Saturday, November 12, 2011

Addled by Arias

I haven't written on this blog in forever. And some people (friends and loyal readers) have been asking me about it and about the CI. What's new? Yes, I'm still hearing. I'm still progressing. The time is overdue for an update.

Honestly, there are a number of things I've intended to reflect on for several weeks. All those reflections need is time. I'm at the stage in my listening journey where things are a little different. The mood has changed, and no longer am I suspended in tension and rapid-fire auditory discovery. I don't feel like my head spins in astonishment anymore as I walk through the world. All this has become, dare I say it, normalized. Or almost. I still have my moments, but the fact that I'm taking more and more things for granted is a mark of success in itself, isn't it? I don't think my progress has slowed, exactly. It's more that I've reached a place where I no longer have so much novelty to reflect on from day to day. The learning curve seems to have gone underground. Most of what I'm learning is unconscious. It's a much better place to be, really, but it does have its hazards.

More reflection to come soon, but for now I wanted to take the time to recount something more immediate. This past Wednesday I went to the opera! I put an exclamation point there because whenever I do hearing-person things like this I just smirk. Up to San Francisco we went, dressed up and ready to see Bizet's Carmen, and inside my head I kept laughing. Don't you see, I wanted to say to my peers (this was a dorm-organized trip). deaf person is going to the opera with you! This didn't seem to strike any of them as odd (of course), and when we reached our seats way up in the nosebleed section I was just another one of the group. Now, my thoughts about opera now are less extensive than the first time I experienced it last summer, but here's what I walked away with:

1. Operas are long. Duh. But, more than being long, they draw on in seeming pursuit of the suspension of a moment, the definition of a mood through setting and music. It's an almost nostalgic form, in that you can see the present (and its accompanying cause and effect) slipping away from you even in the course of its happening, and even despite its elongation. Even if, after a few hours, all you want to do is truncate that elongation and have it be over.

2. Following the above observation: I'm an English major in college, which means that on a regular basis I spend too much time thinking about words and verbal narrative. The overall narrative structure of the opera bored me a bit, because honestly its complexity and its pacing seemed pared down. But here's what I wondered: is the operatic format one that seeks to augment this storytelling structure with the presence of music? Is music, and not character or plot or language, the main point of the opera? Probably.

3. I've enjoyed symphonic music in the past, and I still do, but I had a difficult time maintaining my interest in that music while also following a storyline. My mind wanted one or the other: give me a novel or a story or a play, or give me a symphony to listen to. I couldn't seem to find a comfortable place to settle in between. Also troublesome was the fact that of course Carmen was sung in French, but the supertitles were in English. I experience a strange sort of auditory disconnect when what I'm hearing doesn't line up with what I'm seeing. Sight is still by far my dominant sense, and when I don't encounter sound as an affirmation or a reward, that sound tends to become less interesting to me. I oftentimes end up ignoring it, to be honest.

4. I would have seriously loved someone there to explain the mechanics of the operatic sounds/music/singing/etc. to me, or at least to pinpoint its intention and mood. I'm still not very good at understanding the "feel" of a particular piece of music (mostly because, probably illogically, I want to know what it means) and I wondered what I was missing in terms of tone and ambiance. It sounded nice, and some arias sent chills down my spine, but... well, on my own I'm woefully incapable of saying anything else.

Overall, at the end of the night I walked out having enjoyed myself, happy that I'd had the experience, smug that I'd heard it and hadn't been bored out of my mind, but still feeling uncertain of what it was I'd witnessed/heard and its significance. Maybe it's that I was out of my element musically, but I think it bothered me that I couldn't say whether Carmen had been good or not. The story? Not so much, in my opinion. Too little pacing and too little solid character and too long to get through it all. But it had to be more than that; the overall performance wasn't just about what happened on stage. And my judgment, my listening, and my knowledge was way too insufficient to gauge that.

This last point hit home for me yesterday afternoon, when I ran into a friend on campus who asked me if I'd gone to see Carmen on Wednesday. (She'd heard about the dorm trip.) "Well, how was the performance?" she asked. "I was thinking of going."

"It was good," I said. And... that was all. I honestly couldn't say anything else. Going beyond that would have delved into the realm of I-was-hearing-this-for-the-first-time and this-was-my-first-real-opera and it-sounded-good-but-I-don't-really-know and... argh. A typical hearing-person answer, I imagined, would have been something like, "The symphonic accompaniment was really top-notch and the sopranos gave a stellar performance, especially what's-her-name who played so-and-so and has such-and-such kind of voice, although the tenors were a bit creaky, and I really loved so-and-so's expressiveness and vocal power as Don Jose." But what do I know. This was my first moment of being asked to judge something acoustically and totally laughably failing. Which, hey, is to be expected. It just made me feel unsettled and inadequate.

So, the real question: do I like opera? In bits and pieces, yes. The purity and drama (or whatever it is) of the sound appeals to me. But my overwhelming sense of not being able to understand it at all, and wondering if the essence of the performance is beyond my comprehension even with a CI, lingers with me. I'll need to chew this one over.


  1. Hey Rachel, it's Ale from Casa. I was wondering what you thought of the opera in light of your ongoing journey with hearing. I didn't want to ask for fear of making you uncomfortable or outright angered, but reading this blog was really fun and interesting for me. Glad I wasn't the only one seeing the irony in your trip to the opera, and I'm glad you liked it even if in bits in pieces.

  2. I suspect hearing people are just as confused by operas as you! I've listened to a Chinese opera before, which has acoustic properties that make most western listeners cringe, and...I cringed, with only the vaguest idea of a plot. =] But your analysis was quite mind-stimulating...

  3. It's great to hear from you Rachel! I've been checking this regularly and was excited to see your update today on my lazy Thanksgiving day. Hope you have a great dinner with family and friends.