Tuesday, March 23, 2010

What's Opera Chez Wiles?

I was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina, a gorgeous, coastal city with the well-deserved reputation of being charming, historic and cultured.

When new friends realize where I’m from, they inevitably ask:

• “Do you know [well-heeled, well-connected person]?”

• “Did you go to [privileged, pricey, private school]?”

• “Did you live in one of those [expensive-to-restore, expensive-to-heat, just-plain-expensive] houses downtown?”

Um. Sorry. I’m not from "that" Charleston.

Although our postal address was "Charleston," I lived on James Island, which lies just across The Harbor, and while it may not be as high-falutin’ fancy as The Holy City proper, it isn’t exactly some backwoods backwater populated by rednecks, either. At least, not all the time.

Still, I did grow up in plain view of one of the most cultured cities in America, and then, lived in the venerable grand dames of Boston and Richmond. Somehow, though, I made it to age 47 without ever going to the opera.

Nope.  Not once.  Never even missed it.

So I wasn’t sure what to do when I was offered tickets to Opera Carolina’s Carmen last week. If it had been Bugs Bunny’s Barber of Seville, of course, I wouldn’t have hesitated a single sixteenth note. Who doesn't love watching Bugs make fruit salad on Elmer’s head?

But when Cougar Bait, who's a lot closer to being from "that" Charleston than I am, offered to go with me, I gratefully accepted the chance for an evening out.  And as it turns out, “real” opera was both less and more than what I’d expected.

Less difficult to understand. Thanks to English supertitles projected on an overhead screen, I had no problem understanding the plot. Reading the words also proved for me that every musical genre uses word repetition in lyrics, and repeated words look silly when read instead of sung. Carmen sings, I am thinking of a certain officer, I am thinking of a certain officer, Who loves me and whom in turn, yes whom in turn, I could really love. Mick Jagger sings, I can’t get no satisfaction, I can’t get no satisfaction, ‘cause I try and I try and I try and I try, I can’t get no, I can’t get no. No, no, no. Elmer sings, Kiww the wabbit, kiww the wabbit, kiww the wabbit.

Less cleavage. I’d expected (again, drawing on my over-familiarity with Bugs Bunny in What’s Opera) that the performers would be, ahem, ample. Remember Brunhilde?  But no, even Kirstin Chavez as Carmen was only appropriately voluptuous.

More than “vocal” talent on display. Shame on me for expecting less than stellar “acting,” too. All of the performers – through body language and tone and movement as much as singing – helped me understand their characters and the plot. The dancers, too, could really dance.

Less attitude. The audience wasn’t nearly as stuffy as I’d worried. Not in the slightest. Although I can be paranoid to the first-degree (I honestly believed there were cameras in my house when I was a kid, watching my every move – 40 years ago), I never wondered whether anyone could identify me as the “opera virgin.”

More familiar.  Yes, the language (French) was foreign, but the music wasn't.  I was pleasantly surprised -- and grateful -- that, in 47 years, I'd actually heard a good bit of the music.  Heck, I think I even played some of on the piano as a kid.  Somehow, that link made me feel more involved, more connected.

More cleavage. Let's be honest.  I'm a girl, so of course I worried about what to wear.  I kinda figured that there wouldn't be a lot of black ties on display, but what I didn't figure was the gracious amount of cleavage that would be, ahem, on display.  I don’t know whether it was officially “breast night at the opera," but there was an eye-popping abundance. Not on stage.  In the audience.  Holy Jiggle-Oly.  Guess I didn’t get the memo.

More fun. Turns out, opera wasn’t so much “good for me” as “good.” Who’d have guessed?

So much for stereotypes. Even though I’m not from “that” Charleston, I can now say I enjoy opera. And although Carmen certainly didn’t inspire me to stretch my vocal chords (for which my kids should be profoundly grateful), it did inspire a new, “gussied up” version of the simple grilled fish we had nearly every Sunday night growing up in Charleston. 

Ahem.  Not “that” Charleston, of course.

Grilled Swordfish with Lentil and Olive Salsa

Several, thick swordfish steaks
Kosher salt
Fresh ground pepper
Olive oil

1 ½ cups precooked black pearl lentils, drained
½ cups chopped green olives with pimentos
2-3 tablespoons fresh, minced parsley

1 scallion, thinly sliced (optional)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1-2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes

Brush swordfish with olive oil and season generously. Grill over medium-high heat, about 5 minutes per side, or until done. Set aside and allow to rest five minutes before serving. While fish is grilling, combine remaining ingredients, tasting and adjusting for seasoning (will likely need about ½ teaspoon kosher salt). Top rested swordfish with room temperature lentil salsa and serve.
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