It Ain't Just Fat Ladies

Our intrepid cultural explorer delineates the finer points of opera

The other day me and Herschel's riding in the truck, listening to the radio, and he turned it on that station where they play that orchestra music. This lady's singing high, like they do with them orchestras sometimes, and he turned and looked at me, dumber than shit, and he says, "What group is 'at?"

That ain't no group, dumb-ass, that's opera.

"Op-ruh?" he says, "I knowed she had 'at tee-vee show, but I didn't know she could sang like 'at."

Shit, Herschel, I seen bowling balls sharper than you. It's opera, like when they dress up in them costumes, and they sing while them others play in the orchestra.

"Oh," he says, trying to sound like he knowed what he was talking about, but he's still looking like a dipstick. "That's where they got them fat women with them horns on, an' they're all screamin' loud, an' they got them metal thangs on their titties..."

Shit. Well, there's lots of folks ain't near as dim as Herschel but don't know nothing about opera. I already knowed a little something myself, because I went with mama and Randy and them to New York City once, and we visited some of mama's people what lives up there, and this one fellow Rufus (he ain't real kin; he's married to mama's cousin Louise, her third husband, or her fourth—mama don't keep good count, and neither does Louise) but he took us to the opera, and we watched it and went home and looked at this book—that sorry-ass Randy got ketchup all over it, but Rufus took it kindly, seeing as how he'd stole it anyhow...

But that ain't none of the point. The point is I knowed a little something about opera, and Herschel got me to thinking. I figured you, the reader-ship of this learned and high-minded publication ought to know a little something about opera too. Tell you the God's honest, having been to one opera, I'd rate it up there with going to the truck rally. So read up, and old Wesley Ogle will confer upon you the plenitude of his enlightenment. Right after he takes a leak.

I already know what you're thinking: you're thinking "Wesley Ogle, where in Sam Hill can you find opera around here?" Well, there's two places that does it. There's the Knoxville Opera—it's a professional organization, and we'll talk about it some later—and there's the college opera, and it's run by professor Carroll Freeman.

Now, when I say college, I mean over there near where they play football at. Carroll—and that's like a boy-Carroll, smart-ass, not like a girl-Carroll—he was raised up north and he's been singing and directing operas for nigh on to 30 year. He's good people, and he knows not everybody's going to like it so much as he does.

"There's a fascination initially when I tell someone who's a neophyte that I teach and sing opera," he says. "They're a little shocked that here's someone who does opera, and they're not some great big fat weird person. But it usually takes time for them to develop an actual appreciation. It's an acquired taste."

Sort of like Red Dog beer, I says to him, but he didn't laugh much.

The professor says he learned about good singing in the church (his daddy was a Baptist preacher), and when he growed up he went and sang at Southern Mississippi college. Then he went running hither and yonder, singing in operas for a coon's age before he went back to the house and started teaching.

They's about 40 students in the opera program, and the professor learns them in one big old class they call Opera Theater. They's required to take a whole mess of other classes too, dancing classes and acting classes and special singing classes and classes about saying all them Italian words (they don't have to know them, they just got to say them like Italians do, because Italians don't always pronounce right. I expect it has something to do with all them noodles they eat. Or maybe drinking all that wine.)

If they care to study up in the professor's opera theater class, they have to sing him a song to get in, prove they ain't going to be too hard on the ear. And they ain't supposed to be singing no George Jones or nothing like that neither. Not even Hag. They got to sing opera songs. "You can always identify the rank neophytes who enter the program," Freeman says. "They don't even know what to sing at the audition. I had one girl sing a Whitney Houston song the other day." She ought to have knowed better than that any damn way.

Now, I already knowed what you're thinking. You're thinking "Wesley Ogle, them opera students must be a little touched." You're thinking them opera girls must all be fatter than Christmas hogs, and them boys must all be a little light in the loafers, if you catch my meaning.

But ain't none of that has a lick of truth. I talked to a couple them little girls in the professor's class, and one of them old boys, too (His name's Aaron Blankfield; he gets so greased up talking about opera sometimes, it sets his gizzard in a powerful uproar. But he's good people).

Those girls, they was good ol' East Tennessee gals, and they's both just as pretty as you'd want them to be. "My whole family has been classically oriented; my aunt sings for the Metropolitan, and my grandfather plays every brass instrument known to man," says Susannah Biller. She's a little old girl, 21 year old, probably ought to start eating her some grits ever morning, lest she shrink up and disappear.

The other little girl, Christy McClung, she's from Cumberland Gap, up there on the other side a Harrogate. "I first saw an opera when I was 16," she says, "and it was euphoric. It's a lot more than big fat women with horns and big boobs," she says. "When you see your first, you just know. It's either part of you, or it's not."

Ever now and again, kids like Christy and Aaron and Susannah, they got to take some ribbing from "less enlightened" folks—not too say damned ignorant, or maybe f_____' stupid—folks what ain't been exposed to the finer things like old Wesley O.

"You'll get these 'interesting people,' asking some ridiculous questions," Susannah says. "One guy asked me to sing some Phantom of the Opera. I'll never forget that one."

Shit. I expect even a melon-head like Herschel'd know better than that.

