What you’ll need: good lung capacity, strong vocal chords

Songlist: Bizet’s Habanera from Carmen, Opera Singer by Cake

Further reading: Living Opera by Joshua Jampol

It ain't over til...oh. I guess it's over.

When I graduated from elementary school into middle school, I thought it was about time for me to take an interest in adult things. Adult things, as far as I knew, were dull things, and dull things were often “cultural” things. I vowed to read at least one article a week in that magazine that showed up incessantly in our mailbox, The New Yorker (unlike the much more exciting Seventeen that arrived only once a month), and to enjoy our visits to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts that I’d always groaned about in my youth.

To help me in my cultural enlightenment, my parents bought me four tickets to the Minnesota Opera’s Der Rosenkavalier that year for Christmas. The friend I invited wore spats and a monocle to the performance, and I wore a cashmere-blend sweater and leather gloves that my brother had brought back for me from Italy. We thought we were the epitome of class as this friend led me up the stairs of the Ordway on his elbow. But when the opera started, I think we both realized we were in over our heads. The singers were so far away, the German–which both my friend and I were studying in middle school–largely unintelligible, the “opera jokes” unfunny (the entire audience inexplicably erupted into laughter when a dwarf ran onstage to pick up a handkerchief dropped by the Marschallin). My friend briefly fell asleep in the third act. I didn’t, but the temptation was great.

Van Gogh's Olive Trees at the MIA

My other cultural experiments were going well: I discovered that, though there are few pictures, The New Yorker was fabulously interesting, and that I absolutely loved the Impressionist room at the MIA, which holds a Monet haystack and Van Gogh’s Olive Trees. While proving to myself that I was not a cultural illiterate, I thought maybe opera was just something I would not understand.

In high school, however, I began to take voice lessons. My voice teacher gave me jazz classics to sing, some Broadway show tunes, some Italian and German art songs. And she gave me Carmen.

The music of Carmen is instantly recognizable to Americans who think they have never heard opera before. Advertisers and film scores alike draw heavily on Bizet’s classic, as I was reminded this past weekend while watching There’s Something About Mary (Ben Stiller’s second bathroom scene of the movie is accompanied by the Danse Boheme, a beautiful piece that builds in noise and tempo to a brilliant, uh, climax). The famous Habanera has been featured in such diverse movies as Up, Trainspotting, Magnolia, Superman Returns, and Meet the Parents and in the TV shows Clerks and Six Feet Under.

About the time that I was learning Bizet’s Habanera and the Seguidilla arias, a group of singers from the Minnesota Opera’s Young Artist Program visited my high school. They described a typical day in their lives: German, French, and Italian lessons, yoga and acting classes, vocal training sessions and group rehearsals. It sounded like heaven to me. And though I am blonde, blue-eyed, midwestern American, I was sure that I would follow in their footsteps and someday sing the role of Carmen onstage at La Scala or the Met.

The closest I got to that dream was singing the Habanera for my senior recital on Central High School’s stage–not exactly the Met. Though I was able to perfectly mimic the Maria Callas recording at home, I was sick the night of my recital and the aria didn’t come out as beautifully as I’d hoped. And though a kind acquaintance said I’d done well (I knew better), I realized that sickness is not an option in the life of an opera singer. One bad night and you might be booed off the stage, or out of a job if your understudy upstages you. Even Maria Callas, my opera heroine, ruined her voice too early from improper singing technique.

The summer after my senior year, I finally saw a live performance of Carmen at the now defunct Theatre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis. The theater was much too small for a full orchestra, so two pianists had the difficult task of providing the entire accompaniment. Unlike at the Ordway Theater in St. Paul, the audience sat right against the stage, encircling the singers. The sets were non-existent, the costumes simple. Thus, there was no ornamentation–the performance hinged upon the quality of the singing. And it took my breath away. I still vividly remember the Habanera, which mezzo-soprano Christine Baldwin began by striking her foot in the dust in that famous rhythm without any accompaniment at all. The performance was electric, intimate, gorgeous, one you wouldn’t have to know anything about opera to enjoy. And though I doubt I could keep my voice in good enough shape for the profession, sometimes I still imagine myself at the Met in a dark wig and flamenco skirt singing “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle…”