The commonest criticism of opera by people who’ve never tried it is why anyone would go listen to fat people singing for three hours, only to have it end in tragedy. Happy ending are not part of the myth of opera.
That – like the concept that the singers are all hulks (I’ll detour to that later) – is a canard. Sure, some end tragically. Characters are stabbed to death, stab themselves, die of consumption, get shot, jump out high story windows, get locked up in airless tombs. But they also get engaged, get married, find each other after being lost, save their husbands, or save the entire world, all in crescendos of glorious music. *
Photo from San Francisco Opera
What we opera fans like is a good story told (or, in this case, sung) well, one packed with passion and doubt, exotic settings, intrigue and misunderstanding, hard choices and dangerous consequences, the comedy of human failings as well as their tragic aspects. Just like a good piece of crime fiction. And in either format, the ending can be both bitter and sweet. Yes, the father dies, but the son lives on a wiser person. The first victim dies, but the next intended victim is saved.
Photo by Ken Howard for the San Diego Opera
If a happy ending is large in scope, offers the emotional satisfaction of being earned, and is deeply expressed, it works. In both opera and crime fiction, the serving of justice is key – it’s as much a requirement of operatic stories as it is in our field of fiction. If you watch TV a lot, however, you’ve probably seen enough series dramas to know how unrewarding they can be to viewers who sit through them only to have some wimpy, too-easy happy ending, frequently in the form of a facile sermon, tacked on so they can finish in 42 minutes and leave time for a final barrage of commercials. Blah. Happy endings are only as good as every minute that precedes them, I think.
Maria Callas in Bizet's Carmen
My promised detour about the heft of opera singers: Start with this fact, that opera singers fill large spaces with unamplified sound. Think about it. The soprano is singing softly over her sleeping child and to the accompaniment of a 60-member orchestra, and yet you can hear every syllable in the upper balcony. No microphones, folks. It used to be believed that all that extra weight made the voice larger, more resonant. But there was Maria Callas, almost a pencil, and she did fine. Most of today’s singers are lithe, fit, acrobatic in their ability to jump from the bow of stage ships, engage in swordplay, or dance the flamenco. And boy, can they sing! The ones who carry extra pounds must have the ability to put all of that action into their voices, so you willingly suspend disbelief. And most do.
So, read them or see them or hear them, but enjoy your happy endings and clap loudly for the creators who give them to us!
* The tragedies, in order: Rigoletto, Madame Butterfly, Traviata, The Masked Ball, Tosca, Aida. The happy endings: Rosenkavalier, The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute, Fidelio, Gotterdammerung