Best Seat in the House – Ann Pratchett

The discovery of Opera is what this chapter from Ann Pratchett’s book ‘This is the story of a happy marriage’ is. Though it is a little overdone with its effusive praise of various singers and productions (tiresome to listen to for those who weren’t there and can’t share in the experience) her passion is something I understand, and I know that too often I’ll talk (and won’t stop talking) about just how GOOD something was, with a blind belief that of course everyone else will believe the same, if they only just saw, or heard, what I heard. I talk like that about Wozzeck, Britten and Hindemith’s sonata for flute. I also talk like that about the Paris Opera Ballet, Jane Smeulders, Edward Albee, minimalism and Cats. And I don’t apologise for it.   

Best Seat in the House
by Ann Pratchett
from ‘This is the Story of a Happy Marriage’. it first appeared in the Wall Street Journal, June 21, 2008

When I was six and seven, my older sister and I often stayed with the  family of a man who was the house doctor for the Grand Ole Opry, back when the Opry was still in downtown Nashville at the Ryman Auditorium. This was 1969, 1970. On Friday and Saturday nights Dr Harris would take us along with his two youngest daughters to sit backstage while he tended to whatever star needed tending, though most nights no one needed tending and he was free to drink and tell stories in the greenroom, where the best music was actually played. All the while the clutch of small girls, of which I was a member, sat in the dark wings and watched the high-haired men and women go back and forth in their spangles and fringe. We all liked Roy Acuff best because he had a yo-yo.

This should have been the moment of my musical birth. I was a child with the best seat in the house, but even in those early days country music and I were a poor fit. I can remember the hats and the boots, the rose-colored lights and the snakelike electrical cables, but I don’t remember a single song. Opry is what I was born to; it would take another twenty-five years to figure out that my heart belonged to that form which Opry was derived.

My friend Erica Schultz lives on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. She has hauled her boys to the Metropolitan Opera the way we were taken to the Ryman, as little kids. She got them in the children’s chorus so that they could walk onto the stage and sing. I wonder how differently my life might have turned out had I been lucky enough to be Alex Schultz. I was past thirty before I started research for a novel in which the heroine, an opera singer, is held hostage in an embassy in South America. It wasn’t until I was doing the research to write Bel Canto that I heard my first opera. The love that I came to feel was not immediate, but it was slow and deep and permanent, a love that could never be undone. Everything in me leaned forward then. This was my music, my destiny: coloratura instead of twang, “Dove sono” instead of “Stand By Your Man”.

The problem was I lived in Nashville, and true love, it has been my experience, never asks to see the check. I started buying opera tickets in other cities, and plane tickets to get myself to those other cities, and when I added on hotel rooms and cab fares and a snack I quickly found myself with a habit that would make most drug addictions look manageable. I couldn’t get enough of the stuff. But, figuratively speaking, I had arrived at the theater well after intermission. What chance did I have for proficiency when there was so much I hadn’t seen? Listening was satisfying – yes, I was grateful for those Saturday broadcasts from Texas; and, yes, I bought CDs – but opera is a dramatic art, and in many ways a visual art. It is sidelong glances as well as the E natural. I wanted to watch Violetta grow pale.

And then Peter Gelb got the job of general manager at the Met. He understood that people like me couldn’t always come to the opera, and therefore created a system by which the opera could come to is. The Met Began to broadcast live high-definition performances into movie theaters across the country. I didn’t catch on until the second show of the first season, so I missed Julie Taymor’s production of The Magic Flute; I still haven’t gotten over that. But on January 6, 2007, I wandered into the Regal Green Hills Stadium 16 cinema and put down $20 for a ticket to I Puritani. I had read about this movie-theater thing, but I still didn’t really understand how it worked. There, in a comfortable fold-down seat with a whiff of popcorn in the air, I watched Anna Netrebko lie on her back, dangle her head down into the orchestra pit, and sing Bellini like her heart was on fire.

Are there words for this? I was in Nashville watching the Metropolitan Opera. I was seeing it on a screen so large that the smallest gesture of a hand, the delicate embroidery on a skirt, was clearly visible. I could see Netrebko’s tongue inside her mouth and see how it shaped the air that made the note. I could see the conductor, yes, the crisp gesture of his wrist, but my God, I could see the French horn player as well. I could look into the eyes of the chorus one by one, every man and woman focused in their part. It was Opera Enormous, every note utterly human, simultaneously imperfect and flawless. It was opera the Alex Schultz saw it, which is to say, right there on stage.

If the opera itself wasn’t enough, there were perks besides: at the Met, the patrons killed time between acts by waiting in insanely long lines to get a drink or use the facilities. They reread the program, or stared aimlessly at the heavy velvet curtain. Those of us in the Regal Green Hills Stadium 16, on the other hand, got to go behind the curtain where Renee Fleming, armed with a microphone, stopped the soprano and tenor as they came offstage, and asked them why they liked Bellini and how hard it was to sing bel canto. Imagine getting to see Paul Cezanne interviewing Camille Pissarro over a half-finished canvas, getting to see them talk casually, intelligently, about technique. Imagine Cezanne pointing to a small smear of bright paint on a Piassorro pear and saying, “I love how you did that! I always struggle with the light on a pear!”

After I Puritani, I bought my tickets in advance and came to the theater early. Everyone came to the theater early. The place was packed but we all felt compelled to pretend we were season-ticket holders. We tried to sit either in the same seat we had sat in for the last showing or the one as close as possible to it. I am the second to the last row on the left-hand side, five seats over fro John Bridges, five rows back from Eugenia Moore. We all know each other now and chat about what’s coming next while we wait for the giant countdown clock on the screen to hit zero. We watch the patrons in New York, people who have paid ten times more for their tickets, and some more than that, as they make their way to their seats. Like us, the audience members on the scree stop to greet the familiar people around them, and like the audience in New York, we clap for both arias and curtain calls. We call out Brava! and Bravo! The rational mind understands the singers can’t hear us, and yet we are living so completely in our high-definition moment it is easy to forget.

