Friday, January 18, 2013

Opera and LSD

A note about musical links: I will try to find a version with English subtitles for all my opera links. There may be versions I like better musically, but for someone new to opera, I think the words are very helpful. 

Brief personal history of how opera came into my life:

Niether my parents nor my peers listened to classical music or opera so I never really got a taste for it, until recently. The closest I got to opera is that my parents liked musicals and would take us kids to see them on occasion. I listened to rock n' roll and folk music, and that was pretty much it into my thirties, after which my partner Leslie added Frank, Ella and the like to broaden my tastes.

When our friend Lisa asked us if we wanted some tickets to the SF Opera, we said yes, but not with high expectations. Just for the experience of “going to the opera.” This was 1989, soon after our big earthquake. (A huge net that was strung from the ceiling at the opera house protected us from concrete dropping on our heads. And, yes, there were several chunks in the net.) The tickets were for Madame Butterfly, Puccini's tragic opera about—and this is my take, not the normal encapsulation—a delusional Japanese geisha who thinks that her married-her-only-for-sex American military husband, gone three years, will return for her. When she learns the truth, she kills herself. This is the most famous (and beautiful) song from the opera, centered on her delusion. 

 I had suspected that I would be bored during the opera, as I often was listening to classical music. And, in some parts, I was. Plus I couldn't really hear the soprano. But at the end, I cried. I like to cry, so that was a big plus. I wouldn't say I had become a big fan, but I was willing to do it again. 

Two years later, Lisa offered us tickets to Carmen. (Thanks, Lisa!!) It's the story of a passionate Gypsy woman who makes clear to men—like here—that she is both a free agent in love and not a good bet for long-term commitment. Because he can't keep her, one lover, Don Jose, kills her. (Yes, many operas end with deaths. "It's not over until the fat lady dies singing" should really be the saying.)

I truly enjoyed the opera, finding Carmen's fatalistic tragedy moving. Many of the arias were familiar—mostly because of their frequent use in commercials like this or in movies like thisand that was a plus, but I also liked the whole production, the story, and was never bored. (The date was October 20, 1991, which I can remember because, from the balcony at intermission we saw a far more devastating and real tragedy developing across the bay: the Oakland firestorm, which claimed the lives of 25 people.)

Leslie happened to have a excerpt album of Carmen, so I began to listen to it, a lot. I wasn't up for listening to the full opera, but I certainly liked listening to the “hits,” such as the Seguidille (this is a concert version with my favorite opera singer, Tatiana Troyanos. That said, she isn't exactly the ideal Carmen, but it does have the subtitles). Or the always fun Toreador song (here performed in a flashmob—there are no subtitles, but the singer is bragging about his skills as a matador. Bizet, the composer, made up the term toreador, because it scanned better with the music than the word matador).

Opera met acid sometime in 1994. We had some tabs that a friend had given us years before though we rarely dropped at this point in our lives. But I thought it would be fun to take LSD and listen to a variety of music. I was alone that day and totally enjoyed playing DJ for myself. The highlight of the day was the excerpt album of Carmen with the Jetson's theme song a distant second. "Meet George Jetson" was great fun, but the opera was awesome.

Several years later, I bought a full version of Carmen on LP (used, for $5) with Anna Moffo as the lead, and decided to listen to the entire opera while on LSD. OMG! It was a revelation and turned my life in a new direction. I had closed my eyes while listening to most of it, and through the power of the music and the drug, I went into a sort of super-empathic state enhanced by a process of personal and historical intertwining in my imagination. It was an all-consuming experience. To say it was the most satisfying artistic experience of my life is to vastly understate. Nothing ever had come close to this before. Wow. 

I wanted more.

Well, that started me down the path to find more operas and repeat this experience with different stories and composers. But I had no idea what I might like. I started buying up second-hand operas (Tosca, La Boheme, and La Traviata were the first three).

The next time I took acid, I listened to bits of those operas and a variety of classical music Leslie had on hand: Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and—the acid winner for me, by a long shot—Debussy. I immediately bought his one opera, Pelleas and Melissade, the first I purchased at retail prices. It's a great opera, but certainly not considered a “beginner's opera,” as this guy makes clear in his post on the subject of good and bad operas for newbies (he claims it is “maybe too musically involved for beginners").  But acid is a short-cut to appreciation for musical complexity, so that was certainly not the case for me.

