With the possible exception of John Adams I have never been a particular fan of opera. There is no denying the emotional intensity, the skill of the composers and musicians and the sheer power of the singers. Opera is truly awesome but I'm afraid it is largely wasted on me and it occupies a place in my mind adjacent to Heavy Metal.
But there is hope for me yet. In the same way that an unfamiliar sport becomes more interesting when the rules are explained, my appreciation of opera has recently increased through greater understanding. During the half term break (how long ago it seems now) I read Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. The plot centres around a hostage 'situation' in an unnamed American republic. Among the captives is a renowned soprano.
For a number of years I kept up a subscription to The Wire largely because I enjoyed reading the reviews of obscure pieces of music I knew I was never going to hear. My pleasure came from imagining what the music would sound like and the descriptions made it spring to life in my head. Bel Canto contains some of the most evocative descriptions of music I can remember reading. Here's a short extract.
"There should have been an orchestra behind her but no one noticed its absence. No one would have said her voice sounded better with an orchestra, or that it was better when the room was immaculately clean and lit by candles. They did not notice the absence of flowers or champagne, in fact, they knew now that flowers and champagne were unnecessary embellishments. Had she really not been singing all along? The sound was no more beautiful when her voice was limber and warm. Their eyes clouded over with tears for so many reasons it would be impossible to list them all. They cried for the beauty of the music, certainly, but also for the failure of their plans. They were thinking of the last time they had heard her sing and longed for the women who had been beside them then. All of the love and the longing a body can contain was spun into not more than two and a half minutes of song, and when she came to the highest notes it seemed that all they had been given in their lives and all they had lost came together and made a weight that was almost impossible to bear. When she was finished, the people around her stood in stunned and shivering silence. Messner leaned into the wall as if struck. He had not been invited to the party. Unlike the others, he had never heard her sing before."
It's a very good book all round, winning the Orange Prize in 2002 (when my kids were much younger and time/space for reading harder to come by. If you like a good story, string characterisation and a musical thread or two then you could do far worse.