Most of what I know about opera I learned from Looney Tunes cartoon soundtracks. I’ve attended two opera productions and at neither was I entirely lost and bored. I can thrill to an artfully selected CD of arias, the popular stuff, but feel little remorse over skipping the filler between greatest hits. If that makes me a Philistine, so be it. Life is short, operas are long and I’m busy.
There exist entire art forms and vast bodies of work to which I remain immune – ballet and any dance not performed by Fred Astaire, the novels of Thackery and F. Scott Fitzgerald, the poetry of Browning and Robinson Jeffers, anything played on sitar or banjo. I distinguish these things from work that’s simply lousy – Charles Olson’s poems, for instance, and anything written by James Baldwin. The former category is my failing; the latter, theirs.
The late William Meredith was a fine poet and no Philistine. He served as opera critic for The Hudson Review in 1955-56 and wrote at least one libretto, for an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s "The Bottle Imp." Here’s his “About Opera” (from Earth Walk: New and Selected Poems, 1970):
“It’s not the tunes, although as I get older
Arias are what I hum and whistle.
It’s not the plots – they continue to bewilder
In the tongue I speak and in several that I wrestle.
“An image of articulateness is what it is:
Isn’t this how we’ve always longed to talk?
Words as they fall are monotone and bloodless
But they yearn to take the risk these noises make.
“What dancing is to the slightly spastic way
Most of us teeter through our bodily life
Are these measured cries to the clumsy things we say,
In the heart’s duresses, on the heart’s behalf.”
I take Meredith’s defense of opera and apply it to other arts. I look for “An image of articulateness” in any book I read or music I listen to. A good story, poem or song says for me what I, unaided, cannot say, even if only in a few of its words. My words “yearn to take the risk these noises make.” Art extends our better selves and inspires gratitude “on the heart’s behalf.” Art can help us remember to be human.