A GLORIOUS DAY GUESS WHERE

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Yes, it was another trip to New York by bus last Saturday  — to see Un Ballo in Maschera (by Verdi), the last of the three opera matinees  at the Met to which I proactively subscribed last spring.  The caption of this post is not in any way sarcastic. The weather was spectacular.

Ballo in Maschera (Verdi). That's Dimitri ______ threatening to kill his wife for a presumed adultery with the king and Sondra_______ (the blameless wife) pleading in her long slip for her life. If you try very hard, you can also see me reflected in the glass, trying to photograph them for you.

 That’s Dimitri Hvorostovsky, as Count Anckarstrom, threatening to kill his wife Amelia for a presumed adultery with King Gustav III of Sweden (not seen in the poster).  Sondra Radvanovsky, as his blameless wife, is pleading in her ankle-length slip for her life. (He’s already ripped off her dress in a rage.)  If you squint, you can also see part of me unavoidably reflected in the glass, photographing this highly charged situation for your viewing pleasure. 

In contrast to the delights of the weather, I did not at all appreciate the “modernized” production we saw. What is the merit of dressing singers in an opera set in the late eighteenth century, and involving swords, prophecy and witchcraft, in mid-twentieth century dress, and against starkly minimalist abstract sets?  Why was almost every scene “enhanced” by a painted Icarus falling from the sky?  For me, such questions distracted from the richness of the beautiful singing to the point that the part of the day not involving the opera was more interesting than what was on the stage. Therefore once I show you the two glassed-in posters in front of the opera house advertising Ballo (above and below), we’re just going to enjoy being outside today. (With exceptions, of course, for bathroom and lunch and looking around at the opera audience.)

The masked ball itself. (Act III.)  What's all this with black wings sprouting everywhere?

The masked ball itself. (Act III.) See the black wings? (Only one set of wings in the poster, but many more, plus one white set, on stage.) What was that all about? Also don’t miss Icarus dangling above the singers.  In one large pictorial form or another, this inapt metaphoric reference dominated every scene. How was King Gustav’s love for the wife of his best friend without letting her know (adultery in the heart, as it were) — because of which the best friend stabbed him on entirely circumstantial evidence — in any way comparable to flying with wax wings too close to the sun?  Note too, near the bottom, my hands and iPhone, ever at work for you.

There were two free hours before curtain time.  Rather than run to the Time-Warner building on Columbus Circle for quick but high-priced new-clothes shopping, I decided to hang out in the sun instead. After so long and difficult a winter, certain parts of New York, such as Lincoln Center, can be quite lovely when the heavens (rarely) consent to smile.

Map. So -- if interested -- you can get your bearings as we stroll around.

Map of the area, to get your bearings if so inclined.

Here’s the Met itself (middle left on the map above), seen from Broadway at 11 a.m., several hours before the performance began:

Metropolitan Opera House, at the center of Lincoln Plaza.

Metropolitan Opera House, in the center of Lincoln Center.

As you walk closer, you get a better view of the fountain:

If I were still agile enough, I might have hopped up and perched myself!

If I were still agile enough, I might have hopped up myself!

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Hearst Plaza, featuring nicely designed black wrought iron chairs to sit in under the trees. This is looking north with the Met to my back, Avery Fisher Hall (soon to be renamed David Geffen Hall in return for a ten million dollar “gift” from David Geffen) to my right, and a very expensive Italian restaurant called (what else?) “Ristorante” directly in front. For $39 you can have a two-course lunch there, plus additional charges for dessert, beverages of any kind, tax and tip. I know this because I read the menu outside, not because I’ve ever crossed “Ristorante’s” threshold.

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Looking west at the New York Library for the Performing Arts, with the Met on the left, Hearst Plaza on the right, and a very blue sky above.

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Turning north again.

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The Vivian Beaumont Theatre.

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Reversing direction to look south from Hearst Plaza past the Met on the right, David Koch Theater (formerly New York Ballet Theater) on the left, and between them (across the street), Fordham School of Law.

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Preview of new opera productions to debut in the 2015-16 season. I was wearing a dress (as you can see in the reflection) because I was going out to dinner with New York friends after the opera and I have very few opportunities to wear dresses any more, so this was going to be one of them.  (In case you were wondering.)

