This is my embarrassing Stephanie Blythe story.
A couple years ago, my wife, Chris, and I went to New York to see Mary Zimmerman's production of Armida at the Met. Renée Fleming was singing. As we were walking across the plaza to Lincoln Center, we saw coming toward us, flanked by two classily dressed females, the great opera diva whose fan I am, Stephanie Blythe. I went up to Stephanie Blythe and said, "Excuse me, are you Stephanie Blythe?" and she said, really slow and low, "Yeeeeeees," and I said, "I worship you." She arched her eyebrow a quarter of a millionth of a millimeter and burred, "Oh, don't do that."
This was both the sexiest and the most dismissive thing I have ever heard in my life. My mouth dropped open and I was dumb. But then I started babbling. My wife, fortunately, said something gracious to Miss Blythe and her companions and then steered the two of us away to get our tickets. A few minutes later, on the stairs, we saw Miss Blythe and her lady friends and they were laughing.
Or that's how I remembered it.
I read this first paragraph to Chris, and she said, "Yeah... except that last part; they weren't laughing."
"They were! I remember them laughing."
"No," Chris assured me, "They weren't. They didn't notice us..."
Had I been so mortified by myself, I had to make it even worse in my remembering? What is it about meeting someone great, or famous, or you admire a lot or have a brain- or heart-crush on that turns you into an idiot? Why does proximity to greatness reduce us to what is worst in us?
The next production at Seattle Opera is Handel's Semele, an l8th-century oratorio or opera (depends on whom you ask) based on a story from Greek mythology. Semele is a human girl who falls in love with a god, Jupiter. Jupiter, though married, messes around with Semele. Jupiter's wife, Juno, the Goddess of Marriage, is so pissed at Jupiter and his philandering that she burns his puny human girlfriend into ash. Stephanie Blythe plays the goddess.
The word "diva" is Italian for "goddess," and human culture is full of humans who, if they try to approach the divine too closely, get burned (though not always literally). You're supposed to behave reverently when you want to meet with a being who is supreme. The Scarecrow and Tin Man and Cowardly Lion and Dorothy were washed and freshly clothed before they met the Wizard. Moses took off his shoes before G-d. To meet what is higher than you, you must acknowledge the need and lowness of yourself. Some gods require a sacrifice, but sometimes they come down, not just like tramping Jupiter, but to inspire us in forms we can approach.
It's fitting, then, that the production team of Semele draws from contemporary pop culture. Costume designer Vita Tzykun has worked with Lady Gaga, and one of the costumes for this production allows a nymph to emerge from a giant clamshell. Handel might not have expected such kitsch, but he might've thought he sort of deserved it. After having written three oratorios in the early 1740s on Jewish/Christian subjects (one of which was The Messiah) that were performed at the Theatre Royal in Convent Garden, Handel tried to pass Semele off as an oratorio appropriate for the Lenten concert season. Semele was a sort-of oratorio-ish (recitative heavy and slight on the real), but really it was more of an opera (particular, pagan, human). It was also overtly sexy. After the initial performances, Handel (in whose London apartment Jimi Hendrix would later live!) had to take out some of the sex. Seattle Opera's nymph in a clamshell is a nice nod to the opera's long-lost tawdriness.
Opera is about the imagination, about allowing yourself to fantasize, for at least a little while, that your puny life is bigger than it is. The characters onstage are bigger than you, but for a while you get to see them and be with them. They love more and hate more and suffer more and triumph more; they're truer to all their principles and truer to themselves. You go there and you listen to human noise, unamplified voices that somehow are bigger than merely human, as if for a while the gods came down and acted like they were you.