Hermione Eyre: The unashamed art of opera tears

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The man in front of me was convulsed with sobs. The woman to the right of me was sniffing. Was I the only person in the entire Coliseum who wasn't moved to tears by Janacek's Jenufa, playing in repertoire at the moment? I was beginning to feel very inadequate, though I found the man sitting next to me a reassuring presence. He was motionless. As unresponsive as a rock. Possibly he was even asleep. I glanced furtively at him. A long silver tear was coursing down his face.

As a general rule at the opera, an unhappy heroine means a satisfied audience. They like it best when she dies, but a mutilated face and a dead child (as in Jenufa) do the trick as well. As people file out at the end they want to have knees too weak to walk. You can almost hear them saying to one another, "Wasn't that wonderful, darling? I feel as if I've been wrung out in a mangle and stamped all over". "Me too, darling. Like a cat spat me out. Simply marvellous. We must book for Parsifal, remember."

It is not a little alienating, then, to find you cannot share in this festival of tears. Catharsis envy is a lonely experience. You sit in the darkened cathedral/ cinema/concert hall wondering if you have done something very bad in the past (possibly to do with your tax return) which is preventing you from joining in. But wishing you could cry at the opera is like wishing you could fall asleep in a strange hotel bedroom. Trying to make it happen definitively ensures it won't.

In Act Three, Jenufa, scarred yet strong, is set to begin a new life. She is getting married. We try to overlook the fact that it is to the man who disfigured her face. There is happy traditional wedding music. Then the screams begin. The ice on the millstream has melted, and the body of a baby has been revealed - a baby wearing a little red cap. It is, of course, Jenufa's missing child.

A tear drops off my chin. It is a delicious sensation. Opera tears are not the same as normal tears. They look the same and taste the same but they are pure, abstracted and impersonal. They are respected and politely ignored where real tears are discouraged with tissues and comforts and exhortations about being brave.

For once, here in the dark, you can cry and not feel ashamed. Instead you can feel purged and redeemed. You have undergone true Aristotelian catharsis!

And aren't you smug about it? Yes, concomitant with the genuine sense of release and emotion I think there is a small, stubborn part in all of us that is pleased as hell to have cried because of a book or film or opera. It feels like a sign that we have fully functioning souls. It is simple, incontrovertible proof that we were moved. Better than any protestations of enjoyment, or fatuous appreciative comments - "Loved the percussion section!" - is the simple, well-timed, unostentatious eye-wipe.

It's all an illusion, of course. Crying for art doesn't make you a better person, in any sense. None of us, surely, was surprised to see Jack Nicholson's immoral mafia boss Frank Costello enjoying a night at the opera in Martin Scorsese's The Departed. Baddies weep through classical music so often it's now a cliché.

But none of this can undermine the exquisite misery that those at the last performance of Jenufa tomorrow will experience. Crying for art remains a transcendent mystery and, at least for me, in my secular world, it is one of the nearest things to a spiritual experience I can ever have.

* Tonight a new gameshow called Unanimous begins on Channel Four. It is nasty, divisive and plays on the very worst in human nature. As such it is likely to be a big hit.

The premise is like Lord of the Flies in a bunker. Nine contestants are locked in an underground chamber (all brushed steel and menace) with a million pounds, which they must award unanimously to one of their number. The longer they deliberate, the more the money depreciates.

The taster tape from Channel Four doesn't indicate if they bicker until the money has, like the sand in an egg timer, all run out - but it is edited to emphasise the fact that the show it has the key ingredients for mainstream success, namely harsh words, desperation, tantrums etc. And a contestant called Lusipher Diabolo (real name Rodney). But will Unanimous fill the place in our hearts that Deal or No Deal occupies? The jury's out.

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