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The American Ballet Theater (“ABT”) also has a spring season at Lincoln Center, and therefore gets its own poster behind glass.

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Skyline of costly apartments (in center of the shot). Met on the left, Avery Fisher Hall on the right.

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Looking towards Broadway with the Met at my back.

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Vanity, thy name is woman.  Unfortunately, glass doors are not really mirrors. Still it’s an interesting failure of a shot, don’t you think?

If at first you don’t succeed, try again.  I had to go to the bathroom anyway, where there are real mirrors.  The three photos below were taken in the Avery Fisher Hall ladies room, much more accessible than the Met’s (which in any event wasn’t open yet). After tending to business, I did first look around to be sure I was alone before engaging in this continued vanity project. Just as I was memorializing the shot, someone emerged from the last stall.  However, she doesn’t seem to have noticed me. I therefore left her in the picture, to preserve the verisimilitude of the occasion.

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I always look absolutely terrible in selfies. Taking one’s picture in a mirror seems to produce somewhat kinder results, perhaps because of the dim lighting. I do look rather pleased with what I see in the viewfinder, don’t I? When you’re nearly 84, it’s quite rare to find an image of yourself that doesn’t make you cringe. This one probably passes the blush test.

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Closeup. Still okay.

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Even closer. Now the wrinkles show. Smiling helps, though.

Men: please do feel free to skip the next few paragraphs, which consist entirely of fashion notes inspired by a comment to a previous post suggesting I do a piece on what I buy when I next go shopping for new clothes. I haven’t actually bought anything new yet, but as none of you has ever seen anything not new from my closet, we could start with what I had on in these pictures last Saturday.

The tote sitting on the sink in bone and black leather was from Eileen Fisher last summer. (Bought full price online and by now worth every one of the many many pennies I paid. I liked it so much I didn’t put it away when winter came, and now here it’s in season again, never having spent a single day off my shoulder.)  The watch with the red leather strap is from Alessi (Italian) but bought years ago at the MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) shop. The sunglass frames on my head and the frames of the prescription glasses to see with on my nose (which sometimes hang from the ring on the cord around my neck) were both hand-made in France but have no manufacturer name on them.  I bought them, seriatim, from an optometrist in Princeton at least five years ago.

Moving right along, the red cardigan sweater-jacket was acquired on sale and online, also from Eileen Fisher; I rarely wear it because it doesn’t look right by itself with pants or jeans and it doesn’t look right over skirts or dresses under winter coats. But the weather Saturday was too warm for a coat, and I couldn’t stay out through the evening in just a dress, so the red number got an outing. Bill is the only person who really likes it, but I guess it was all right for a wandering photographer to wear while taking pictures of herself.

The dress underneath the sweater (barely glimpsed in the photos) is black viscose jersey with long narrow sleeves; it spoke to me online at midnight four years ago from (you guessed it!) the Eileen Fisher web page. “Buy me!” it cried. (You can tell from the confessed provenance of most of my more presentable clothes that I consider this label a best friend to older women who still care how they look and are willing to spend some money to look that way.) The dress has no waistline or belt, but follows the body (not immodestly) all the way down to the hips, where it flares slightly. Too bad you can’t see the neckline, which is a loose infinity loop that looks as if it might be a scarf but isn’t; it’s part of the dress.

I will skip the source of the black tights. as I can’t remember where I got them.  The black leather loafers are Italian; their purchase took place in Boston, which I left nine years ago, from a shoe store on Boylston Street, opposite the Boston Garden. But that sort of vague and dated information is useless, so let’s forget it.  All this does go to show, however, that I keep things I like for a very long time — if that in any way justifies what I spend for them in the first place.

Okay, men.  You can come back now.  It’s chow time.  Aka lunch.

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American Table is on the ground floor of Alice Tully Hall, just across 65th Street and facing Broadway. I favor it when I’m in the neighborhood because it opens early, serves all day, and closes late. Moreover, as long as you order something, even if just coffee, you can sit and sit, without being hovered over by a waitperson wanting to clear the table.

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I also very much like the fact that the wall facing Broadway is all glass, which permits you to people watch while you’re inside.

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You can see small children (guarded by their careful parents) playing on the tower of steps outside .

