The Bad Fairy and the Opera.

Montpellier Opera House.

Montpellier Opera House.

I have obsessed about the Opera house in Montpellier since I first clapped eyes on it in 1992. My love for theatres and operas stems from my childhood. My parents got rid of the TV when I was seven, and generously gave their offspring the chance to find out the difference between Opera and Oprah. At Plymouth’s New Palace Theatre, we climbed the steep and narrow wooden stairs to the Gods. So-called because of its proximity to the painted ceilings, the seating in the Gods is the cheapest, but also the most magical part of the theatre. Perched in the vertiginous heights on a creaking seat, somewhere between heaven and earth, I would revel in my tingling feet, crane my neck and eagerly soak up the performance.

So when I discovered that Father Christmas had put opera tickets under the tree this year, I was ecstatic. I turned to Herr Google for further information, and he revealed that Montpellier Opera’s rendition of Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte” had recently been reviewed by a critic working for a leading French newspaper. So I clicked and read avidly.

The critic began by singing the praises of the mezzo-soprano, to such an extent, in fact, that the latter would have problems fitting her head through the Opera’s double doors. She described the great talents of the orchestra and conductor, then proceeded to throw her toys out of her cultural pram. My stomach sank as she fastened her teeth into the rest of the team and ripped them to shreds like a fox in a hen-house.

The lighting and minimalist scenery were not her cup of tea, and the director was more or less accused of being as out-of-date as Flash Dance leotards and pink leg warmers. She then set about dismissing the opera singers one by one, describing their performances with charming adjectives such as “trivial,” “unremarkable” and “one-size-fits-all”. An accusing finger pointed out the “uncontrolled vibrato” of one of the male roles towards the end of the opera, and she wrapped up gloriously by saying that she had found the opera “tedious”, “pithy” and “caricatural”.

Now. Although she may have had the excuse of getting out of bed on the wrong side to find that someone had already eaten her porridge, her portrayal of an event I had been looking forward to was more than just a damp squib. A bad fairy had trampled all over my Christmas present and told me that it was a pile of rubbish before I’d even had the time to check it out. It was tantamount to telling a three-year-old that the bedtime story is crap before you even start reading it. How many people would now go to see the performance with the idea that it was going to be a pile of poo, just because she had deemed she didn’t like it?

I refused to let this experience set the tone of my evening, and my night at the Opera proved that music is like men: one woman’s rice pudding is another woman’s chocolate cake. I suppose that the advantage of being a bog-standard member of the audience is that I was simply going there with the intention of enjoying it.

The building was a delight in itself. The huge staircases made me want to slap on a red ball gown, pout and do Scarlett O’Hara impressions. Marble statues posed coyly for passers-by, proudly flaunting generously proportioned butts, flabby stomachs and thunder thighs that would make Rosemary Conley scream in horror. Christmas lights shone in through the huge windows. It was as close to heaven as MM could get, bar sharing a bucket of ice cream with Colin Firth.

The super swinger chandelier at Montpellier Opera (sorry for the bad quality).

The super swinger chandelier at Montpellier Opera (sorry for the bad quality).

Our seats were in the Gods, so close to the beautifully painted clouds on the ceiling that you could almost put in a good word for yourself with St Peter. An enormous, ornate chandelier sparkled in the centre; the kind of thing heroes end up dangling off in action films. I can only describe the interior of the Opera as an inside-out wedding cake – ornate, iced and decorated to the hilt.

I only voiced one criticism that evening, and it had nothing to do with the people on stage. Getting two teenagers to willingly discover Mozart and the Opera is exceptional. It is less so when the two adults sitting in front of them start talking at the tops of their voices as soon as the lights dim and the orchestra strikes up.

PF stiffened in his seat, growled and pricked up his ears, making me feel like I was sitting next to a Rottweiler in a dinner jacket. He stretched his arm out slowly until his hand was just behind the first woman’s ear, then proceeded to click his fingers loudly. She continued to yak on, apparently insensitive to the fact that she was disturbing everybody else. Snap, snap, snap, went PF’s fingers. Yak, yak, yak, went the two women, who had apparently confused the overture for the advertising slot at the cinema.

That was when the grumble of Bigfoot’s voice cut through the dark. Low and distinct, with an unambiguous message. “Hey, lil bro, make sure you tell me if you need to barf. I told you that you shouldn’t have come to the Opera with a tummy bug”. I stifled a laugh. That kid is most definitely his mother’s son. The women immediately shut up and exchanged a concerned glance.

It didn’t last long, and soon they were off again. Although MM is no good at singing, she knows how to strike the right note with rude people. I leant over, laid my hand on the woman’s arm, and informed her that we had paid to listen to an Opera, not to her. *Result*.

And the Opera? I beg to differ with the bad fairy. The opera was fabulous. I loved the colourful mixture of authentic and wildly modern costumes that were set off to their advantage by the simple scenery and clever lighting. The orchestra and the wonderfully rich, varied, and powerful voices of the cast knocked the stuffing out of the mindless crap churned out by the music industry today. It took me back to my childhood and made me dream for four hours, and my teenagers discovered a whole new world. As a certain Arnold S said, “I’ll be back”. 

To finish off, I’ll leave you with one of the voices I enjoyed the most. See what you think.

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42 thoughts on “The Bad Fairy and the Opera.

  1. See, I said you were tough – you scared those women into shutting up! Glad you enjoyed it, not sure opera is my cup of tea but, then again, I’ve never seen one live so perhaps that’s what I need to do?

