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"I get bored with partying and maybe that's my saving grace — some people don't." — Bono

U2 Connections


by Angela Pancella

Bono & Pavarotti

Opera pops up in odd places when U2 are concerned. Start with the obvious -- Pavarotti's appearance on Passengers: Original Soundtracks 1; Bono, Edge and Brian Eno on stage with the great tenor in Modena; Bono reciting an Andrea Bocelli-penned poem on the crossover star's Cieli di Toscana album. The influence of the genre shows up in lyrics: the protagonist in Ultraviolet gives as a symptom of his mental disarray "I heard opera in my head"; Bono sang at his father's funeral "You're the reason why the opera is in me"; when "Kite" was dedicated to his father in concert, the closing verse called him "the last of the opera stars." 

I may be fifteen years Bono's junior, but my mother and my father were his parents' age, and that has influenced the way I have reacted to what Bono has said about opera over the years. Bono explained in BBC2's "The U2 Story" how he wrote Pavarotti's part in "Miss Sarajevo" "imagining that was my father singing in the bath 'cause my father was a great tenor"; hearing that, I thought of my own father, whose rumbling bass could be heard down the block when he launched into arias in the shower. "My old man was into opera," Bono told David Breskin in a 1987 Rolling Stone interview, "which, as far as I was concerned, was just heavy metal. I like those bawdy opera songs: the king is unfaithful to the queen, then he gets the pox, they have a son, the son grows up and turns into an alligator, and in the end they kill the alligator and make some shoes for the king. But because it's sung in Italian, people think it's very aloof. Not at all." Reading that, I remembered evenings watching the Met on TV with my mother and father, demanding they read the subtitles to me, and how the stories still never made sense.

Now, a world of classically trained singers and concert halls with red velvet seats may not at first glance seem to have much in common with three-chord rockers packing 50,000 seat stadiums. Even the presence of Pavarotti on a U2 recording proves nothing; he sang with the Spice Girls too. Yet, if one should dig deeper, one might discover opera and U2 are wound tightly round each other.

It's a big term, opera, a word that covers such a wide range of styles it's been rendered nearly meaningless, much like the word "rock'n'roll." "Opera" means everything from works by Monteverdi with his heavy reliance on castrati (male singers with preternaturally high voices, thanks to, well, what you might guess from their name), to fluffy farces like "The Barber of Seville", to heavy Teutonic epics like Wagner's "Ring Cycle," to modern commentaries on historical events like "Lizzie Borden." Here are some attributes that remain relatively constant: an opera is a story told in song, acted out on stage, in costume. Thus it is a combination of theater and concert and a demanding art form for its practitioners -- they must be believable actors and actresses as well as excellent singers. They must in fact be excellent loud singers, as they perform unamplified; they must develop their voices to the point where they may be heard above a symphony orchestra.

Today opera is a minority taste, but there was a time when it had hold of popular culture in the way rock'n'roll had in a later era. Opera lovers today are seen by some as elitist or snobs, but at their heyday operas were not exclusively attended by the upper class or the intelligentsia, but by people from every strata of society. Riots broke out at shows with controversial themes. Everyone had their favorite singers. Even today my mother will get together with friends and debate the merits of tenors Jan Peerce and Jussi Bjoerling, just as I discuss Thom Yorke and Rufus Wainwright. We do not understand each other's music, but we have to respect each other's passion for it.

Stereotypical attitudes toward the popular music of an earlier time have taken hold. Say "operatic" today and the word carries connotations like "bombastic," "overdramatic" and "inaccessible." In the rock world, the guiding principle, the acceptible approach, is simplicity -- rock'n'roll means blue jeans, not formalwear; a primal howl, not thirty years of voice exercises. There have been such things as "rock operas" but critical opinion remains divided on their merit, and whether indeed they qualify under either name, as rock or as opera.

Which is what makes U2's relationship to opera such an interesting case. A sharp-eyed reader of music criticism will notice the band's detractors will use the very terms associated in the popular mind with opera to describe U2's stadium shows -- "pretentious," "overblown," "too much spectacle." What is indispensible to opera -- the theatrical aspect -- is considered a distraction from "real" rock. But what if U2 were being judged on a contrary set of standards -- an approach not inferior or superior to "real" rock, just different?

The stadium extravaganzas of ZooTV and PopMart had costumes, sets, even a sort of story arc, as evidenced by the relatively static nature of the setlists. The concerts were marriages of the attitude of rock'n'roll to the aesthetic of opera. 

They borrowed characters from that rarified world -- Macphisto's cousin is Mephistopheles, who has appeared on stage in both dramas and operas derived from the legend of Faust's temptation. In Macphisto's dressing room hung a picture of Mario Lanza, a naturally gifted tenor whose tragic real life could inspire a musical retelling -- opera's answer to Elvis.

In addition, the emotional content of U2's songs -- U2's oft-cited habit of wearing their heart on their sleeves -- has a parallel to the passion and overdrive in opera. Compare, for instance, Bono's mimed heroin hit at the end of ZooTV's "Running to Stand Still" to the anguish Mimi's death provokes in "La Boheme." Or the revelling-in-amorality Fly to Bizet's characterization of "Carmen."

Bono was quoted recently as saying "You know there are moments when I've yearned to be a country and western singer....I think 'what am I doing slapping myself on the flypaper every night?' There's a cost to this opera." No, U2 are not a country and western band. Sometimes they're not even a rock and roll band. They may have more of the spirit of opera -- the way that music engaged with its diverse audience, its passion and emotional intensity -- than the last production at the Met.

A connection that is a real stretch -- Bono and Gavin Friday sang T. Rex's "Children of the Revolution" on the Moulin Rouge soundtrack. That Baz Luhrman film owes much of its plot to "La Beheme." Coincidentally, Luhrman directed an Australian staging of "La Boheme," which is available on video. I recommend it for anyone who would like to find out more about opera but does not know where to begin.