How wondrous, though halting, it was to discover opera in my early twenties!
I had been fortunate, trombone player that I was from 4th through 12th grade, to have an after-school music theory and appreciation class from our assistant band conductor, whose name now escapes me.
First hearings of Shostakovich and Bartok and many others.
But it took going to Oberlin College to uncover operatic joys.
My first foray was a chance ticket to Lohengrin in a vast hall in Cleveland, no idea what it was nor why masses of singers moved into place and stood there for ten minutes before moving again, belting mad incomprehensible German at us all the while.
Then some Puccini on record, nice, very nice.
A try at Verdi did nothing for me.
Finally, I ordered Rheingold, a mere three LPs compared to five and six for other Wagner operas. Gave it a listen. Couldn’t grok it. Put it away.
Another try a few months later. Nope.
Ah but the third try hooked me. And winter came, between semesters, and I ensconced myself in the Oberlin Conservatory library, with full scores, the complete Solti Ring cycle, and a room full of turntables and headsets.
There unfolded before me then that vast mythic telling, the strings in ever-increasing tremolo as Mime fears his coming demise, no way to reforge the sword, and the full score, at the turn of a page, rotates ninety degrees to handle the deluge, the scattered agitations of the string section as Mime’s terror billows and comes to a head.
That sealed it. I became a Wagner fanatic and stayed that way for many years after.
And Salome soon drew me in to appreciate Strauss even more. Ahead lay Elektra and many years later Rosenkavalier and all the other wonderfully wrought spirit/mind/passion massagers from Richard Strauss, an absolute master at depicting emotion in music.
These discoveries still resonate.
But it’s also true that the ears accommodate. They seek what is new, and stop hearing what is amazing right in front of one.
So one buys the next new, perhaps not as great, recording, hoping this new conductor and the latest engineering will help separate out the marvelous interplaying threads, bringing new focus to these marvels so that one can hear them anew.
One revisits the classic recordings, still ever hearing newness there, but so much goes on automatic pilot, and one appreciates the maturity of one’s hearing but also looks back with gentle longing at those youthful forays into the treasures of opera.