Ever heard of Christoph Willibald Gluck? No, me neither until very recently. But Gluck performed a great service for people who love the opera.
He also did a great service for people who have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the opera.
He made operas shorter.
Not just shorter, but faster paced and clearer.
You might say, less operatic.
He did all of this back in the 1700s.
The world today is divided into two camps. Those who say Gluck left the job unfinished, and those who say that you can never get enough opera.
Opera … is just the Italian word for work.
The word opera, which has taken on lofty connotations, is actually just the Italian word for work. The full term was opera di musica – a musical work. Opera’s roots harken back to ancient Greece when composers combined poetry with music. Inspired by those Greeks, sometime in the 1500s, a group of Italian intellectuals calling themselves the Florentine Camerarta, decided to revive this dusty art form. The first piece of work recognized as opera is considered to be Jacopo Peri’s, Dafne, a story taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The score for Dafne was lost but the libretto – which means small book – survives. Dafne was mounted simply as an experiment. Those in attendance at this first opera found it to be short and sweet and entertaining.
Much would change over the coming decades.
You may recognize the term ‘jump the shark’. It derives from the hit TV show, Happy Days which ran from 1974 to 1984. There came a point in that long-running series where the writers simply ran out of material. In a now infamous episode, the Fonz, while water-skiing, sees a shark, and jumps over it. This was considered the precise moment wherein Happy Days’ audience began its decline. The same sort of thing would go on to happen with opera.
… jump the shark …
Opera was getting lost in itself until Gluck came along.
Opera evolved from Dafne into several forms. Opera seria were stories usually with a mythological or classical theme. The polar opposite of opera seria was opera buffa. These were stories that involved everyday people. As interest in opera spread, the libretti became more complex, the stories more ponderous, and the jokes threadbare. The singers began to showcase their voices more than the storyline and, well, the genre was effectively jumping the shark.
Eventually, opera would get a make-over by Gluck. It would still, however, have detractors aplenty. Mark Twain famously remarked that, “In America the opera is an affectation. The seeming love for [it] is a lie. Nine out of every ten of the males are bored by it and five out of 10 women.”
You may feel as Twain did but you may also not realize just what an opera fan you actually are.
Elvis borrowed heavily from opera and traditional songs. In G.I. Blues, he reworks Offenbach’s beloved Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffman, into Tonight’s So Right For Love. His hit, Surrender, is Torna A Surriento, at a different pace. Love Me Tender was originally a song about a ‘maid of golden hair’ named Aura Lee. And If you can hum Elvis’ It’s Now or Never, you’re actually humming O Sole Mio. Celine Dion used a Rachmaninoff melody in her hit, All By Myself. Pachelbel’s Canon in D is reprised in a Maroon 5 hit. Mika, reimagined the big number from The Barber of Seville into his hit, Grace Kelly. The list of musicians taking their inspiration from opera include Billy Joel, the Beatles, Lady Gaga, John Denver and goes on and on.
Care to compare versions of the Barcarolle? The arrangements are different, but the basis is the same.
If opera interests you, Vancouver Opera’s 23/24 season opens with Mozart’s The Magic Flute, a singspiel opera that features spoken words. If you get bored, amuse yourself by reinventing the Queen of the Night aria into a hit for Taylor Swift.
This week’s question for readers:
OPERA? LOVE IT OR HATE IT?
Register for The Plain Jane newsletter and stay up to date with upcoming contests.
Submissions to last week’s question:
LIFEGUARDING? FLIPPING BURGERS? WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB?
I was fifteen and working at the Alberni Valley Drive In patrolling the trails pretending to catch kids sneaking in.
One day while The Raspberries “Go All The Way” was being pumped through the speakers posted across the undulating field, I noticed the setting sun reflecting gold off the concession’s window. For a few seconds I felt an appreciation of being young and full of life’s untapped potential.
