Thursday, November 5, 2015

9. The Opera

His voice was well past it, but he insisted otherwise. “It’s only for lack of practice,” he would add. Whenever a new company arrived from Europe, he would go to the impresario and expatiate on every injustice under the sun; the impresario would commit another, and he would leave railing against the iniquity.

He still sported the moustaches from his roles on stage. Whenever he gadded about, despite his age, he appeared to be paying court to a Babylonian princess. Sometimes he hummed, his mouth closed, a passage as old as himself or even older -- a voice muffled like that could well be as good as a professional’s. He used to come and dine with me every once in a while. One night, after a lot of Chianti, he told me once again his customary line, and when I said that life was no more an opera than a sea voyage or a battle, he shook his head and replied:

“Life is an opera, and a grand opera at that. The tenor and the baritone contend for the soprano in the presence of the bass and the supporting cast, unless it’s the soprano and the contralto who are vying for the tenor in the presence of the same basso and the same supporting cast. There are numerous choruses, many ballets, and the orchestration is excellent...”

“But my dear Macrolini...”


And later, after a sip of liqueur, he set his glass down and recounted the story of creation, which I will summarise as follows.

God is the poet. The music is Satan’s -- a young master with a promising future, who studied in heaven’s conservatory. Michael, Raphael and Gabriel’s rival, he could not endure their preferment in the distribution of awards. It could also be that the overly sweet and mystical music of these classmates was tedious to his essentially tragic genius. And that would have been that if God hadn’t written an opera libretto and tossed it aside, deeming such amusement inappropriate to His eternity. Satan took the manuscript with him to hell. With the aim of showing that he was better than the others -- and perhaps to reconcile himself with heaven -- he composed the score. Soon after finishing the work, he brought it to the Eternal Father.

“Lord, I have not forgotten the lessons I learned,” he told Him. “Here is the score. Listen to it, emend it, have it performed, and if you deem it worthy of your highness, allow me to sit at your feet with it...”

“No,” replied the Lord, “I wish not to hear a thing.”

“But, Lord...”

“Nothing at all, nothing!”

Satan pleaded still without greater success, until God, tired and merciful, agreed to have the opera performed, but away from heaven. He created a special theatre, this planet, and invented a whole company replete with all the parts: the primary and the secondary, the choruses and the dancers.

“Come listen to some of the rehearsals!”

“No, I don’t want anything to do with the rehearsals. It’s enough that I wrote the libretto; I am willing to split the royalties with you.”

That refusal was probably a mistake: a certain awkwardness was the result, an awkwardness that a preliminary hearing and friendly collaboration would have avoided. Indeed, in some passages the words go one way and the music another. There is no shortage of people who say that therein lies the composition’s otherworldly wonder, avoiding monotony as it does. In this way is the Eden trio, Abel’s aria and the guillotine and slavery choruses explained. Not infrequently do the same situations recur without adequate reason. Certain motifs grow wearisome from repetition. There are obscure passages too: the maestro overuses the choral masses, which masks the text’s meaning and serves to confuse. The orchestral parts, however, are handled skillfully. Such is the opinion of the impartial.

The maestro’s friends claim that a work of such accomplishment is a rarity. Some of them admit there are a few blemishes and one or two gaps, but it’s likely that the gaps will be filled in and smoothed over and the blemishes removed with the opera’s continued run, for the maestro is not averse to emending the work wherever he finds it at variance with the sublime thought of the poet.

The poet’s friends think otherwise. They maintain that the libretto has been sacrificed, that the score has compromised the meaning of the text, and that, though it might be beautiful in some parts and artfully worked in others, it is completely unrelated, contrary even, to the drama. The grotesque element, for instance, is not in the poet’s text: it is an excrescence put there to imitate The Merry Wives of Windsor. This point is contested by the Satanists with what seems to be good reason. They say that when the young Satan composed the grand opera, not this farce nor Shakespeare himself had been born. They go so far as to affirm that the English poet’s genius amounted to nothing more than transcribing the opera’s lyrics with such art and fidelity that he seems to be the play’s author even though, as is clear, he’s a plagiarist.

“This work,” the old tenor concluded by saying, “will last as long as the theatre does -- and there’s no telling when it will be destroyed as a matter of astronomic convenience. The work’s success is growing. Punctually do poet and musician each receive their royalties, which are not equally split, distributed as they are in the ratio described in Scripture: ‘Many are called, but few are chosen.’ God is paid in gold, Satan in paper bills.”

“That’s witty...”

“Witty?” he protested furiously. He calmed down quickly and replied, “Dear Santiago, I’m not a witty man -- I detest wit. What I’ve been saying is the pure and ultimate truth. One day, when all the books are burnt for being useless, there will have to be someone, perhaps a tenor, maybe an Italian one, who teaches this truth to mankind. Everything is music, my friend. In the beginning there was do, and from do came re, etc. This wineglass -- and he filled it once again -- this wineglass is a short refrain. Don’t you hear it? Neither do you hear sticks and stones, but they all play a part in the very same opera...”

Chapter 9 in the original Portuguese.

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