Sunday, February 2, 2014

Opera and the Bible...yes, seriously

The best part of this year's Super Bowl was the National Anthem, sung by opera star Renee Fleming. Those ditsy, pseudo-divas who works themselves into odd contortions and destroy our beloved anthem should be banned. Fleming did a wonderful job.

But perceiving that my Baptist ministerial colleagues may be somewhat culturally challenged in the area of that wonderful art, opera, Plodder is happy to assist his country music loving, NASCAR following, SEC football devoted, cultural knuckle-dragging clergy with a short lesson on opera and the Bible, the Good Book being a very good source for operatic material.

Those familiar with Scripture will occasionally exclaim that the Bible sometimes reads like a soap opera with murder, malice, incest, hate, and adultery, not to mention the abundant prima and primo-donnas that are found therein. Our modern soap opera genre is filled with the type of drama found in real opera (which doesn't break for commercials that sell soap).

Scripture has many stories with characters of sufficient dramatic value that have compelled some of the great opera composers to use them. Opera's grand mix of visual drama and music make it a splendid format for exhibition of Biblical characters, particularly those involving murder, adultery, and suicide. It is, one might say, an operatic gold mine on display for all the ages and in the Providence of Almighty God for His purposes, no less.

Here are some operatic works whose source is the Bible:

Samson et Dalila, Camille Saint-Saens
Let's see. In Judges we find a mighty champion of the One True God, a man of prodigious strength who is seduced by an exotic beauty, blinded, made captive, but ultimately exacts revenge in a spectacular suicide.

Instant opera, brethren.

The Bacchanale, so familiar as to be a staple pop orchestral work begins with a wonderful oboe solo and builds into a wild frenzy in seven short minutes. It is probably not suitable for any worship use among us, we Baptists not doing frenzy very well in church (though one might find us overdoing frenzy at sporting events).  Pentecostals, on the other hand, do frenzy quite well and might find this piece useful. For a lovely, more sedate aria, Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix ("My heart opens to your voice...") is lovely but pay no attention to the words if you listen to a piece that has English subtitles.

Nabucco, Guiseppe Verdi
Think Nebuchadnezzar and impress your friends by knowing the title is shortened Italian for Nabucodonosor. It's about the great king of the Babylonians, conquerer of Judah, and earthly lord over exiled Jew Daniel and his friends. If I were looking for operatic material, Babylon ought to be the place. So, the opera has lots of characters not found in the Bible. It has a nice happy ending.

The lovely chorus, Va Pensiero ("Fly, thought...") "Song of the Hebrew Slaves" is a wonderful few moments. Listen, you will likely recognize it.
Mindful of the fate of Jerusalem, 
give forth the sound of crude lamentation, 
or may the Lord inspire you a harmony of voices 
which may instill virtue to suffering.
Salome, Richard Strauss
Mark 6:27,28 So [Herod] immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John [the Baptist]'s head. The man went, beheaded John in prison, and brought back his head on a platter. he presented it to the girl [Salome], and she gave it to her mother. 

A couple of verses like this can fire the imagination. Make an entire opera out of these few verses? You bet! Somehow you figure that a beautiful young maiden doing a lascivious dance (the famous 'Dance of the Seven Veils') for a lust-filled king, involving a wicked stage mom, and ending up with the head of a locust eater on a platter would be prime opera material. Toss on a gratuitous suicide and you've got all the ingredients. Not to give away the non-biblical ending but you will never guess, nor forget, once you've seen it.

Those familiar with Herod and his crowd of incestuous, murderous folk would understand that an entire body of operatic works could easily be generated by the family of Herod alone. I am guessing, quite safely I reckon, that none of you have ever preached on the beheading of him whom Jesus said "among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist" with the bloody realism of this opera.

There are more but let's stop with just this trinity of Biblically based operas. To be candid, I'd rather stick with the old standards like La Boheme (fun loving Bohemians with a tear jerker ending), Butterfly (another tear jerker, Japanese, with an ugly American, seppuku and a cute kid), and all that Wagnerian stuff (flying, screaming women, monsters, and gnomes). I'd rather not read the Bible and have some opera stage director forming my mental images.

A word of caution to my pulpit pounding brethren.

Operas are rather long ('...not over 'till the fat lady sings' may be the extent of operatic knowledge for some of the reverends) and if we need anything new out of the pulpit it is shorter sermons, not longer. So, don't fall in love with grand opera and take to the pulpit as if you are Caruso or Pavarotti. Folks could listen to their golden voices for extended periods...but probably not yours.


dr. james willingham said...

Ah! William have you forgotten Jerome Hines? And then there was that pastor at the FBC of Augusta who used to have Jessye Norman sing. did you ever hear of Bill Carle? A Basso soloist, he had just signed a five year contract with the Metropolitan Opera, when he was converted. He gave up his opera plans to enter Christian music. I heard him hold about 3000 - 5000 teenagers spell bound with his rendition about the children of Israel in the fiery furnace and Daniel in the Lions den. He went so low, one would think no human could go any lower, but he did, an octave, I think it is.

William Thornton said...

Nope, haven't forgotten him.

Anonymous said...

Ha, good stuff. Keep at it, and you just may educate a few of us.

Dave Miller said...

My son is performing an opera in March, so I have to attend. Mikado, or something like that. It has nothing to do with the Bible.

William said...

If you had any guts, you would have asked to use this on SBCV.

I like the Mikado. My wife had a part in that and it is a delightful Gilbert and Sullivan piece, though I like Pirates of Penzance better.