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The Powerful Magic of Operatic Singing

When the dulcet strains of Emily Zamourka’s fragile soprano echoed throughout the bathtub-resonance of a nearly deserted Los Angeles Metro subway station, where “it sounds so great,” it wasn’t the first time she’d lifted her voice in Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro, for the simple joy of singing.

But on that random October day, Ms Zamourka’s singing so captivated an onlooker that he grabbed his smartphone to make a memory of the moment (with her shy permission). And post it on the LAPD twitter feed (against her expressed wish). The online video had already gone viral when the story was picked up by mainstream media, along with the story of her rocky road to that subterranean platform.

Almost overnight, the 52-year-old Moldovan-born musician was catapulted from homeless anonymity to global recognition, a public stage worthy of her aria, some $80,000 in GoFundMe donations, and even a potential recording contract.

In honor of World Opera Day, I would like to say this about that: Just look what happens when there’s...

Real opera in the house!

That is, when real people find themselves actually face-to-face with real classic vocalism. Something like this is also true of a rock concert or a gospel choir jubilee, or any other live performance of powerful sound and rhythm. But operatic vocalism is unique in its capacity to evoke physical rapture, as the body replies in kinesthetic response. Even avowed antagonists of classical music find themselves unexpectedly suspended in the physical presence of full-throated vocal production—especially when it is deployed in service of the iconic works of the grand opera repertoire.

Think of America’s Got Talent episodes that have featured contestants who sing operatically. The audience, the judges, the show runners—they’re all gobsmacked! Every. Single. Time. They can't help it.

It’s more than the tune. It’s more than the range. It’s more than nominal allegiance to an art form or a particular subset of singing. It is, in fact, a physical phenomenon.

Writing in Bodily Charm (a delightfully accessible work of operaphilia and scholarship), Drs. William (MD) and Linda (PhD) Hutcheons describe the physics of sound waves moving through an audience of open-breasted, forward-facing listeners—from the singer’s throat, through air, toward decay and conclusion. The sound itself stirs the larger corpus, quickens each pulse, sweeps infinitesimally through the microscopic cilia of the auditory canal to the body, and then the mind. In spite of unfamiliar musical genre or foreign language, the experience of impact is inescapable, bypassing cognition.

The real thing is impossible to resist. Go get some! And enjoy this World Opera Day!


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