Standing Around for Porgy and Bess

I was at Tartine on Thursday with DrMary who was visiting me from Los Angeles.  I was floating between blissfully devouring my pain au jambon and gabbing with my friend when this exchange by the group next to us managed to break through the crunch of my croissant.

Guy: How many female vocalists does it take to sing Gershwin’s Summertime? (from the opera Porgy and Bess)

Women: How many?

Guy: All of them!

Group: Hahahaha!  (They all laugh knowingly at the punchline.)

Huh? That went completely over my head even though I just saw Porgy and Bess.

Of course that’s typical of my reaction to opera in general. I’ve sat through one or two operas and aside from the well known arias, I have no appreciation for it and would rather spend an evening balancing my checkbook or sweeping up dust bunnies.  Unless you speak the language, there’s no way to understand some of the scenes that carry the opera from one melodic aria to another.  Most of the time, I’m waiting patiently for them to get to the good part, of which for me, there’s only one or two in the whole show (Turandot being the exception, and I thoroughly enjoyed it).

However, once in a while, I try to pass myself off as one of those cultured elites who speak effortlessly of playwrights and composers, reeking of culture and je ne sais quoi. When I found out that Porgy and Bess was showing at the San Francisco Opera last week, I thought it would be good to give opera another try. I figured Porgy and Bess is an American opera, so it’s in English. I speak English therefore I should understand it.  You know, your typical A=B, B=C, therefore A=C logic. Of course I wanted to see one of the greatest American operas, and composed by Gershwin no less. He who seduced me with the first low trill of the clarinet that opened Rhapsody in Blue.

And that was the train of thought that led me to wait in line for the box office to open early Tuesday morning so I could buy standing room only tickets for ten bucks.  The standing area is really just “foyer” area, if you will, in the back of the orchestra level where people enter in from the grand lobby. The seats are separated from the foyer by a wall. If you are lucky, you get a spot right at the front and can lean against the wall. If you’re slow, then you have to stand behind a wall of people. Given my vertical challenges, I needed to be in the front or I wouldn’t have seen anything. The wall was high enough so that I had to raise my head a bit in order to lean my chin on it and I felt like a little kid peering over the fence into her neighbor’s yard.

It started out alright as most of the singers were singing with non-operatic voices so I could get into the music and the story. Gershwin weaved some great melodies and rhythms into this score. But then, the leads got into the operatic voices and I began to get distracted from the performance by trying to read the subtitles that they projected onto screens for the audiences because I had no idea what they were singing, except for the familiar “Summertime“.  I liked the instrumental composition itself and the general plot but really wished I was at the musical version rather than the opera. After an hour and a half of standing, my feet hurt but I felt like a total loser because the senior citizens next to me still had vim and vigor in their stance and were enraptured by the opera.

Thankfully, my feet and I were rescued after intermission by a nice gentleman standing on the other side of me who had obtained tickets from a couple who had left after the first half so we were able to sit down to watch the rest of the show.  Sitting only helped my physical comfort but I still found the opera to be inaccessible. However, my seatmate was thoroughly entertained. Turns out that he has been attending opera shows for the past 25 or so years after being enthralled by Verdi’s A Masked Ball.   He sees each opera performance at least 3 or 4 times per season, at least 1500 performances in total. That averages out to 1 opera a week per year.  I was simultaneously dumbstruck and awestruck by the revelation.  I couldn’t fathom devoting so much of my time to opera but I envied him for having such a passion for this that he was willing to do so.

I wish I could say that the evening was a transformative event and that Porgy and Bess was my Masked Ball.  But alas, no. I’m still unenlightened and my entrée into the wood-paneled world of the elites is still denied.  But can someone explain that joke to me?

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