“. . . till the fat lady sings”

It seems that the proverbial one who’s got more curves than the skeletons on the catwalks has not warbled her last. No, it ain’t over yet. According to my students, at least, whose rallying cries generated enough interest to keep my rather esoterically titled course “Writing for the Ear” alive, death warrants and prematurely issued certificates notwithstanding. The “fat lady,” of course, is the diva who gets to have the last word in opera. I don’t know where the expression originates; but it seems to be true for much of the operatic canon. Tonight, I am going to see Mimi expire in a production of La Bohème, performed by the Mid-Wales Opera Company.

Now, I have been going to the opera since I was a teenager, even though prohibitively high prices made for long gaps in my exposure to this kind of melo-drama. And even though a tenor numbered among my close friends in New York, Opera-going still mostly meant finding an empty space to spread my blanket on the Great Lawn whenever the New York Opera toured the parks, taking the sandwiches out of the basket, and hoping that no cellular device would go off to mar the performance as I lost myself in the night skies in search of that rare star darting its long-delayed light through the smog and light pollution of Gotham.

My tenor friend tried to convince me that opera is the highest form of dramatic storytelling; but, for the most part, I struggled to follow the plot and keep straight just who is who and doing it with whom. Last night, watching the pre-code melodrama Secrets of a Secretary, starring Claudette Colbert and Herbert Marshall, I thought what a great plot for an opera it might have made. A woman repentant of her follies, a sinister husband, a pining lover (a nobleman, no less), and bloodstained dress. Perhaps, I’d rather lose track of the plot than the ability to lose myself in the drama of a moment; but I still find it strange to be confronted with a narrative only to ignore it, along with the translations flashing above the stage.

There are few plays I have seen as often as La Bohème, sat through the gloom of Rent and the glamour of Baz Luhrman; but, the music aside, I still recall little else beyond an extinguished candle and a distinct cough. Not that I believe comedian Ed Wynn to be a reliable translator in matters operatic. Wynn, whom I previously consulted on Carmen, once tried to tell the story of La Boheme (or “La Bum,” as he called it) to tenor James Melton (pictured above), on whose radio program he was featured in the mid-1940s.

It was on the 10 March 1946 broadcast of The James Melton Show that Wynn introduced listeners to Mimi, who, preparing for a ball, had just put on her bustle and was “rearing to go.” In Wynn’s version, Mimi had been named “Miss Soft Drink of the Year” because she was “interested in any guy from seven up.” He had nothing to say about flirtatious Musetta, who had such terrible puns coming.

Now, Mimi lives in the same boarding house as Rodolfo, you see. One day, she hears the pot, the poet [. . .] reciting. He says: “There is an old lady who lives in a shoe.” And Mimi says, “Well, she’s pretty lucky, the way that the room situation is.”

Not Rent-controlled, apparently. Such references to the housing crisis of the mid-1940s pop up frequently in radio entertainment, from Fred Allen to Hercule Poirot (who, as I discussed here, inexplicably relocated to the US and found himself without a flat).

The synopsis is mercifully interrupted by a few notes from the opera, sung by Annamary Dickey. It is the kind of highhatting of the uplift that was so common an approach to the so-called high arts in the middlebrow medium of 1930s and 1940s radio. It is the working-class re-vision and consequent rejection of culture as imposition, of art as irrelevance, a way of looking without seeing to which I was conditioned as I grew up, my father being hostile toward anything that smacked of the “high classical,” a self-imposed exclusion from the beautiful, transporting and inspiring that expressed itself in crude mockery.

Fortunately, I don’t need to draw on the jovial if misfiring old Fire Chief to enlighten me. The Mid-Wales Opera’s La Bohème is “cenir mewn Saesneg,” which is to say, sung in English. For once I can just face the music, rather than being confronted with my own ignorance . . .

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