Sacred spaces and a conversation with my father about opera

The word "sacred" tends to invoke ideas of gods, religion or spirituality. However, there is another meaning, which has grown through common usage, which simply means "too important or precious to be diluted or interfered with".

When was the last time you listened to music while doing nothing else?

In our modern western society this is a concept that we often forced to sidestep. We tend to multitask more than we realise. As a result, certain experiences become secondary, and as a consequence, their value is gradually worn away.

Music is the perfect example of this. I tend to treat music as a secondary experience. I don't listen to music. I tend to listen to music while...

While I am commuting; while I am cooking; while I am reading or writing; while I am tidying the house.

What I almost never do is put aside everything else and just listen to some music. This is hardly surprising. Most of us are so used to the fact that we are time poor, that the idea that you might just be doing one thing at any given time is almost ridiculous.

Therefore, carving out a sacred space requires dealing with physical, temporal and even conceptual issues. You need an isolated space, the time to listen and a clean mental slate where no-one is interrupting to you, least of all yourself. This is easier said than done.

The Doka Listening Bar in Amsterdam

Being constantly distracted is probably the defining trait of Westerners in the 21st century. However, with any cultural trend, there is always the inevitable backlash. Listening bars, an idea which originated in Japan after World War 2, have become increasingly popular throughout Europe in recent years. These bars don't just focus on creating an undiluted space, they also insist on using the best sound systems to take full advantage of it.

He may not realise it, but my father is also part of this trend. For several years, up until the pandemic threw a spanner in the works, he would gather a small group of like-minded friends to talk about opera and listen to various arias, especially from the from the Bel Canto tradition. These sessions are free of charge, apart from a small donation to cover the cost of hiring the venue. The format is always a selection of arias chosen by my father. In his own words, he doesn't want to challenge the audience with a full opera.

I sat down with him to discuss this – over zoom of course – and he told me that Bel Canto was originally the title for the operatic evenings.

"I used the phrase Bel Canto because what it means is beautiful singing, and its called a Bel Canto concert. That's how it started off but I don't need to title it any more because the patrons know what its about."

He told me how his interest in Opera was cultivated while listening to the radio at a young age.

"Years ago on the radio there was man from Clonmel, Tipperary on the radio called Tommy O'Brien who hosted a weekly programme on RTE. His great love was Opera and he had a house full floor to ceiling with records , particularly of operatic singers and complete operas. He travelled every week up to Dublin with a suitcase full of his own records which he brought to the studio. He was an absolute expert, and a genius, and he was unique."

My father then gave an impersonation of the man and his idiosyncratic style...

"I first heard John McCormack in the Royal Opera House Covent Garden playing the Tenor Role in Gianni Schicchi."

"Tommy O'Brien went on for years, and as a matter of fact he had a good tenor voice himself. He played nothing but operatic arias and short excerpts."

The Royal Opera House, Convent Garden

"My plan was never to play the hackneyed arias liked Nessun Dorma, The Flower Aria, or Your Tiny Hand is Frozen. I looked for the ones that were lesser known and then I discovered the Bel Canto composers: Gioachino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini, and Gaetano Donazetti."

"Bellini was born about 1805 and he died at the age of 35 having composed a dozen of the most beautiful operas you ever heard."

In the last few years my father's constant search for such music has been made easier by the British company Opera Rara, who specialise in lost or hard to find operatic works. They re-record the principle arias of various operas, using some of the world's best contemporary artists.

I asked my father if he thought of himself as part of a movement?

"I have been told that I was carrying on a tradition although I never thought that myself. All of the regulars are my friends. Some old, some new. We book the musical evening and they simply all turn up and they are all familiar with the routine."

"Each piece has four headings, the aria, the singer, the opera and the composer. I then have a little script and I find myself including someone new I will research the background and tell the audience about them, and give a few details about the performance and any anecdotes which go with either the singers or the performance. I tend not to tell them about the operas themselves beyond the basic story outlines."

If the audience want to discuss things in more detail, he has a couple of experts to call upon who sit at the head of the table. Friends of his, who are both avid fans of opera and hugely knowledgeable on the subject. They will often chip in with an anecdote or a bit of background information.

"I will play Callas singing an aria from Rigoletto and they might add that she was only 25 and that was her first time performing the piece."

One of the common themes of listening bars around the world is that patrons should remain absolutely silent while experiencing to the music. I asked my father if he had a policy on silence for his participants? He just laughed.

"You will never hear a word. They will make an excuse if they so much as cough. Even when listening to music in absolute silence the sense of community and friendship is the most important thing."

The responses are usually polite rather than expressive, and actual applause is rare and therefore striking.

"On one occasion a performance of Mozart's 8 minute long Ruhe Sanft by the American performer Beverly Sils, earned huge round of applause."

"The other reaction is when people want to discuss what they have just heard. There is one aria by Maria Callas (A strange woman with a most unusual voice) there was one aria which she sings and she hits the top E but she also goes down to almost a baritone at one point. She was the only one who could do this. She was a woman who had three different personalities and she would display them at all at different times."

We ended the call with a brief lesson on the nature of operatic arias. How they are highly formal musical pieces not really given to interpretation and how they don't actually have names, being referred to by either the first words of the aria, or gaining a nickname over time.

As with so many things, lockdown has brought these sessions to an end. However, he fully intends to bring them back once the restrictions are relaxed. One day I hope to take part.

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