Opera is no stranger to the grand passions. Sex, murder, ambition, incest, battles between gods and giants – the opera stage sees it all, witnessing more power struggles on a daily basis than the World Wrestling Federation and the United Nations combined. Considering the opera world’s penchant for passion, it should be no surprise that the battle for dominance wages even more fiercely offstage.
Step into the green room and see the truth: in the left corner, Alfredo is pelting Rudolpho with throat lozenges; in the right corner, Germont is dodging Papageno’s rotten eggs; in the back, Cherubino is challenging Octavian to a beer-chugging contest; and, of course, in the middle, Violetta and Pamina are throttling each other.
The ego wars between tenors, baritones, and mezzos are certainly ferocious, yet none can compete with the epic battles of soprano versus soprano in terms of sheer savagery.
Sopranos follow a simple but precise model of behavior. Each year, Soprano A reviews and facebook stalks all sopranos joining her musical community. After determining which sopranos pose the greatest threat to her territory (i.e. “fach”), Soprano A initiates several stages of “friendly” behavior with the one deemed to be the most dangerous: Soprano B. Over coffee and amid friendly discussions of repertoire, the ever-cunning Soprano A pretends to bond with Soprano B in order to gain her confidence and gradually discover each of her vulnerabilities. At the exact moment that Soprano B reveals her greatest weakness, Soprano A plans to impale her with her most piercing form of passive aggression and thus, maintain her dominance.
If you are beginning to worry about the safety of sweet little Soprano B, fear not. She is not an innocent victim, but actually just the opposite, having selected Soprano A as her archrival weeks ago and hastily planned a suitable counterattack.
If we look closer, we see that Soprano A is already losing this battle. So far, her “friendly” behavior has only helped her to discover that Soprano B has a tremulous vibrato. Soprano B, on the other hand, has discovered that Soprano A has a problematic high F, insufficient breath support, a preference for handsome baritones, and a pair of extremely ugly sandals. Within a few minutes, Soprano B will strike, Soprano A will be defeated, and the power in this fach will shift. Soprano A will spend the evening licking her wounds in a practice room and then plan for another battle tomorrow.
Those of you who saw Susie Soprano and Corinne Coloratura eating lunch together yesterday witnessed this power struggle in real life. Nothing appeared to be out of the ordinary, but a gauntlet had clearly been thrown. Each bite of sandwich was carefully timed; each comment was a subtle test in the waters of the other’s insecurity; each friendly smile was simply a feint before a cutting blow. And who won the battle? The triumphant flash of scarlet in Susie’s eyes in between bites of grilled cheese tells us everything we need to know.
The opera world is a dangerous one, and we must all learn the best way to protect ourselves. Having battled numerous nemesis sopranos since 7th grade, I have learned to expect a soprano attack at any time. And, after years of carefully study, I have crafted a handbook of tried-and-true defenses to use against the most lethal soprano assault. I offer you the top five:
1) Always carry a digitized recording of Florence Foster Jenkins singing “Der Hölle Rache” on your person. When threatened by a savage soprano, simply play the recording as loudly as possible and wait for the soprano to run away screaming.
2) Memorize the following three phrases: “You have SUCH a cute voice,” “Have you ever thought about doing something else with your life?” and “Your voice teacher is really sweet to keep trying to help you sing better.” Use any of these phrases whenever necessary to clear sopranos from your path.
3) Always travel in the company of a tenor or baritone (see blog posting “Falling in love…and not just with opera”). When an aggressive soprano approaches, push the tenor or baritone toward the soprano and run away as fast as possible. A small gratuity for the tenor or baritone might be considerate, depending on the extent of the soprano’s hostility.
4) When a soprano begins to talk to you, cough loudly. The soprano will immediately leave the area in order to find some Airborne, Vitamin C, or Mucinex. Sniffles, sneezes, and excessive throat clearing are equally effective.
5) Walk around with a wooden stake, a crucifix, several heads of garlic, and the complete series of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” on DVD. Sopranos will definitely steer clear. Unfortunately, so will everyone else.
No matter what dangerous vocalists lurk in the halls, a true opera singer cannot help but thrive on a little passion and danger. And, who knows…perhaps one day Soprano A will extend a proverbial olive branch to Soprano B, the two will break into an exquisite rendition of the Flower Duet, and peace and happiness will reign supreme in the world.
But, for now, it might be best to make friends with the instrumentalists.
And keep your back facing the wall at all times.