My best friend is an opera nut, and thanks to her I just attended the fifth of eleven operas I’m seeing this season at the Met. (If you think that’s crazy, she has tickets for 23 performances.) I started listening to opera in college, when, during a fit signing up for the most eclectic selection of classes I could muster, I enrolled in the UConn opera class in my junior year. (the others, for the record, were Latin, Oceanography, Russian History to 1880, and Ice Skating.)

My preconceived idea about opera was that lots of dramatic, loud people wearing ornate clothing with too many accessories stood on stage for 4 hours dying slowly while singing about love in Italian. The funny thing? In the last 10 years, I’ve learned a lot about opera, but this is a pretty accurate description of what I saw last night.

Don Carlo at the Met was actually an amazing experience; not only did I enjoy the performance immensely (despite the fact that it ran from 7:00pm until almost midnight…), but I read a fascinating article in the program that made me think about High Holiday services in relation to the opera, a connection I never would have made on my own.

During the intermission Carrie and I were reading through the program, and I came across an interview with composer Osvaldo Golijov, an Argentinian-born Jew with Eastern European parents who made aliyah to Israel before settling in the US in 1986. He’s currently working on a new opera for the Met, which will most likely premier in the 2010-2011 season. (and no, it will not be called “A Space Odyssey.”)

In the course of the interview, Golijov says:

“It’s strange, but the thing I feel has really permeated my sense of musical theater is the synagogue, not opera. If you stay at the synagogue for a whole day – for Yom Kippur, for example – there’s a whole drama going on. The sense of ritual that belongs to so much of opera, I think I got from the synagogue. […] Once you are in a synagogue, time is like musical time, which can go backwards, upwards, downwards, forwards, it can be frozen. Time as a horizontal, forward-going experience ceases to exist.”

My first reaction to reading this was some discomfort; because I’m working toward a career in synagogue music, I’m extremely sensitive to minimizing the performance aspect of services. A service should not actually be a performance, but it’s a fine line to walk for the person or people leading the congregation. And the idea that the opera was an equivalent experience to Yom Kippur just made me squirm in my seat.

But I’ve been thinking about it since last night, and I’m starting to understand his comments more and be troubled by them less. Golijov doesn’t say that his synagogue experience has been influenced by opera, but that growing up in synagogues has influenced his sense of drama and music and time. And I have to admit that I’ve been influenced the same way.

Without always being conscious of it, I’ve looked forward every year to the emotional rush of the High Holidays, the opportunity to withdraw myself from the world I live in the rest of the year and the normal activities of my life. I need those few days to get lost in the sense of community and renewal and loss and hopefulness that sustains me for the rest of the year. It is dramatic, and the music is an integral part of how I experience those feelings.

And last night I sat for almost 5 hours in a dark theater and lost myself in one more story of community and renewal and loss and hopefulness… and today I started to understand why I enjoy the opera so much, why I go even when I’m exhausted, why I had trouble falling asleep when I got home at 2:00 in the morning even though my alarm was set for 6:30.

Whether or not we go to services during High Holidays, we are all in need of time for renewal, we all need the moments in which we can escape our daily lives for something more beautiful. And we all find those moments in different places and times, but I think the basic need is the same. I’ll never think of the opera as a religious experience, or of Yom Kippur services as performance art, but finding the connection between the two has increased my appreciation for both.