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Coda: The Performance I Can't Forget


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Illustration: Elizabeth Diggans

On Saturday, April 25, 2009, I faced an epic conflict of passions. WQXR was broadcasting Götterdämmerung live from the Met. That same afternoon ESPN was broadcasting live from Radio City Music Hall the 2009 National Football League Draft.

I am a passionate football fan and essayist about the game. But I am also a passionate Ring nut. What to do? I decided to listen to the gods die. I owed them that much. Here is why:

Several years ago, on a Monday night following a Sunday when my football team, the New York Giants, played an inexplicably lousy game against the Titans (giants versus gods, as it happened), I dragged my depressed and achy self up to Lincoln Center for a performance of Don Giovanni at the Met. Since opera and football seasons run sort of simultaneously, football and opera have long huddled together in my Filofax. Some of my weekends are a hoot - how about Frau ohne Schatten in a mix with the San Francisco 49ers? - and I'm always talking about scripting the four quarters of a football game as the four operas of the Ring cycle.

That year, though, was the first time I'd picked a Monday-night subscription, the first time I'd been to an opera the night after a football loss, so I'd never realized that the football and opera gods actually conspired on these overlapping schedules. Football and opera belong together, because bad-game pain is an art-enhancing drug. I'll explain. Let's go to the Met on the night I made the wondrous discovery.

As I said, I was feeling awful. Suffering caused by a bad football game is like a crushing blow to the soul delivered by what one trusted was a faithful lover - except with football the feeling lasts only until Wednesday. Still, Mondays are the worst, and there I was going to the Met on that Monday, prickled with pain, limping along. But as I stepped from the dank, gray subway passageway into the warmth of the Met's lower-level entrance, everything began to seem different. Gathered at the nibbles bar were my people, people who loved opera - and here I was, one of them. I was so grateful for the communal embrace that I stopped brooding over the Giants' defensive weaknesses.

My senses had become extraordinarily sharp. As I rose up the staircase to the Grand Tier, the blood-red turf was glowing like an acid trip. And my fellow operagoers seemed to be individually etched in light. They were extraordinarily costumed, maquillaged, making extravagantly large gestures with mouths and arms, like extras in those highly colored Maxim's scenes from Gigi, the ones with Eva Gabor in hot velvet and Leslie Caron being dragged around in that white gown.

I slipped like an artful running back between the heavy curtains partitioning the grand tier boxes and - was I imagining that someone had actually replaced the broken springs in my box seat? Well, maybe not, but now the house lights floated up and dimmed. My post-game wounded heart missed a dark beat and soared up with the gold curtain.

How could this Don have been the same Don I've heard a thousand times? Every instrument, every vocal line was so finely delineated, I was traveling along internal paths I never knew about. Okay, this is the first of the two greatest operas ever written, but tonight all of those awkward libretto lapses suddenly made sense - more than sense: they informed me. In their repetitions and seemingly pointless side ventures, they felt more like actual life than plot contrivances. Hey, people do repeat themselves endlessly, do rush off to masked balls without a plan.

Startlingly, I now perceived the trio of ditsy dames were aspects of multifarious me! Was this the best cast in centuries? Terfel, Fleming, Kringelborn, Groves, Hong and Furlanetto - everyone so perfect, so glorious, so real. So laugh-out-loud funny. Bitter and funny.

True that a day after having my football butt kicked, my eyes spontaneously filled with tears not during the loveliest "Là ci darem" in my memory but for "Batti, batti," that beat-me-bruise-me number; but I was otherwise so enraptured that I was not conscious of the previous day's football disaster at all.

At intermission I comprehended what had happened. It was not that the opera distracted me from the same old agony over a lost football game. It was the other way around: the exquisite anguish sensitized me exquisitely. Every note rapped upon my inner soreness as if it were digging into and massaging me simultaneously.

The Don was dragged by the Stone Guest into a fiery hell, the stage cleared, and all dissolved into that heavenly sextet. And I had the rare experience of melting into, becoming one with art no longer delineated by genre. It was not simply music, or painting, or literature, or drama. It was all of them, all together, which of course is what opera at its greatest is.

The sensation carried me right over the pain, flew me directly into Wednesday.

That was the football story. So what can be said about opera? People get betrayed in hideous ways, expire violently via stabbings, poisons, self-immolation, or just by falling down. Villains get punished and heroes win, if only by dying and achieving redemption (whatever that means) at the final curtain. Suspense is in nuance, thrill in a thrilling voice.

Unlike football, opera is explicable: you always know what's going to happen, you know how it's going to end. Nobody ever just … loses.

And that's why I listened to Götterdämmerung.

NAOMI FEIN, a New Yorker from birth, has written on subjects as disparate as professional football and Galileo. She is currently working on two memoirs and articles about weird musical instruments.

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