The Art of Sleeping at The Opera

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I have slept with most of the world’s great opera stars, for a long time now and with great pleasure. I’ll bet you’ve slept with a few as well.

It’s not what you are thinking (or perhaps it is...): Sleeping at the opera is an inevitable but hallowed tradition, though the reasons have changed. In the past, the accepted explanation was the stereotype that opera is boring -- a gaggle of burly singers droning on in the dark. Because you are a reader of this blog you know that opera is anything but boring. 

We sleep at the opera for at least a couple of reasons. One is that we are overtired. The other is the sublime twilight we enter while listening to exquisite music played in a congenial space without electronic transmission. To me, hearing the prelude to Wagner’s Lohengrin in a live performance in a darkened opera house is like eating the first apricot of the season. My senses all concentrate on that sound (or taste), to the exclusion of everything else. The multi-tasking mind is at rest. The eyes shut so that there is no visual distraction and the ears (or palate) take charge and send messages to the brain, the heart, the lungs (where breathing changes), the genitals, the fingertips and the feet. More than a few people I know remove their shoes and plant their feet on the floor to receive the vibrations from the floor when music is playing.

If you think I am exaggerating, I am not. These are the words of a pleasure activist.  Recently I was in a chocolate shop in Vienna, which is something akin to hearing Lohengrin at the Met, in Zurich, Munich or Bayreuth. I tasted (savored, in fact) a piece of chocolate and was unaware that a friend was taking pictures of me. The first photo (right) shows what I just described about concentrating the senses, using the ones I need most. The chocolate has passed under the nose en route to the mouth. There is no longer a need to look at it, though when I did it was with complete attention. The second shot (below), entirely candid, shows what happens when the senses react. 

In my very first post I hinted that I would address sense perception in operagoing, and this concept of sensorial focus is part of what I meant. If you can turn off your thoughts of the office, bills, family stresses and other concerns of the outside world and let your senses work fully, then oh the places you will go!

There is a blind woman I have met who attends a lot of musical performances. She sits close to the stage, although she cannot see what is going on, because she feels the vibrations on her face and throughout her body that come from the orchestra pit, the solo singers and the chorus. When I see her I do not know if she is asleep or, more likely, in deep sensorial focus and probably experiencing the kind of bliss, that sublime twilight, I described with the Lohengrin prelude. It is not a question of being able to see or not, but sometimes, with some pieces of music, we experience it more completely when we don’t watch it being made. I have seen on her face how fully she reacts to--feels--the music and I find it a thrilling thing to experience vicariously.

Then, as we listen to music, there can come that transitional moment from sublime twilight to sleep or, as my computer says, “sleep mode.” Things are still working, but differently. We are no longer perceiving actively, but more passively. The music enters our systems but then is buried deep in our cells, nourishing whatever we think of as our souls, requiring more effort to be summoned to the conscious mind.

I understand that falling asleep at the opera can be frustrating, especially if you have paid a lot of money but then are too tired to really engage with the performance. I try to get in a one-hour nap before heading to the theater. People who can do this in their offices or elsewhere do themselves a world of good if they want to be awake during the performance.

The Wine-Induced Snooze

If someone snores during an opera, there is the delicate decision to be made by those nearby as to whether to let it continue or gently rouse the snorer. Not too long ago, I was at a performance in which a man quite a few rows back was sawing more wood than Paul Bunyan (subject of an early opera by Benjamin Britten). I heard it and realized that people closer to him must have as well. His female companion was asleep too. During the intermission I found out who they were and, in my friendly way, asked them how they were enjoying the opera. “Wunnerful....” he responded as my eyes burned from the alcohol on his breath.

For many people, a night out at the opera is a special occasion, preceded by a fancy meal and good wine. I tend to eat just enough to stave off hunger so that my stomach does not occupy my body’s energy for digestion. Though I am quite the oenophile, I never drink wine or any alcohol before an opera, concert or other live performance. People drink wine at the bars in an opera house but I leave wine drinking to Don Giovanni, Violetta, Falstaff and Baron Ochs. Besides, have you tasted the wine served at many opera houses, in plastic glasses no less? Phooey.

