Grand Opera

THE other day I chanced to speak of grand opera in the presence of some young people, regretting that it seemed about to be crowded off the boards by triumphant and all-conquering jazz. There was an ominous silence; then: —

‘Grand opera! None of it for me!’ And in the eyes of the protester kindled the light of battle. ‘I went to hear some of your grand opera last winter. A great, fat woman came out on the stage, and you should have heard her yodel!’ And forthwith the youth began to stretch his neck and ‘yodel’ in imitation of the lady. When he had finished, the other young people present began to flay alive, ’noint over with honey, and then set on the head of a wasp’s nest (I quote loosely Autolycus’s grim joke) all opera singers, jointly and severally.

So, when the tumult and the shouting had subsided and the young people had departed, I fell to pondering the matter, but found it difficult to persuade myself that in their mature lives the jazz of their youth would, in retrospect, be as precious to them as grand opera is to me and other music lovers of my age.

And yet I know that I am deluded. Those young people will look back upon that, to me, vulgar and offensive trash, and through the alembic of youthful memories distill an essence quite as wonder-working as any that my memory brings forth from the recollection of a certain grand opera season in Covent Garden Theatre, attended when I was about the age of the youth who so unfeelingly belittled this great but dying art.

I had arrived in London footloose and in time for Easter services in Brompton Oratory (that imposing Byzantine structure, Westminster Cathedral, was not yet completed), the Ascot races, and a week of grand opera. The English aristocracy had returned from the Mediterranean in time to burn incense to their sacred trinity — Church, horse racing, and grand opera, and I was to witness all three rites for the first time!

Probably few Americans familiar with Covent Garden Theatre are aware of a narrow side street down which a long line of music lovers forms hours before any great musical event. I think that there is no other collection of human beings quite like it anywhere else in the world. In it you will detect all the important languages of Christendom, see most of the national types, and observe the nice distinctions which set apart the Frenchman from the German, the German from the Englishman, and the Italian from them all. Each, in his own way, is waiting for the theatre doors to open that he (and many a she) may pay his half crown for a balcony seat.

When I joined it on that opening night, the line already stretched a long way back from the door, and gradually it was extended behind me until it passed out of sight round a corner. There was still a good two hours to wait; but here were real music lovers for whom the feast in store quite offset the hardship of standing in the chill London air. Here and there a woman or an old man had brought along a stool, and the many little courtesies that centred about these seats impressed me deeply. A gray-haired woman just ahead of me, frail and scantily clad, offered her stool to a bent old German, who, with an accompaniment of characteristic gutturals, was holding on to the small of his protesting back. With an innate sense of courtesy that was the essence of gentility he accepted the offer, remaining seated for only a few minutes, however. Farther up the line a grizzled Italian, evidently of peasant stock, offered his stool to a fellow countryman of higher social rank. About the offer, and the acceptance, was a fine flavor of courtesy of which we on this side of the water are quite incapable.

Up and down the line conversation ebbed and flowed; but it never broke out into hilarity, and so far as I could hear never became personal or familiar. Men addressed casual remarks to female strangers; women chatted pleasantly with those about them, regardless of sex. Here and there I noticed someone who had brought along a book or a magazine to pass the time, and the contents furnished suitable material for small talk. But to me the fine thing about it all was that on the morrow it would be quite bad form to recognize on the street any chance acquaintance made here.

And then at last the doors opened, and soon, with no jostling or crowding, I found myself seated well forward in the balcony. An all-star cast was to present one of Wagner’s operas. In a box on my right sat a certain duke’s daughter who was making her début. She was reputed (as are all dukes’ daughters) to be nothing less than lovely, and hundreds of opera glasses were leveled at her like the arrested antennæ of overgrown insects. I, alas, had no glasses; but I could distinguish her lustrous gold hair and envied the gay young blade who strolled into her box and leaned nonchalantly upon her chair.

And then the gods of the operatic world appeared — Melba, Plançon, the two De Reszkes, and all the brilliant galaxy of that all-star cast. Ah, the shining armor, the flashing swords, the heroic gestures, the eloquent pleadings, hot denunciations! And flowing through it all like a great river were those voices that, when the spell was broken, made me, like poor Caliban, cry to dream again. Too bad that in later life I read Nietzsche’s uncompromising criticism of Wagner’s art, and quite agreed with the findings of that crystal-clear mind.

I am little concerned about Heaven and the hereafter; but if I should go there I think that I should be satisfied just to sit and live over endlessly the days of my youth. But I should wish my seat to be well away from the golden streets and the blaring trumpets of the Jewish Heaven — far over, in fact, in those green Norse meadows with their trees casting a grateful shade.