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"What's Opera, Doc?" mind matters
October 16, 2002

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I went to the opera tonight, saw Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd acted out the overture in a famous Warner Bros. cartoon named “Rabbit of Seville.”

Opera is surprisingly approachable. Sure, it’s rarely sung in English, but this artistic form is seldom the Wagnerian fat-women-in-horned-crowns show that makes the average person shudder. Barber has some genuinely funny moments, and everyone should recognize the laughably egotistical “Figaro Figaro Figaro” part near the beginning. What is it about opera, and classical music in general, that makes some people cringe?

The easy answer is a lack of understanding. “Typical” classical music, from Bach to Beethoven, is perceived stereotypically as boring by many, and the excuse the fans give is that boredom comes from ignorance. I don’t think that’s accurate. If you’ve ever listened to Windham Hill artists, I guarantee you’d enjoy several preludes by Scriabin. If you feel the rush listening to the Star Wars soundtracks by John Williams, then try Debussy. "September Morn" (Neil Diamond) is stolen from a Rachmaninoff piano concerto; "Could It Be Magic" (Barry Manilow) borrows from a Chopin prelude.

Then there’s the artistry. The expertise required for solid renditions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee,” Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody #2 is astounding. These are all famous, too; the last was performed by Daffy and Donald in dual-piano nightclub act in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. A few Chopin waltzes are also part of animated repertoires, such as the overplayed "Minute Waltz," or the one in which Yosemite Sam puts dynamite inside an upright piano before giving Bugs Bunny the sheet music...

Admit it. You love the music in the de Beers diamond commercials, the tunes played over the Victoria’s Secret PA system, and the theme to the Bad News Bears movies. Classical music has the same incredible power that all music has: to change your mood. It can lift you up, calm you down, and even make you as anxious as anything written by Nine Inch Nails. Classical music is at the root of gospel, swing, boogie, and jazz, and those styles grew into to everything from folk to disco, hip-hop to be-bop. Throw some world music into the mix and get alternative. Gosh, even the hypnotic scene of techno is clearly stolen from mid-career Philip Glass.

What’s more, classical music isn’t limited to the thud-bump two-count of mood enhancement. Good writing is picturesque, like rainstorms and butterflies. (Take a second to imagine the “creepy insect music” you hear in movies. You hear the plucking of violin strings, don’t you? The X Files was full of that stuff.) If you don’t believe me, consider the two greatest animal representations of all time, “Turkey in the Straw” and “Chicken Reel.” If you live in the United States, then I guarantee you know them. Listen to online clips by the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra at CDNow. (Oh, and the music to the "Beef: It's What's for Dinner" commercials is Aaron Copland's "Rodeo.")

So, when it comes to appreciating classical music, what’s the secret? Airplay! Beethoven is the king of airplay: fifth symphony, ninth symphony (same as “Ode to Joy”), Moonlight Sonata. Even if your childhood cartoons are different from mine, whether Betty Boop or the Powerpuff Girls, I'm confident you know every piece I've mentioned. You know them because you’ve heard them. It's not about understanding at all, just experience and familiarity.

Trust me. Listen to twenty seconds of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice from Disney’s Fantasia, thirty seconds of the Barber of Seville overture, or just ten seconds of “Chicken Reel,” and it will stick in your head like a fishbone in your throat. You’ll hate me for it, too.

Thankfully, dynamite is not included.

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Copyright 2002 Seth Maislin

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