I know many people who like, even need, a soundtrack to their daily lives. It’s not something I can do. I’ve always had an aversion to loud noise and more recently I have developed misophonia, which means that although the worst are ‘people noises’, any background noise has the potential to cause migraines, you’ll never see me working with headphones glued to my ears.
So amongst all this, how on Earth do I enjoy some music ? I enjoy music when I can concentrate on it, where it is the focus of my activity. That may be on the rare occasion I dig something out from the archives to play, or at a live venue. A live experience can, in fact, be very loud, but because I’m prepared for it and ready to concentrate on it, it won’t hit any of the triggers.
The recent Twitter tagging game of posting 7 album covers was interesting. It’s reminded me of a time when there was some importance to owning and listening to music. I selected only albums I have owned
Famous Blue Raincoat – Jennifer Warnes
This album is what introduced me to Leonard Cohen. As a long time backing singer of his she had interesting interpretations of his songs. I’d particularly recommend her Joan of Arc on this album where she duets with Cohen.
Script for a Jesters Tear – Marillion
Back in the day I was something of a prog rock fan and these guys with Fish on vocals and writing many of the lyrics were a gritty version of it. I once had a particularly good day at a festival outside Leeds, sponsored by Theakstons Brewery where Marillion were bottom of the bill and had only signed a record contract about a week before.
Private Revolution – World Party
This was an impulse buy at the time, something about Kurt Wallinger’s voice – formerly of The Waterboys. Quite hard hitting when you read the lyrics.
In The Region of Summer Stars
This brought back memories of pre and early teen years avidly listening to and recording The Friday Rock show with the late Tommy Vance. They were a minor favourite of the show.
In the Court of the Crimson King – King Crimson
I’m Your Man – Leonard Cohen
This was something of a comeback album from him, though the first through which I got to know him. Jennifer Warnes’ Famous Blue Raincoat was a sort of companion release to this and between them they set me exploring.
Down By The Jetty – Dr Feelgood
Punk before punk is how Dr Feelgood are often described. Hard and heavy R&B with a good dollop of menace and two rock gods in Lee Brilleaux and Wilko Johnson.
That was all such a long time ago.
My live music of choice now is opera. And yeah, that orchestra can be very loud. Yet because I’m in the venue, expecting it and concentrating on it, I rarely find any of the migraine pre-cursors. If anything drives me homicidal in that environment it is, once again, other people. I have walked out many a time because it’s been ruined by people who can’t stop talking or otherwise being distracting.
I think what draws me to opera is that it is a fully immersive experience. The orchestra, the singing and acting on stage. It really can be an assault on the senses and play skillfully on the emotions. Some productions can uplift you, others leave you crying as you leave the venue.
Today’s amazing fact: It’s estimated that since the early 17th century where the art form as we know it started, there have been approximately 40,000 operas written.
Yup, a large number have been execrable and thankfully lost to posterity.
Still, when I add them up, I’ve seen in the region of 150+ different operas. All the usual staples that form the core repertoire and many less well known. Of the ten most performed operas, the only one I’ll go out of my way to see these days is Rigoletto.
I know that in the modern social consciousness opera is deemed to be obsolete, irrelevant and inaccessible. Really ? Verdi had a very hard time getting Rigoletto past the censors. It starts with an orgy, has a narcissist dom-type of a duke as a main character who steals other people’s wives and loves deflowering virgins. It has malice and revenge in the form of the deformed Rigoletto that would outdo the vindictiveness of many a Twitter spat and it finishes with a murder/assassination gone wrong that see’s Rigoletto’s daughter die in his arms. The anguish of the final notes will see me leaving the theatre dabbing my eyes with a tissue.
Is it an elite and expensive pass time ? Yes, you can pay much for the best seats, but even at a place like Covent Garden, I’ve seen 6 hours of Gotterdamerung for the princely sum of £17.
It’s an art form that ranges from the frivolous to the political. It poses many moral questions. Many works include death and dying because they were part of the daily consciousness that we don’t really encounter today.
To match the album list above, here’s seven of my favourite operas
Rigoletto – Verdi
As described above, sensational story and brilliant music.
Tristan und Isolde – Wagner
About the longest opera there is. It feels slow, yet time flies as the music is a seamless segue from one scene to the next. The never completed “Tristan chord” keeps me enchanted all the way through. The ending with the transcendent and ethereal Liebestod always blows me away – Isolde singing herself into spirit death to join Tristan as the “Tristan chord” is finally consummated.
Le Comte Ory – Rossini
An absolutely brilliant comedy with some amazing coloratura for the leads. It’s based on a French myth, their version of Robin Hood (about the same period). Though it’s telling that the French have a folk hero in a rogue knight who preys on pilgrims and who has a penchant for buggering nuns. And hey, no one dies.
Wozzek – Berg
20th century atonal music that doesn’t work for me outside of the full immersive experience in the theatre, where it’s amazing. I’ve seen some fascinating productions interpret this and the madness of Wozzek. The Royal Opera made the drowning scene near the end very realistic. He laid there floating at the bottom of a tank of water for the final 10 minutes. If I hadn’t been close enough to see the breathing tube I would have been worried. That shouldn’t be a surprise since Wozzek was played by Simon Keenleyside who was the subject of the most gruesomely realistic hanging scene in Billy Budd that I ever hope to encounter.
Don Carlos – Verdi
This is Verdi’s opus, very Wagnerian in scope. Act IV between the king and the Grand Inquisitor is spine tingling in the rarity of a long scene between two basses. It’s also chilling in the religious logic of the Inquisition – since the king is chosen by God he can’t be wrong, therefore, in disobeying the king, the prince is sinning against God and should be put to death. I know there are some Dutch readers of this blog, the prince’s sins were in siding with the Dutch in their uprising for independence from Spain.
Dialogues des Carmélites – Poulenc
A clash between the old religious ways of life and the atheism of the French Revolution. It has perhaps the most emotional ending I know of as a procession of nuns walk one by one to be martyred by the guillotine singing Salve Regina. What starts out as a loud chorus diminishes as each one is executed and only one left. Never mind dabbing the eyes, I’ll leave the theatre bawling. This for me is a don’t miss at Glyndebourne next year. Oh, it’s also a true story.
Der Ring des Nibelungen – Wagner
So what that this is actually 4 operas usually performed over 7 days, it is a single work. It is one of the major works of European culture. There’s up to 17 hours sat in your seat. Apart from stamina from ‘numb bum’, everybody is enthralled, nobody loses attention. Yes it’s loud. Wagner scored for six harps as part of an orchestra of over 100 instruments !! Everything about Wagner operas is on a grand scale. I first got tuned in to the magnificence of Siegfried’s Funeral March when it was used as a leitmotif in John Boorman’s classic film Excalibur.
There are so many others I could have chosen that I would snap your hand off if you offered me a ticket.
Sadly, these days I live too far away to make an evening of opera. When I do get back closer to ‘civilisation’ I will probably gorge myself for many months.