A Nap at the Opera

We are the stuff as dreams are made on; and out little life is rounded with a sleep.

Guilt and shame – those daggers of self destruction. Once you’re over them you’ll find that nothing is as restful and conducive to revitalization as a sleep in the opera house. A proper operatic snooze is better than a day at a spa and cheaper as well. I might as well get it out in the open – I’ve been sleeping through operas for decades. I can hear you saying “So what’s new? We could tell that by reading your reviews.” But as we age we feel the need to confess our secrets.

One might reasonably suppose that Wagner’s operas are the most suitable for sleeping, but you’d be incorrect. If you chose the wrong one you’ll have nightmares and wake up with a panic attack. Lohengrin and Die Walküre are the only Wagner operas I think that one can expect pleasant dreams from. Why? I don’t know. Why does one photon go through a piece of glass while another is reflected?

The only composer really dangerous to the operatic napper is Debussy. I’ve only been to one performance of Pelléas et Mélisande and being young and inexperienced I soon fell asleep. The next thing I knew I was in the Metropolitan emergency room – the hospital not the opera house. I was strapped to a gurney, a central line was in, two IVs were running full out, I was intubated, and connected to a heart monitor. I was told that I had died twice, but had been brought back each time. Being young I soon recovered and regained full health, but I never went anywhere near Pelléas et Mélisande again.

I subsequently learned that reactions like mine were relatively common in people foolish enough to nap during Pelléas et Mélisande. In Pelléas sensitive subjects sleep can induce a full fledged anaphylactic reaction. Even worse is that all American health insurance policies carry a Pelléas exclusion, thus if you end up in the ER because of sleeping during the opera you have to bear the full expense of treatment. Most people don’t know that. Europe’s government subsidized health care systems may pay for a Pelléas reaction – I don’t know. The Canadians will pay for anything; they’ll just make you wait 18 months. That Debussy never completed another opera likely contributes to the increase in life expectancy characteristic of the 20th century.

Mozart is a mixed sleeping bag. I’ve dozed through all of Idomeneo and La Clemenza di Tito and awoken refreshed knowing that I’ve missed nothing. The Da Ponte operas are hard to sleep through, though there are few spots in Le Nozze di Figaro where I’ve had a few winks. The same is true of Die Zauberflote.

Mature Verdi offers little to the furtive dozer. The first act of the five act version of Don Carlos presents an opportunity, but you’ll want to stay awake for the rest of the piece. I suppose you could nap during any five act opera. Of course, there’s always Verdi’s I Due Foscari and Attila to fall back on. The latter is particularly napworthy because there’s not much to disturb you after the beautiful and short prelude. If you plan to sleep through the opera, you might you want to have someone wake you up for “Avrai tu l’universo, resti l’Italia a me.” (You can have the universe, but leave Italy for me.) It has historical rather than musical interest, so you can sleep through it if you wish. But don’t forget all those mid 19th century Italians going crazy and jumping out of balconies when they heard the line. I hope I don’t appear boastful when I declare that I’m one of the few people in the world who’s slept through Attila more than once.

All things considered, Rossini is the composer of choice when you need the honey-heavy dew of slumber, as long as you watch out for the crescendos. More than once I’ve found myself jolted out of my seat by Signor Crescendo. I’ve found that slumping increases my vulnerability to the more raucous of his fortes.

To commemorate the Rossini bicentennial The San Francisco Opera presented a mini-Rossini festival. Cenerentola, The Barber, and William Tell were performed in quick succession. I had delightful naps during the first two of these operas, but was as wide awake as a lamb in a lion’s den during all of Tell. Similarly, I got no sleep at all during the Met’s Semiramide. So, as is true in everything in life, you have to pick carefully which opera you’re going to rest through. Other good candidates for guiltless slumber are Ermione and La Donna del Lago, but they’re not comedies and my knowledge of their hypnotic powers is theoretical as it’s very hard to find a live performance of these operas outside of Pesaro. Sleeping through a recording of them doesn’t have heavy recuperative powers. There’s nothing like a live performance. I’ve also found that the quality of the performance has little effect on its suitability for slumber. Thus, a student matinee is a bargain alternative to the pricey Saturday night gala

While they’re not opera, Schubert’s lieder are almost as good for napping as Rossini’s operas. The more depressing they are the better you’ll sleep. Die Winterreise is far and way the best choice among lieder. I’d stick with Rossini over Schubert, though, because the seats in most opera houses are more comfortable than those in concert halls. We have Wagner to thank for that. Performing Wagner in a hall with uncomfortable seats is a human rights abuse.