Now follow along here, because I ain't going to elaborate on all this twice. This fellow Canio is a actor, and he travels around with these other actors, back in the day when they did such things, and one of the other actors—he's a hunchback or a harelip or some such thing—he's sweet on Canio's wife Nedda. She don't think much about this harelip, though—on account of he's uglier than homemade sin, and he probably spits when he talks, without meaning too—and she tells him to keep his hands to hisself.

Now, this is where it gets real hard to follow, so pay attention. Nedda, she's bumping uglies with this other fellow, Silvio, and the harelip fellow with the bad back, or the clubfoot or whatever, tells Canio about it because he's still sore, what with him being egregiously spurned and all.

So Canio, he accuses his wife of going out and fooling around—while they's on stage, no less—and then he goes and stabs her. And then this fellow Silvio jumps up and tries to save her, like a damned fool, and goes and gets stabbed his own self. I don't know what happens to the harelip. I expect he put elbows over assholes and got the hell out of Dodge. But that ain't none of the point.

Now, I knowed what you're thinking: you're thinking, "Wesley Ogle, you don't have the sense that God gave a turnip. What in hell are you going on about?" Well, what I'm talking about is me setting over at the Knoxville Opera, over where they practice at, downtown. They got a old building, got offices in front and a big old room with a piano in the back.

They sing about four operas ever year, and they just now started up practicing again on account of the fact they got to do one. Soon. Truth be, they got to do two, two operas all pushed together, because ain't neither one of them long enough to go by itself. So it's like one of them double-header baseball games. Except they's singing.

So there's about five, maybe six of them setting there, not accounting them what ain't singing (there's a fellow directing and a couple them watching and this old girl tickling them ivories)...But they's looking at the director and singing this opera called Pagliacci just for practice, and also this other one Gianni Schicchi, (which they pronounced sort of like Johnny Skee-chee, which makes about as much sense as shit on toast. But that ain't none of the point.)

Being the kindly sort that I am, I introduced myself to a couple of these folks—a couple of them what didn't look at me too funny, anyhow. And I asked about what all's going on. There's one fellow setting next to me, name's Don Townsend, and turns out he heads up the chorus that'll be singing right along with them others on stage.

Skinny as a rail. Don's raised up over in Blount County, and he's a good old boy, I could tell right off. Don learned to sing in church—just like a man ought to—and studied up at Columbia University in New York (just because he's a small-town boy don't mean he's a fool). He's been at the Knoxville Opera since 1978, and he ain't nothing like you'd expect some opera fellow to be.

"Man, Pagliacci is just fabulous," he says, and he slaps his knee just to prove it's so. "It's a typical opera; everyone's dead in the end."

There's this other fellow over there, too, Jon Padgett, and he said he's marketing director, or some such thing. The good Lord richly bestowed Jon with the virtue of patience, what for suffering the foolish inquiries and what-not of rubes like me. For instance, Jon says all them singers is from out of town—they's from Chicago, and New York, and even Russia, although you wouldn't knowed that lest I'd told you, on account that none of them did anything you'd think a Russian ought to do.

Now, I knowed what you're thinking again: you're thinking "Wesley Ogle, how in Sam Hill did all of them folks get here, they being from other places and what-not?"

Well, ever so often, all the opera folks hold auditions (that means "try-outs," for those of you all who ain't that smart) in a couple places like New York City, and San Francisco. All these opera directors go and watch the singing, and then write up these contracts to them singers they like and what don't want no more money than the directors can afford to pay out. "You've got people from all over the world, singers converging on one place at one time," Don says. "Some of them are way out of our price range, people only the Metropolitan could afford. But everyone who appears at these auditions is high caliber, people who've gone through Masters' programs and made their debut in professional opera."

Them folks over there at the Knoxville Opera run the whole damned farm for about $1 million ever year; that sounds like a lot of greenbacks, accepting you got to account for all the things they got to pay for—all them costumes and sets and production and maintenance folk. And them singers ain't cheap, neither. The real slick ones, they might take home a year's wages just for a couple nights' singing. Mighty fine work, if you can get it.

So anyhow, there's that college opera, where they put on a show with costumes and singing and play-acting and all that maybe three-four times a year, at one of them college theaters over there. And then they's the professional opera folks, too, just like I said they was. Old Jon Padgett says you oughtn't feel poorly if you care to hear some good singing, but don't have a tuxedo or a fancy dress or brand-new underwear. Come Oct. 5, folks'll come out to Pagliacci and Johnny Skee-chee at the Tennessee Theatre, some of them wearing regular old clothes just like you and me, like they was going to Wal-mart. Or the feed store.

"When someone tells me they hate opera, I ask 'Have you ever seen one?'" old Padgett says. "The difference between seeing one in person and hearing it on radio or television is tremendous. It's different emotionally, viscerally, physically. It's not just for snobs."

I watched the singing for about an hour that afternoon over at Knoxville Opera. And old Jon is right; you just wouldn't guess folks could sound like that lest you're right in front of them, pretty girls singing like birds in the morning, and fellows as big and powerful as thunder in a well. I been to one opera already, and I think I just might go see me another'n come Oct. 5. You all ought to go on over, too. I might even bring Herschel, long's he takes him a bath.

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.