A burning desire to have some Italian food found me taking my seat at a table in a cavernous Italian restaurant where bottles of wine and olive oil competed with prints of Venetian gondoliers and Roman ruins on all the walls. Not quite a pizza/pasta joint - the staff wore black aprons and could pronounce, after their own fashion, the names of the items on the menu - but with everything soaked in bog-standard olive oil and peppermills the best part of a metre high, neither was it by any means a fine dining establishment. Food was plentiful, cheap and – inevitably – oily, and I was grateful for the mouth-grating dryness of cheap Chianti to help scrape away some of the oily residue from my Parmesan-Crusted Sole. All the same, I was more than enjoying my food when, suddenly, I was pulled out of the kind of reverie into which all us solitary diners descend, by a glorious soprano aria from a Verdi opera (I think it was Macbeth, but it was not one of the famous showpieces for soprano) sung, unaccompanied, and at very close quarters by a passing waitress. She had delivered the food to a table and, on her way back, simply broke into song. The entire restaurant was silenced by her voice, and even the kitchen staff (it was one of those places where, for some wholly unaccountable reason, it is considered proper for diners to see the workshop in which their food was prepared – rather like going to the bathroom and seeing the whole sewage system revealed before your very eyes) stopped what they were doing to listen open-mouthed. This was a fine, well-trained, fully-developed voice, well able to hold its own on the operatic platform and certainly well used to commanding an audience into silence. I was hugely impressed.
But my reaction was nothing compared to that of the other diners. They cheered, their hollered, they stamped their feet, they rattled their forks against their glasses of cheap Chianti, and generally behaved as if they had just witnessed a world-record-breaking performance by one of their compatriots at the Olympic Games; jubilation, wonderment and unrestrained admiration were the order of the day.
Enquiries to my non-singing waiter revealed that several of the waiting staff were actually music students and it was not uncommon for the ones who had studied singing spontaneously to break into some aria or other; the manager positively encouraged it. All this brought back memories of Oxley’s floating restaurant in Brisbane which, before it was swept away by floods, boasted a large number of singularly fat waitresses, all of whom were studying music across the river at the Queensland Conservatorium and were similarly encouraged to exhibit their skills when the situation was appropriate. It is well known that music and food (and wine) go hand in hand; but it’s still a surprise when they appear so vividly in juxtaposition.
What had me the most impressed, however, was the reaction of my fellow diners; none of whom, I imagine, had gone there expecting to hear a Verdi aria sung live by a professionally-trained opera singing waitress. It may be patronising of me to say so, but I suspect that the vast majority of those diners, if told that the song was by Verdi, would be none the wiser. I doubt many of them had ever gone into an opera house (the nearest was several thousand kilometres away), rented an opera DVD or even listened to one on the radio. At best, I suspect, they would have heard a Pavarotti-soundalike singing Nessun Dorma or O Sole Mio on a TV advert. Yet their admiration for this live piece of opera was genuine and heartfelt.
Opera has an unfortunate image. It is perceived as being exclusive, elitist, and opera goers are seen as moneyed businessmen attending a kind of high class works’ outing. Opera singers are seen as fat, conceited divas with more money than musical skill, and only today I caught some imbecilic radio announcer claim; “We usually think of opera as belonging to rich 19th century dukes, but in fact it is much, much older than that, going back to the 1600s, when it was organised by the church”. With stupidity like that at the end of the microphone, how can we expect anybody to take opera seriously? To be fair, those involved in opera do not go too far out of their way to dispel these mis-conceptions.
There is something in the sheer physical strength of an opera singer heard at close quarters which excites admiration from the most musically-disinterested of people. I hate and detest soccer; but when I caught a nimble-footed goal on some ubiquitous sports channel showing in a non-Italian restaurant, even I had to admire the skill involved. And that’s what my fellow diners were doing; admiring a skill which, when witnessed at close quarters, they realised to be pretty near super-human. It crosses my mind that, if people were made aware of just how much skill and effort is involved in making music, it would be much more widely appreciated.
Television close-ups of sweating athletes crippled in pain and fatigue after some pointless run around a gravel track excites widespread admiration and has helped make sport popular among those for whom any kind of physical activity is anathema. But we have lost out in music. Everybody believes that all singing involves is a microphone stuck so close to a mouth that one fears electrocution, and a deal of plastic surgery. Given a glimpse of what singing is really about – sheer, superhuman effort – even the most musically inept cannot fail to be impressed.
Perhaps young singers should show off their skills at close quarters in a non-musical context. That way they might find that they are not just building up their own reputations, but encouraging a wider audience to enjoy opera for what it is; one of mankind’s most physically demanding activities.