A culture of cowardice
As the autumn leaves fall I dread the approach of the opera season, in case I’m obliged to go. I can’t remember the last time I actually bought a ticket, but have occasionally been a guest of one of the large, multinational accounting firms who seem to be opera’s prime sponsors.
I’m not knocking such patronage, because with a bit of syllogistic reasoning we can prove a definite connection between opera and accounting. As you know most opera is sung in Italian and doubleentry bookkeeping was invented hundreds of years ago by an Italian monk, ergo ... well …
With each visit to the opera, I am reminded why I would rather go to the movies. In movies you get good casting. I mean, Johnny Depp actually looks as though he could get through a sword fight without cutting himself badly or getting tangled up in the curtains. You really believe that you could fall in love with Angelina Jolie, but you’d struggle to say the same thing about your average opera diva.
It’s worth noting that despite a recent resurgence in cultural snobbery, opera has long been supplanted by movies as an entertainment form. In the past year New Zealanders went to the movies more than 16 million times, whereas the opera audience is largely comprised of accountants, their wives and invited colleagues.
There seems to be just one universal theme in opera, continually recycled in three plot or title variations.
Here’s how it goes.
First, the orchestra plays an overture. Then the curtain goes up and you are supposed to gasp at the spectacular extravagance of the set. It cost $3.5 trillion and has just arrived in 14 hermetically sealed containers from Oberammergau, where it was last used by someone with a name sounding like a Mediterranean seafood dish.
After the overture, the music changes and a fat guy comes on from the left looking for his girlfriend. He sings for a while and then leaves just as a fat lady comes on. They don’t meet even though she must surely have seen him singing his lungs out about three metres away. She sings for a while too, until another fat guy comes on. It turns out that the fat lady is the first fat guy’s girlfriend, despite the fact that they’ve only seen each other on approximately two occasions. The second fat guy has designs on the fat lady. He tells her that the first fat guy has gone to jail/sea, depending on which opera you are watching, and to forget about him.
He tells her quite a few porkies and secretly arranges for the first fat guy to be arrested by the guards/militia, who are always hanging around singing choruses with the tavern crowd. Then the fat lady sings some more but it makes no difference to the first fat guy because he’s in jail.
Besides, she’s singing in Italian, which also means the audience would have no idea what was going on either if it weren’t for the little auto-cue thingy that sits above the stage providing the translation in red electronic letters.
Unfortunately while you are reading the auto-cue, you completely miss the action on the $3.5-trillion set.
Eventually the fat lady, who isn’t the brightest candle in the chandelier, finds out that the first fat guy is really alive and goes ballistic, seeking a pardon for him from the local duke who is a real bozo. He has been standing around procrastinating in a deep voice for most of the show.
He rumbles through a tormented duet with the fat lady:
“No I can’t.”
“Yes you can.”
“No I won’t.”
“Yes you can.”
“But I shouldn’t.”
“Yes you can.”
“All right, I will.”
And he grants the pardon, which reaches the jail about ten seconds too late, just after the first fat guy gets shot/decapitated while heroically refusing a blindfold.
The fat lady then comes warbling in as the firing squad is marching off, sees the guy she’s known for all of 30 seconds lying dead, and decides that without him her own life’s not worth living. She then stabs herself/jumps/gets terminally ill and dies singing loudly. Only then—as everybody knows—is it over.
Now, I’m really sure that the accountants would rather take their clients to Die Hard 5 or the rugby, but there is usually a senior partner’s wife on the opera trust board, and they wouldn’t want to look like philistines when the sponsorship proposal is being discussed.
So a bunch of people who wouldn’t know Mozart from Meatloaf have to squirm uncomfortably in their seats for a few hours, not knowing quite enough to applaud in the right places, because their cultural-cringe conscience hath made cowards of them all.
Mike Hutcheson is a former Saatch & Saatchi cheese, a co-founder of Colenso BBDO and a director of Tangible Media