Campus Life St. John's College Santa Fe The Arts The Program

Studying Opera at St. John’s: A Personal Reflection

By Camy Hines

(Note: Just because we don’t study singing opera doesn’t mean we can’t attempt it.)

In the spring semester of our sophomore year, we trade the science of categories, of temperature and pressure, of atomic theory, for the study of life, passion, and song. Instead of lab, sophomores have music class. The year of music begins much like a science class with the study of the technical aspects of music theory. We read The Study of Counterpoint by Johann Joseph Fux, the same manual Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart used to study.

I never thought that I would get to study music theory at all, never mind in such an authentic and whole way. Even in high school, music already seemed to be for the specialists only. It was always so out of my reach, and I knew that even if I took a college course in music theory, it would only be to read a simplistic textbook or power-point. It would only be to have confirmed what I already knew: that any study of music was best left to the experts, and that I needn’t concern myself with any of its big questions. Music was another language, one I could never hope to learn, one perhaps even more off-limits than ancient Greek for its subtleties.

But here we were, launching ourselves full-speed into the dogmas and complexities of musical theory when most of us began not even knowing what a bass clef was. I won’t pretend that I or anyone else in the class is now an expert in any sense, but a change has come with the accessibility of the whole realm of musical knowledge. I will listen to music for the rest of my life with a belief in my capacity for understanding, given some focus, direction, and good questions.

In our second semester, we exited Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion for something that seemed to me a little more colorful: Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. While St. Matthew’s Passion felt like more of a mechanical slog to me– for which I can only blame my own poor taste for easy music, say, Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time”–  Marriage of Figaro cracked the world wide open. The opera begs endless, timeless questions about romance, gender, and sexuality, giving a view of what happens when the Platonic theory of Eros we read last year is let loose upon the world. We then moved on to Don Giovanni, who complicated things ever further. (What is the difference between Cherubino and Don Giovanni’s love of love?)

Understanding the technical aspects of the music, having open discussions about the meaning of the libretto, and simply listening to both has made studying these operas an experience rich beyond belief, and one I never expected to have. The unmistakable passion of being alive that is carried by these works is something that I can immerse myself in forever, and I feel so grateful to have been exposed to them.

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