The Greatest Opera You've Never Seen

Email a Friend

I have a scandalous confession to make: Despite it being one of the most-performed works in the repertory, I have never seen Aida live. Same goes for Lohengrin, Parsifal and Pagliacci (I have, however, seen Cavalleria Rusticana—go figure).

It’s not that I have anything against Verdi, Wagner or Leoncavallo. And I love all of these works as I’ve experienced them on DVD or CD—I’m completely enamored of the Jonas Kaufmann Lohengrin on the former and the recent Gergiev recording of Parsifal on the latter.

But it’s the Aida that is a glaring lacuna. It’s seen in New York practically every year, in one season or another, and I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve almost bought tickets to see it when traveling. Perhaps the greatest disappointment to that end was when I came very close to seeing it in Rome, at the same arena where my grandmother saw the work in 1950, sitting a few rows behind Ingrid Bergman. That plan was derailed by a Trenitalia strike.

Opera fans and cognoscenti love to talk about what they have seen, comparing programs and cast lists built up over lifetimes and stored with accouterments and reverence not unfamiliar to stalwart comic book collectors (I still have my grandmother’s program from the Terme di Caracalla: the Aida was Marianna Radev, Amneris sang Maria Pedrini and tenor Roberto Terrini was Radames, singing the role squarely in the middle of his short, spitfire career).

But perhaps the more entertaining party talk comes not from what people have seen, but what they haven’t. It’s a conversation similar to writers and literary critics disclosing their own reading-list omissions. In a Slate feature that ran nearly five years ago, we learned such factoids as Margaret Atwood never getting around to Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata or John Crowley skipping out on To Kill a Mockingbird. The trend hit meta proportions in 2007 when Pierre Bayard released his own tome, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.

New York magazine’s Sam Anderson argues that Bayard’s book was written not as a kind of cheat sheet, but rather to "cure us of the deep cultural neuroses that govern our reading." He adds: "Our reading is governed by a corrosive idealism that fills us all with secret shame: We believe we should be doing it more and better, and that, until we do, we fully deserve to be sneered at by college dropouts at the Strand.”

And, in a way, opera isn’t so far off from reading. Even in discussing this post, I heard from a colleague that they had never seen La bohème live and in-person, to which my immediate response was (verbatim): “WHAT. You've never seen Bohème?!” Because, really, does it actually matter if you haven’t had the chance to sit 20 feet away from a seamstress expiring of consumption? And does that make you more or less of a man/woman than if you were among the fewer, prouder audiences to witness a bureaucrat search for his nose, a princess turn into gold or an ocean liner hijacked by the Palestine Liberation Front?

Over the weekend and purely by his own admission, a friend confessed on Twitter to not only never seeing Il Trovatore (poor Verdi getting short shrift once again) but also being unfamiliar with the work. The ensuing conversation, carried out in 140-character spurts was not a barrage of “how could you's", but rather an outpouring of love. Unencumbered by comparisons of performances, the tweets instead focused on the beauty of the music, the steaminess of the over-the-top plot and the spiciness of the intrigue. And it was fun to see others sell the merits of the opera itself rather than pick apart one specific incarnation's strengths or weaknesses.

It is perhaps undeniable that nothing can compare to the thrill of theater as it’s happening, live and in-person. But whether you get that supernatural spine-tingle from seeing Lucia revel in a dreamlike state of madness or in seeing Philip Glass’s Orpheus navigate a Cocteau-ian underworld, who is anybody to judge? Apart from an inevitable tomb, Aida isn’t going anywhere.

Confess: What operas have you never seen? Leave your dirty secrets in the comments below.