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Opera in the Ether

by on 16 October 2020

The Clock Strikes Six

Opera in the Ether

A theatre thought by Mark Aspen

It is said that in opera if somebody is killed he does not bleed but instead sings six arias.  “That few?”, one might be tempted to reply.  And have you noticed that in opera when anyone is dying, whether struck by some fatal blow or of natural causes (usually consumption), nobody fetches a doctor or calls for an ambulance.  They don’t even try to staunch the blood flow: they just sing.

You see, during the Covid restrictions, when we have been starved of the real thing, we have become gluttons to on-line opera.  The Met alone has almost 700 performances available on line.  (We are about a quarter way through.)  You can go the Garden, the Coli’ or even Glyndebourne without leaving home.  The European opera houses, La Scala, Palais Garnier, La Fenice, Wiener Staatsoper, the Mariinsky will let you visit Milan, Paris, Venice, Vienna or St Petersburg, all without leaving the Covid-safe comfort of home. 

Metropolitan Opera House

New York

La Scala


Watching on a computer screen, even when paired to a big monitor, is no match of course for the reality, the atmospheric immersive experience of being there in the flesh.  However, you can watch out for other things.

For instance, you can see shots of the conductors.   Some mouth the notes (eg. the now tarnished James Levine at the Met), some almost dance with the music (mainly Italian conductors) and have you noticed how many press their fingers to their lips to quieten certain sections or even individual instruments?  I will never forget seeing an aged conductor literally weeping as he conducted the well-known intermezzo sinfonico from Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana.  That was some years ago, and I can’t recall who it was. 

Talking of remarkable conductors, here is something astounding, Italian conductor Daniele Gatti has the whole of Wagner’s Parsifal in his head.  Parsifal is nearly five hours long and has a full orchestra, but he conducts without a score!

What’s more, on the small screen you catch glimpses of the audience.  (You can’t look backwards when you are sitting in the stalls.)   They react: sometimes vocally.  I know this is a bit of pedantry, but few get Italian grammar right.  Bravo is only for one man: it’s brava for one lady.  For more than one lady brave is needed; bravi for all other groups.  You can go overboard with bravissimo  (… or –a, or –e, or –i).    “Well done” is a lot easier.   However, whistling is problematic.  It is heard across the Atlantic and even sometimes in London, but in most European opera houses whistling is equivalent to booing.

Which brings me on to clapping.  It used to be de rigeur not to clap until the end of an act.  Now audiences (or members thereof) often clap at the end of an aria: flattering for the singer, but it doesn’t half hold things up.   At the Met, it used to be that the singers would individually or in small groups take a bow at the end of each act, emerging thorough a closed house curtain.  Now it seem they have taken up the European custom of a full company curtain call at the end of the opera.   Mind you in Russian opera houses, calls are taken at every opportunity and the cast claps too!

Then there is the standing ovation.  American audiences seem to give everything a standing ovation, come what may, a habit that is spreading here, and not only for opera but for drama performances too.  In some circumstances, this tyranny is demanded.   Your reviewer admits that he has never given a standing ovation.  It is to be kept in reserve for the best show one has ever seen, otherwise all the capital is spent and there is no way of recognising something very special when it comes along.  “He who praises everyone, praises no one” said Dr Johnson.  (This incidentally is also the honest critic’s motto.)

Nevertheless, in Vienna in July 1991 Plácido Domingo took curtain calls at the end of Verdi’s Otello, in which he played the eponymous role, lasing for one hour and twenty minutes, a world record for the longest applause ever.   Notwithstanding Domingo’s 101 curtain calls, Luciano Pavarotti received 165 curtain calls after singing in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore in Berlin in February 1988!

Am I therefore being curmudgeonly for not standing?   Perhaps I should feign a disguise.  After all, in various operas characters do not recognise their own husbands (Xerxes), wives (Un Ballo in Maschera) or lovers (Così fan tutte) when they are disguised.   Shakespeare would never do this in drama … would he?

A disguise story that we all remember from childhood, or visits to the pantomime is Cinderella.   This has also attracted the attention of composers and librettists to the extent that there are almost two dozen opera versions.  The two best known are Rossini’s 1817 La Cenerentola and Massenet’s 1895 Cendrillon.  Rossini has no pumpkin, no mice and no glass slipper (he has a pair of bracelets instead) but Massenet has the full works of fairy godmother transformations and the glass slipper.  Plus he has the midnight chimes.

Midnight chimes seem to be a standard feature in opera and a whole plethora of operas have clocks ringing out the witching hour.  But listen carefully next time.  The chances are that the midnight bell will only ring out six times.  It is a quirk of opera (particularly Italian ones).   It is one of opera’s most striking features.

Ah!  I hear the clock striking six:  I must rush along …

Mark Aspen, October 2020

Photography by Jonathan Tichler, Jules Golfiere, Oleg Gawrilo, Sandra Cohen-Rose, Chinellato, John Steerpike,

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