The second season of Met simulcasts was for me a breakthrough in the language I so desperately wanted to speak. I was seeing enough of the opera to develop a sense of Ramon Vargas. I had seen him live several years earlier in a production of La Traviata, but there he was again in last year’s broadcast of Eugene Onegin and this year’s La Boheme. I thought that Maria Guleghina had been the highlight of last year’s Il Trittico, and when she came back as Lady Macbeth my pleasure felt almost proprietary, as if I had been the one to discover her in the first place. The same was true with Juan Diego Florez, who had been so dazzling in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Three days before the broadcast of La Fille du Regiment, the Times ran an article about Florez hitting the nine high C’s of his aria and then repeating the feat in an encore, the first Met encore in almost fifteen years! Two years ago I would have read the article with a certain numb acceptance, knowing that this was the sort of miracle a country girl was never going to see, but instead I came even earlier to the following Saturday’s broadcast, where we as an audience speculated in the aisles a to whether or not he would do an encore again or it it would seem, well, too obvious on a broadcast day. (Alas, I guess it was. No encore of the encore). But still, even to hear it one was brilliant. We got to see the powerhouse performance of Natalie Dessay, who is herself proof that it isn’t enough just to listen. We did a lot of grumbling over the fact that her Lucia di Lammermoor wasn’t broadcast. (How quickly we turn from grateful to greedy).

A real opera fan, the kind who is born into it, revels in obscurity. They are choking on Carmen. At thirteen, Alex Schultz is more interested in a production of Janacek’s Jenufa. Remedial fans like myself who have long lived with the burden of limited access are always playing catch-up. In the past, when I was out of town and had the chance to see an opera, I would choose, say, Madama Butterfly over Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges, because I was trying to lay down the bedrock of my education. (I still haven’t seen Rigoletto, for heaven’s sake!). But the broadcasts have run the gamut from warhorses to world premiers, but it made me feel cutting-edge to have seen it. I had never felt even remotely cutting-edge where opera is concerned. If I lived in New York and had all the time and money in the world, I doubt I would have gone to see Hansel and Gretel, but I live in Nashville and so I went. I have to say those giant fish in tuxedos will stay with me until the end of my days. The music was as haunting as the sets, and I will be so glad the next time I see the marvelous Christine Schafer on the screen and can say, “Gretel! It’s Gretel!”

As time goes on, the Met has dug down deep to keep the intermission features interesting. While fifty teamster roll giant sets around him, Joe Clark, the indefatigable technical director, explains how snow is made. Renee Fleming interviews not only the soprano and the conductor but the people who handle the horse in Mason Lescaut. The horse was a consummate professional, but Karita Mattila dropped down into the splits in the middle of her intermission interview, and then, to keep things even, came up and slid down on the other side.

That we are kept so well entertained between act is a bonus, but not a necessity. The necessity is opera itself. The way I cried at the end of La Boheme was expected, and when my friend Beverly called later that night to tell me how she cried in her theater in Texas, we both said, “Mimi!, Mimi!” over the phone and started to cry again. The crying I did in Suor Angelica, the second Act of Il Trittico, took me completely by surprise; that final image of the luminous child coming in through the doors at the top of the stage forced the audience into a great, collective sob. But nothing really touched Eugene Onegin – the staging, the music, the glory that Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Renee Fleming made together. As wonderful as Fleming is as a guest host, the sight f her anywhere on the Met stage makes one feel she should go zip up her costume and sing.  (I saw that same production three days later in New York, where part of my view was obstructed by a tree onstage. Even though my seat was good, I couldn’t see the nuances of joy that had radiated so clearly from Miss Fleming’s face in the movie theater as she wrote Onegin her letter, or the crushing humiliation and grief that passed through her eyes wen he rejected her. Had the opera been better on screen? I won’t go as far as that, because there is, of course, the magic of proximity, but i will say it was at once a different and equal experience).

On the last day of the season, in April, the Met put a list up on the big screen of the next season’s coming attraction. Ten operas plus the opening night gala! The crowd at the Regal 16 broke out in a cheer, I swear to you, a cheer, when we heard the news. There had been only eight operas this year, and only six last year. In Nashville we had become ravenous. All we wanted was more.

What if culture turned out to be like vegetables, and we were told it was better to consume only that was locally grown? Could I have learned to embrace the Opry the way I have managed to make peace with okra? I doubt it, but these broadcasts have given me the best of big-city life without the strain of bearing up under the big city’s weight, a task for which I know myself to be fundamentally unsuited. Implicit in my love for Tennassee has always been the understanding that certain needs were going to have to be met elsewhere. But these days, it seems, not so much.

Like any other monkey on you back, no addiction ever feels complete until you can pass it onto your friends. I have tried mightily, and in a few cases I’ve been successful, but for the most part I find it surprisingly difficult to get people to spend their Saturday afternoons in a movie theater watching opera. I am, I would guess, about twenty years below the median age of an opera goer at out local cineplex. Peter Gelb knows his audience, and he knows he needs to cultivate a new crop. I feel certain this will happen over time. People like me, the opera converts, we never shut up, and sooner or later you’ll go and see one, if only for the sake of appeasement. Once you get in there you’ll get it, and it will get you, and then, my friend, there is no going back.