  2. I’m glad that you chose to ignore the opinions of a critic and enjoyed the event. My exposure to opera has been very limited but I do remember my first experience very well. The gentleman beside me was obviously a regular and SANG ALONG throughout the evening. Fortunately we had primo seats in the 10th row and I found him rather amusing rather than annoying. Definitely a memorable experience 🙂

    • Oh, crickey! We had people all round who kept talking – one man actually slapped another to shut him up at one point.
      There was a lovely, rather effeminate young man sitting beside PF who had gelled his hair and brought along his opera glasses on a little stick. At the end of the Opera he was up on his feet, clapping wildly and shouting “bravooooo!” at the top of his voice. He obviously wasn’t a critic either.

  3. I love opera… but what I love as well is the chance you had to find out the difference between Opera and Oprah… opera wins every time…

  4. Lovely experience…and that Voice!

    We can go to the opera here much more often than in France in a dinky opera house that is much as you describe Montpellier – and people
    A just dress normally but nicely
    and
    B don’t talk.

    Mark you if you had the seats in the circle next to the cymbals and big drum for a performance of Carmen you’d be too catatonic to talk for days.

    So glad your young entry enjoyed it…it’s good to pass on something you yourself were given.

    And yes,,,the florid statues in the opera house give one hope….

    • Hello, Helen 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the singing- he is the singer who was dismaissed as “forgettable” by the critic (she didn’t seem to be very open to his fabulous voice, despite working for a newspaper that purports to be “worldly”).
      I am itching to see Carmen, it’s one of my favourites. A couple of days without hearing the kids would be a real bonus. Big nuggs!

  5. What do the critics know? They’re just trying to hang on to their jobs by saying something controversial. They couldn’t say, “Yeah, it was really good. I liked it.” Sounded wonderful the way you described it. I really want to live there now! Now what about you and Colin? Does PF know?

  6. “Opera proved that music is like men: one woman’s rice pudding is another woman’s chocolate cake.: –My favorite line! 😉

    I have always wanted to go to an opera. I hope one day I can go. I’m so glad the ladies stopped their chatting to allow you and your family to enjoy the show. x

  7. Lucky you to be exposed to the arts and such rich cultural experiences as a child! I think that’s a wonderful upbringing. I love opera and wish it weren’t such a price prohibitive experience. Recently there have been some interesting opportunities to see several live opera performances simulcast from the famous opera houses and viewed from movie theaters. It’s an extraordinary and cost-friendly opportunity.Of course it’s not as exquisite as sitting in one of those wonderful venues. I’m so glad you had a fabulous overall experience. And I am really tired of the critics. They can’t enjoy anything, somehow. I try not to listen to them. 🙂

    • I can never thank my parents enough for pushing us towards books, music, theatre and sport rather than leaving us with the “telly-sitter”. Here in France there is a price range that makes it possible for everyone to go – Bigfoot and Rugby-Boy had tickets at 19 euros, and ours were 25 euros per head which is a bloody good deal for listening to internationally renowned opera singers. It’s definitely cheaper than going to a pop concert (the last time my daughter enquired if she could go to one, tickets cost over 100 euros each).

  8. You have just reminded me of one of the few times I have sat through a West End musical. The couple in front enthusiastically sang every word of every song just a second before the cast on stage.

  9. Good for you educating those two peasants about talking during a performance. Do you think they talked during lessons at school too? Some people just can’t stfu.

    I remember going to the Montpellier opera many years ago with my then boyfriend (future ex-husband). We had seats in the gods and I was enjoying things but noticed he wasn’t with me. He was a medical student at the time and I found him snoozing on the benches in the corridor in the entr’acte. Not sure he got his money’s worth…

    • Bigfoot was inches from whacking at them with one of his outsized paws. I couldn’t believe that my teenagers were more savvy than adults (cue proud mum moment).
      Sleeping at the Opera? Medical students don’t get much sleep, though – I knew an “interne” ob-gyn who would work for three days non stop before getting any real sleep.

  10. I like your comment to the chatty women in front of you – I will remember it for future use! Your description of the Opera house is wonderful and I think I want to go there now. :). I like opera, but not all operas – I went to see a performance of Peter Grimes and it was one of the longest couple of hours of my life! 😦 However, I’ve also seen La Traviatta in Covent Garden and it was one of the best couple of hours.

  11. So glad you didn’t let one woman’s ignorant arrogance put you off, MM. She’s probably Parisian and doesn’t think there can be real life and culture outside her charmed circle. I can well imagine the boys being very impressed by the experience, once you’d silenced your discourteous neighbours. I still vividly remember seeing Margot Fonteyn dance Swan Lake in my first year at university and that was from up in the gods. i was mesmerised and totally enchanted, even though the theatre was very mundane when compared to your opera house with its statues and chandeliers. :-).

    • I have no idea where the lady came from, but she was very nearly marched out of the door by two furious teens.
      I loved watching ballet, although I always came out of there feeling fat, ugly and inelegant. My poor mum even had to deal with a case of pr-adolescent hysteria in the buss o nthe way home when I realized that I would never be a real girl who grew up to be a delicate ballet dancer… I’m still a tomboy today, and I still don’t understand where all the feminine genes went. Sigh. 🙂

      • Sorry, MM, I didn’t make myself clear. The woman I first referred to was the critic who took such pleasure in tearing a good production to shreds. Grrr! I’m glad you didn’t let her put you off.

    • His voice was just amazing. I am convinced that the critic was just complaining to be mean – maybe she had a bone of contention with the director? Or maybe she doesn’t sing in the shower as well as this lot did.

  12. The Opera House sounds and looks wonderful! Never been to an opera but would love the experience. Bigfoot is definitely his Mother’s son, mind you PF didn’t hold back either… I’m surprised they didn’t shut up after his clicking fingers in their ears! Some people eh! Your line… brilliant and will be remembered for future use! 😀

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