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9/17/2000: I am new to opera and have limited exposure. I have a friend who is enamored with Mozart, but The Magic Flute, for example, does not move me as La bohème, La traviata, or other works of Puccini and Verdi. It lacks the emotion and soulfullness of “true” opera. Am I completely wrong in viewing as futile attempts to capture the emotion and fervor of Italian opera by Mozart and others? and is this something that has been discussed and settled, therefore making my query absurd?

You are torn by false choices, distinctions, and categories imposed on composers and performers by others. Nothing is “settled.” Beware of categories. We often seek categories because we want to be finished thinking about something, avoid any new information, and get on to something else. At its most pernicious, this kind of thinking hardens into prejudice.

I hope that you have begun a lifetime relationship with music. Attend what you expect to enjoy and keep an open mind. Leave a little space in your life for something new every year or so—as your purse and your calendar dictate. If your love affair with music is meant to be, your tastes will expand. Notice that I did not say that your tastes would evolve. You will not abandon Puccini. You will just come to love and understand more composers. Indeed, your appreciation of Puccini will only grow. And you will come to see the evolution within the body of Puccini’s work and within Mozart’s. I still discover new things in works I have known—and known deeply—for decades.

Remember that an opera is not a painting, fixed on a wall, or a novel fixed on paper. With the performing arts there are added factors that you will ultimately be able to sort out. One is the fact that any opera is a different experience in a 1,000-seat house than in a house of more than 3,000 seats. Another immensely important variable is the tastes and choices of performers. Over a lifetime, you will find operas you did not think much of brought to life by excellent performers, conductors, and directors. Unhappily, you will also find yourself bored or worse with a favorite work on a given evening. You can get a sense of how much your experience of a single work can vary by listening to various recordings of the same work—especially, recordings across the generations.

Mozart did not make a “futile” attempt to write Verdi. He wrote Mozart, and he wrote for Mozart’s audiences (earlier than Verdi, for one thing); and did so pretty successfully. It is fair to say that some Mozart works are more concert-like than Verdi’s. It is also fair to say that Puccini, in fact, writes something a bit closer to a modern drama and modern music than Verdi did. But the way that people express “emotion” and “fervor” and “soul” varies across cultures and generations. Mozart was, in fact, among the most successful composers of the Italian opera of his time—with more emotion “on his sleeve” than most of the Italians writing at that time. Arthur Miller and William Shakespeare, too, express themselves differently; but a good performance of either will have passion and emotion. The more you see and hear, the more you can appreciate both and wonder at how varied human expression really is.

©2000 by Joseph Rescigno. The text here may be freely reproduced for non-commercial purposes as long as credit is given.

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