Whenever I hear the song I’m that kid again until a sharp twinge in my back reminds me that I’m an old, cynical, three joint replacement guy with most of life’s potential left behind on that undulating field all those years ago.
My first job was at 16 in ’67 – The Summer of Love – at the Okanagan Game Farm. My duties included walking a pair of juvenile African lions on leashes for the tourists. Like most kids that age, I was pretty clueless. I thought it was a neat job but had no idea what an extraordinary experience it was. How many people can say they’ve walked lions on leashes? My one regret was that when the lioness, Benjii, ripped open my finger, I didn’t get a scar: “How did you get that scar? Oh, that? Lion bite”. Better than any tattoo.
My 1st job: Single parent; home times were tough. I was 15. I walked into a laundry plant, asked if they had a job. New owner said “Come with me” Took me out back to a wood- fired boiler. “I need a night shift fireman – $5.00 per shift” in 1951 $150.00 month was good money. Brought my Mom’s mortgage current. Used clean blankets from a bankrupt hotel to make bed behind the boiler. Never missed a day of school.
I put myself through UBC working full time in the summer at the Dairy Queen and then weekends and one day a week through the school year. I loved your take on how the people skills, chaos management and exhaustion prepared your person for life in the ER. I realize that my years perfectly prepared me to be a kindergarten teacher, dealing in those days with 50 different 5 year-olds every day. I still appreciate seeing a perfect curl on a cone and try to practice myself when I visit an ice-cream dessert bar.
My first summer job was teaching swimming lessons to youngsters.
This job unexpectedly taught me an early life lesson. Whilst teaching that first week, I had a youngster that made an extreme effort to do the required swimming skills yet, sadly, was just shy of meeting the requirements . My concern for being kind outweighed my common sense. I PASSED the youngster. Luckily for me, my supervisor, understanding that my failure to fail him was due to compassion. She placed him in my classes for the duration of the summer. At summer’s end, he could swim two lengths of the pool easily, tread water for over a minute, dive into the deep in and share a smile at his successes. The lesson that I learned from that is, while being kind is a wonderful virtue, it can have consequences in areas where ability may save a life or not. That summer, I learned to balance empathy while sometimes delivering disappointing news. This early lesson proved invaluable to me when I chose my career as an Elementary School Educator.
Jane ( Andrews ) Manning
Many years ago my wife and I were an adventurous young couple setting out to discover the summer wonders and splendor of British Columbia … or so it seemed. We were actually secret shoppers tasked with evaluating each of the 109 Visitor Information Centres in B.C. It was a wonderful experience and a valued opportunity to see and learn about the whole province, while providing some coaching to improve the visitor centres and their service to the travelling public. Now that we are older we are looking for someone who would want us to be secret shoppers evaluating cruise ships.
Growing up as a girl in Norway in the fifties I had many summer jobs, including stocking shelves and delivering groceries on my bike, but the most interesting was in high school running a machine which filled little pockets with shampoo. The machine often shorted out during the cutting process and I had to clean it up, re-attach the long plastic tubes to the shampoo tubs and get it all going again. The other workers were adults but I seemed to be able to solve the many problems and got the job. The alternative was to sit and cut the little nicks in the pockets ! Money was important but the skills I learned running that machine more so.
My first job was a movie usher in Edmonton. My friend’s mother was the theatre manager so it was an easy ‘get’. I had visions of showing folks to their seats, dressed in a tailored jacket, flashlight in hand. Ha! My onerous duties included sweeping up popcorn and candy wrappers from each aisle, checking the bathrooms, bringing up boxes of candy to the “concession girl” and ensuring no one tried to stay for free for the next show. Plus the movie starred Jerry Lewis as a nutty professor or a ridiculous bellboy. I didn’t last long there. But my best summer job landed me a scholarship for university. My mom got me that one.