Etiquette is important here as in most of human intercourse. Snoring must be avoided which is why I drag my wife with me when I plan to nap at the opera. Of course, how to proceed if both of us fall asleep remains an unsolved problem. It’s important that a companion be instructed not to nudge you just because you’re asleep. A jab in the ribs is only needed if you show signs of imminent snoring (drooping of the jaw and forming your mouth into a circle should be blinking red lights) or if it appears likely that you are about to fall off your seat – another serious breech of etiquette. I once missed a ski trip when I broke my patella after falling out of my seat during Billy Budd. I had foolishly gone to the show by myself convinced I couldn’t fall asleep during Britten and somehow thinking that because I wore my seat belt in my car that I’d be protected in the opera house should the unexpected happen.

I realize I’ve been hard on European stage directors, but I am grateful that they have reduced the number of intermissions, probably because the musicians want to get out of the theater as soon as possible. Five act operas are typically given with just two intervals. Nothing is more annoying than being awakened by an audience stampeding to the bar or the lavatories. I’d be happy if all intermissions were eliminated. Though, going through Parsifal without a break requires the bladder capacity of a horse.

While nothing beats opera, there are other opportunities for short naps. Chamber music by Brahms will put you to sleep faster than ether. Lectures are also good places to nod off. People, however, sometimes get quite huffy when you fall asleep during a lecture that’s keeping them awake. Last week a complete stranger poked me in the back when I was blissfully sleeping through a lecture on — well I forget what it was about. I wasn’t snoring. I checked that out with the guy next to me – after he woke up. She (the lady that poked me) was obviously jealous that I was enjoying the talk more than she was. When sleeping through talks, it’s best to sit in the back where it’s harder to get at you.

I’ve saved Puccini for last. With the exception of the first half or so of Suor Angelica, it’s impossible to sleep through Puccini. It just can’t be done.

Nessun dorma.

Anyone suffering from sleep apnea should stay out of the opera house.

And you’ve been sufficiently warned about Debussy.

Top photo: Dirk van der Lisse (1607-1669): Excerpt from Sleeping Nymph, after 1642. Oil on canvas. Where? – Mauritshuis, The Hague, Netherlands. Source: Web Gallery of Arts.

Originally published April 8, 2005 at Grandi Tenori.com

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3 Responses to A Nap at the Opera

  1. Operafilly says:

    I have only slept thru Fidelio. But I was only 16, my first opera season, and I didn’t know any better. But I learned quickly and well how to pick operas. If I do rarely nod off, it will be during a ballet sequence.

    I listened to Pelleas once and I knew better than to ever attend that one. Also, the mere thought of Mozart makes me bored. The only Wagner I would dare try would be Sigfried. I know I could make it to the dragon…….

    I agree about Puccini, but I would dump all of Suor Angelica..

    On the other side, the most awake performance was Chenier with Corelli, Tebaldi, and Battistianini (which I could never spell). It was so mesmeriing that time seem suspended…..like you went into another world and came back with only a few minutes past.

    I do think I could get thru Ermione and Bianca e Falliero, but probably not Donna del Lago or Riccardo e Zoriade. Die Tote Stadt could go either way. If I ignore the story I could stay awake. But getting into Teutonic introspection is so boring……..

  2. Felicia Mehl says:

    That was a really funny essay, but I don’t quite understand the reaction to Pelléas et Mélisande. I’ve only ever seen it on DVD but loved it. Is it because it’s too depressing?

    I fell asleep once during Tristan und Isolde and when I woke up, it seemed like they were still talking about the same thing. What about ballet? I think I could fall asleep during Romeo and Juliet, if the staging were minimalist enough. The only part to give you nightmares would be the Dance of the Knights.

  3. Operafilly says:

    Gounod’s R & J??? Horror!!!

    Now the Berlioz………….zzzzzzzzz

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