Tonight, I make pilgrimage to the pantheon of DC culture: The Kennedy Center. La Boheme is closing this week and I’ll be going to see it with a friend. It’ll be my first time seeing/hearing this classic of the repetoire.
Among the many adjectives ascribed to opera, one must certainly be, “Over the top.” Storylines are frequently complex, never dull. Plots range from the very most tragic to the heights of Olympian triumph, never neutral. The music represents an incredible synthesis of melody and character development, perhaps the world’s first form of multi-media entertainment. And then there is, of course, the volume (‘nuff said). Yes, opera is superlative… and because of that many people turn away from it. “To each his own,” I suppose, but opera can prove a great exercise in measuring how we live.
Chapter five of Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church frames the life of human beings as an ongoing response to what, in the Church, we call the “universal call to holiness.” The most condensed summary I can manage is this: God invites and affirms that all people can be more like him; each in a way particular to his/her vocation and life circumstances lived according to the truth. Not a bad starting point for leading one’s life… but something we can easily lose track of. Commenting on the universal call, theologian Marianne Schlosser (Univ. of Vienna) comments in the winter 2013 edition of Communio International Catholic Review,
“Holiness in every day life as inconspicuous as it may be, is not humdrum… The language of a call to holiness is challenging, indeed, ‘steep’ – an ‘arduum’ is sought and hoped for from God.”
And here, we come back to the world of opera.
Opera’s etherial heights and infernal depths mark the dimensions of human experience, perhaps not as we see them, but certainly as God created them. Mothers and fathers balancing the struggles of child-rearing, work, social and civil life are saints and heroes; likewise the idealistic young intern moving to DC to make our country a better place. Reading the synopsis of La Boheme last night, I discovered that it is the story of poor hard working students who fall in love. They pawn their meagre possessions for food and medicine. They wear tattered clothes. They die. Nothing could (to human eyes) seem more humdrum, but Puccini’s music helps us to see their ordinary lives through eyes of faith in which heroic love and tragic death reveal something deeper about ourselves, a touch of the divine… so that even at the tragic end we stand up and applaud beauty in the opera, and in ourselves.