My first job was working the concession trailer at Circus Vargas. A travelling circus that set up for two weeks at Lougheed Mall and then at Guildford Mall in the summer of 1975. I was 14. We got paid almost nothing, but it was exciting. Elephants, tigers, clowns, trapeze artists and little people. Oh what an eye opener to be exposed to well-travelled and exotic carny folk. Needless to say, I learned a few things. But my biggest lesson came from a local attendee who grabbed her hotdogs and popcorn without paying. Iit ultimately came out of my meagre earnings. I went on to have a career in risk assessment and credit lending. But I felt well prepared for the colourful people I would meet along the way and also for those who might try to take advantage.
I was eight and my brother, 11. We lived in a small Vancouver Island lumber town – only way in was by a Mallard plane or the Uchuck boat. Every Saturday and Sunday morning we would hike down to the bunkhouses and retrieve the empty beer bottles from the night before activity (with occasional bonus exposure to Playboy!). Stored over a few months, then packed off on the Uchuck, receiving our pay some weeks later. The job paid for the best mail order bikes in town and many other childhood essentials. Many jobs since but this one has always been special.
In 1958, at age 18, I had the summer job of supervisor of a municipal playground on Vancouver Island. Equipped with a first aid kit, a hose (to fill a small pool and to wash it down when draining it at night ) and little else, I was expected to make sure nobody drowned, apply a few bandages to skinned knees and to break up any conflicts. It was a lot of fun, but eight hours a day, six days a week at 75 cents an hour, didn’t pay my first year university expenses.
In June, 1963 I boarded a coastal freighter in Vancouver, the Catala, for a trip 250 miles up the B.C. coast to fish cannery town named Namu. My older brother operated the machines that cleaned salmon that were canned and shipped all over the world. I was paid a stupendous $1.67 per hour and, because of massive overtime work, got a cheque for more money than I had ever seen. At the end of the summer, courtesy of B.C. Packers, my first plane ride home on a Grumman Mallard amphibian plane back to Vancouver.
I was 16 in 72’ and decided to hitchhike to Kitimat, from Vancouver, to look for work for the summer break. I left with my friend, Ken, and after a few days meeting various eclectic characters we got stuck in Prince George. Eventually we wound up in Quesnel and wound up working on a BC Rail gang. I still remember the pay, $2.43.6/hr. It was huge money! Ten hours a day, six days a week, in the sweltering heat of the Interior. Living in bunk cars on a siding and when we weren’t working, we were drinking beer and ingesting various illegal products. Work, party and a short sleep, and back to work. Now retired, I look back at that pivotal summer and see how it affected the course of my life. I tried setting chokers in The Charlotte’s, the Department of Holidays (Highways), construction and various other “outside” jobs but kept going back to the railway and eventually spent 30 years there doing various jobs, eventually leaving after the Evil Empire – CN – took over and the joy of the job disappeared.
A first job for this writer was as a children’s bathing suit model. At age 4 I was asked by Marie Moreau, a fashion editor of Vancouver Sun and Province fame, to pose for fashion show promotion photos. I remember receiving a crisp $5 bill, a glamour pin and keeping the little bathing suit! Much fuss was made over me in the Hudson’s Bay ladies wear changing room. I have always remembered that smiling happily for the camera (or anywhere) results in many bonus points. It still works for me at age 84!
In the summer after grade 11, I worked ($1.25/hour) for the immigrant father of a high school friend in Kelowna who had a vegetable farm. We did all sorts of odd jobs such as digging irrigation ditches and picking vegetables: green onions, radishes, lettuce, cabbage, corn. The biggest lesson I learned from my friend’s father was hard work. One day he almost completely sliced his thumb off while cutting cauliflower. He went to Emergency, had it sewn back together and, despite having a massive bandage, was back in the afternoon cutting cauliflower with big swings of his machete.”
