Thursday, June 30, 2011
An incident at the opera
In 1999, I picked up a pair of tickets to the San Francisco Opera's production of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. None of my friends are opera aficionados to the degree that I am, but by the end of the 20th century it had become standard practice at the San Francisco Opera to project supertitles during performances. It was now possible to follow the sense of an opera production without actually knowing the words or the language of the libretto. Under those circumstances, one of my college buddies agreed to accompany me to the Ring. An assiduous reader of fantasy and science fiction, he wanted to see how Wagner compared to Tolkien (recall that this was well before the movies). He managed to remain attentive and engaged throughout the entire operatic marathon.
This year the Ring has returned to San Francisco and I grabbed a pair of tickets. However, my old friend assured me that one exposure to the 16-hour extravaganza was quite enough for him, thank you very much. No problem! I have other friends, of course. And all of them were quite capable of informing me that they had other plans.
Then came a big surprise. One long acquaintance tipped me off that the son of mutual friends had just declared himself to be a music composition major in college. This was news. I called up his parents, whom I had known since before he was born, and discovered two things: (1) their son was spending the summer back in town with his parents and (2) he would be thrilled to attend the Ring. Thus I became a patron of the arts, sponsoring a young music student's first exposure to Wagner's epic composition.
weird quirks, it was also a thrilling success. The key factor was the brilliant Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, a wholly successful Brünnhilde. The audience screamed its approval during her solo bow at the end of the fourth and final opera (you know, after the fat lady has sung and the opera is over—except that Stemme is not your traditionally over-upholstered warrior maiden).
What is it about Sweden, anyway? The most famous Brünnhilde of the latter half of the 20th century was also from Sweden. Birgit Nilsson, whom I was privileged to hear in the role in 1981, was unrivaled during her long reign as the leading Wagnerian soprano. During an intermission visit to the opera house gift shop one evening, I made the happy discovery that Nilsson's chatty autobiography has been published in an English translation. When I picked it up, I was startled to see that it had been published by the University Press of New England. I nudged my companion.
“Hey, look at this! I'm sharing a publisher with Birgit Nilsson! These are the people who are bringing out my novel later this year.”
My young friend was polite enough to feign interest and to be pleased on my behalf.
“That's pretty good,” he said.
I shrugged self-deprecatingly—which I don't do often, so it was a chance to try something a little different.
“Well, yeah, but it's not as though the opera gift shop is going to have any interest in carrying my book in its inventory after it's published,” I said.
My companion grinned and waited one full beat before delivering his pitch-perfect response.
“On the contrary. They will definitely want to keep it in stock after I base my first opera on it.”