Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Being Turned On By The Opera: Die Walküre, my mother, and Jonas Kaufmann

My mother, lord love her, has long regarded--and listened to--my opera obsession in more or less suffering bewilderment, or more or less bewildered suffering.  More than one broadcast was curtailed by a long-suffering maternal: "Darling, can you turn the screaming off?"  In a brave spirit of zeal for wider experience, though (and for understanding her crazy daughter,) she has come to the opera with me before: to Cenerentola, known as "the pretty one," to Turandot, "the elaborate one," and, now, to Walküre.  After Turandot, I had promised that we could go to a show on her next New York visit, and I wouldn't make her try opera again.  How I got from there to loaning her my handkerchief during Wagner is a story which I offer not only for your entertainment and edification, Gentle Readers, but also for your consideration as a case study in opera audience development. Because I am, now, allowed and even encouraged to get her to try this opera thing again, as long as it's a "nice, dramatic one" like Walküre.

From the cover of the CD that started it all...
When visiting my parents, I sometimes (well, frequently) take opera CDs with me. Jonas Kaufmann's Romantic Arias was greeted not with a long-suffering "Can you turn the screaming off?" but a maternal response far closer to "...Who is that?"  I told her with evangelical enthusiasm.  The credentials and career events were listened to politely; the CD has been listened to again and again.  And again.  Why Kaufmann and not another? Why this CD, when my mother tended to listen to opera with more patience than pleasure?  I asked her these things, and was told that it helped to have "the most beautiful parts" as a point of entry, and that his voice was... my mother hesitated for an adjective, and settled on beautiful.  I began hinting about this season's Walküre approximately a year ago.  My mother said she might be interested.  I played her the Todesverkündigung with Melchior and Flagstad, and told her that the story of Siegmund and Sieglinde was basically like that of a romance novel (you see how shameless I am.)  She agreed to come. I explained that Walküre did not have arias (on purpose!), but claimed boldly that the whole thing was like an extended Most Beautiful Part.  My darling mother averred that she had few expectations beyond seeing and hearing Jonas Kaufmann.  As late as the day of our evening out (for the performance of the 28th,) she was plaintively wondering aloud whether this opera would work for her.

Next to me in the darkness during Act I, tiny intakes of breath marked the sympathetic following of Siegmund's misadventures.  In the first interval, once she could speak coherently, she said that her favorite moment had been the orchestral passage signaling the coming of spring.  In her idol she was not disappointed.  I swear she nearly cut off circulation to my fingers during Act II.  Afterwards, when she'd finished using my handkerchief, she asked how Act III could possibly not be anticlimactic. Still trembling myself, I mentioned the Ride of the Valkyries and reminded her of the Wotan-Brünnhilde confrontation to come.  "Yes..." my mother sighed.  Then she remembered that Sieglinde still had to find out she was going to have a baby, and cheered up a bit.  I gave her the handkerchief again at the end.  "Oh, Lucy..." she breathed.  "I know," I said.  We applauded. We left the opera house arm in arm.  My mother occasionally said again, "Oh, Lucy!" or observed that they all acted as well as singing.  I concurred that this was great. Wasn't it terrible when Wotan held out his arms to Brünnhilde for their last embrace, and then he made her mortal and she collapsed?  Terrible and wonderful.  "And Siegmund touches Sieglinde as though she's precious!"  I agreed.  And we happily dissected and compared our favorite bits over our post-opera supper, and over breakfast the next morning.  So, apparently, more than four hours of Wagner dealing with questions of free will, divine and human law, and the nature of love itself is my mother's accessible opera.  The woman never ceases to amaze me.  She had one more question after the opera: "Remind me: when do tickets for Kaufmann's recital go on sale?"


  1. I think I like your mother. :) Kaufmann being Kaufmann will continue to seduce countless non-opera fans into the dangers of this wonderful art form. Have you shown her "Werther"?

  2. Lovely post. Lucy. If you've told the story of how you developed your own Opera Obsession (I just assumed it was cultivated in your upbringing--how wrong I was--would you send me the link or Tweet it?

  3. Great post. I took someone who claimed to not like opera at all ("hated it" in her words) to Walkure in LA last year and she loved it.

  4. If anybody asked me what the best opera for an opera newbie/opera sceptic to attend was, I would never have suggested Walkure on the basis of the length of it, and that it takes most people (including me) a bit of patience and study to get to the heart of it. I'm clearly wrong- it sounds like your mother had an amazing evening, and that Wagner might be her way into opera appreciation!
    Weirdly, my own mother loves opera (I was brought up on it) but has great difficulty with Wagner and I'm constantly trying to think of new ways to switch her onto him!

  5. Very nice story! Wonderful writing.
    Congratulations for the conquest! :-)

  6. @Christie Let's hope so! My mom is trying to talk some of her non-opera friends into coming up for the recital. And yes, I have shown her Werther (the "romance novel" pitch worked again.) We split a bottle of wine and cried over it.

