Spending nights at the opera on my laptop

When I graduated from college 50 years ago, I expected to wind up living and laboring in a major metropolis like New York, Chicago, or Seattle where nights at the opera or symphony would have been part of the package. As you can see, my life took a much different direction. In fact, working weekends and nights along with the bottom-tier professional wages of my profession curtailed much of my attendance where I was, even for the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD showings in local movie theaters.

Surprisingly, now in the midst of our Covid-19 cloistering, I’m relishing in daily free online streaming of past performances from the Met’s series, and what a revelation they are.

Each show gives me a fuller awareness of the stellar productions than I could ever get from listening to the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts – incidentally, available where I live only by streaming. Well, that’s another rant, though I’ll send out a shout to both Harvard’s student-run FM station and New York’s WQXR for their participation.

The university I attended was acclaimed for its opera department, with a show every Saturday night and, as I recall, seven productions during the regular school year. Each of these was in English, which I found made the experience feel more like going to a Broadway musical rather than an esoteric ceremony. It was pointedly called opera theater, with an emphasis on blending music and showtime, abetted by stage directors like Ross Allen who insisted on historically correct motions for the periods being presented. A woman wouldn’t have shown her ankle while dancing, for instance, or sat in a particular posture, that sort of thing. As for facial expressions or delving into the psyche of a role? That wasn’t widely valued in earlier incarnations of the art form. But today?

Back to the Live in HD.

Imagine a Hollywood movie being filmed straight-through in a few hours like this, rather than gleaning only a minute or two of usable film a day, as is standard in the cinema biz. There’s no room for retakes in a live performance, and yet what I’m viewing is cinematically gripping. The acting is extraordinary, and the stars are visually and vocally convincing – something that wasn’t often the case when I got hooked back in the ’60s. I’m enthralled simply considering the camera work (and planning) behind each of these. (I have a feeling we’re deeply indebted to NFL and MLB technology and practice on this front – think of those crisp facial closeups shot from the other side of the field.) As for the lighting? Wow.

Opera is often discussed as the pinicle of the arts and their muses – vocal, choral, and instrumental music conjoined with drama, dance, poetry, scenery and costumes in the theater itself. It’s a collective enterprise, the way movies are. Well, I often consider it as the movies of the 19th century and, let’s not forget, the distinctively operatic singing style evolved to project into a hall long before electronic amplification existed. The vocal style is not as frilly as you might think but is actually quite flexible and expressive, even if it’s often an acquired taste.

As I was saying about these productions?

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We don’t listen quite the same, do we

When it comes to jazz, I have to confess a bias toward instrumental – piano, especially. It probably has a lot to do with the abstraction into emotions that so attracts me to classical music.

My wife and daughters, on the other hand, prefer vocals. They’re all more word-oriented than me, the writer.

What gives?

It doesn’t matter which you heard, so he says

As we were cleaning up after our monthly turn of cooking and serving dinner at the local “soup kitchen,” I turned to a trio of high school students who help our Quaker Meeting crew in the project.

“Hey, stick around and you can hear a performance of ‘Messiah.'”

They gave me glazed looks of incomprehension.

“You know, the ‘Hallelujah Chorus.’ I’ll be singing in it.”

One of them changed her expression. “Oh! I know that!”

And she started to sing, but it wasn’t Handel.

My turn to smile.

“Ah, Leonard Cohen. My choir has a lovely arrangement of that, and it’s fun to sing.”

And then I sang a few measures from the classic oratorio, which they did recognize.

The evening’s event wasn’t my choir but an ad hoc assembly of singers from everywhere in the region, all of us stepping in with no rehearsal – you may know of similar Messiah Sings, a tradition that’s spread widely. It’s a blast and a great community celebration.

Meanwhile, the repertoire of my choir has a couple of dozen Hallelujah pieces. One’s in Russian, others in African tongues, and several in English. Funny thing, the word is part of nearly every language. That, along with Amen, Coca-Cola, and OK.

By the way, Cohen’s lyrics are powerful, honest, and heartbreaking, deeply grounded in Biblical incidents yet also personally confessional. His is a truthful and humbling counterpoint to Handel’s majesty.

Which experience better fits your reality this season?

What a right adjective will do

As the vocalist in a  lovely jazz trio at a party the other night led us in “Silver Bells,” with its echo in “It’s Christmastime in the city,” I was struck but the beauty of the lyric’s repeated sibilants. They simply sparkle and produce a visual impression of tiny white lights on an icy night.

