How operas can be make-overs for your soul

Maria Isabel Garcia
How operas can be make-overs for your soul
'Learning music is like having your own personal Big Bang – you do not explode and expand into a space but rather, you make the space as you grow'

Best friends are such because they are great conspirators. One of my best friends was from high school. For years, she shared her cooking dish with me at the end of her cooking class so I could bring it home to my mother, who thought I was in the same cooking class, desperately hoping I would be good in it. 

I skipped many cooking and other “standard” elective classes in high school to study classical music (singing) in the Conservatory, which included arias and zarzuela. I also learned to sing a lot of early American Broadway songs then. I think when you do that when you are 12, aside from the pure joy you derive from music, you are able to create territories within yourself – territories that would probably be alien to me now. But learning music is like having your own personal Big Bang – you do not explode and expand into a space but rather, you make the space as you grow. I think a good measure of my “interior space” decades after, I owe to classical music. 

I am again acutely made aware of this musical debt because I had just seen Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia Di Lamermoor and as with many if not all who have seen it, you become so aware of the power of music over you. But it is a common love story – echoed even today by many teleseryes – that spoke of true love corrupted by family because of the need to save a fortune. A woman, Lucia, who was in love with Edgardo (a member of a family enemy), fooled by her brother that Edgardo fell for another, was forced to marry another. She ends up killing her husband and goes mad because of that and because Edgardo loathed her for having married another. Lucia’s tortured soul dies and Edgardo upon learning of this, realizes the truth, and kills himself to be united with Lucia. But the music has transformed this common story into a universe all its own. 

Most young people seem to view classical music as antiquated and irrelevant in their lives. And Lucia Di Lamermoor, when I saw it, was an example. With the exception of one little boy, about 7, with the rest of his family, average age of the opera audience was maybe 55.  

One of the obvious reasons why most young people cannot connect to classical music is because they may think what is past only belongs to people who live in the past. In the sciences, when we compute for satellite launches or structural engineering in theme park rides, we go back to Newton’s equations. I do not see why it should be different in the performing arts where operas can explore the web of human emotions as they have been enacted in souls past, in the emotions of our fellow humans, in the most creative way and in the safest of harbors – the theater. 

In Act I when Lucia and Edgardo vow their love for each other and express their pain of having to temporarily part, you get to feel the joy and pain of being so attached to someone and face the prospect of being apart not in real time but in the inner time of your inner life’s space. Whereas now, all you could muster is an emoticon with hearts or “PM me” or “Text me” to someone you love who is about to leave for an indefinite amount of time, in an opera, you get to explore and feel that specific complex emotion in 7 music pages – the equivalent of 7 emotional seas. It is where you and that emotion are face-to-face creating that very space just for that encounter. You do not come out of that the same, even if you try to resist it or deny it.

A 2017 study on opera and young people found that if young people are given a chance to participate in an opera, not even for professional development, they gain a sense of confidence and a connection with a culture and being part of it, contributing to it. That speaks of the sense of the larger-than-self that emotions should grow into so that young people can gracefully learn to resist their “I am the center of the universe” instinct. 

But sadly, the kind of education we give our children largely reinforce the fragmented way we look at the world. This includes the unyielding divide in teaching the arts and the sciences as if real life were really divided as such. We also associate the sciences with “jobs” and “arts” with “no jobs.” And then we are shocked and feel despair over our own inadequacy to navigate our own emotions when we are older and the resulting lives we have because of that.  We did not allow the arts to get inside our lives that way when it could have enabled us to safely “practice” a range of human emotions inside us as we identify with roles and situations played out in theater.

“Opera” is from the Italian word that literally means “work” or “labor.” And it is. It is undoubtedly that for the composer/writer, for the director, actors/singers, and the other members of the opera. But it is most certainly also “work” for the audience – inner work, inner crafting – for a few hours, to shatter the bounds of time, the borders of your own personal experiences.  It is labor that is worth it for your own soul’s make-over. – 

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” You can reach her at

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