The Shoe That Never Dropped: One Reason You Don’t Go to Opera


By Julie Wu

“You’re rebuffing Jaquino now, but eventually you’ll get together,” the conductor told me.  “I mean, we assume so.”

We stood at a grand piano overlooking a breathtaking vista of Manhattan to rehearse the opening duet of Beethoven’s only opera, the rarely performed Fidelio.  The next day, we would be doing our informal, private run-through with full cast, orchestra, and chorus.  The conductor, pianist, and the tenor playing Jaquino are all pros, while I am a former wannabe who gets into shape once every year or two especially to sing with this group, affectionately termed the Occasional Opera Society.   I read the libretto, I admit, on the bus from Boston.

The opera is set in a political prison.  Marzelline, daughter of the prison warden, fondly rejects Jaquino’s advances because she is in love with the heroic new prison worker, Fidelio. Marzelline does not realize that Fidelio is actually a woman named Leonore who has disguised herself to save her imprisoned husband.  The bulk of Act I in this two-Act opera displays this complicated situation, and describes the upcoming wedding between the supposedly love-lorn Marzelline and Fidelio.

By the end of Act II, Leonore not only blows her cover and throws herself in front of a dagger to save her husband’s life, but also indirectly gets all the other prisoners sprung loose. Soloists, chorus, and orchestra join together in a rousing celebration of Leonore’s  wifely devotion.  As for Marzelline, she is allotted two-and-a-half measures to react to the news that the love of her life is actually a married, cross-dressing woman:  “O weh’ mir!  Was vernimmt mein Ohr!”  And then she happily joins in with the chorus of praise for wifely devotion.  Joining the chorus as well is Jaquino, at this point apparently devoid of any personal opinion.

“This should get resolved,” I insisted at the rehearsal.  “They need to get together in the end.”

I have never seen a staged production of Fidelio, and I imagine that many directors do try to tie up this dangling plot line with a bit of blocking—Jaquino and Marzelline sidling up together and holding hands while they sing the finale, or something like that.

Maybe a bit of handholding at the end, with pantomimed apologies given and accepted, is enough to satisfy an audience already snowed with spectacular singing and trumpet fanfares.  But with all due respect to Beethoven and the sublime music in Fidelio–from the vantage point of the novelist playing Marzelline, this plot structure kind of stinks.

One of the reasons I quit music school was the realization that with my high, light voice, I would be forever cast in stock “soubrette” roles like Marzelline—sweet, perky young maids who contrast with the angst-ridden, womanly, deeper voiced lead soprano.  It’s the latter who suffers tragedy, acts heroic, and sings passionate arias–the kind of music that attracted me to opera in the first place.  Soubrettes like Marzelline never transform and hardly ever have their own agenda.  If they sing anything dramatic or in a minor key, they’re usually just joking.  They seem never to be conflicted about anything and can’t seem to understand why the leading lady won’t just cheer up already.  And, as in Marzelline’s case, sometimes even the librettist is too bored to bother finishing her story.  The exception to this stereotype is rare—Susanna in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro is a stellar example, and it can’t be a coincidence that The Marriage of Figaro, in which the very clever servants drive the plot (the titular character is Susanna’s fiance), is one of the most popular operas of all time.

Our Fidelio run-through, held at a church near Lincoln Center for ourselves and a small audience of family members, was great fun—a rousing success in the framework of this production, in which each soloist gets one or two rehearsals, the chorus three, and the orchestra performs the same day it convenes.  This scenario demands superhuman efficiency of the conductor and gives pro and amateur musicians alike an opportunity they might not otherwise get.  Expectations are low, performance levels are surprisingly high, and most everyone has a wonderful time.  I thanked my dear friend and producer of the Occasional Opera Society, John, for the opportunity, and told him I hadn’t known Fidelio before.  “I didn’t know the plot,” I said.

He laughed.  “You don’t go to opera for the plot.”

I walked home past Lincoln Center, with its tasteful lights and its huge, desperate billboards, and thought about what John said.  He was right, of course, and maybe that’s why a lot of people don’t go to opera at all.  People look for plot everywhere—in books, in newspaper articles, in blog posts, in four-minute pop songs, and even in commercials.  How do we expect them to go to lengthy dramatic productions in which the characters are stock, the main story is absurd and the subplot is unresolved?  To say the sublime music is enough is like saying that beautiful writing alone is enough to carry a book, or that excellent acting is enough to draw an audience to a movie.  For most people, it isn’t enough.  It just isn’t.

I don’t have the answer to opera’s ills.  What I do know is, I’ll be thinking about Marzelline while I’m writing my next novel.  Because girls (and guys) like her deserve more attention.  They deserve their own personalities, their own agendas, their own passion and angst, and their own fully resolved plotlines.  And if they don’t get them, I may be dooming them to a life of obscurity, unresolved forever.

“O weh’ mir!”  Indeed.