Saturday, December 23, 2006


Si può? May I [interrupt]?
(Prologue, I Pagliacci, by Ruggiero Leoncavallo)

Greetings to all opera wonks. Well, it makes a change from 'opera buffs', which is even more enigmatic and with equal potential for misunderstanding.

Is an opera buff someone who is naked (in the buff) with skin that is sallow (buff-coloured), and apparently in need of an operation? Or are opera buffs simply buffoons, characters out of an opera buffa?

Some say 'buff' is short for 'buffalo'. So, are 'buffs' prone to stampeding in their enthusiasm to go to the waterhole, or the opera, or the cinema (in the case of 'movie buffs')?

Another suggested origin for 'buff' connects it with the beige-yellow colour of the uniform worn by New York volunteer firemen, who rush ardently (better make that devotedly) to the fire, and so this idea was transferred to eager followers of various pursuits, such as train-watching, and opera-going. This should mean that 'opera buffs' would be particularly attracted to Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung, which has blacksmiths working at their fire and forge in Rhinegold and Siegfried, a blazing fire at the end of the Valkyrie and Siegfried, and an almighty conflagration at the end of Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods).

By coincidence, in my home-theatre I recently showed a relevant opera-movie, namely Interrupted Melody, which tells the story of the Australian dramatic soprano Marjorie Lawrence (1907-1977); much is made of the fact that this farm-girl from Australia, playing Brünnhilde in that climactic finale, insisted on riding Grane into the flames of Siegfried's funeral pyre, as Wagner had stipulated, instead of leading him (or merely pretending he is there, as in so many productions ).

And 'yellow' is actually pertinent to 'wonk', as we seek to define its meaning in relation to 'opera'. A Chinese connection for wonk is the term huang-kou ('yellow dog') applied to their native canine. In Australia (where I was born) 'wonk' is a slang word for a homosexual man, as in Patrick White's novel Vivisector (1970, p.213). Notice in passing that another of his novels, Voss, about a German explorer wandering through the arid inland, was made into an opera by the Australian composer Richard Meale, and this has also been shown to a group of opera-lovers in my video-theatrette.

In America, though, a wonk is a studious person ('swot' is the word we aplied to them in Sydney in my schooldays). We can speak of a 'musical wonk'. You are not the first person to realize that it is 'know' written in reverse. So then, a wonk must be someone who knows their subject backwards as well as forwards. Presumably a 'nowk' would know it inside out. However, 'wonk' is not related to 'wonky', which would imply that the knowledge was askew and unreliable.

And who is this opera wonk? It is not me, it is you. But my part in this relationship will be to highlight various operas and provide summaries and commentaries for future reference.

What operas are in the news? One endless saga concerns Idomeneo, by Mozart, with a collection of prophets' heads included among the props. Again, in our opera group here in provincial New Zealand, we have been studying this one, in conjunction with the Mozart celebrations (250 years), but how Gotama the Buddha and Muhammad the Prophet fit into a Bronze-Age story of Crete and the Trojan War is beyond my ken (or my wonking).

Now then, if the word 'wonk' still bothers you, take your reading glasses off and sound it out as 'opera work', which is what we will be doing here, remembering that 'opera' is the plural form of Latin opus, which means 'work'.

Andiam. Incominciate! Let's go. Begin!
(Tonio's last words in the prologue to Pagliacci)

Footnote. I have been wanting to get this off my chest for a long time: because Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci (Strolling Players) are often presented together, English speakers refer to the combination as Cav and Pag. This is a bit silly, as the gli is pronounced lyi (approximately as in English 'million', but there is certainly no G in it).

So, let us say 'Cav and Pal' (and they are faithful friends, too, though each climaxes in bloody murder).

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