Getting Goosebumps

I’m a goosebump kind of guy.  Put on the right piece of music — preferably opera or a stirring piece of classical music — and I’ll be reacting with the familiar chills running up and down my arms, leaving the little hairs vibrating.  The selection above from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, or a beautiful Puccini aria from La Boheme, or Wagner’s Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, among many others, will do it every time.

What causes goosebumps or, to use the more elegant French term, frisson?  (Either of which, incidentally, is preferable in my book to the description used by some researchers —  “skin orgasms” — which makes a pure, deep, emotional reaction to music sound a little bit tawdry and embarrassing.)  Scientists aren’t quite sure.  It’s pretty easy to identify the kinds of music that provoke the reaction; typically the selections involve soaring notes or unexpected changes in volume, tone, or harmony.  But why do some people experience a noticeable physical reaction to such auditory stimulation?

Some scientists theorize that there are evolutionary roots to the reaction, because the arm hair response would help to warm our much hairier ancestors, but that doesn’t make much sense to me.  After all, a significant portion of humans — somewhere between 20 and 40 percent — never experience goosebumps, which seems like a pretty big percentage if you’re positing that the reaction is somehow significant to evolutionary success.  And I can’t exactly picture early hominids listening to Mozart or Bach or their prehistoric equivalent.

Other researchers think the goosebump phenomenon is tied to personality.  The goosebump group will like this:  some research studies indicate that those who shiver with frisson tend to get high marks in a personality trait called “openness to experience,” which is linked to a lot of positive characteristics like unusually active imaginations, appreciation of beauty and nature, intellectual curiosity, interest in trying out new experiences, and enjoyment of variety in life.  That makes us goosebumpistas sound pretty superior, but I honestly doubt that there’s really a big difference between us and the frisson-free folk.  I think it’s simply that people react to music differently.

There’s a reason why music was developed in the first place, after all.  It enriches our existence and makes us feel good — a sensation that some of us experience physically.  And we should be glad for that, too.  Who knows?  Maybe we wouldn’t have had the rich human tradition of beautiful music, in all its forms, if our ancestors hadn’t experienced a shudder of frisson once in a while.

Mission:  Seraglio

Last night I got one of my Christmas presents when Kish and I attended Opera Columbus’ Mission:  Seraglio.  Opera tickets were one of my stocking stuffers.

The timing was excellent for another reason.  Mission:  Seraglio is a reimagining of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, and yesterday just happened to be Mozart’s birthday.  The wily Wolfie, were he still among us, would have been 261 yesterday.

Opera Columbus’ production features all of the same beautiful music, but the setting and dialogue of the opera are transformed into a ’60s James Bond caper with a dashing spy, an archvillain apparently bent on world domination of a sort, and “Bond women” galore.  The modifications turn Seraglio into an outright comic romp, from the point at the outset when a tiny doll figure parachutes through the Southern Theatre, to the suggestive rearrangement of topiary plants by a sex-obsessed gardener, to a clever use of the lyric translation display, to the finale where one of the characters is securely wrapped in a straitjacket and hauled away.  The sets are great and the new dialogue is clever and occasionally laugh out loud funny.  And, while the characters clearly enjoyed their light-hearted trip down James Bond Lane, they also did justice to the lovely, often passionate songs that Mozart created.  I think he would have approved.

Mission:  Seraglio shows that opera is a vibrant, flexible art form where there is still lots of room for creativity, even for a work that was written more than 230 years ago.  It’s another job well done by Opera Columbus, and you can still see it at the Southern this weekend.

Ashes To Opera

The Metropolitan Opera cancelled the last act of its performance of Rossini’s classic opera Guillaume Tell on Saturday afternoon because an audience member spread what police believed were cremated remains into the orchestra pit during intermission.  The opera to be performed on Saturday night also was cancelled as a result of the incident.

facade_of_the_metropolitan_opera_house_at_lincoln_center_nyc-1477798657-6912According to the New York Times, a man in attendance told other audience members that he was at the opera to spread the ashes of his mentor.  During the second intermission, the man was seen reaching into a black bag and sprinkling a powdery substance into two parts of the orchestra pit — which caused the cancellation of the rest of the opera because the powder was viewed as a potential threat and was subjected to testing.  The man apparently has been identified through video surveillance footage, and police are trying to reach him.  A follow-up story in the Times identifies the man, who apparently has posted on his Facebook page that he plans to leave some of the ashes at every opera house he and his mentor have visited.

Apparently, spreading cremated remains in a place like the orchestra pit at the Metropolitan Opera isn’t a per se offense under New York law — at least, if you aren’t acting with criminal intent — but rather is simply a health code violation.

It’s weird to think that someone would decide that it was appropriate to spread cremated remains in the midst of an actual performance of an opera — or for that matter, any live event, whether it’s a football game or a rock concert.  It’s pretty selfish, too, when you think about it.  This guy’s mentor evidently was an opera lover, and yet the act of spreading his ashes caused opera performances to be cancelled.  If I were one of the people holding tickets to a performance that was cancelled — especially if I’d travelled from out of state to see the Met — I’d be furious.