Years (and years) ago I went to an opera in Graz, Austria—I guess the American equivalent to this is going to see the Boston Red Sox play at Fenway Park (if you are a huge baseball fan) or Ricky Skaggs play the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, if you are a big country-western aficionado. Anyway, the opera was Verdi’s “Aida” known for its show-stopping cast of hundreds, including animals of all types and stripes. I entered the stunning opera house and waited for the spectacle.
Not this night, though: while Graz boasts the second largest opera-house in all of Austria (after the massive Staatsoper in Vienna), this particular production of Verdi’s “Aida” featured stuffed animals. I don’t mean life-sized elephants that had been to see a taxidermy expert: no, when an animal was called for, an infant’s giraffe or lion or elephant was held up by the cast member who was then singing.
Not content with deconstructing one great operatic experience, on another night, during a production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” the stage was not only literally barren, but the only “scenery” were people walking around on stilts. I thought I’d accidentally walked into a German circus.
Sir Kenneth Clark has observed wisely that in the history of civilization, opera is a particularly weird anomaly that has managed to hang on: “What is it that causes people to dress up, go to a stunning building, sit still for over three hours, and listen to people sing in a language that they [the audience] do not understand?” Sir Clark’s point is that, during the high rococo period, opera houses in Europe began (especially in France) to take the place of the local church, or, better, cathedral. Hence so many European opera houses look like magnificent churches, even now.
Opera is a pretty strange experience to begin with, but what I saw in those Austrian productions many years ago didn’t “fit”—that is, a “minimalist” version of Verdi (and Mozart) made no sense in Graz’s resplendent opera house.
I have often thought that this is the “problem” with the Novus Ordo liturgy when it is celebrated in a pre-Vatican II church: the fit is all wrong. Sure, it is valid and licit (as certainly as I can say, “I saw Verdi and Mozart performed in Austria!”) and no doubt fulfills our “Sunday duty”—but whenever I’m in a magnificent church, I find myself hungering for either a full-blown choir chanting with the pipe organ or, at Low Mass, the unbroken quiet of the numinous experience of the unbloody reenactment of the Sacrifice on Calvary while surrounded on all sides by stained glass that recounts our collective salvific history and statuary that actually resembles the saints.
This disconnect may account for why post-Vatican II churches look the way they do—that is, a sort of cross between something Lutheran and Low Anglican: they were never intended for a Solemn High Mass sung in Latin—they were meant as a sort of ecumenical meeting-hall. The “event” of the Mass had been lowered from the rococo style to the post-abstract-expressionism of the 1960s.
In good news, opera has somehow, almost inexplicably endured: Lincoln Center’s Metropolitan Opera House (“The Met” with its murals by Marc Chagall, who himself designed at least one famous church and painted Pope Francis’s favorite painting, “The White Crucifixion”) is about as close to a secular “church” that you’ll ever come across in the United States. To its detractors, though, “The Met” is “The most efficient factory for the production of opera ever devised” said one music critic in The New Yorker.
Back in Europe, The Royal Opera House at Covent Garden in London, La Scala in Milan, Bayreuth, Paris’s L’Opera, and, of course, Vienna’s Staatsopera, all still get at least partial Federal subsidies to put on their productions. In fact, in Vienna the opera “season” produces more than twice as many operas than New York City’s The Met—and, in a real relief, only plays to its historical strength (read: tradition)—lots and lots of Mozart, Wagner, Beethoven, and Richard Strauss. Which explains, I suppose, why the city of Graz (which is to Austria what Buffalo is to New York: a second-place city with a huge inferiority complex) has an opera house that feels “updating” the classic opera is not only a good idea, but somehow “necessary.”
Music in general and opera in particular have, of course, moved on, as have all the arts and if you are into atonality or twelve-tone theory or the musical avant-garde—perhaps the most notorious version of this is John Cage’s infamous 4’33”, where a pianist takes the stage and proceeds to sit silently at the piano for, yes, you guessed it, four minutes and thirty-three seconds—there’s no lack of it out there. And I do mean “Out There.”
Still, if my wife and I dress up for an evening at a grand opera house whether in Milan or the Met (though given the prices, I can’t imagine we’ll be doing this anytime soon), I’m not sure we want innovation as much as something that will bring us musical pleasure.
Likewise, if once a week I’m going to argue with my twins that they are going to put on their Sunday best and I’m going to struggle tying a Windsor-knot tie, then more often than not I want the entire sensory experience of the Holy Mass to be—or at least feel—holy.
Perhaps this is to concentrate only on surfaces. I’d be hard-pressed to argue against that. And maybe my reading of opera as a type of mirror of Vatican II is a bit overly-determined. Regardless, when at an opera house I want an opera, not a bunch of people holding up children’s stuffed-animals, and in a Church (assuming it looks like a Church) it’s fitting to have something holy wholly surrounding and enveloping you.