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Or you can simply snoop at the passing scene without being noticed yourself.

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It’s also a very pleasant place to meet a friend for lunch or a drink.

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Here’s the menu.

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You place your order with the man at the right, and pay. Then you go sit down. A waiter will bring your order to your table.

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I had the market salad with smoked salmon. When you unroll the pink rosette sitting on the sliced radishes and greens, it becomes four long strips of salmon.

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By the time I got back to Lincoln Center, the crowds in front of the Met were beginning to gather.

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But there were still about twenty minutes till curtain time, and it was too nice to go in just yet.

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I sat and looked up at the spring sky for a while longer.

Once in my seat at the Met, I did observe that some of the younger patrons may have over-welcomed the arrival of spring. There was a noticeably reckless casting aside of garments to display as much flesh as could be considered minimally decent in such a cultured venue.

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This young person, for instance, appears to be cold. She may have overdone it.

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Oh, those very short summer sundresses! Oh, such expanse of youthful thigh! Bill loved this picture when I showed it to him Saturday night.

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By contrast, other young women, less favorably endowed, were not so eager to put aside their coverings. My mother, were she still alive, would have strongly disapproved of the horizontal stripes on so broad a backside as this. But she’s not, so I’ll leave it alone.

After King Gustav had been stabbed, had pardoned everyone, had assured Amelia’s husband (in fine voice) that she was innocent of wrongdoing, and then had collapsed stage front, quite dead, as the curtain fell — I hurried out and managed to flag down a cab to take me north and east to the Upper East Side, where the 1% live. New York is beautiful there.

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A view of Central Park from across Fifth Avenue at East 95th Street. You may not be able to quite make it out, but just above the white SUV is a charming playground for little ones where my New York grandchildren used to dig, climb and swing before they were old enough to go to school.

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Looking north on Fifth Avenue from 95th Street. This part of the city is called Carnegie Hill.

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East 95th Street, seen from Fifth Avenue.

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Flower gardens, New York City style. Here I put away my camera, walked down the street, and met my friends at Tre Otto (Three Eight), a relatively new neighborhood Italian restaurant on Madison Avenue between 97th and 98th, where the waitress explained (when asked) that it’s called “Three Eight(s)” because the owner’s grandmother was born on the 8th of August in 1908 — eighth day of the eighth month of the eighth year of the century — and many of the recipes used in the restaurant came from her.  I took the train home at 9 p.m. — after a long but delicious day.  I hope you enjoyed it, too.

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BEL CANTO AT THE MET

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[ Note: Save this post for when you have some time. It’s not only somewhat lengthy but — a first for me —  a time-consuming “viewing” and listening experience.]

Saturday I attended a matinee performance of Giacomo Rossini’s La Donna del Lago at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  I do these matinee “Opera Outings” at the Met about three or four times a year, not because I can’t live without opera despite its high ticket price, but because it’s good for me to get back to the city in relatively easy fashion and do something that moves me or teaches me or is otherwise different from my everyday life.

It’s true one can hear, and even see, perfectly good opera on CD or DVD.  It’s not the same, though, as walking through that magnificent lobby into an opera house perfectly balanced acoustically, to hear a world-class orchestra and voices as they really sound — before being digitally recorded and/or remastered and/or whatever else is done to a performance to bring it to us in our living-rooms or on our iPhones. That’s one thing about going to the Met that’s different from my everyday life, before we get to the rest of it.

“Opera Outings” was the brainchild of Nancy Froysland Hoerl and her husband Scott, both on the music faculty at Westminster Choir College here in Princeton where I live.  Every year for the past twenty-five years, they have bought a block of tickets  at various price ranges for one of the Met’s standard matinee subscription packages, hired a tour bus, and sold the round-trip-by-bus plus tickets to the general public in the greater Princeton/New Brunswick, NJ area. Usually you buy three to seven of the offered operas together in the preceding spring. Tickets for single operas are rarely available, and only if they are left over afterwards.

