December 6, 2013

Boredom, Bored, Boring, B--- *YAWN*

Looks bored, doesn't she?
Probably listening to opera...
I ran into an interesting article in the British journal The Guardian this past week. John Crace's piece Why there's nothing wrong with being bored at the opera discussed the dirty little secret of theater in general and opera in particular: opera is an art form that contains passages that are, um, dull; moments that bore us; scenes when it's all we can do not to begin composing a grocery list or - oh, the shame! - close our eyes and drift off.

I've got my own two cents to add to this conversation, and the good thing about being a blogger is that I just happen to have a platform from which to do so. Cool! So here's my take:

We live in a period of cultural history ruled ruthlessly by the remote control. TV shows no longer have theme songs like that of "The Andy Griffith Show" in a previous generation. No one has the patience to sit through a theme song, so instead we get -- what to call them? -- "audio logos", I suppose you could say: a brief, recognizable snatch of notes to punctuate the end of the opening prologue.

Producers of sit-coms such as "The Big Bang Theory" or "How I Met Your Mother" are mandated to insert a specific number of gags into each script, much like an undergraduate writing a term paper with a required number of sources listed. Unless there is literally a laugh-line or sight gag every five or six seconds, it is clearly believed that the audience, outraged at being kept waiting for it's next jolt of stimulation, will bail and turn to ESPN for a basketball game in which the fast-break style produces slam dunks at a frenetic pace.


If our need for second-to-second stimulation was so much less in the 1960's, imagine the scope of human attention span in 1860, or 1760. Life was way, WAY different centuries ago. People worked longer and harder, with less technology to ease the burdens of everyday life.

When a man took his wife to a concert, a play or an opera in earlier ages, he wanted his money's worth. A large chunk of "entertainment" consisted of music in the home, after all: Mom and Dad gathering in the parlor to listen as Darling Daughter sang a few songs accompanied by a sibling at the piano. Going out to a public performance was a big deal. Shakespeare; Moliere; a low-brow comedy; an opera by Gluck or Mozart; it hardly mattered. An evening out was an exotic exception to the monotony of daily life and, as such, to be savored.

You didn't want it to end too soon. You weren't bored; you were captivated to see actors playing roles; opera singers warbling difficult arias; conductors leading a mighty orchestra in a lengthy symphonic concert.

So it's a different frame of reference today. Passages of recitative that Mozart's audience drank in with rapt attention cause 2013 opera-lovers to flip through their program book or press the "next track" button on the home stereo, searching for a "good part"; a love duet or tenor aria with a big loud high note. Recitative or parlando passages of dialogue are regarded as so much soybean meal in the musical hamburger. We only want the juicy, red meat. We'd rather buy the highlight album rather than the complete boxed set.

That's a shame.

For one thing, moments of music drama regarded by many as "boring" are, in fact, a necessary and important element of dramatic structure. Think of an action movie: after a big climactic scene with a car crash, an explosion or a savage battle - something hair-raising - haven't you noticed how the following scene will consist of intimate dialogue? Constant climaxes would be ineffective if presented with no relief; we need to push the re-set button on our intake of drama and allow for a cool-down period. That's what permits a new crescendo of excitement to begin. Well-constructed drama, whether a Tom Cruise thriller or a play by Chekhov, takes on an elastic ebb-and-flow in order to manipulate us. The moments of relaxation enable the excitement we crave.

Opera is no different.

Take Wagner's Die Walküre. Thrilling moments such as the "Ride of the Valkyries" and Wotan's emotional farewell to Brünnhilde get the heart rate rising, whereas Wotan's lengthy, sorrowful soliloquy in Act 2 is often cut as a sacrifice to the impatience of modern music-lovers. Too boring, you know.

I teach opera appreciation lecture classes for lifelong learning programs at nine universities in Virginia; I know exactly what ordinary people think of opera. They like Tosca, but what they like about it is maybe 25 minutes' worth of the entire score. They like Carmen, but what they like about it is the "Habanera", the "Toreador Song", and maybe the "Seguidilla". Oh, and the parade in Act 4.

My function in these classes is to train them to listen with more engagement; to explain that the function of opera music exceeds mere tunefulness; to help them understand how the music - ALL the music - becomes a tool used to develop character, explore psychology and define point of view.

See, I feel that when we become bored at the opera it's because we are not mindful of these aspects of the composer's craft. Some of you are now going to go directly to the Comments section below to register a perceived flaw in my argument: namely, that audiences at the world premiere of any opera can't possibly be expected to recognize, much less appreciate, every such literary function of the music. The opening-night audience of Verdi's Otello didn't have the benefit of one of my *cough cough* brilliant classes. They went in cold and probably missed 90% of all the subtle stuff.

Not all of them, however. Those with training and experience in music hear more than you might think, even at a first cold hearing. But it's a moot point: an opera is NOT A SIT-COM. The great operas by Mozart, Bizet, Wagner, Verdi, Puccini and the rest are intended to be challenging works of literature. It's a given that epic novels like Moby Dick or War and Peace must be read, studied and re-read at leisure to acquire comprehensive understanding; true appreciation. The same holds for great music dramas as well.

That's my way of saying, at too great length I'll grant you, that if Rigoletto bores you, it's not Rigoletto; it's you, baby. The good news is that study of great art repays the student many times over for the investment of time and thoughtful attention. Intimate knowledge begets love, admiration and insight.

One final take:

Let's say you've conquered your addiction for continuous stimulation and excitement and have channeled your inner 17th-century, stimulation-starved peasant. Let's say you've studied Wagner's Ring assiduously for 30 years and have read 798 books on the subject. Well and good. What if you attend Siegfried and, in spite of everything, find yourself bored when that damn bird is talking to our hero at great length?

Chill. No one ever died of boredom, even though we use that expression all the time. You'll be fine. Guess what? Football, whether the NCAA or the NFL variety, is our consuming national passion. We watch three games on Thanskgiving Day and can't wait for the college games the next day.

My point? Football has it's (forgive me, Roger Goodell) deadly dull moments. Two yards and a cloud of dust. 109 yards in tedious penalities such as the heart-pounding "illegal formation" followed by an 18-yeard field goal. In fact, invariably as the NFL "haves" separate themselves fromt the "have-nots" late in each season, there are entire GAMES that are considered a giant yawn. As I write this, tomorrow's slate of games features the inept Oakland Raiders going through the motions against the truly dreadful New York Jets.

But - c'mon now, admit it - you like football. (And by "you", of course, I mean "typical American".) Why do we put up with boring moments in football? Because we love the sport and know that by remaining engaged, we will inevitably experience that visceral surge of adrenelin that floods our system when the UNBORING moments come along.

As they always do.

Just like in opera.

The art work appearing above is Adolph von Menzel's drawing "Die schlafende Näherin am Fenster" (1843). It is in the public domain in the United States.


  1. Want to read, how do I get rid of these red curtains?

    1. Hi! I'm going to infer that you're trying to read this on your smart phone or other mobile device. The same thing happens to me. Try viewing on laptop or PC. Thanks for your support!

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