It is Sunday evening and I am at my parent’s house. My father has just emerged from his home office after sorting through some photos he shot at the Zoo during the day. I take a deep breath and pose the question to him by handing him a flyer promoting Don Giovanni. “I was wondering if you would like to help me with a project.”
His reaction is a mixture of confusion and anxiety. He knows what is coming but I don’t think he wants to confirm his apparent fears out loud. “What’s this?” he nervously inquires.
I can only imagine the dialogue of my father’s mind, “What torture, what delirium! What hell! What terror!” However I took his lack of verbal resistance as an acceptance and I began to plan my father’s first trip to the opera.
Arriving at the theatre and waiting in the foyer is not a new experience for him but already the stereotypes were beginning to break down. “It’s not the crowd I expected,” he said with slight excitement. I suspect he was imagining he would stand out amongst a hoard of monocles and fox-fur coats. As we scanned the room and made idle chit-chat with a couple of familiar faces we quickly realised that we were not alone. There were many others amongst the crowd who had not attended an opera performance before.
We took our seats in the middle of the row, thanking those with the courtesy to stand and allow us room to pass by and subtly frowning upon those who chose to remain in their seats believing that a slight shuffle of their feet to the left would provide us with the comfort of passing room.
The gentleman seated next to me announced that he was a seasoned opera attendee but the story of Don Giovanni had eluded his cultured memory, so he borrowed a copy of my program to briefly read the conveniently provided synopsis and refresh his mind. It made me wonder why one would need to become familiar with a story before seeing it performed in front of you.
As the conductor approached his position in the orchestra pit among the ten musicians the audience applauded and the lights faded announcing the start of the performance and our first opera experience.
A week before the Don Giovanni project I decided to use myself as a test subject and attend The Dancer’s Company production of Don Quixote.
I had only ever been to one professional ballet performance previously and I thought this would be a good chance to see if my comfort zone could be easily breached. Thanks to numerous reviews from patrons who had seen this production before I went in with high expectations.
I occupied my usual space at the rear of the auditorium so I could also gauge the audience reaction as the performance was unfolding onstage. Despite my lack of storyline understanding I was suitably impressed. For a performance art that prides itself on absolute perfectionism the dancers did not disappoint. Even as an amateur attendee it was hard to fault their performance.
Once the curtain had fallen for the last time I felt like a child who had just discovered iced cream: mouth wide open and begging for more. I imagine that this is not going to be the last time that I attend a ballet.
As the operatic arias of Don Giovanni continued the reason for my neighbour’s synopsis refresher became clear. I could only understand every other word and felt that because I was concentrating so hard on trying to follow the storyline I was missing key elements of it. After around half an hour I decided to give up and approach it like a classical concert by watching the performance of the conductor and his merry orchestra of musicians.
Around the same time that my experience began to diminish I felt the gaze of my father and I realised that I was not alone in my judgement. With every dimming of the lights I hoped that they would fade to black and the usually disrupting practice of interval would be our saviour.
Along with my father I let out a sigh of relief when the auditorium lights finally came ablaze and we respectfully proceeded to a quiet corner of the mezzanine where we could share our thoughts about the performance.
“I appreciate their singing and that they have good voices,” he commented “but I couldn’t understand anything they were singing.” I agreed. He continued, “I looked around and everyone else was sitting so still and enjoying it. I thought ‘why?’”
He joked that his attendance at such an event with renowned prestige may require his surroundings to become more cultured, that somehow he would be elevated to a higher state of society just by being in attendance.
Opera, or at the very least Don Giovanni, is a coarse and intense experience and I would certainly recommend it to everyone. There are those for whom opera is not suited but we as human beings are all about experiences, either good or not so. We didn’t know that fire was hot until an inquisitive being touched it. We didn’t know that the Earth was round until someone sailed ‘off the edge’ and arrived back where they started. We all have our favourite band or singer but there was a time when you had never heard of them. There are those who like to explore and those who like to accept things as they are.
Many will say that they don’t need to attend the opera to know that they don’t like it. They are the accepters, happy with their comfort zone and the mundane routine that governs it. Then there are people like my father who are willing to take on new experiences, believing that life will be enriched simply by being part of something different regardless of our subsequent opinions.
Despite the fact that we used the interval to end our first opera experience we both left with a sense of accomplishment. While I don’t believe that my father will be in attendance at another opera at least in the near future, I know that he was thankful to have been provided with the opportunity to experience something new.