La Bohème, big feelings and “sharing” in facebook

by Jenna Jauhiainen 19.1.2011

This piece of writing is not going to be an objective review, because I have too limited an experience with opera to give a fair review of the work at hand. That’s why I will concentrate on writing for those who have approximately as limited an experience with opera as I do. In today’s cultural scene opera is often seen as so called high art. If one looks back a couple of hundred years, opera was “the form” of popular culture around Europe, produced for eager audiences by using rules that made it possible to practically create an assembly line a hundred or so years before Ford started the production of the famous Model T.

Opera combines music, singing and theatre in a single piece of work. When orchestras came to include tens of instruments, it was necessary to develop a style of singing that could override them in volume. So were born both recitative singing, which means a style that imitates the inflections of regular speech, and aria, which aims at imitating the emotions wished to be expressed. In addition to such developments Italians (apparently they pioneered in this area) started crushing the testicles of adolescents in order to prevent voice mutation, thus producing the famous breed of castrati

I had a chance to see La Bohème at the Finnish National Opera two days before Christmas, an opera composed by Giacomo Puccini. Some twenty years after Italy made castrati illegal. Like my experiences with opera before, I really cannot say much about the plot and there’s a reason for it. I’ve grown up in the age of well written television dramas and movies, and thus am quite unable to automatically understand staged performances, which gain their strength from the expression of “big” emotions instead of a well developed plot. Nevertheless, as an individual I do long for times I’ve never seen, times which held a higher class of men who dressed up and partied like they were kings (and usually they were pretty close to the royal class). I derive great pleasure from art works which depict a grandiose sense of self, an idea of man being something more than the sum of all that which defines him.

When I sat in the audience of La Bohème I contemplated the following issues I have thought about on a number of occasions previously: How is it possible that around 70 people are playing different instruments simultaneously while creating melody which was written over one hundred years ago? How can they be doing that live, in front of us hundreds of confused beings, who have no idea what the conductor is doing in order to hold it all together? And how is it possible that those human beings on stage are able to produce such angelic voices from bodies that at least on the surface look pretty much like mine?

In short, the whole live experience is filled with such incredible factors for a simple soul like mine that I am just forced to submit and enjoy. And this is in no way negative, because deep down I hold as a truth my equality with all other beings deemed human on this planet, and thus can connect myself with those in the same space performing this amazing piece of art. To stress my point, I think about the incredibility of the whole of the work while still experiencing it as being true, and thus from the premise of us all being the same I know that I, too, am capable of doing things deemed incredible. Boy, what a boost for one’s self-esteem.

Being this ‘unsophisticated’, I am completely unable to understand the process of fitting together music composed for a whole orchestra with a libretto. Thus the experience of reacting with one’s emotions to the singing of stage performers in opera becomes one of a supernatural quality. Especially when a soprano’s voice reaches a certain height (I cannot say more about this, because I know almost nothing about major scales), I experience the feeling of confusion infused with total respect towards the source of that confusion. And this combination of emotions usually leads to tears.

From what I’ve gathered from talking with people who either like or dislike opera, I guess that liking it requires a certain respect for human beings and their physical capabilities. Or maybe opera demands a person to be capable of respecting something which lies beyond comprehensibility by the tools of rationality, because opera “works” in the sphere of emotions. I myself am completely unable to find purely rational reasons for enjoying opera, but can totally support the idea of the emotional experience it provides being a piece of divinity.

When contemplating all this I found myself thinking about the possibility of using art as a tool for creating and maintaining peace within a given society. Opera, and many other forms of theatre which make it possible for the audience to experience even the most difficult emotions, might free individuals from the need of thriving towards experiences producing those emotions in real life. Take the feeling of “regret” as an example. In order to feel regret one has to have done something bad enough to experience the emotions of regret. Through dramatic art, one can feel how it feels to kill one’s father, as an example, by living through the experiences of stage performers, thus maybe saving oneself from having to experience the same in real life.

La Bohème, like apparently many Italian operas, focuses on contemplating the emotions tied to a suffering love affair. There’s jealousy, worry, cheating, passion and of course the death of a loved one. Nowadays us westerners tend to be very open about our emotions and the experiences that brought them about. Maybe, and just maybe, a heart ripped open on a stage could satisfy the need of so many to make their private lives all but private through a variety of modern methods of “sharing,” such as one’s facebook relationship status, by allowing a viewer to co-experience emotional heights without the need to compromise one’s dignity.