Nano-opera: Aida

Two princesses love the same army guy. They dance a war for six years in real time, during which six herald trumpeterss (the only heroes of the opera) try valiantly to get a melody going. After the war they sing about it for six more years. He wins the home girl’s hand in marriage but likes the away girl better. They spend six years arguing about whose house to live in, until his ex comes along, tries to get him killed, and then spends three years changing her mind about it. Finally he and the away girl die together for the final three years of singing, while home girl mopes.

Twenty-four years with two melodies, only a few trumpeter heroes, and no elephant. Why is this mess a classic?

Nano-opera: Der fliegende Holländer

The bass’s loud approximando and unbecoming costume joins us in his wish for an imminent death. Instead he is taken aboard another ship whose captain must not love his daughter very much, since he soon agrees to give her to the morose ghost captain in exchange for his riches.

Nano-opera: Rigoletto by Verdi

Men are total assholes, and women pay for it every time.

(Nothing tricky about this opera; the trumpets state the premise in the opening notes, the rest of the overture tells the whole story, and then you get to sit around for three hours while they sing about it. If you heard SF Opera’s production last night, those were three hours well spent—some of the best duet-singing I’ve heard in years.)

Nano-opera: Gounod’s Faust

In Act I, a geezer wants to off himself because he’s a geezer. Handsome bass devil who sings better and is several feet taller talks him into sticking around, exchanging youth for some dubious duties later on. Spotting a beautiful, young woman who is actually just a soprano and neither of those things, he agrees, drinks a potion and becomes a handsome, young man who’s actually just a tenor and neither of those things. The soprano’s brother sings goodbye for a long time before marching off to war. A crowd has formed so that the devil has an excuse to sing some more, the crowds get revenge by bursting into singing of their own, and finally our unhandsome tenor fails to woo our unbeautiful soprano.

Before Act II, the audience members adjourn to Pauline’s for pizza and beer.

Nano-opera: Die Walküre

(If I’m any good at this, it will be obvious that my nano-operas owe a great debt to Anna Russell. There’s no point trying to outdo Dame Russell’s great analysis of the Ring of the Nibelungen, which you must immediately view here, here, and here if you haven’t already. My own humble effort here is just a summary of the recent San Francisco Opera production of the second episode of Wagner’s famous soap opera about gang warfare and a dysfunctional family.)
In Act I, twins separated at birth find each other in a forest, but the female twin’s husband doesn’t take kindly to sheltering the guy who’d done in a bunch of his gang before the opera and suggests they take it outside the next morning. Said guy is weaponless and figures he’s a goner, but then he falls in love with his twin sister, they pull a magical sword out of a tree, and it’s not looking good for hubby.
Between acts, the twins do the nasty.
In Act II, Al Gore is wearing a pirate-style eye patch and flirting with his daughter from Security in the penthouse boardroom while instructing her to help his son kills his twin sister’s hubby so that junior can get busy saving Valhalla Inc. Daughter’s all over it, until Tipper arrives and asks, “WTF, Al? Incest and infidelity between the kids? I don’t think so. Junior’s got to go.” We can tell she’s pissed, because she doesn’t even bring up the thing about the masseuse. We can tell Al’s worried about an expensive divorce, because he doesn’t even bring up the thing about global warming. He makes nice with Tipper and calls off the hit-daughter, explaining he made a bad deal a couple operas ago and Valhalla might be going belly up—something about a ring, some giants he’d contracted to build a subdivision until one of them got killed and the other became a dragon, and a lot of nonsense about needing to hire a whiz kid he doesn’t know to save Valhalla, without getting HR involved or anybody writing a job description. Daughter’s not buying it, though, so she belays Al’s belay. Al’s stuck doing his own dirty work, so he whacks Junior’s magical sword with a spear, then whacks the ungrateful hubby while Daughter makes off with other daughter.
In Act III, still more of Al’s daughters are staffing up Security for Valhalla Inc. Daughter stops by with other daughter, now preggers from that quickie between acts, hears Al’s still pissed, and sends her preggo sister off to play with her broken sword in the dragon’s ‘hood. Al reads her the riot act, fires her, and gives her a heavy-duty date-rape drug. She whines about the unfairness of it all, so on his way out he staffs out setting a ring of fire around her to protect her until her nephew’s old enough to leave dragonville and come rape her.

Nano-opera: Carmen

This nano-opera comes to us from my Twitter friend, SAS expert Michael Tuchman (
Carmen: Soldier doesn’t want to marry nice girl. He chases bad one. He gets cold feet. She dates hot celeb, so he kills her.

Nano-opera: Boris Godunov

16th century Tsar Boris proves he is Russian by wallowing in guilt for three hours until finally dying of guilt. Librettist proves he is Russian by giving long list of characters long names but very little to do. Composer proves he is Russian by giving long list of instruments very little to do but sound colorful.

But who cares about any of this when Samuel Ramey is singing?

Nano-opera: Rake’s Progress

Another nano-synopsis, this time for Stravinsky’s “Rake’s Progress,” on a libretto by Auden and some other dude: Boy gets rich, abandons girl, abandons virtue, abandons reality. It’s yet another twist on the Faust tale, where boy sells soul to devil, only this time he finds out the terms of the deal after the fact, and then weasels out of it by getting lucky at cards, but loses his mind, so spurned girl gets to be dumped one more time, this time by the harsh reality that boy is not just a jerk but also bonkers. Yet another misogynist libretto with a likable woman who’s too spineless, stupid, or both to dump the jerk from the outset or at several more intervals in the plot–yeah, right.

And fabulous music. SFOpera’s production was quite wonderful, with lots of movie-like devices and references, goofy stagecraft, wacky costumes, and clever comic touches.

Nano-opera: La Rondine

La Rondine is your basic “girl meets guy, blows off icky rich husband, runs off with guy, wimps out, returns to rich husband, blows off and breaks heart of good guy” story set to equally boring music. 

So, yet another misogynist libretto and forgettable music, performed well by the San Francisco Opera, conducted adequately by some dude with regrettable Kent Nagano hair. A violinist friend in the opera orchestra (nameless here for reasons about to become obvious) said his hair was the only reason they could follow him: he attempted to give beats 1, 2, and 3 with his stick and did give a really clear beat 4 by running his other hand through his hair. The violinist mentioned that it’s a good thing his hair is long, or else beat 4 would have been only an eighth note. 
Victoria pointed out that the lead diva had nice breasts. (She sang well, too.) A backstage friend in the opera company (nameless here for reasons about to become obvious) replied that it was no accident that only she had low-cut costumes, and then admitted that it was probably just as well given most of the figures in the chorus.