Great composers have found the Holy Bible to be prime source material for that most outstanding of all art forms: the opera. Singers and musicians combining in a theatrical performance that tells a compelling story.
My twenty and thirtysomething ministerial colleagues seem to be searching for the cutting edge in ecclesiastical life. Try working some of these in your contemporary worship concert/performance and climb to the top of the hip/hop church heap.
Nabucco, Guiseppe Verdi: Nebuchadnezzar for the NASCAR and SEC football fans. Impress your friends by knowing the title is shortened Italian for Nabucodonosor. It’s about the great king of the Babylonians, conquerer of Judah, and earthly lord over exiled Jew Daniel and his friends. If I were looking for operatic material, Babylon ought to be the place. So, the opera has lots of characters not found in the Bible. It has a nice happy ending.
The lovely chorus, Va Pensiero (“Fly, thought…”) “Song of the Hebrew Slaves” is a wonderful few moments. Listen, you will likely recognize it.
Mindful of the fate of Jerusalem, give forth the sound of crude lamentation, or may the Lord inspire you a harmony of voices,which may instill virtue to suffering.
That’ll preach brethren. It’s in Italian, so cue your media guy to give English subtitles.
Samson et Dalila, Camille Saint-Saens
Let’s see. In Judges we find a mighty champion of the One True God, a man of prodigious strength who is seduced by an exotic beauty, blinded, made captive, but ultimately exacts revenge in a spectacular suicide.
If you have an outstanding oboist, have them play The Bacchanale, a staple pop orchestral work begins with a wonderful oboe solo and builds into a wild frenzy in seven short minutes. You don’t have to explain the title although it’s likely some of your members are probably familiar with bacchanalia. Might be a door to some strange pentecostal expressions unseen or unheard in your staid Baptist congregation (where frenzy is usually reserved for business meetings). For a lovely, more sedate aria, Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix (“My heart opens to your voice…”) is lovely but skip the English subtitles. Might be a bit salacious to some of the congregation.
Salome, Richard Strauss
Mark 6:27,28 So [Herod] immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John [the Baptist]’s head. The man went, beheaded John in prison, and brought back his head on a platter. he presented it to the girl [Salome], and she gave it to her mother.
If you are like most ministers and show a decided preference for the New Testament, how about the text above? A couple of verses like this can fire the imagination. Make an entire opera out of these few verses? You bet! Somehow you figure that a beautiful young maiden doing a lascivious dance (the famous ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’) for a lust-filled king, involving a wicked stage mom, and ending up with the head of a locust-eater on a platter would be prime opera material. Toss on a gratuitous suicide and you’ve got all the ingredients. Not to give away the non-biblical ending but you will never guess, nor forget, once you’ve seen it.
Those familiar with Herod and his crowd of incestuous, murderous folk would understand that an entire body of operatic works could easily be generated by the family of Herod alone. I am guessing, quite safely I reckon, that none of you have ever preached on the beheading of him whom Jesus said “among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist” with the realism of this opera. I’m in a lonely search for the fearless pastor who will borrow and use the essential prop to this piece: the bloody head of John the Baptist. Grip it by his dark, curly locks and hold it out for all the congregation to see. Then make your sermonic points. It would be a beautiful thing. They would never forget it. If your church does liturgical dance, don’t be temped by this one. You’ll get fired.
Leave the operatic standards like La Boheme (fun loving Bohemians with a tear jerker ending), Butterfly (another tear jerker, Japanese, an ugly American, seppuku and a cute kid), and all that Wagnerian stuff (flying, screaming women, monsters, and gnomes) for the secular stages.
Operas are rather long (‘…not over ’till the fat lady sings’ may be the extent of operatic knowledge for some of the reverends) and if we need anything new out of the pulpit it is shorter sermons, not longer. So, don’t fall in love with grand opera and take to the pulpit as if you are Caruso or Pavarotti. Folks could listen to their golden voices for extended periods…but probably not yours.
One final word on the opera and Bible. There’s an opera based on Jael and Sisera although it seems to be rarely performed. Perhaps the composer failed to nail it.
Photo by Bengt Nymon, Flickr:DSC_1870, Salome at the Swedish Royal Opera December 2013