A few years ago, I went to see my first ever opera – Aida. Here’s my thoughts on the experience.
There were elements of the show that were stunning, and they were not so much to do with it being opera but more to do with it being directed by Graeme Murphy (who I have decided is a flat-out genius). The staging was remarkable – all angles to reflect the pyramids, I only got in Act Three that the pool of water along the front of the stage was the Nile and it wasn’t until it was over and my father-in-law commented that I realised the entire thing was reminiscent of the tomb at the end, showing that really the three characters were trapped from the very beginning and it was just a matter of the story playing itself out. Very cool. And also very slow of me, but then I am slow. The costuming was great, at times used to great dramatic effect, and the dancing was superb.
Operatically, I thought the two female leads were great, particularly from Act Two onwards when they got bitch fighting, and the choral scenes were everything I expected of opera – big and strong and beautiful.
But overall, I wasn’t convinced and didn’t come out of this buzzing the way I did out of the ballet earlier this year. After discussions with the in-laws (who came with me), I think this is down to a number of things. One – Aida isn’t the easiest opera to get into – there were only a couple of pieces of music that I recognised. Two – the surtitles were more a summing up of what the character was singing (in Italian) about, rather than a translation of every word which I can understand, since opera does tend to have a lot of ‘my love is at the door, he’s at the door, just there at the door, oh lovely door’ sort of stuff, but I think it also meant I missed some of the nuances of what was being said and therefore some of the subtleties and colours of the story. Three – I don’t think the initial story was set up well enough to buy into the love of Aida and Ramades and thus get upset with the tragic end. Four – the male singers sucked. And no way was that short, fat man playing Ramades(a) ever going to be a match for a statuesque cutie like the singer who played Aida.
Now, for me as a writer, I don’t think suckage reasons one and four are things I can learn much from, but two and three have me thinking.
Not getting all the colours and subtleties really did affect my ability to connect with the characters, and it made me realise how important it is to thing about the details, and the little things, that tell you more about a character and their emotions. So sometimes, you might think that the little line a character sprouts in the middle of a scene or a little action as they are talking might not bring anything to the plot (hail, plot!) and thus not be necessary, but then it could well be those little things that make that character real and interesting and someone the reader connects to and thus wants to read (rule number two from Mr Vonnegut – Give the reader as least one character he or she can root for). And I’m thinking those times when it seemed a character jumped from one thought or decision to another without anything in between comes because some of the colour in earlier scenes was taken away, so I don’t know the character well enough.
As for reason three – I ended up comparing Aida to Romeo and Juliet (and particularly the Baz Lurhmann version) since the storylines are so similar – two star-crossed lovers, unable to be together, meet a tragic end. At the beginning of Aida, we are told that Ramades loves Aida – he goes on for ages about how she is the reason he gets up in the morning and he’s going to go and fight and crush and destroy her homeland for her love (weirdo). In this production, Graeme actually has Aida come onto the stage (they had these cool strips along the front to pull people onto and off the stage, so he stood on one and she floated out on the other). She stops behind him, grabs his hand, kisses it, leans into him, he stares at the audience and sings away. Then she disappears. Now, I think Murphy did that cause he had to do SOMETHING to have the two characters interact to show their love cause otherwise, the first time they have a decent conversation together is in Act Three. ACT THREE! Aida’s shown more passion with her rival, the Princess Armenis, than with her supposed love Ramedis. So no wonder I didn’t buy his sacrifice of death in order to protect her and their love, nor why she’d choose to die with him. Now, go to Romeo and Juliet – we see them meet, see them fall in love (ah, the fish tank scene), see them become entranced and then connected and then dedicated to each other, and so when the end comes we can see there is no other option for them to die, as it’s the only way they’ll ever really be together. And you cry. Well, I did.
So with Aida, I think we have a sterling example of why that old chestnut – show, don’t tell – is absolutely dead-set true. Even getting around the fact that there’s no way Aida would love a short, fat man like that(a), if we’d seen a scene showing us them together, in love, showing us their passion, we’d be able to buy into the tragedy of their end, instead of sitting there at the end, silently thinking “die, already!”
And there was one more thing – there was this cool thing in the middle of the opera, where the dancers were on the floor and it looked like they were being reflected in a mirror above them, and I was loving the affect, and then either the dancers or the film missed time and they fell out of sync and the trick revealed. I was soooo disappointed. I wondered how many other newbies like me were sitting there and how many of them fell out of love with opera at that moment. It made me realise that when writing it’s easy to think about the people who are familiar with what you’re doing, but you also have to be aware that you could be dealing at some point with a newbie, and this might be the one chance that person gets to decide whether they want to keep going with you/con-going/the genre, and so you have to be excellent at all times cause you never know when that moment could be.
So, that’s it – the life and writing lessons from Aida. I’m not giving up on opera – I will try again. But it was a shame my first experience wasn’t as transformative as Swan Lake was in May.
(a) Yes, I know the irony of saying this in talking about an artform that had Luciano Pavarotti as its main star. But as my mother-in-law pointed out, you could have forgiven our boy lack of physical rightness for the role if he had a voice that transported you to the stars. Luciano had that voice and thus I think would have been fine in the role of Ramades (as he undoubtedly was in the other romantic roles he played in his career). This bloke didn’t.