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Iolanta & Bluebeard’s Castle: double bill photo

The first time I went to the opera I went because I wanted to see a man go to hell. My dad got us tickets to Don Giovanni and at the end Don Giovanni refuses to apologize for the terrible things he’s done and a trap door opens underneath him and flames come up on stage. I was a kid and the flames were close to my face so I thought that was fantastic. It felt real: this guy was really going to hell, that’s what hell looks like.

And when I was a teenager I thought that the opera still showed what hell looked like except hell wasn’t onstage, it was in the audience. Rich people who take cabs instead of the subway. Furs and tuxedos, opera binoculars and flutes of champagne swilled on a terrace overlooking the Lincoln Center Plaza with that fountain in the middle. Part of me knew that nobody wanted to watch opera, they just wanted to be the sort of person who went to the opera. Opera meant the same thing as Frasier or The New Yorker: it was something you pretended to like so you could at least act as if you were rich. (Being “cultured” is just faking it until you make it for money.)

Now I’m an adult and it turns out hell is actually everything normal, everything outside the opera. Waking up, falling asleep, walking the same way everyday. Listening to the same 20 songs that my phone can save on Spotify, adjusting the one headphone that works. Socializing, people repeating stories, me repeating facial expressions. Spending money on the same overpriced slice of pizza. It’s not that the opera isn’t evil—it’s still offensively indulgent, a cartoonishly perfect indictment of elitism—but when I go to the Met I take a break from normal evil, and the evil of normalness.

I usually come to operas alone. Of course I do: if you wanted to go to hell as a voyeur, you wouldn’t want to bring your loved ones with you, they might get hurt. And part of the voyeuristic thrill of the opera—the perverse part, really, the bourgeoisie falling asleep in their seats while people pillage and sigh and cry onstage—is your anonymity as a viewer. You disappear when the chandeliers (which look like footballs frozen mid-explosion) ascend into the ceiling and the lights turn off. And unique to opera, the anonymity lasts. Nobody asks you if you’ve seen Iolanta or Bluebeard’s Castle the way they ask if you saw A Star is Born or read Educated.

But when I saw Iolanta and Bluebeard’s Castle I went with three friends because I wanted to try something new. I wanted to mature by sharing something that I was scared would bore them or disgust them. My friends are well-adjusted people; why would they like opera? But just like everybody’s fucked up in some special way, everybody’s got a reason to go to the opera. Bud came because he loves the Bluebeard fairy tale. Bud’s been to operas before; he said that rich friends had invited him to the opera. Jackson and Charlie had never been to the opera before. Jackson came because he’s mostly at MFA school now so when he comes to New York he likes to do shit like this. Charlie came, I think, because he loves TikTok which is basically the same thing as opera: people singing in a way that’s so alienating it’s culturally relevant. 

I met Bud before the show at Alice Tully Hall which is right behind Lincoln Center. It was warm in there and freezing outside and he ordered a grilled cheese and soup and he let me have half his grilled cheese. Through the glass walls we watched people walk by. Jackson and Charlie had gotten pizza somewhere else and met us at Will Call. Old ladies were there wearing big wool cardigans. Rich-looking European teenagers were wearing Supreme hoodies. And, yes, there were some people in tuxedos and furs.

When you sit down at your seat there’s a rail in front of you, wrapped in red velvet. In the middle of the red velvet in front of each seat there’s a rectangular screen and a red button. You press the red button for subtitles: once for English, twice for German. Charlie asked if they had Portuguese because he wanted to practice Portuguese and I said yes. But then we checked and they didn’t have Portuguese.

These subtitles are my favorite part of the opera. On one level, it’s just useful: I don’t speak Russian and I don’t speak Hungarian so if it weren’t for the subtitles I wouldn’t have understood anything. But there’s another level where it actually changes how you interpret the opera. You see the people on the stage flailing around, fighting, embracing, dying, shouting, crooning, yelping, and in general engaging in the most extreme behavior you can imagine—and then you look at the little screen in front of you and see in all caps the line “WHY DO I HAVE EYES? SO THAT I CAN CRY” or “YES, AS YOU CAN SEE, I AM HERE.” The subtitles undermine what they’re supposed to be communicating, creating a total separation of style and content: it’s enthralling and deadpan at the same time.

So we sat down and it’s Iolanta, which premiered in 1892, the same night as Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Like Nutcracker, Iolanta’s a fairytale.

Iolanta is blind but doesn’t know it because her dad, the king, doesn’t want her to feel like she’s missing out on anything. She eventually falls in love with a guy who tells her, “Hey, I love you and also you’re blind.” She’s like, “What??” Her dad is like, “Jesus. Fuck.” But his fears are unfounded; eventually Iolanta’s learning the truth, and being in love, gives her the ability to see. She marries the man she loves (whose whole character is just singing songs about how horny he is) and her dad is eventually okay with it.

Iolanta was a fussy opera, almost fragile, at pains to be proper. Which is why I was happy the audience misbehaved. At the end of the first song in Iolanta someone clapped and nobody joined in. The clapper kept clapping until someone said, “SHHHHH.” Charlie said, “Are we not allowed to clap?” I said, “You’re not supposed to have a good time.” A few minutes later someone’s phone went off. Bud leaned in and sang in tune with their ringtone, “Under the sea…under the sea.” And when we got to the halfway point Charlie cracked up. He leaned in and said, “Jackson didn’t know about the subtitles.” Jackson had been watching Iolanta without subtitles. (He doesn’t speak Russian.)

