by Nils Peterson

My First Opera

My first opera was at the old Met, Cav. and Pag,  Cavalliera Rusticana  and Pagliacci, cheapest seat in the house, last row, last seat, highest balcony in a corner, view of the opposite wing almost as large as my view of the stage which, in truth, was interesting  – watching the preening before performing. At the intermission, I offered my seat to an older woman who was standing behind. As she thanked me, I could almost hear her thinking what a nice young man, but in truth, the tiny raked seat did not work with my six foot six frame and its basketball wrecked knees. I had been in agony, and her taking my seat and my standing was a blessing.

My Last Opera

As you get older you find there are things you just cannot do anymore. I have peripheral neuropathy. I was diagnosed with it when I was 65. It’s now almost a quarter of a century later.  My diminishment was slow. First I had to give up tennis, then golf. Finally, a few years ago, of all things, the opera. So here are some thoughts on that.

On Sunday I went to my last performance at the SF Opera. I’ve had a half season ticket there for more than 40 years and I’ve had the best cheap seat in the house ever since the restoration of the opera house after the earthquake. Right side of the right aisle in the wheelchair row. Room for my legs and a clear sight of the stage. My last opera was Carmen, a very different Carmen from the one I first saw, or the one I saw in LA with a somewhat over-aged Placido as the Jose (this wretched machine doesn’t want to accept Domingo’s first name. it keeps wanting to turn him into Placid). This production had Don Jose and Micaela taking selfies, and simulated oral sex. Both leads were really fine, though Carmen’s voice may have been just a little small, but just right in timbre. The staging was very physical, and she was very good. She had a slim athlete’s body and exuded sexuality. Pastias was a Mercedes driven on stage out of which a drunken outdoor picnic evolved. (I think I even smelled exhaust, though I can’t believe it was really driven on stage. They must have pushed it in some way.)

However, I left at the intermission to drive home towards San Jose. I just had sat enough, the drive up, the lunch, the first two acts, and the coming drive home, and my right leg was beginning to ache and swell a bit. And as I went over it in my mind, I didn’t want to see Micaela come to a ruined, jealous Don Jose, nor did I want to see him kill Carmen in the last act, though I would have liked to have seen the street scenes which I’ve sung when my chorale did opera choruses.

I will also say that when I first started going, I would meet Sunday after Sunday at least a half a dozen people I knew, usually more. Now it doesn’t happen at all. There was a man who sat a few rows in front of me also on the aisle who brought his son from when the boy was very young. The man would sit on the aisle and the son in the seat beside him straining to see around the person in front. He eventually grew to be taller than his father so then it seemed all right. Later he was replaced by a lovely lady as the boy, now a young man, went. I guess, somewhere off to school. I was tempted to ask the man what happened to his son. But I’d never spoken to him. It would have seemed strange. I thought about it while driving up, but he wasn’t even there for the first time that I can recall. The production may not have been to his liking, but who knows, certainly not I.

Before I left, I went around to have a last look at familiar faces, the ticket takers who have been at my entrance for years, the man who calls taxis whose hair has gone from sort of a russet to a highlighted gray, but the man who usually keeps the seating in order was not there. I feel strangely related to all these folks. I miss them.

Usually when I’d drive home, I had to carefully edge my way into line at the 101 freeway entrances, always with a sense of trepidation, a trepidation that grew through the years as I got older and the traffic worse. Always a sigh of relief when I got to 280 and another one when I got far enough down the peninsula to use cruise control not long after Sneath Lane, a name that I will use for either the detective or the villain in a mystery story yet to be written.  But at 4 p.m. on Sunday, the entrances were clear, the freeway uncrowded, and the way home never easier.

Opera Programs

Years ago, you were given a program with the plot. You’d read what was going on before each act so you’d have a sense of the action on the stage. It worked quite well. You knew what the singers were going to sing about so you could follow and listen comfortably. Then, to keep you even better informed, they started showing on the backs of the chairs in front of you. translations of the words being sung (I wondered what the front seats looked at. Maybe it was felt that if you could afford those, you’d know the language.) At last a translation was projected overhead on the proscenium arch.

How hard it became to stay with the music and action then and not let your attention slip away to the words. It was like having a Sunday paper in your hand while the Brahms “German Requiem” plays on Sacred Concert. How hard not to look at the headlines.

And well, yes, it helps to know what’s being sung, but when your eyes are constantly flickering up to get the words, you lose the presence of action. You keep leaving the ongoingness and thinking things like how well the soprano sings today, or the tenor’s high notes seem labored.

I ended up feeling my experience was deeper when I just had the program.


I’ve seen it many times, each time hoping that the lovers were going to escape at the end. One definition of Elizabethan tragicomedy is that “it wants (lacks) death,” that is, all roads lead to disaster, but it ends up happily, sort of. That’s exactly what I want Tosca to be, a tragicomedy instead of a tragedy. I want Cavadarossa and Tosca have their careful plot to succeed. Why not? Again this may be a function of old age. We’ve lived through enough tragedies. We want to believe in happy endings. If I were a tech guy with a few billions, I’d hire the best composer I could find and have him rewrite the end of the last act so that the lovers escape. Then I’d hire a full cast, an orchestra, a hall, a conductor who’d risk his reputation because of the money, and put it on. Maybe just one production would be enough, but who knows it might catch on and be like the Lear of the 18th century with a happyish ending, a tragicomedy.

P.S. Maybe in my next incarnation I will rewrite it. In that incarnation I’d have to begin by practicing the piano as a boy instead of.…

P.P.S. I could never see Madame Butterfly again no matter how good the singers. It is too painful.