Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The opera is over if the fat ladies sing

 The good news is: advertising works. Ever since the newspaper started running an ad (Page 27 today) promoting our Sun-Times Goes to the Lyric contest, people who never brought up the subject before are asking me about opera.
     “How do I get those tickets?” asked the Thomas-the-Tank-Engine Metra conductor.
     “You’ve got to enter the contest!” I breezily replied to him and to the security guard who asked the same question, and to the other random folk who brought it up.
     Another surprisingly common reader reaction is succinctly stated by Bill Anders:
     “I think it is wrong not to give some attribution in the ad to the lovely woman you stand next to. She is not identified.”
     “I’m sure it’s unintentional,” adds Sharon McGowan, “but it feels disrespectful to me.”
     Can’t have that. The purpose of journalism is to clarify mysteries, not create them.
     The woman to my left in the orange dress is Adina Aaron, American soprano, singing Bess at the Lyric’s production of “Porgy and Bess.” I sat down with her last week for a surprisingly candid conversation about the future of opera — so candid that I almost blurted out, “You know this is going into the newspaper, right?” But, I figured, opera has no purpose if not to excite the passions.
     I began by asking Aaron, who grew up in Florida and has starred internationally from Finland to Tel
Aviv, how people react when they find out she’s an opera singer.

     "They're a bit in awe because they don't know much about it," she said. "I know, the first thing is, they don't expect an opera singer to look the way I look, of course."
     "You mean," I said, groping for the proper word, " tall?"
     "Just not obese," replied Aaron. "Unfortunately, you see commercials with the big horns and Wagnerian look. They still have that perception. So they look at me like, 'Really?' "
     Aaron was always athletic and had no interest in opera growing up. Instead she played piano, and was "heavy into sports: basketball, tennis, karate, you name it."
     She got a basketball scholarship to one college and a music scholarship at another.
     "I had to sit down and decide," she said. "I loved both, but at that time there was no future in basketball. No WNBA. You had to go to Europe. I said, 'You know, I don't really want to go to Europe.' " Which is ironic.
     Only in college did she discover opera.
     "A teacher said 'go to the library, go look at these opera videos,' " she said. "I saw 'Traviata' by Verdi. That was the beginning."
     But she keeps an athlete's discipline - she rode her bike to our interview.
     "It's so important to stay healthy," she said. "To me, health and singing are one and the same. I never imagine giving up one for another. I don't know how singers do it who don't exercise, if you gain too much weight and you're too out of shape."
     Modern productions require agile singers.
     "In Europe, all of the productions are updated," she said. "You never get a traditional production; it's a miracle if you get a traditional production. You always know you'll be asked to do something physical."
    Yet the public thinks of opera as a 300-pound Brunhilda standing in one spot, holding a spear and warbling — what Aaron dismissively calls "park and bark."
     "Opera has to get away from that," she said. "I don't see opera surviving if we don't get away from that: stand and sing, the cliche. You know, it's taught. You still have teachers who tell you, 'This is the hard part, just tell the director you can't move.' That, to me, is the death of opera."
     As an opera goer, while I certainly appreciate a well-formed star and so understand Aaron's point, my focus is on the music and the staging. I don't consider the cast's bulk when deciding what operas to attend.
     "I'm not saying you have to be skinny," she said. "But you have to be fit enough and comfortable enough to move. And if you're too overweight, you're putting a lot of pressure on your body. You're going to huff and puff. Look at Pavarotti. By the midpoint of his career he couldn't even walk because he let himself get so out of shape. It's insane to think that's a good way to make a living. Opera has to adjust. We can't compete with all the different art forms if we do that."
     Which brings us back to "Porgy and Bess." You can win tickets until Sunday; the performance we're seeing is Dec. 8. Aaron said it's a truly wonderful opera, especially for newcomers.
     "I steer them in the direction of the most accessible: 'Boheme,' 'Butterfly,' 'Aida,' '' she said. "This is obviously a great one. You can't get anything better. It's genius."


  1. If Mr. Steinberg is an old fart – then I am a slightly older fart. One thing I learned in my “old fart” years is that you should never ask a black person a question of the following form:

    “””” I began by asking Aaron, who grew up in Florida and has starred internationally from Finland to Tel Aviv, how people react when they find out she’s an opera singer....””””

    Of course Mr. Steinberg intended no disrespect and had the best of intentions. But I hope he understands that this could easily be perceived as condescending and patronizing.

    Several years ago I witnessed something similar at my barbershop frequented by many Jewish gentlemen. One fellow – a tough guy that looked like the present day Robert DeNiro said that he had been in the Marines in Korea. The matronly Jewish manicurist then blurted out “ what was a Jewish boy doing in the Marines.”

    He gave her a look that could kill. The ice was only broken when my barber asked if he was harassed by the Southern boys. He said that he was accepted after one fight.

    1. I appreciate your concern, Jerry, but if I made sure to cover my ass against any possible misunderstanding my column would be some kind of legal document. The truth is nobody expects ANYBODY, of any race, to be an opera singer, and I often ask divas how people react when they learn what they do, as a way of bringing them down to earth for the reader. I do this because they're stars, in their small spheres, but also generally anonymous. You wouldn't ask Derrick Rose how people react when people learn he plays basketball, but because he isn't at parties having people ask, "So...umm Derrick, what do you do for a living?" What got me in quite a lot of trouble is when I suggested that it was surprising for Katharine Goeldner to sing opera, coming from Iowa. Turns out there is a big opera scene in Iowa, at least in their own estimation, and they let me know it, both barrels.

    2. Your comment about Derrick Rose reminded me of an internet story from a few years ago about a woman who happened to sit next to Rod Stewart on an airplane and didn't know him from Adam. Apparently it didn't faze Rod that his fame hadn't reached this woman. Made me think better of Rod Stewart, though to be honest, I hadn't thought about him at all prior to reading the story.

    3. When I tell people I'm a newspaper columnist, they react as if I had told them I sell butter churns. Needless to say they haven't read the paper in years, never heard my name. I consider it a tonic at this point. And fair, because I've usually never heard of them either.

    4. Well, you're famous in my household anyway. Also, my siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews, along with their spouses, have heard your name many times; and some may even have been impelled to actually read your column and blog.

  2. I don't really understand the problem Jerry B. raised, but was taken with Ms. Aaron's insights into the need to keep in shape over a career that requires considerable physical endurance and lasts much longer than that of the typical athlete. When you see a reference to "young singers" performing major roles they are usually in their thirties or early forties, and if they move into the most challenging roles it's usually quite a bit later than that. There are not, in any given age, many legitimate Wotan's, Otello's, or Norma's to be seen, and few are likely to be spring chickens.

  3. I don't get how anyone could not read the paper in years. Too busy looking at celeb twitter? I'm middle aged, as is my spouse and my millennial aged offspring loves it as we do. In hand, not online in that case.


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