Since this blog is called Wagner Tripping, I guess it would be best to cut to the chase. Wagner entered my life via Opera for Dummies. The book came with a CD of excerpts of various operas with annotations. Track number nine was the Leibestod, from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde.  (I did not try to find a link with subtitles because I think it is far better to listen with your eyes closed, though the soprano here, Waltrud Meier, is riveting to watch.)  The first time I listened to this CD I was on acid. I had no idea what Isolde was singing about at the time, but it was clear she was becoming very aroused and then had an orgasm, and I was right there with her. My body responded involuntarily to this deeply erotic work.  And the music was simply gorgeous.  (I wrote about Wagner's Erotics here.)  

Once again, I wanted more. I rushed out to buy the full Tristan and Isolde, and planned my next opera trip around it. 

When I did listen: If Carmen was, on my personal Richter scale, a 7.5, Wagner's opera was a 9. Many say that Wagner isn't a good choice for the opera beginner, but I beg to differ.  It was love at first listen.

LSD Musical Effects (and why opera is a particularly good medium for experiencing them):

My instant infatuation with opera is similar to this psychotherapist's experience with his patients who used LSD with music as part of his therapy: 

A number of our patients, who were alcoholics and heroin addicts with poor educational background, developed such deep interest in classical music as a result of their one LSD session that they decided to use their meager financial resources for buying a stereo set and starting a record collection of their own.
I think it is quite obvious that music affects our emotions profoundly—just google “emotional response music” for ample scientific confirmation. Now add acid and, as one academic paper puts it, “the ability of music to release emotion is greatly amplified by the use of a pscychedelic drug, which allows the listener to project his personal experiences and visual fantasies into the unfolding experience.” Exactly my experience.

Further, studies (like this onehave shown that closing your eyes and listening to music provides an increased emotion experience. And, indeed, I have found that to be the case on or off acid—it helps you narrow your focus and thus concentrate and really let the music in emotionally and intellectually.

If you open your eyes while listening on acid, the visual stimulation often overwhelms the listening experience; it's a distraction. However, it doesn't mean you won't have a visual experience if you close your eyes and listen to music on acid. In fact, it will be richly visual, but just internal. And it will be your imagination with far more vivid imagery than you normally experience. It's like you create your own highly personal movie to go with the soundtrack that you have put on.

All operas aim to give expression to profound human emotions and feelings—of love, rage, jealousy, resentment, envy, compassion, and so forth—through dramatic story-telling. (Even the “comedies” do this, as the main difference between a opera comedy and drama is that no one dies at the end of a comedy.) Other forms of story-telling, such as many novels, TV shows, films, theatre and ballet, also try to do this of course. But none of those other forms work well on acid. It is difficult to read or watch any visual story-telling during a LSD peak due to visual hallucinations and distortions. It's not that it can't be a fun experience, but it doesn't tend to tap the deep emotions that music does.

Listening to any beloved music with eyes closed on acid will be an intensely emotional experience, whether it be rock n' roll, classical, jazz or hip hop. What opera allows is to wed that intense emotional experience to a concrete story with resonance in your life. For me, I greatly prefer operas in which the orchestration is continuous and the music transitions fluidly so that my emotions flow as the music does. A sung-through musical such as Les Miserables would be similar to opera, of course, though for me the rich orchestration and the exquistive vocals of my favorite operas are preferable to most musicals. While I have listened to my favorite musical, West Side Story, on acid, the abrupt beginnings and endings of the soundtrack take me out of the story – "Tonight" followed by "Officer Krumpke" just doesn't cut it. It's just too abrupt and, therefore, emotionally jarring.

Speaking of abrupt, next post: I will finally focus on Wagner and his musical effects.


  1. I admit I've never "Wagner tripped," although that's pretty much what happens when I listen to Wagner. My first impression of Act II of 'Tristan und Isolde' was that it unfolded very much like an LSD trip with an erotic subtext. Psychedelics and art are the definition of constructive interference.

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