The transportation is what makes this idea such a winner.  Just drive to the Westminster Choir College parking lot (five minutes for me), park by 9:30 a.m., get on the bus, and by 10:45 the bus is on West 65th Street right by the steps up into Lincoln Center and the Met.  Since the opera starts at 1:00, you have two hours to go do something else, or else meet a friend for lunch at American Table in Alice Tully Hall across the street. There you can sit and sit and talk and talk; nobody bothers you as long as you’re still nursing a cup of coffee.  Also the bathrooms are very good, and no waiting in lines.

I would not have chosen La Donna del Lago. (My favorite opera, composed later, is still Puccini’s La Boheme — death by consumption in a mid-nineteenth century Parisian attic. That should tell you something about me.) Donna is a bel canto opera inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s 400-page poem, The Lady of the Lake.  And “bel canto” (beautiful singing) is the term applied to a series of Italian operas from the first half of the nineteenth century, more often than not written either by Rossini, Bellini or Donizetti,  in which the plots are for the most part mere trifles, often laughable, designed principally to support dazzling displays of song expressing the emotions of the characters.  And I mean dazzling.  If you can hang on to the end of this post, you’ll hear for yourself.

But Donna was in the Westminster package for 2014-15, and it was a big deal: the first time this opera has ever been mounted at the Met.  New production, great vocal stars (Joyce diDonato and Juan Diego Flores) and highly favorable reviews.  Of course the reviews came after I had paid for the ticket, but it’s always nice to know you’re not going to sit through three hours of ho-hum or worse.

I had the American Table lunch with an old friend. Sautéed catfish for me, tomato soup and Parker House roll for her. Then I went across the street, took a shortcut through the Avery Fisher Hall lobby because it was very cold and windy, pushed through the Met’s doors, showed my bag to the inspector with the flashlight to prove I wasn’t a terrorist and handed over my ticket to be scanned.

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You may wonder why I paid so much to have an orchestra seat when there are four significantly cheaper tiers of seats, mounting to the sky-high ceiling, where I could have heard everything just as well.  It began when Bill used to come along too.  He gets dizzy going down steeply raked stairs, so we went for the orchestra seats together. Then he stopped coming.  He doesn’t like novels, plays or opera very much and had been coming just to please me. (Believe it or not, he has trouble following a narrative line. He a psychiatrist listening to people’s troubles for forty years!) Moreover, the bathroom situation at the Met is, candidly, not good.  I might further note, and he did, that the acts can be quite long before the permitted intermission dash to the few available toilet stalls. It was an issue for him. And who was I to argue?

So then I was on my own, and discovered I was spoiled.  Yes, you can hear the music from anywhere in the house. And see tiny dots, representing human beings, way down there on the stage.  But I like to see the faces.  Good singers do act, you know. Besides, it’s much easier to just walk in, find your seat and sit down than to join gazillions of other people fighting to get into an elevator, then creep cautiously down rickety stairs to your designated row, after which there is a lot of “excuse me, excuse me, excuse me” as you slither without handrail to your seat in the rafters, past other annoyed patrons clutching their coats as they stand for you.

That’s why the orchestra seat.  I hardly ever buy new clothes any more, which kind of evens things out, financially speaking. Okay?

Now that we’re in Seat O16 we can open the program. (Its cover is above.)

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And look at photos of the stars inside:

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Joyce diDonato, the lead mezzo-soprano, as Elena, lovely young Highland lass gathering fake flowers near a loch and rhapsodizing about her love for Malcolm. Malcolm is a “trouser” role — in this case a “kilt” role — sung by another mezzo-soprano.

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Juan Diego Flores, as King James V (Giacomo) disguised as Uberto. He is one of the two tenors inflamed with love for Elena. He also looks very good in his leather outfit. He will relinquish her to Malcolm in the end, to make her happy and and give her a reason to sing her stunning concluding aria.

But what’s most fun to do before the performance begins is to stand up and case the house.

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Don’t forget to look up.

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Unfortunately once the dangling light clusters are drawn up and the house lights dim, picture-taking ends.

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I therefore cannot give you any idea of Act I except to say you have to suspend a lot of disbelief before you can enjoy the glorious music.  Example:  When the libretto requires someone to sing to us that the trumpets are calling him to war, all one can hear from the orchestra in the pit is a happy dance tune dominated by flutes!

An hour and fifteen minutes later comes intermission and mass flight, either to (a) the lower-level restrooms or (b) the bar in the lobby.

