Why opera isn’t as exclusive as you might think

By SOPHIA LIPKIN | March 28, 2019

The Metropolitan Opera is New York elites’ best kept secret. With its still lingering 19th century grandeur and 60-foot high ceilings, it can almost feel like a farce. But within the performance itself, there are quiet moments of intimacy too. 

The opera retains much of the splendor of times long past. The age of the median viewer — someone firmly in my grandmother’s generation — doesn’t help its image. But there’s something rather novel about the experience as well. Most people still dress up, a tradition that Broadway has lost as it has become an international tourist attraction. But at the opera, men can still be seen in three piece suits and women wear evening gowns (one woman in the audience of the performance I went to see looked as though she could have been part of the opera). 

And even though the restaurant on the mezzanine served $30 crab cakes, once the show started, I didn’t feel out of place. Therein lies the magic of opera. Its incredible capacity for simultaneity: It can feel both grand and very intimate, both modern and antiquated, both feminist and traditional.

I went to see Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera on Monday, March 18. Written in 1900 and set in 1800, Tosca bears many traditional themes of operas: murder, righteousness, love, sex and revenge. But watching it proved that it is still engaging and surprisingly refreshing. 

The historical context of the opera is confusing at best: It is set in Rome during the time of Napoleon Bonaparte. The French-backed government in Rome has just been defeated and their leader, Cesare Angelotti, jailed. The opera opens on an escaped Angelotti, who finds refuge in a church, where he encounters painter Mario Cavaradossi (Joseph Calleja), who he enlists to help him hide. Meanwhile the Baron Scarpia (Wolfgang Koch), chief of the secret police, attempts to use Floria Tosca’s jealousy (Iulia Isaev) — she is Cavaradossi’s lover and a famous actress — to reveal Angelotti’s whereabouts. 

A little confusing? Welcome to the opera. It only gets more convoluted from here. But with a little help from the plot summary provided in the program, Tosca somehow made sense while it was being performed. 

Even though it was written over 100 years ago, Tosca is a show centered around the power of its leading lady. Tosca, portrayed by the formidable Isaev in her Met debut, shone, even as she was surrounded by men in every scene. Maybe it was because of the shimmer of her dress, or maybe because she was the only woman on stage, but there was something I found compelling about the character. She was someone strong enough to stab Scarpia during the second act but also weak enough to be manipulated into leading Scarpia to Cavaradossi’s home. Even the last moment in the show belongs to her suicide — a reflection of how the show’s focus remains on her.

But as feminist as the focus on Tosca might seem, the opera is also very much a story of manipulation. Tosca’s knowledge, or lack of it, is manipulated both by Scarpia and Cavaradossi. Her jealousy is made to seem fickle, although her love never is. She is made to suffer for the whereabouts of Angelotti (a man she does not know), simply because Scarpia is attracted to her. 

The grand scale of the theatre allowed for interesting manipulations of perspective. The set, designed by John Macfarlane, was built using vanishing point perspective and was slightly skew from the stage, making it feel almost like a pop-up book. From that angle, the choruses of over 60 people were rendered with incredible magnitude and scale. 

But where Tosca really excelled was in its intimate moments, particularly in the love story between Cavaradossi and Tosca. Although those scenes were brief, the entire stage seemed to be drawn to them. And for seconds, I forgot I was sitting 50 feet away. Tosca’s arias were also particularly notable. 

Despite the distance, there was a subtle but ever constant encroachment of the exterior onstage. This was created by both the lighting (designed by David Finn), which cast dramatic shadows through doorways and windows, and singing or screaming that came from offstage, reminding the audience of the high stakes of the show. 

The opera is not for the faint of heart. They can last longer than three hours and often end in tragedy. Entirely in Italian, viewers have to balance reading translations of the text on tiny screens in front of every seat with watching the action. And while vocalization helps this, the show is sung entirely without mics, making it sometimes unintelligible, even for those who speak Italian. 

But as confusing as opera can be, it truly is a feat of humanity, from the grand sets to the incredible vocals. And it’s definitely an experience that shouldn’t be missed — provided that you Google the plot of the opera first.

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