February 23, 2003, 12:15 p.m.

Hoc opus est

back & forth

I ask myself : "Self, are you crazy for wanting life to work like baroque opera?" For me, hope is not the thing with feathers, it is the thing with twenty yards of snuff-colored taffeta and a shimmering high C. But it's not the costumes, it's not even the music (the music simply circumlocutes it) — it's the justice of the genre. I've written before about the role of suffering in opera, and now I'd like to talk about operatic justice. By "talk about operatic justice" I mean "bitch about how unrealistic my expectations are and lay the blame like a paper bag full of dogshit at the illustrious door of George Frideric Handel."

It starts with the operatic Weltanschauung: I have always been shakey on aetiology. My explanations for such-and-such an event seem to others to be missing steps or go retrograde at some point; my concerted attempts to change the world are often founded on different assumptions to those upon which the world operates. My parents are not deeply emotional people. In fact, they seem mostly to be motivated by money and fear. Nevertheless, from early on I was exposed to the noxious influences of classical music and literature. Gods know literature has fucked me up, but I'm going to let that one lie for a bit, mostly because I really can't fight fire with fire. Likewise, I can't address music in general with words; the way my mind has been trained to react to imitation and progression is vital, but to write about it would be as difficult as a natural history of smell. I am not qualified. To analogify: opera is biological. Over and above the pure physics of note-against-note, the mathematical laws of the interactions of tone and tone, flow the hormonal stews of words and inflection. Needless to say, everything I have ever known about people (and this is never enough) I have seen in opera.

If I may apply what seems to me a bit of basic behaviorism: I treat my friends like the characters in operas, in an attempt to invoke a higher sentiment. For operatic emotion, although powerful, is always held somewhat in a musical cage. Its overstatement contains it, since there's always the matter of the discipline it takes to portray loss of control. Anger arias are virtuosic: even if the words stint not, the music keeps the singer within a tonality and a rhythmic mode. I am attracted to those who can speak calmly and poetically about what they feel, those who do not assume my total empathy.

Let's take a rage aria from the first act of Giulio Cesare. Sesto is Pompeio's son [you may know these men as Pompey and Sextus — the show is based on events which occured during the Alexandrine war. —Comm.] and he and his mother Cornelia have come to sue Cesare (Caesar) for peace. Unfortunately, during their visit, Cesare opens a parcel from the Egyptian king Tolomeo (Ptolemy) — inside is Pompeio’s head. Naturally, it's a nasty shock for the boy, who then swears revenge. Do you see why I like the clarity of these relationships? Sesto's aria goes da capo: ABA. The first section, "Svegliatevi nel core, furie d'un'alma offesa..." is all shrieking horror. The band plays the lead-in, then stops dead for a moment, during which the voice enters. Sesto's line opens with the sharp descent of an octave — (high:) SVEGLIA (low:) tevi! — in an instant showing both his anger and his restraint of it. The B section is a calmer reflection, it is more sure than the A, more like singing than spitting out words. The lyric here is, "l'ombra del genitore accore a mia diffesa...", in which Pompeio's shade gives some fatherly advice. The band supports Sesto with gentle major chords, it is altogether different. At that point, they all repeat the first (angry) section. I could write a book on the one aria, but it is nevertheless not particularly extraordinary in Handel's work, and what makes it tick is this: it's analogous to a cinematic cut, showing outside and inside. Sesto's rage is tense, in the minor, it is on the outside of the aria, it is what he re-states. And yet, there throbs his soft, chewy center of grief. It is significant that both this middle section and also a later duet between Sesto and his mother are in the major. Compare the minor to yin and major to yang. Also: Handelian grief has a certain stability to it; major chords have fewer dissonances in the first few notes of the overtone series than minor chords, which is one of the explications students of western music give for the increased tension associated with minor chords. Returning to the A section forces a kind of familiarity from the audience. It also compresses the aria into an instant — they are naturally asides to the action, soliloquies, and by returning to familiar material, you can create the illusion that the middle section exists somewhat out of time, a particularly useful advice for when it depicts a hidden motivation, a doubt, a reservation.