The song returned to my mind while shoveling snow a few days later, and this time I was captivated by the appropriateness of the adjective “silver.” Not “gold” or “brass” but silver. Again, there’s a visual impression, but this time, also a suggestion of bright clear sound. Gold, in contrast, would somehow make me expect something more velvety or reserved or distant, while brass would point toward a louder, stronger, more industrial tone.

Yes, the poet in me is still wowed at that choice of “silver.”

Would any other word do the trick?

Ten Boston area Christmas traditions

During its first 200 years, Boston Puritanically refused to acknowledge Christmas as a special day of the year. The legislature actually banned observances in 1659, and December 25 was a school day for long afterward. As many Yankees stalwartly and proudly noted in their journals, the 25th was simply “an ordinary day.” You could be fined for any outward show of holiday festivities, though there seems to be no evidence that actually happened. Still, nowhere in the Bible is the date set, and, frankly, the faithful did note that so many of its customs had blatantly pagan origins. Christmas in Massachusetts didn’t become a public holiday until 1856.

Slowly, though, things have changed, and Christmas in New England has become something of an ideal setting. And so, with its many fine live cultural performances, Boston is now considered a prime destination at this time of year, especially when snow heightens the effect.

Here are ten events to take in.

  1. Boston Pops. Launched by Arthur Fiedler in 1973, the orchestra’s holiday shows now get 45 performances in Symphony Hall in less than four weeks. It’s a joyous blend of Santa and sacred.
  2. Boston Ballet. While nearly every dance company in America does something with Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” – it is, after all, a prime source of income – the Boston Ballet company delivers one of the nation’s most sumptuous productions, with 34 performances at the Opera House beginning at the end of November.
  3. Handel and Haydn Society. The American premiere of Messiah was given by this organization in 1818, and over the years the piece has become an annual staple. Even though the work was intended as an Easter observance, it has universally shifted to Advent season. The H&H has evolved into a leading early music ensemble, but it’s by no means the only one in town. This highly acclaimed annual performances of the masterpiece has some sterling competition.
  4. Speaking of early music. Vocal groups like Boston Camerata and Blue Heron come up with holiday rarities. And the city is rife with fine choral ensembles digging into the musical archives to add to the listener’s discoveries.
  5. The Revels. Across the Charles River in Cambridge, the Boston Revels’ colorful Christmas production fills the Shakespearean Globe-inspired Sanders Theater at Harvard with 18 family-oriented performances. Founded in 1970, each year now features a special focus – this year, it’s Depression-era America, including blues and bluegrass; last year was Norway; the year before, Renaissance Venice. The celebratory event blends storytelling, acting, dancing, musical soloists, children’s and adult choruses that move as families across the set, plus traditional fare including singalongs, Morris dancers, sword dancers, a mummer’s play, and the intermission line dance that takes the audience from their seats into the marble lobby. It’s more of a secular solstice celebration, but when you’re dealing with folkways like this, Christmas is inescapable.
  6. Theater. It’s not all Charles Dickens, though there’s plenty of that around. The professional Huntington and American Repertory Theater companies, especially, can be counted on for original fare.
  7. Lessons and Carols. Beantown is an Episcopal stronghold, and Vaughan Williams’ setting of scripture and carols has earned its following. Could anywhere be more spectacular for this touch of Edwardian Yuletide than, say, Trinity Church on Copley Square or the Church of the Nativity just down the street?
  8. Boston Baroque. A more recent tradition is this orchestra’s two New Year’s concerts – one the evening of the 31st, the other on the following afternoon – both in Harvard’s Sanders Theater. A wonderful blend of formal and informal to welcome the annual transition.
  9. Pontine Theater. To the north, closer to where I live, a two-person team can be counted to put on an original show based on Victorian-era New England stories. They create and make their own sets, puppets, and costumes in addition to writing the script. It’s unique to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, but still in the Boston orb.
  10. The Nubble Light. A bit further up the road, the iconic lighthouse at Cape Neddick in York, Maine, is outlined in strings of light. Since the lighthouse sits on a small island just offshore, it’s already widely photographed – one of the top two or three I see in published pictures. But this time of year, the effect from sunset on is breathtaking. At Long Sands around the corner, surfers in wetsuits are likely riding the waves. It’s hardly befitting the season, but I thought I’d mention it anyway … just in case you’re driving up.

And that’s before we getting to ice skating or hockey, for those looking for something more active.