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However, instead of checking out the restrooms, let’s walk up to the stage and peer into the emptied orchestra pit. (The lobby and bar are coming in just a minute. Have patience.)

Look how many French horns!

Look how many French horns!

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Percussion section!

Now the lobby:

If you're a quick (and rich) eater, and made a reservation ahead of time, you can eat something during intermission on the level just above the lobby, looking through glass at (and also being seen from) the plaza at Lincoln Center.

If you’re a quick (and rich) eater, and made a reservation ahead of time, you can be served something edible during intermission on the level just above the lobby, looking through glass at (and also being seen from) the plaza at Lincoln Center.

The lobby railings always get me.  The railings in the Family Circle and Balcony can't hope to match such splendor!

The gilded lobby railings always get me. Don’t think the railings in the Family Circle and Balcony are equally splendid.

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Intermission is actually quite long enough to get pleasantly soused.

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The companion of the lady below suggested I photograph her beverage.  I suggested she hold her glass in such a way that we could all admire her jewelry and manicurist’s work as well.

I know this appears to have nothing to do with going to opera at the Met, but in a way it does.  People get quite chatty during those long intermissions, especially at the bar.

I know this appears to have nothing to do with going to opera at the Met, but in a way it does. People get quite chatty during those long intermissions, especially at the bar.

I then turned to the companion, but he said he didn’t want to be photographed, although I could photograph his boots if I liked. I asked if he was very proud of his boots, and he said he was. Given permission, I aimed downward. I don’t think he’ll be reading TGOB to see how silly it all looks on the screen.

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Enough nonsense.  Back to our seat, passing the three rows of standing room at the rear of the orchestra seating as we go.  When I was in my teens and the Met was on Broadway and 39th Street in its pre-Lincoln Center days, I used to line up for standing room to get my fix of La Boheme (and also La Traviata and Tristan and Isolde) at the Saturday matinees.  It was $2.00 then, and there was only one row, without translations of the libretto at the push of a red button. You had to know what you were hearing ahead of time.  I’m sure it’s not $2.00 any more.

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And now, dear readers, as the curtain rises on Act Two I must turn off my phone.  I can show you a bit of the high drama involved from the still photograph in the program:

Lovely Elena trying to hold her two warring tenors apart.  On the left, Rodrigo, leader of the rebel Highlanders -- to whom her father has betrothed her against her will. On the right, Juan Diego (still in leather and still in disguise). Is it a political battle, or a battle for lovely Elena?  Maybe a bit of both?

Lovely Elena trying to hold her two warring tenors apart. On the left, Rodrigo, leader of the rebel Highlanders — to whom her father has betrothed her against her will. On the right, Juan Diego (still in leather and still in disguise). Is it a political battle, or a battle for lovely Elena? Maybe a bit of both?

Much better, though, if you have the time, is this YouTube upload of an intermission interview given by diDonato and Flores just after their dress rehearsal of Donna.  Following some pleasant preliminary chitchat, you get a taste of the Act Two battle photographed above.  Remember not to get upset when Elena grasps Rodrigo’s sword by its (supposedly) sharp blade; it shows the intensity of her feelings without really drawing any blood.

The showstopper of Act II, however, is Elena’s final aria, Tanti affetti, after the King has killed Rodrigo in honorable battle offstage, thus mooting her engagement to him, followed by his forgiveness of Elena’s father and beloved Malcolm (the mezzo) for their acts of treason in opposing his rule, followed after that by his joining the hands of Elena and Malcolm in marriage. (What a benevolent and self-sacrificing king.)  It is ten minutes of extraordinary bel canto singing.  Picture simple country girl Elena expressing her great joy in the King’s throne room before dozens of chorus members in creamy white Elizabethan garb. This still photo doesn’t do justice to seeing an entire stageful of the chorus in these costumes, but it will give you some idea.

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Joyce diDonato frequently uses this bel canto aria as her “party piece.”  In the following YouTube upload, she sings Tanti affeti in evening dress, with orchestra and chorus onstage, at a gala performance in honor of Richard Tucker.  If you haven’t got ten minutes to listen to it all, move to the last three or four minutes, but don’t miss it. This kind of singing is at least one of the reasons why I get on the Westminster bus, and why opera survives.