Gospel Fluency by Jeff Vanderstelt, Free for CAPC Members
In Gospel Fluency, Jeff Vanderstelt wants to help every believer speak the gospel in the stuff of everyday life.
[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 3, Issue 3 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Self-Deprecation,” available for free for a limited time. You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]
I’ve always loved classical music—with one caveat: No vocals allowed. I was game for anything instrumental, from sonatas to symphonies. But the vocal stuff intimidated me, and not just because of the language barrier (though that was a big part of it).I felt a little like someone who had accidentally stumbled into a new country, one that I had barely known existed, and found it to be more wonderful than I ever could have imagined.
The truth is, at some point in my life, I seem to have formed a mental image of the sort of person who’s into opera: stuffy, over-refined, fastidious, hyper-intelligent—like Frasier Crane and his brother, Niles, from the sitcom Frasier. I don’t have the data to prove it, but just on an anecdotal basis, I think a lot of us have formed that sort of image. For whatever reason, popular culture has done a good deal to create it and promote this image, Frasier being just one of many examples. And it was an image that I didn’t feel comfortable with at all.
So the last person I ever expected to find getting into opera was me. Me, the person who can’t hear Wagner or Rossini without recalling Bugs Bunny. The person whose college Italian is so rusty that she’s doing well if she can pick out one word in twenty; whose elementary-school French is even rustier; and whose German and Russian are completely nonexistent. As for the music, well, I could pontificate about musical theater all day long (and often have), but opera was a different animal; I had exceedingly little knowledge of what made one operatic voice better or worse than another.
With all these barriers in the way, I saw myself as permanently barred from the world of opera, and I really couldn’t have cared less.
Fast-forward to today. I now have recordings by Anna Netrebko and Juan Diego Flórez and various other sopranos and tenors crowding my shelves, and La Traviata tickets in my desk drawer. If you asked me how all this came about, I’m honestly not sure I could tell you. There was a friend who invited a few of us to see a local production; I went along in the spirit of “I’ll try anything once.” Some time later, there was a DVD showing or two at the friend’s house; I went along in the spirit of “Well, it wasn’t so bad the first time.”
Then, somewhere along the way, I got sucked in. Somehow I started buying DVDs and opera tickets myself. At some point, the Met Opera Live in HD (showings of live productions from New York’s Metropolitan Opera in movie theaters around the country) turned from a curiosity into a pleasant pastime, and then into an addiction. I felt a little like someone who had accidentally stumbled into a new country, one that I had barely known existed, and found it to be more wonderful than I ever could have imagined.
And what happened to the barriers? Nothing, actually. They’re still there. Sometimes I have a little help with the language—nowadays most productions have English subtitles—but when I’m listening to an opera in my car, I’m on my own. If I’m lucky, I’ve had time for a quick glance at the synopsis first, so at least I have some inkling of what’s going on. But I drive the hour or so to work listening to voices I don’t really know how to evaluate or describe, singing in a language of which I have little or no understanding, about people and things that I have only the haziest grasp of. Yet the whole experience is so beautiful and powerful I sometimes want to pull over and just sit there soaking it all in. (I haven’t tried it yet, as I can’t see my boss accepting “bowled over by music” as a good excuse for missing a day of work.) The first time I listened to Puccini’s Tosca this way, I was so moved that, had there actually been English words to interpret the sounds I was hearing, I think I would have burst into tears right there on the road.
What kept me—what keeps many of us—from moving past the barriers to find out what such an experience might be like? One major reason is this: In our society, we have, as I mentioned before, a somewhat warped view of high culture. We think that any given art form is only for those who’ve been immersed in it all their lives, who can talk knowledgeably about every aspect of it. I certainly used to feel that way. But coming to an art form a little later in life, you get a new perspective on things. You start to see that this view robs us of the idea that high culture can actually be fun—that even those of us who don’t understand it very well can splash around in the shallows, so to speak, and still get something worthwhile out of it.
Of course, it helps if you leave your pride at the door. In embracing opera, I’ve also had to come to terms with the fact that I’m deeply ignorant of it. I’ve often decided what I should listen to next in ways that would probably strike most opera lovers as completely comic; for instance, I’m not above Googling “essential opera recordings” or “what is the best recording of The Marriage of Figaro.”
Oh, I’ve picked up what I can as I’ve gone along. I’ve listened to a Great Course on opera, which, though excellent (everyone ought to hear Robert Greenberg talk about music at least once in his or her life), only scratched the surface of the subject. I found myself a good Facebook opera discussion group, but when the others are going on about favorite singers and conductors and productions, I’m compelled to stay silent and just try to absorb what I can. (When I do say something, I tend to preface it with, “I’m just a newbie, so . . .” or “Please don’t laugh at me, but . . .” and everyone has been incredibly kind and patient thus far.)
And very often, when I find myself starting to form an opinion about a certain artist or performance, a little voice in the back of my mind pipes up, “Shut up, idiot, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
In short, opera makes me feel stupid. And maybe that’s the best part of the whole thing. I’ve come to believe that hearing that little voice can be a healthy experience now and then. Not only is it conducive to humility, but also it’s helped me see opera, and the arts in general, in a new light. And it’s even added something to my view of the relation between faith and art.
You see, a lot of us Christians, particularly those of us who write reviews for a living, tend to believe that a Christian approach to culture involves being as knowledgeable as we possibly can, about as many aspects of it as we can. There’s a lot to be said for that approach, of course. To participate in an informed give-and-take about culture, as we must do if we want to have a voice in the shaping of culture, we have to do our best to develop some degree of intelligence about it. We have to have some understanding of trends and backgrounds and subtext and context and all the other factors that go into the creation and the understanding of a book or play or film. Essentially, we have to know our stuff.
But there are also some disadvantages to that way of thinking that I wasn’t fully aware of before. When you find yourself dealing with a totally new art form, it seems to me now, that you open yourself up to the experience in a way that you might not if you already knew all there was to know about it. You have nothing to bring to the table yourself, which frees up your hands to receive it all as a gift. For a little while, you forget about what kind of self-image you do or don’t feel comfortable with and simply enjoy yourself.When you find yourself dealing with a totally new art form, you open yourself up to the experience in a new way. You have nothing to bring to the table yourself, which frees up your hands to receive it all as a gift.
Sometimes—though obviously, the context is very different—I wonder if perhaps Jesus meant something like that when He talked about receiving the kingdom of God like a little child. Because the sort of wonder I feel as I watch and listen and discover more about opera can best be described as childlike. It’s the kind of feeling that I think we too seldom bring to the arts anymore—but that adds immeasurably to our experience of them.
It doesn’t matter that my attempts to talk about opera would make Frasier and Niles Crane roll their eyes and edge out of the room as fast as humanly possible. It doesn’t matter that my listening experiences usually resemble those of a hapless tourist plunked down in a foreign country equipped with only a few words of the language. (“Hey, he said subito! That means immediately! So, something something immediately something.”) What matters is that I’m having a glorious time—and when you get right down to it, isn’t that what the arts are supposed to be all about?
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