It’s a law of opera that people have to ruin what they’ve worked so hard for. Don Giovanni wants more life so he goes out of his way to make people want to kill him. Iolanta’s dad wants her to see so he goes out of his way to keep sight itself a secret. And the same goes for the audience who get all dressed up and buy their tickets ($30 + Service Fees is the cheapest option) and probably even pay for parking so they can sit down and COUGH or have their CELL PHONE RING or even FALL ASLEEP. The opera is the most frivolous, indulgent art in the world and its patrons take themselves more seriously than any other class of people in the world—but on some level they have to know that opera is too absurd to be pretentious about. I think opera snobs unconsciously fuck up their own experience of the opera to remind themselves art like this is just a funny luxury, not the serious meaning of life. (Unless, of course, you think of life and meaning as funny luxuries.)

In Iolanta’s last scene she looks around with her new sight and says, “I don’t...like this…I love you all but you look...strange.” A bunch of people come out dressed in white and sing about how good God is for five minutes then the curtain closes.

At intermission we switched from our cheap seats which were far away to some empty, more expensive seats that were slightly less far away. I do this every time I’m at the opera. There are always empty seats. We left our jackets there and got $5 espressos. Below us, in the middle level of the building, there were people eating dinner at the Met restaurant. We talked about how everyone there had strong pervert energy. The elevators are gold. The sandwiches are wrapped in plastic and look disgusting; you can get a $20 hummus platter.

Jackson said, “A lot of guys here look like they work for n+1.” And he was right: a lot of guys wore frameless glasses instead of opera binoculars, puffy white shirts from that episode of Seinfeld instead of tuxedos. We kept hearing people say, “Oh my god! So funny running into you!!” The mingling intermission sounded like networking for people who never had to work.

Then it was time for Bartók’s Bluebird’s Castle, from 1918. The story is:  Judith leaves her family and fiancé to go to Bluebeard’s castle because she loves him so much. He’s very mysterious and there are rumors he’s killed his ex-wives. (Judith sees him as a mix between a bad boy and a sad boy.) She comes to his house and asks to open his seven locked doors. He says, “Come on, you don’t wanna see that...just love me…don’t ask questions.” Bluebeard, as nervous about revealing what’s behind his doors as I was of showing my friends the opera.

But Judith asks and Bluebeard gives her key after key. She goes from his dungeon to his armory to his treasury to his garden to a room that somehow shows the entirety of his kingdom’s land to a room filled with a literal ocean of tears to, finally, the seventh room where all his ex-wives live forever. Judith collapses and Bluebeard says, “Now you’ll have to stay in this room forever too.”

(Insanely, Bartók dedicated this opera (his only one) to his wife. They divorced five years later; then, at 42, he married his 19-year-old piano student.)

I could say that Bluebeard is great because its pitch center changes on an almost scene to scene basis, we go from F-sharp to C-sharp for the next two scenes to D to E-flat to C to A-minor to C-minor only to end back at F-sharp.

Or I could say that Bluebeard is great because its structure perfectly matches its preoccupation with sight and light, I could say how we go through the full ROYGIBIV spectrum of light, how there’s a main color for each secret room: the first is “blood-red”; then “yellow-red” (orange); “golden” (yellow); “blue-green” (green); “blue mountains” (blue); “darker” blue (indigo); and “much darker” blue (violet).

But that’s what The New Yorker would say or what Frasier would say so what I’ll say instead is that Bluebeard is great because it’s crazy, the Sex Pistols of opera. A brick to the head instead of a bubble, which is what Iolanta was. There wasn’t a single break for applause. There wasn’t a single cell phone or SHHH, I didn’t make any jokes, not even in my head. It was completely consuming and short, the way life must feel when you’re really a part of it.

And when the curtain closed and I didn’t stand up for an ovation but stayed in my seat in the dark, I thought about how the more intense the opera the more you remember you’re sitting in a chair, expressionless, not a part of life but letting the professionals feel for you.

I thought about how I don’t express emotion as easily as my very Italian-American family, which is another reason why I love opera. In its insanity, in its overboard feeling, in how loud it is, opera is a way of being vicariously Italian-American. When I saw Don Giovanni that first time with my dad I was sitting in a chair listening to people yell (often affectionately) in a language I didn’t understand; as a kid, that experience was identical to dinner at my grandparents’ house. It’s like that scene from Moonstruck where Nic Cage takes Cher to La Boheme except instead of Cher it was my dad and instead of La Boheme what I saw was my life. Opera being incomprehensible and special gave me a way to understand my family; family was incomprehensible; savoring histrionics from a deadpan remove was the way to love family the way you love opera.

I mean, my uncle made money in college by going to restaurants and performing as a Verdi impersonator, going table to table for tips; my family is opera—maybe all families are.

I got up and walked with my friends down the red velvet stairs, four floors, because the show was over. I was glad they came. Jackson said, “That was insane. Next weekend we should go to a cockfight. Then the weekend after that we come back to the opera.”

We left Lincoln Center and talked about where we should go for a drink. Bud saw PJ Clarke’s was right across the street. There was an empty booth and we got drinks and fish and chips to split. We talked about what movies we’d novelize if we had the chance and we talked about the operas. Bud went home and I went to Charlie’s apartment and watched Charlie and Jackson play 2K. Then Charlie went to bed and I played Red Dead 2 which Jackson watched but then Jackson fell asleep too. I tried to walk home but it was too cold so I got a cab.


image: Betsy Agosta