the sudden silence of those around you, as if no one is breathing. You can feel it. They, too, have become a part of your experience, as you have become a part of theirs. It is transpersonal. And the performers can sense it as well, a total communion, a perfect emotional/aesthetic storm.

Wagner wrote extensively about the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk and also about the practice of the art of transition from one receptive emotional state to the next. Suddenly you find yourself on the same page and experience what he’s talkin’ about, what he strove to create. Heinz Werner called the level of involvement syncretic, where one’s powers of rational abstraction go under, sort of like the daylight photoreceptors in your eye go under as the level of light dims to make way for the night receptors. These process neither sharp images nor color, hence at night things are more diffuse and shades of gray. The libretto for Tristan und Isolde is actually a psychological textbook for this sort of stuff. Names, individuality, honor and glory are all abstractions; the boundaries of the individual become diffuse in the Liebesnacht..

Once you've experienced a receptive zone it's easier to re-enter one during other performances. You can almost sense when the whole thing comes together. It's why people become fans of the opera. Sure reading about it, listening to it with half an ear while driving or while your kids are running around in and out can be pleasant, better than television, but the core of loving the art form is that it makes us crazy.

Not just opera of course: phenomenal points of entry, changes in receptivity for all sorts of experiences, are everywhere. Be open, remember.

It’s the point at which the novelist, the poet, a character in a film or in Shakespeare speaks directly to you and moves you deeply. Could be the best known parts, “To be or not to be,” but could be just a phrase or a gesture. It was always there in performance the other times, but it hits you hard this time in a way you hadn’t expected.

The snow at night in the dead of winter when your senses come alive

The snow at night in the dead of winter when your senses come alive

 It’s the fine cognac or single malt Scotch, or an elegant wine by the fireside that competes with the blowing snow outside. Friends dear to you enhance the moment with their stories of your collective pasts. And, during a pause, there and then you realize that Mahler's Fourth Symphony is all about Christmas and family.

It’s the point where you realize that you actually love the person who has been inching closer to you all evening, more than just ‘like’ her only as a good friend, a fellow student or a pleasant co-worker. or a regular at the coffee shop. It’s postural, it’s facial, it’s intonation, and so it’s not just ‘Hey, I really enjoyed chatting with you, perhaps we can see each other again maybe?’ But, without getting completely carried away, like saying the stuff Tristan and Isolde sing on and on about in Act II, which, digressing off the subject here, you’ll find when you read it, is quite different from the first three quarters of Act I when she’s so pissed off at him and he, the poor Held, is doing everything he can to keep his rational “Hey, I’m just the courier here” thing together. Nice try, Tris. Their meeting of eyes in Ireland, he lying there wounded, she, sword in hand, raised, about to finish him off, was their first point of entry. It must have been intense! It's why she's so mad in Act I.

It’s waking up on the muddy hillside at Woodstock looking out over the sea of people, to the morning maniac music of Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane as we greet the dawn together.

It’s making love in the sand dunes on a warm summer night while the stars are shooting over your…ocean. Or it’s the view across the bay at cocktails, the squawking of gulls silhouetted against the orange glow of the setting sun, the warm breeze, it’s all as much a part of the moment as the electricity of her presence, her fragrance, her smile and the promise of tomorrow. The sunset babe. Perfect.

As I said...perfect!

As I said...perfect!

It’s your wedding day, the middle of your honeymoon, the birth of your children, and their childhood. It's having cats to nap with. It is the surreal depth of emotion at the passing of your elders and their forever absence. All the music associated with them returns you to those moments together. It’s being in Italy with those you love. It's dancing at your daughter's wedding.

It's winning eleven National Championships in Women's NCAA Basketball.

It’s the taste of the salmon caught straight out of the loch for your dinner after the long drive through the chilly mists of Scotland.

Or it’s when the experience of les petites madeleines with warm tea ushers back memories of your childhood. (Actually it's his childhood: Marcel Proust, le grand Introspector General, says it all. It’s a long read to be sure, but worth almost every single page, at least a high percentage...Take the plunge!)

More than that, perfect storm again: your first opera of the new season is enhanced as much by the excitement of it all, the buzz, as by the warmth of the evening sun in your face as you walk across the Plaza in early fall, before the onset of the cruel New York winter when the same path feels similar to what one imagines Siberia to be like even on a nice day in January.

And so on.  And the moments compound across time into grand emotional schema which in turn color the present with anticipation.

Writing about the above or the below is nowhere near as magical or as profound as the experiences themselves. The act of writing with words about something that is experiential is the abstraction that pulls one from the moment.

Everything must have a beginning. Before a phenomenal point of entry opens, the opera, the symphony, the novel, the person standing near you may seem opaque, just sound, words, a stranger. Think about it. I’ll bet you, dear reader (I sound like Henry Fielding here) can remember back when an opera was just noise or, if your parents were watching one on TV or playing one loudly on the stereo, so loud you could hear it even outside and you’d be embarrassed to invite your friends to come back to the house that afternoon.

