What is an operagasm? An operagasm is the sensation you feel when any passage from any opera bypasses all your mental and critical faculties, annihilates time and space, and makes your brain explode. It’s the experience opera fans most long for, and it’s the one they encounter least often. The operagasms they do encounter they will remember and cherish for the rest of their lives.
In theory, operagasms might happen to almost everyone in the same opera house at the same time. For instance, when Sondra Radvanovsky sings “Casta Diva” or when Rachel Willis-Sørensen pleads with the moon in Rusalka, almost everyone loses their minds more or less simultaneously. As a rule, though, your operagasms are entirely your own. The patrons to your left and right may be enjoying themselves in a perfectly presentable manner, inwardly humming, laughing, fidgeting, or even napping, while you find yourself suddenly untethered from temporal reality and floating in the vastness of the universe — your own personal epiphany.
An operagasm can be spurred by a single note, lasting for just seconds. It can also be triggered by a chord, a phrase, an aria, a chorus, a scene, or an act. It begins and ends through no agency of yours, and you may not know it’s even happened until it’s over and you’ve had time to catch your breath. No effort of will can bring it back, though the memory of it has the power to flatten you at random moments throughout your life.
There are many types of operagasms: fiendish glee, sublime hilarity, inexpressible heartbreak, Armageddon, sheer sonic splendor, visions of eternal bliss, and infinite combinations of all these and many more. What are your particular operagasms? Here are a few of mine: Elektra’s opening monologue and Salome’s final rapture, both by Strauss; the last twenty minutes of Benjamin Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream; the opening chorus from Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello and the climactic chorus from Arrigo Boito’s Mephistopheles; the septet and love duet from Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens; the hopeless sacrifice of Antonín Dvorak’s Rusalka and the vengeful ecstasy of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Queen of the Night”; a Florez cadenza and an arching Fabiano phrase; a Radvanovsky pianissimo and a Mattila fortissimo; the heart-stopping moment when Von Stade sings her condemned son’s name for the last time in Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Dead Man Walking; and above all, for me, the transcendent finale of Suor Angelica, as only Giacomo Puccini can write it.
During this time of canceled shows and scattered audiences, our operagasms all come from the recorded memories of performances that happened long ago, broadcast and streamed across screens big and small. The absence hurts. When will we once again have the opportunity to subsume our fears and anxieties in the real-time catharsis of live opera? No one knows.
May operas and operagasms shake the rafters again, soon and forever, creating memories of operatic bliss that are ours alone.
Paul Dana has been a member of San Francisco Opera’s staff since 1984, sharing his humor and encyclopedic knowledge of opera with colleagues through his role as support services coordinator.