I spend a lot of my time and energy trying to get folks to try opera for the first time. While I have a decent sized toolbox to achieve that goal, a lot of my arguments boil down to one basic idea–if you really want to know what opera is, you need to experience it first-hand. Otherwise, all you have is some weird mental hybrid of Bond villains, bad commercials, and (if you’re lucky) some Bugs Bunny in drag. Even if all your associations are positive (maybe you only ever saw Pretty Woman and clips of Paul Potts, who knows?) you still don’t know what opera actually is.
New Orleans was like that for me before I first visited: a Frankenstein’s monster of bad movie tropes and two-dimensional ad campaigns. It wasn’t until my first visit, in 1994, that I understood how shallow my idea had been. This was a special city, unique and different in ways that I couldn’t begin to describe. As a recovering New Yorker, I always loved how the different waves of immigrants had contributed over the centuries to create a special mix of cultures and cuisines in that city, especially in the Queens neighborhood I lived in. But New Orleans was something else entirely, its architectural heritage not bulldozed to make way for office buildings but standing proudly in all its eclectic glory. Perhaps that is why it seems to make perfect sense as the setting for an Italian opera based on a French play set in Spain. Or on a more basic level, where else but New Orleans do you set an opera in which a visiting minor noble can find enough musicians wandering the streets at 4 AM to serenade a girl he barely knows but is fully in love with?
I could go on with all the enthusiasm of the curious dilettante I admit to being, blind to how many things I may never understand about fine distinctions of class or status in 19th century New Orleans, but word limits protect you from that horror. Instead, I’ll draw one final parallel between the opera and the city. Like New Orleans, I’ve known Figaro and friends for several decades, and I love them beyond reason, even when they misbehave. I love them, and the opera they inhabit, but I will never fully KNOW them, thank God. Any opera or city worth the effort will always have its secrets, and I will always be the one happily peeling away one layer of the onion to find a dozen unexpected, wonderful, and exhilarating surprises waiting beneath.