After all, what is opera anyway? Just a lot of older heavy folks in wigs and clunky costumes pretending to be teenagers on stage yelling at each other. Right? “It’s sort of nice, Mom, but I really don’t see the point…why do they have to scream like that?”

My count is easily over 150, but for each of the operas I deeply love I remember clearly the experiential path from when it seemed more or less like an opaque wall of sound to the point of entry, when, either accidentally or purposefully through study and preparation by sheer effort of will, the door of perception opened, leading eventually, though not always immediately, to a state of togetherness, depth of feeling and, yes, bliss (I sound like Joseph Campbell here). I should add that my friends think I'm just easily entertained. Some truth to that I suppose.

For me as a kid the path most often started with the first time I heard some of an opera on the radio, perhaps the Saturday matinee broadcast from the Met, though I was not usually at home on a Saturday afternoon, or, more likely, the Sunday afternoon broadcast of new opera recordings on WQXR or, once a year, the Bayreuth broadcasts on WBAI. Those really were the days my friends! Of course recordings were important. But always it was just sound at first, not yet the storm, and I didn’t understand the languages yet.

I quickly discovered that my aural perception was heightened by sound in the dark, without distraction, without competition from my other senses. Still today I sometimes close my eyes so as hear better, especially if I've seen the same cast and production earlier in the season.

It was just sound when, visiting friends, I heard for the first times the Immolation Scene, one with Eileen Farrell and the other with a ‘mature’ Kirsten Flagstad on a complete Götterdämmerung on LP (from Olso, as I recall). Okay. Loud but okay.

However nothing really could have prepared me for the impact of Siegfried’s Funeral March, leading to Birgit Nilsson’s Immolation Scene in performance at the Met in December of 1963. Shattering, overwhelming. It was my third opera in the house and though I’d heard Meistersinger only a few weeks earlier that season, the impact of the ultimate Ring score played and sung live hit me very hard. I think I was trembling for two full days afterward. My teenage nervous system was never the same; the cathexis had begun.

I, too, believe that some operas are easier to connect with than others. For the record, I’d NEVER recommend Götterdämmerung as a good ‘first time’ live opera. A so-called beginner’s opera is more ‘accessible’ and, think about it, therefore likely to be performed more frequently by virtue of the fact that neophytes and tourists will take up the remaining seats on any given evening.

But even a beginner’s opera like Aïda, La Bohème or Carmen (often referred to as the ABCs of Opera), each attractive at first hearing for different reasons, has its entry points for deeper levels of involvement beyond “that’s nice, let's chat at the next intermission.”

I always enjoyed, but never particularly cared too deeply at first for any of them. Oh sure, Luciano Pavarotti singing Rodolfo at the Met in 1977 was thrilling, you’d have to be made of stone not to respond to him, as was a young José Carreras, who sang in later performances that same season. But true love worked its magic with my point of entry, our point I should say, because my soon-to- be wife was with me: it was the experience of the new Franco Zeffirelli La Bohème with Teresa Stratas, Carreras, conducted by James Levine in January of 1982. I, she, they, all together and the snow gently falling outside through the intermission before the final act imprinted the evening forever. We went twice, saw the telecast twice. A few years later, January of 1988, same production, Pavarotti, Mirella Freni and Carlos Kleiber would recreate the magic for us. We and my mother-in-law wept. It snowed that night too, as I recall. None of us has been the same since.

When the doors of experience open wide, where it all comes together and we are ready, the performances, more satisfying aesthetically and emotionally, rank among the more memorable in a lifetime of seasons.

On the other hand, there is nothing more frustrating in terms of time, energy, and money, therefore nothing more 'expensive' than a performance that, for any number of reasons, not only denies aesthetic and emotional satisfaction but also insults our intelligence as seasoned, reasoned passionate opera lovers.

Some producers today don’t actually hear the music. Or they're colorblind. Or they haven’t read the text, or if they have, they don’t particularly care or think we care. Some don’t understand their characters or how real humans interact. Some modern producers seem to think that an ironic distance, even if it risks a disconnection through laughter, is the deconstructively correct response to a scene which, when directed by someone else who actually understands the music/text/psychology of it all, would normally evoke a deeper emotion. They seem to overlook the more likely truth that the majority in the audience is there for the experience the composer and librettist intended.

Updating or reconceiving the drama in opera can and has worked. I’m not drawing a line in the sand with my saber. But it is to say that if an opera company expects its paying customers to be mindful, intelligent, and emotionally responsive patrons, AND come back to see the production again and again, one should be mindful of these parameters.

Wagner’s exposition of the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk suggests that he knew exactly what he wanted as he created the great Ring Cycle, Tristan und Isolde, and Parsifal. How sad today we often get Gesamtschmutzwerk instead.

Enjoy. JRS

* The content limits I set for this posting are only fair. My in site., I mean. Otherwise it could as well be called or, either of which, I suppose, could work, but then, implicitly, there’d be too many paths of conscious experience to cover and, truth is, time and space matter in my world, as most likely they do in yours. One can’t do everything… though as I’d often point out to my dear old buddy Niki: a cat might try.

'In site' is intentional.