Rest, proper eating and a strategic visit to the restroom are usually sufficient for not dozing off at the opera. To that, I also add the following suggestion, an act that used to be automatic but now is largely ignored: read the synopsis of the opera up to the first intermission. I still do this for all but a handful of the most popular works so that my mind is prepared to follow the action. I engage differently and somehow the music penetrates more when I see plot points about which I had just refreshed my memory. After the intermission, I read the synopsis up to the next intermission or to the end, whichever is the case.

Still, there are times when, despite all good efforts, the Sandman comes my way. I drift off like one of the gods in Das Rheingold when the giants abduct Freia, who can no longer tend her magic apples that keep the gods frisky. I don’t fight it, but simply give in. I still hear the music and somehow get the narrative, especially if I have read the synopsis. When the Dew Fairy comes by and my eyes open, I am right back in the story.

An opera performance, especially one of the great Wagnerian marathons, is like a journey. Through music and drama we traverse all kinds of territory and then arrive gloriously at a special place. I think of it as a long flight, but with better food, seats, attendants, leg room, toilets and, above all, entertainment. Such comfort is also conducive to sleep.

Sweet Dreams on Stage

If it is any consolation, you are not alone. Other people are sleeping too, and it has nothing to do with the quality of the performance. And in many operas, someone is sleeping onstage too. In Die Walküre, Wotan puts his daughter Brünnhilde to sleep until a hero can pass through impenetrable fire to awaken her. It takes about 18 years until her nephew Siegfried shows up in the opera for which he is named. Earlier, he has awakened the sleeping giant Fafner, who captured the Ring in Das Rheingold, transformed himself into a dragon and then sleeps through all of Die Walküre and part of Siegfried. Erda, goddess of the earth and mother of the Valkyries, rouses only with great effort and usually to warn Wotan to not act rashly. Then she goes back to sleep. Alberich, the dwarf, keeps asking his son Hagen if he is sleeping: “Schläfst du Hagen, mein Sohn?” But it really is about goading him to action.

Strangely enough, I tend to be wide awake for the Ring operas because they demand preparation and I always nap during the day. I am awake for Parsifal too, but Kundry and Amfortas in that opera are certainly sleep-deprived and I always wish they could get a nap. Hansel and Gretel require the intervention of the Sandman and the Dew Fairy, and it troubles me that children so young are already resorting to sleeping aids.

I sometimes catch a few winks during French and Italian works out of sympathy for the characters on the stage. Juliet, in operas by Gounod and Bellini, is knocked out by the draught given her by Friar Laurence, with dire consequences when Romeo thinks she is dead. He stabs himself, she wakes up and, well you know the rest. Amina (La Sonnambula) sleepwalks twice in her opera and I think she has real issues that are not being addressed. 

Puccini operas tend to have a lot of audience sleepers during the first act. These tend to be operagoers on The Big Night Out and they arrive with stomachs full of wine and rich food. In Turandot, the first act is at night and it is dark. But when the foreign prince (Calaf) decides he wants to answer the three riddles of the icy princess, he bangs on a gong three times to wake up the audience so they know what he is doing. Then, after he answers the riddles, the angry Turandot decrees that nobody can sleep (“Nessun dorma”) until this man’s name is found out. It gives him an opportunity to give the audience the aria they paid to hear, Liù the slave girl kills herself rather than reveal his name, and Calaf and Turandot sing very loud for ten minutes, the chorus and orchestra join in, and audience members will be alert for the trip home.

Give me La Bohéme. Poor Mimi pretends to sleep in the last act so that Rodolfo’s young friends might go away and leave them alone. She dies shortly thereafter, unnoticed. Her eyes close, the muff slips out of her cold hands and Rodolfo says, Vedi? É tranquilla (“Do you see? She’s calm”). There is not a dry eye in the house. I have never met anyone who has slept through that sad and beautiful scene.

Credit: Emma Matthews in La Sonnambula, Opera Australia

How do you feel about sleeping at the opera? Please share your comments below: