opera

Opera and the Meaning of Life

Why does opera have such a devoted fan-base? Having once been the pinnacle of entertainment, it’s now relegated largely to fringe status among popular entertainment genres, more closely associated with luxury, exclusivity and excess than with great music and drama in the eyes of the general population. Peter Gelb, at the helm of the Metropolitan Opera in New York is working hard to change this perception, by bringing in directors from the film and Broadway worlds and projecting live performances of operas onto the silver screen all around the country. Time will tell whether the Met in HD program successfully widens the audience nationwide or simply cannibalizes opera fans from smaller cities who eschew their local productions in favor of going to the Met in the movie theater.

But there is one thing that is indisputable: you won’t find out whether you love opera if you are unable to access it. And going to the opera is in some ways much more similar to going to the movies than any other form of entertainment. Both genres are all-encompassing: the lights are low, the drama looms large, the music shuttles your emotions from one extreme to the next, and the goal is to sweep you away into a different world. it just so happens that period and foreign pieces are much more common in opera than in Hollywood.

Like many North Americans, I often crave going to the movies precisely because I will be thoroughly entertained. It’s easy to forget work or personal troubles when your senses are bombarded with the powerful images and sounds of a movie. Sure, some movies are more engrossing than others: some are better acted, others better directed, some stories resonate with me more closely, others are too predictable for my taste. But if I go to the movies and a particular film is a dud, I don’t simply conclude that movies aren’t for me. Not so with opera. Many people only give it one shot. Or, worse, decide they don’t like the genre having never been to a single performance.

The most devoted opera fans are a different breed altogether. They will go to every production, multiple times, even if they hate it. They will relish their distaste for a particular singer, or director or concept. And they will elevate to the status of legendary hero the singer/director/composer/conductor of their choice. We see a similar passion in devotees of many other things: cars, movies, comic books, TV shows, indie rock bands, wine, baseball or pickled foods. Of course, like with so many other objects of affection, there is a rampant nostalgia for the past: a lost golden-age that makes the present seem thin and lifeless.

I believe that the vast majority of people want the same thing: to live a long, meaningful life surrounded by the people they love. But I’ve often wondered how ‘meaningful’ translates to different people. Recently, I came across an interesting notion: some psychologists believe that our search for meaning stems from our uniquely human awareness of our own mortality (though the jury is still out as to how unique this knowledge is to our fair species). A paper that just came out in the highly-regarded Journal of Personality and Social Psychology this week suggests that nostalgia helps give our lives a sense of meaning. The authors themselves say it best:

Believing, then, that one is part of something larger and more meaningful than one’s own physical self provides a psychological defense against the threat of inevitable, and absolute, physical annihilation (Becker, 1973).



It makes me tired just to think about that absolute, physical annihilation but I do think they have a point. In a clever series of studies and surveys, the psychologists found that nostalgia adds a sense of meaning to life by making one feel connected to others. Perhaps a feeling of leaving a legacy aids in dampening our fear of death by the same token. They also found that music evoked a sense of nostalgia, that led to the feeling of being loved and to the idea that life is worth living. When the meaning of life was threatened by reading an essay that contained the following comments, the participants engaged in nostalgic thinking as a defense mechanism:

There are approximately 7 billion people living on this planet. So take a moment to ponder the following question: In the grand scheme of things, how significant are you? The Earth is 5 billion years old and the average human life span across the globe is 68 years. These statistics serve to emphasize how our contribution to the world is paltry, pathetic and pointless. What is 68 years of one person’s rat-race compared to 5 billion years of history? We are no more significant than any other form of life in the universe.

When participants who reported a low sense of meaning in life were encouraged to engage in nostalgic reflection, they showed an increase in vitality and an attenuated response to stress.


So perhaps this focus on a golden-era is simply the opera aficionado’s attempt to cope with his/her mortality. Certainly old recordings of operas trigger a strong sense of nostalgia. And attending a live opera performance in general can foster a sense of connectedness not only with the other members of the audience and the musicians, but also with the great works of literature upon which the stories are based, and the historical eras represented onstage. Perhaps this is one more reason why the great operas, like Le Nozze di Figaro, and La Traviata endure for centuries.

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There's still hope for sopranos: thanks to evolution

This week I’ve been having a lot of fun with the music that I’m working on because my voice teacher is out of town and I took her absence as an opportunity to remind myself why I continue to work on improving my vocal chops every day rather than simply maintaining my current level of performance. With sincere apologies to my neighbors, I have to admit that I’ve been enjoying practicing the stratospherically-high runs in the famous Queen of the Night aria (Der Holle Rache - you can find it here, starting 40 secs into the video) from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Sometimes I just need to let it rip.

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I’ve also been dusting off the Chansons Madecasses or Madagascar Songs by Maurice Ravel, in preparation for a concert that I’m giving on July 15th (details and a sample of one of the songs can be found here). These are fabulous, sensual and politically-charged pieces for voice, piano, cello and flute and I love them dearly. These chansons couldn’t be more different from Der Holle Rache in terms of the words, dramatic context, feel, style, tonality and texture and yet, when I’m singing them right, I get goosebumps. And not just when I’m singing them, but also when I hear someone else performing them.

Having that experience made me wonder, as I often do, why we get the ‘chills’ from specific musical passages. Jaak Panksepp, an Estonian-born (we’re practically neighbors! as my mother would say) neuroscientist in Washington state has studied and written about this phenomenon for decades, with an influential paper published in 1995 showing that, contrary to our intuition, we get the chills when we listen to ‘sad’ music, rather than music that makes us feel happy. A solo line, often in the soprano register (lucky for me), emerging from a denser musical texture most often caused his subjects to experience chills. He also found that women are more likely than men to get goosebumps when listening to music.

He has since gone on to suggest that the experience of chills evoked by music is related to the distress that we feel when we are separated from someone we love and that this response has perhaps evolved to encourage mothers to respond to their crying babies. It’s easy to imagine many of the most memorable musical passages as separation calls: Whitney Houston’s version of Dolly Parton’s I will always love you, the guitar solo in The Eagles’ Hotel California, the vocalise by Rachmaninoff, to name just a few. The solo instrument, on a simple melodic line, emerging from a thicket of other sounds.

Blood and Zatorre, neuroscientists at McGill University used neuroimaging to explore the parts of the brain that are activated during the experience of the chills evoked by music (you can find a copy here). They report that the same brain regions involved in other pleasurable activities such as eating or having sex such as the orbitofrontal and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the striatum and the midbrain, are also involved in this experience. But what’s most interesting to me about their studies is the fact that exactly which musical passage evokes the experience is very much tied to the individual: just because I like it, or find it moving, doesn’t mean that you will. Of course, that observation is self-evident to most of us, and the staggering diversity of music available to us demonstrates that musical taste is deeply personal. By the same token, I’ve watched mothers pick out their own baby’s cry from a cacophony of sounds with remarkable ease.

As I return to my vocal practice this week, I’m going to keep both Panksepp’s and Blood and Zatorre’s findings in mind. And at my next audition, I’m not going to worry about the fact that at least a hundred other sopranos are vying for the part. I’ll remember that, just like a baby’s cry, each of our voices is unique and there’s no telling which of our voices will wake the latent maternal instinct deep in the heart of the men and women on the audition panel. There might be a lot of sopranos out there, but we also might be favored by evolution to give our audiences the chills. And that’s a goal worthy of all the practice hours it demands.
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