Opera has done so much for the USA that I’m surprised we haven’t put up monuments to the genre. Opera gave us the words “diva” and “prima donna” and gave baseball announcers one of their most beloved lines, triumphantly pronounced during every improbable comeback: “It ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings!”

Opera gave us the Wagnerian battlewagon clutching a spear and wearing a Viking helmet with ram’s horns, the theme music to the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now, and the Rice Krispies commercial in which an operatic basso profundo runs out of cereal and has to be rescued by his meddling mother-in-law.

If there’s one thing we Americans know about opera, it’s that women are hilarious!

A day at the ballpark
Million of unsuspecting children have been introduced to opera through Saturday-morning cartoons. In Bugs Bunny’s Wagner parody “What’s Opera, Doc?” Elmer Fudd calls upon the elements to help him kill the wabbit: “Bwow, North Wind! Bwow, South Wind! Typhoon! Huwwicane! Earthquake! SMOG!” In “The Rabbit of Seville,” the Italian “barbero” Bugs defeats Signore Fudd with every instrument in his barber shop, including an electric razor on a cord that he snake-charms out of a basket.

When I was a kid, I confused opera with the songs my mother sang while washing the dishes, which came from The Sound of Music, Never on Sunday, and especially The King and I. Opera to me was Yul Brynner crooning “Shall We Dance?” to Deborah Kerr. I didn’t begin to understand the true nature of the beast until 1969, when Sports Illustrated published an opera about Baltimore Orioles first baseman Boog Powell. It was this spoof that introduced me to such opera building blocks as the libretto, the aria, and hysteria. I then tried listening to opera on the classical station. Wow, I thought. If only Mozart could’ve written music for Boog Powell. I’ve already started the libretto:

Shall we bat?
On a double off the wall shall we fly?
Shall we bat?
Shall we hit it over the fence and say “Goodbye”?
Or perchance,
With runners at the corners and no one out,
Shall we still work together
With our bats and gloves of leather
And our post-game brews in a vat?
On the clear understanding
That this kind of thing can happen,
Shall we bat?
Shall we bat?
Shall we bat?

A night at the opera
I never go near this stuff. But I owe opera for one of the best moments in chess: American champion Paul Morphy’s victory during a performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma in Paris in 1858.

Morphy had defeated all of the best players in the United States by the time he was 21. He then came to Europe where he caught and vaporized most of the leading players. At a party in his honor in Paris, Morphy was invited by the German Duke Brunswick and the French Count Isouard to sit in their private box at the opera house to take in a performance of Norma.

Norma, in case you haven’t seen it since its first run in the theaters, is a soothing story about doomed love and trophy wives in which Norma and her ex-boyfriend end up tied to the stake and set on fire before being hit by a train. The Duke and the Count had watched this one numerous times on Netflix, but it was all new to a very excited Morphy. Unfortunately, his Eurotrash friends put a condition on his attendance in their luxury seats: Morphy had to play one game of chess against the two of them, with his back to the show. This is how the 1% rolls. Morphy agreed to Occupy the Opera House on their terms. He probably figured he could sweep his opponents aside pretty quickly and only miss the first couple of innings.

Even though they could consult with each other, the royals had no hope of defeating Morphy. The disparity between their puny skills and their guest’s was about the size of the Grand Canyon. But that doesn’t mean that Morphy was bound to produce something brilliant. I teach chess to kids whose average age is 10 or 11. I’ve been playing chess longer than their parents have been alive. Even with this edge, our games are rarely elegant. The damn kids won’t cooperate! They either throw their pieces around like we’re in a huwwicane or burrow in like prairie dogs. It sometimes takes me 20 minutes before they’ll admit that I rule.

But Morphy, in that box in a hall that has long since turned to dust, created the immortal “Opera Game.” It is so crystal clear in the meaning of each of its 16 moves that it’s a joy to teach to children and adults alike. Even cynical, eye-rolling 15-year-old boys become entranced as Morphy sacrifices almost all of his pieces, including his Queen, before checkmating his unhappy hosts and immortalizing them in a million chess books. It helps that when I teach it, in addition to moving the pieces I can act out all the parts, including what everyone was thinking. That’s opera for you.

A friend for life
I’m writing this for my dear friend Jack Palmer, who passed away on Saturday, January 15, at the age of 84. Jack loved his family, football, birds, postcards, blimps, ocean liners, the Kalakala, kites, new restaurants, playing in the mail, making art, making fun of me, and opera. He feared snow, bagpipes, statistics, high prices, fat guys eating corn dogs, and I think The Eagles. In the ’90s, before he retired, he observed that his colleagues played the Classic Rock station all day and that “every other damn song is by The Eagles.” Later he told me that every other damn song was by Fleetwood Mac. Or Chicago. It was clear that he couldn’t tell these groups apart. I could insert a snarky comment here about The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, and Chicago, but Jack has already done so far above my poor power to add or subtract.

I miss you very much, Jack, and I’m thankful that you had 30 years of grace following your first heart attack. I don’t know what kind of man I would be today if you had slipped away from us in 1981. Probably a lesser one.

But I still wouldn’t like opera.

  1. Michael Eichner says:

    Well done. Researches take note, you can hate on a theme but still do a good job. Thanks Steve.

    P.S. – Differentiating between operas and musicals can be kinda tricky. Frilly singing, flamboyant gesturing, blooded costumes. If they sing in English, it’s a musical. Any other language is opera.

    Oh, don’t forget everybody’s favorite singing bloody murderer, Sweeney Todd (aka, the opera: Barber Of Seville).

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