    @stray @Placido @alexandria Thanks for the comments! It is most gratifying. I will continue to report developments.

    @Gale It's a piecemeal saga, but I will send you links to some blog posts that touch on it.

    @John Marcher Fascinating! It's so neat to hear that it's worked to convert others as well.

    @opera chat Well, the more friends I try to introduce to opera, the more I'm astonished by the diversity of the works that will be turn-ons or triggers for different people. My mom does enjoy a fair amount of the classical/Romantic symphonic canon, so maybe the Gesamtkunstwerk aspect helped her out? You might talk to @artlifestiletto on Twitter--she has an interesting "4 excerpt introduction" to Wagner.

  7. oh Lucy, how wonderful for your mother... as a Kaufmaniac for the last 6 years I can only applaud... DO get the Carmen video, she will weep her eyes out... and get Die Schone Mullerin CD too....
    And there is always Saturday for a repeat weepie for those of us who had not had enough... and then the encore two weeks later....

  8. I second the Carmen dvd recommendation. That performance is so hot it nearly burns down the theatre.
    My own mother's reaction to Kaufmann is to be completely incapable of anything whenever he's singing. She's a violinist and leans more towards symphonic pieces, but we've spent many happy hours swooning over the man on car trips.

  9. OMG Lucy, this is a thing. In an email today my mother expressed an entirely newfound interest in Wagner (she loathes him, I've never even tried to get her anywhere near a Wagner opera) that I suspect can be credited entirely to Jonas Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel (we went to Tosca last season). I would NEVER have suggested she go to the Walküre HD, but she might go of her own initiative (probably dragging my father). I was astonished.

  10. @Zerbinetta Wow. That is amazing. Maybe we should start documenting this for posterity? Of course, the Terfel-Kaufmann pairing is phenomenal. Can one hope for a joint recording project?

    Note: A number of comments from the past few days seem to have disappeared; this is a symptom of a bigger problem on Blogger. For now, I'm waiting to manually retype them in hopes they'll come back as part of the fix... sorry about the interruption in the conversation, Gentle Readers!

  11. i am not surprised your mother enjoyed the opera performance so much. Kaufmann was great, better than i thought he would be, and the rest of the cast as well.

  12. Finally, Blogger has restored the missing comments! Again, sorry about that.

    @Dr. B. @asperias :) We had a thoroughly lovely evening.

    @kati Thanks for the comment! I've owned Kaufmann's Schoene Muellerin for about a year, and I love it... his use of text especially. I have not yet seen the Carmen in its entirety, though.

    @Christie Hee! I think I am fortunate in that my mother's own devotion has not (yet?) reached this intensity. If I succeed in watching the Carmen DVD with her I will definitely report.

  13. The performance I heard of Die Walkure over the radio was not very good. It was delayed at the start by stage problems; this might explain the very tentative first part of the first act. But in fact the first act never really took off at all. Ditto the second. And the third act with one of the greatest endings in all of Wagner lacked the beauty and magic it should have. I thought overall the performance was a C+ or to be kind a B-.

  14. @chris I'm sorry you had a disappointing experience! I didn't hear the performance of May 14, but on the 25th and 28th of April, I thought the interactions of Act I were admirably taut. And the Terfel-Blythe confrontation in Act II was a standout... I hope you might give it a second chance if it's released on DVD.

  15. Aren't parents wonderful? Lucy, I've read your blog for some time, though never commented--I, too, am a opera-entranced student, with similarly patient-but-uncomprehending parents.
    However, I think I thoroughly snagged my mom with the Simon Boccanegra HD, though I now fear the art-form will lose most of its interest for her when Placido Domingo retires. ("Just think," she said, "I could have been listening to him my ENTIRE LIFE!!")

    My father, the no-nonsense engineer, was another matter entirely. No chances of charismatic tenor/baritones charming him. He was game for the Walküre HD, though, and rather curious to hear a "real opera" by the composer I had been carrying on about for years. If nothing else, I told him, the set was quite technically interesting, and there was sure to be an interview with some of the crew backstage.
    And so we went--and he loved it. Here was my father, woefully un-cultured, waxing lyrical over four hours of Wagnerian music drama...the set, acting, singing, plot. ("That was like....a rock concert! And that song at the very end, with all the fire--Wow!!") My joy was boundless, rock concert or no.
    Anyway...thank you for a lovely post! I look forward to continue reading.

  16. @Aemilia I love these stories; thanks for sharing them! It's fortunate for your mother that Domingo has such a great recorded legacy (on video as well as CD.) Also, I have a theory that he will never retire, but continue singing until he is apotheosed or finds the Fountain of Youth. In any case, I'm betting she's safe for a few years at least.

    I applaud your creativity in luring your engineer father to Walküre with the sets! And what a great reaction! What with the intense atmosphere, crazy hardcore fans, and things being set on fire, I think he may have a point with the rock concert analogy. :) Thanks for commenting.


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