The Exterminating Angel and Bel Canto

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On Friday, I went to see The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel. I was initially a little nervous. The Met performs a contemporary opera each year, and although I love trying new works, the results tend to be controversial. Some of that could be ascribed to the older audience and some of that could be due to the (possibly outsize) expectations for each new production.

I did (some of) my homework before I went. The production received a rave in the New York Times. I read about the unusual instruments in the orchestra and watched all of the promotional videos. I studied the Wikipedia page for the source material, Buñuel’s surrealist film of the same name. The only thing I didn’t do was watch the film itself.

Some friends who went to the dress rehearsal warned me that they had had trouble distinguishing between some of the characters, which was helpful to know so that I could pay greater attention to it.

I bought a ticket through the Fridays Under 40 initiative once I realized that I wouldn’t be able to make the performance date I had previously planned to attend (Nov. 7). I’ve been to a few Fridays Under 40 before, and I enjoy them. Although I’m more accustomed to the Young Associates evenings (friends! prosecco! fellow opera lovers!), Fridays Under 40 has given me the chance to introduce a number of my friends to opera, and the pre-performance talks and demonstrations are always interesting. In this case, members of the Met Orchestra came by to play and discuss some of the unusual instruments used in the show, including—but not limited to—a slamming door, 1/32 size violins, and the Wagner tuba. (I have a feeling I’ll force everyone at the office to listen to a portion of Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” played on the tiny violins.)

I knew also from articles and the pre-show talk that repetition is an important part of the opera. I’d never before seen the sputnik chandeliers inside the hall lowered and raised as part of the production itself, which was a real treat. It helped to have the repeated portions obviously signaled.

Although I don’t want to delve too deeply into the production here, I greatly enjoyed it. Best of all, no one told me it was funny. Not just comic opera (it’s certainly not a comedy), but laugh-out-loud funny.

The crux of the plot is this: after an evening at the opera, a group (including an opera star, a pianist, a conductor, a doctor, a colonel, and assorted others) attends a dinner party at the home of their hosts. The servants all mysteriously flee as the dinner begins. And as the night wears on, the guests realize that they cannot leave. Some strange force keeps them from crossing the threshold of the drawing room. While Acts I and II take place over the first two nights, Act III takes place two weeks later, as the group has descended into illness and madness, and as those on the outside try to find a way into the house.

As I watched the beginning two acts and then at intermission, I couldn’t help but think of Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. Bel Canto is one of those books that flits in and out of my awareness on a fairly regular basis. After all, it combines two of my great loves: books and opera. I think of it often while at The Met, but never has it seemed so relevant as it was when I watched The Exterminating Angel.

The initial premise is similar: a large group of diplomats, businessmen, and other guests gather in an unnamed South American country to celebrate the birthday of a Japanese businessman the country wants to convince to build factories to boost economic development. The businessman only agrees to attend because the country has hired his favorite opera singer to perform. As the opera star’s performance ends, the house (the residence of the vice president) is overtaken by a group of terrorists, and all of the guests are taken hostage.

Both parties are trapped, one force more obvious than the other. Both of these works, though, are about what unfolds between people when unable to leave. People fall in love, they grow mad, they rely on one another to ensure their survival.

I can’t remember exactly when I read Bel Canto; my best guess is around my freshman year of college (likely the summer before or after). All I know is that the book had been sitting on my shelf for a couple years at that point. My parents had purchased it at the end of one school year. It seemed made for me—all about opera and language. But I’m sometimes resistant to things that I will likely love (see: Crazy Rich Asians; also, if I had a therapist, this would really be something to unpack in therapy) and so I let it languish until I found the urge to pick it up.

After the opera, I came home and plucked the novel from my shelf, determined to reread it. I turned it over, pages facing toward me, to find them dog-eared.

I have a thing about making notes in books—namely, I don’t do it. Sometime when I was a teenager, I got it in my head that making notes, highlighting, or underlining is disrespectful to a writer’s work. It seems a little silly, but I’ve stuck by it for all these years. Instead, if I find a line I love and want to remember (usually to add to my quote book), I dog-ear the page to come back to it.

Except that in the case of Bel Canto, I never came back to it. No quotes from Bel Canto appear in my quote book; I only have dog-eared pages.

It was fun, going back and scanning the pages I’d noted. I wanted to see if I could pick out the lines that had resonated with me some five to eight years ago, and in some cases, I found the lines right away. They struck me now as clearly as they did then.

For example:

“Gen, in his genius for languages, was often at a loss for what to say when left only with his words.”

or

“‘People love each other for all sorts of different reasons,’ Roxane said, her lack of Spanish keeping her innocent of the conversation, slow-roasted guinea pigs on a spit. ‘Most of the time we’re loved for what we can do rather than for who we are. It’s not such a bad thing, being loved for what you can do.'”

But there were other pages turned down for reasons I couldn’t parse. Sometimes I thought I could pick out which line, but not why it felt important to me at the time. That’s part of the beauty, I think, of rereading. I’m a little glad these quotes never made it into my book, because I get to test my theory: do the things that resonated with me years ago still resonate when I don’t read them again on a regular basis?

I guess the answer is sometimes.

In any case, I’m glad to be rereading Bel Canto, which is even more beautiful than I remember it being. And I’m immensely grateful I took a chance on The Exterminating Angel, which I think will stick with me for some time.

 

 

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