I think I qualify for this week’s challenge. I am 91 . In 1945, I was working my way through grade 8 as a CPR callboy out of the roundhouse office on the evening shift. My town was a railroad divisional point between Toronto / Montreal and the Lakehead. Very busy rail hub, especially due to wartime demands of the railroads Anyway, my job was to call the locomotive crews as needed during my shift. My foreman would get a request from the train sorting side of the operation for a locomotive including its crew and, in turn, would tell me who to call for the engine crew. About a tenth of these people had phones and the rest had to be notified by running to their homes for their “ call to work”. Especially In the winter months, quite a few would invite me in, out of the cold for a few minutes.
This job was MY first “ cheque paying” steady job. Six-day week, $34.00 a month. Nobody cared that I was underage. Most knew I needed the money to help my family of eight kids. I note this because working to make a buck at that age, I was regularly chiselled out or cheated out of rightful wages. Many families in those days were still dealing with the wrong side of the depression. I was grateful for my first steady job even though it didn’t last long asI was “bumped” by a returning veteran from WW11.
One of my first summer jobs was a door to door Fuller Brush Man. My job was to sell a large variety of products including brushes, cleaning solutions, cloths and personal care items. I would receive 40% commission, but no salary. I was told by the company that selling door to door was statistically just a matter of time and to hang in there if things got rough. Well, my first week was a disaster with no sales and subsequently no income, while my friends were cashing in and enjoying a laugh at my expense. After a few more days of having numerous doors slammed in my face my body language, tone of voice, and overall presentation had been sufficiently pummelled that when a lady said she was interested I was already walking away and she had to repeat herself to get my attention. Well, the law of averages finally kicked in and I went on a selling spree that week and miraculously was the seventh top salesman in the country. It was a lesson in perseverance that I have never forgotten and hopefully neither have my friends!
My first summer job after graduation changed my life. Having spent every summer of my life in Crescent Beach, taking swimming lessons, and later, swimming competitively, I applied to teach swimming there, hoping to coach the swim team. The Head Coach told me I had to teach the beginners. It turned out to be so rewarding to take little non-swimmers and have them ‘swimming the tank’ (a 25-yard pool) by summer’s end, that I switched my U.B.C. plans from Arts to Education. That led to 35 years of a career I loved – teaching Grades One and Two.
Summer jobs were plentiful in my day. I did everything from picking potatoes and berries, to babysitting, waitressing, and nightshift food processing at the cannery. What a job that last one was! We pushed shucked corn cobs into an automatic machine which cut the corn off the cobs. The corn pieces would fly back covering us in corn. A friend of mine worked opposite me. She was fun. We made faces at each other, and tried to catch the corn pieces as they flew back toward our mouths. It was hard work, long hours and very sticky! One summer I graduated to working in Eaton’s notions department; the only department store in my town. I dressed appropriately, felt grown up and suddenly sophisticated.
When I was 15 a friend of mine and I took jobs as “boat boys” at a small nearby lakeside resort owned by friends of our parents. The job was seven days a week for two months and we boarded at the resort and were paid $7 per day. This was 50 years ag). After one week, we went to get our pay and were handed $7 each. The owner, seeing our dismay, said “well boys, room and board is $6 a day.” We both quit on the spot and hitch-hiked home. There were about half a dozen life lessons learned that week.
Wearing my older sister’s high heels stuffed to fit, I was assigned to the Menswear dept. in a prosperous store in downtown St. John’s.
That beginning day afforded me my first shock working retail when a hand started working its way up my leg. I was promptly moved to Children’s where a younger sales clerk took me under her wing and things went more smoothly. Then one particularly dreary day, a sizable amount of money went missing. An investigation named the culprit. Yes, my second shock – the sweet woman who I thought was my hero.
I was age 17 when I started my first of two summers fighting forest fires. I then became a tree feller. In both cases, with zero prior training. At age 19, I started a 15 year career in banking, often in forestry towns. Then I went to law school and joined a large Vancouver law firm, often acting for large forestry companies. I would be in meetings with senior forestry company and government officials, bankers and lawyers. Usually, I was the only one in the room who had ever actually felled a tree. It gave me a certain “cachet”!
Ian C. MacLeod, JD.