BEER CLINIC :: Moonlight, Music, and a Glass of…Beer

by Dr. Carol Westbrook on November 6, 2012

It’s Opera Season!
For some, Fall means football…a new TV season…Halloween…pumpkin ales. But it’s also the start of the opera season. I am a big fan of opera. I enjoy the performances with their extravagant sets and costumes, I love the melodrama, which brings tears to my eye, I love the bigger-than-life opera superstars. But mostly, I love the music—the most profound and passionate ever produced on the planet.

I am not alone. There are many opera lovers out there, including a disproportionate number of doctors. Why do doctors like opera so much? Is it the pathos of the story? The humanity of the characters? Or is it the snob appeal of the opera experience, with its exorbitant ticket prices, limiting attendance to those who can afford to drink champagne at intermission?

At one time I considered writing a book that paired the great opera arias with wines of the world. Sadly, I don’t know much about wine. But I DO know about beer!

So, I’ve put together my beer selections to accompany famous opera arias. Some day, when opera reaches an even higher level of snobbery, intermission will feature good beers as well as champagne. Until then I’ve provided my favorite YouTube links for your listening pleasure—you’ll have to get your own beer. So sit back, tune in to YouTube, grab a brewski, and enjoy.

I. The best of both worlds: La Boheme and Belgian Trappist Ale.

We’ll start with one of the most beloved scenes in all of opera, Act I of La Boheme. Here, Rudolfo comes across Mimi for the first time, illuminated by the light of the moon, and it is love at first sight. He takes her hand, professes his love, and asks her name (che gelida manina, your cold hand.) She replies, “They call me Mimi (Si, mi chiamano Mimi). The sweetness of the encounter is all the more intense because you know, in the end, she is going to die before they really get together.

The story of La Boheme resonates through the ages. La Boheme – the Bohemians – are a group of twenty-somethings who are trying to make a go of it in Paris, living in an unheated garret, falling in and out of love. Rudolfo and Mimi! Their morals may be loose but their love is pure. In the end, they are separated by her tragic death due to consumption—a disease brought on by poverty. (In a modern incarnation, the musical Rent, it is AIDS that does him in.) In the YouTube link, the aria is sung by the best tenor of the 20th century, the late Luciano Pavarotti. You will understand why he was called, “The Master of the High C.”

To accompany these paired arias, we will look for a beer that stands out. It has to be sensual, intense, with its own morality. Of course it has to be brewed by Trappist monks. We want a brew that is strong, flavorful but bittersweet, with almost unattainable promise. My preferences would be Trappist Rochefort 10, a Belgian Abbey beer; some say the best beer in the world. For this, it is a tie with Chimay Blue, also a good pick for this opera.

So enjoy the world’s best opera, sung by the world’s greatest tenor, drunk with the world’s best beer. I cry every time I hear this music. If this doesn’t make you an opera lover—and a beer lover—then you are hopeless (hopless?).

THE ARIA:Che Gelida Manina” from a 1986 performance of La Boheme (Giacomo Puccini) sung by Pavarotti and d’Amico. This recording of the Italian opera has the benefit of English subtitles!

II. The Magic Flute and a German Lager.

Mozart was a master of melody, and his operas are no exception. Like a good musical, you could almost sing along. Though many German operas are heavy and tragic (e.g., Wagner’s Ring Cycle) Mozart’s operas tend to be light, playful, with happy endings. The Magic Flute is my favorite. It is a fantasy, involving magic and fairies and spells and talking animals. One of the subplots involves the talking bird, Papageno, who is searching throughout the show for his soul mate, his other half, without whom he would die. Finally he finds her, and the story can end happily.

Their meeting is depicted in the playful duet, “Papageno Papagena.” The music will delight you. You find you will want to sing along to the “Pop Pop Poppa” of the lyrics, and raise a stein or two with your friends. What best to drink? Why, a German lager! Try a Warsteiner, or Spaten Pils; better yet, an Oktoberfest such as Spaten Oktoberfest. Don’t care for lagers? Try a good English bitter (Wells Bombardier is my current favorite). Yes, any good session beer will do, even a Guinness—but don’t stop at one.

THE ARIA: “Papageno Papagena,” from the Magic Flute, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

III. The Queen of the Night paired with the Queen of American Ales.

The other side of the Magic Flute involves a villain, the Queen of the Night, who is just pure evil. Of course, goodness triumphs over evil in the end, but not without a spectacular aria sung by the Queen. This is one of the most difficult arias that a diva can sing, requiring agility of voice and extraordinarily high range extending to high F! This will knock your socks off. Go Mozart!

The Queen is an intimidating bully, complex and compelling, deep and bitter, but not without charm. We need a drink that hits the high notes, passionate, scary, complex, demanding full attention. Sound familiar? I’ll go with a very hoppy American IPA. Harpoon IPA, Bell’s Two-Hearted, Victory Hop Devil, or any of the IPAs from Dogfish Head or Stone. Arguably, U.S. brewing is at its best with IPAs, the Queen of American beers.

THE ARIA: Diana Damrau sings the “Queen of the Night Aria,” from the Magic Flute (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) at the Royal Opera House in London.

IV. Boris Gudonov: A Dark Opera needs a Dark Beer.

Italian operas are about moonlight, love, intrigue and thwarted love; German operas are about magic and sorcery, but Russian operas are about politics. Intrigue, and psychological torment factor heavily, similar to Russian novels. Boris Gudonov is Mussorgsky’s masterpiece, and I won’t even try to explain the lengthy and complicated plot. Suffice it to say that it is about the life of Tsar Boris Godunov during his reign from 1598 to 1606, and his struggles to keep the empire together from internal and external threats. Boris usurped the throne by assassinating his brother-in-law, Dmitry—the true heir of Tsar Ivan the Terrible—and he is wracked with remorse. As the political intrigues heighten throughout the story, so does his conscience continue to haunt him, gradually driving him to hallucinations, insanity, and eventually, death. There is a wonderful scene (the clock scene) in which the chimes of a ticking clock remind him of his mortality; the clock is echoed in his death scene, when he imagines his funeral bells.

Here we will view the death scene, when Boris hands his throne over to his son, agonizes over his unforgiven sin, and breathes his last. In general, opera showcases the tenor and soprano voice, and there are few outstanding arias for bass singers (basso profundo).  This is one of them, and it is sung by one of the world’s outstanding bass voices, Nicolai Ghiarov.

This aria calls for a strong, dark, heavy, and bitter beer. A beer to cry in. A barley wine, perhaps. A Baltic style beer. My two recommendations:

1) Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout (North Coast Brewing), 75 IBUs/9% ABV.
2) Sinebrychoff Porter, 7.2% ABV. A Baltic Porter from Finland, hard to find but worth the effort.

THE ARIA: Nicolai Ghiarov sings “The Death Scene” from Boris Godunov (Modest Mussorgsky).

V. Carmen and the Duchesse.

Carmen, by Georges Bizet, is one of the best-known operas because of its memorable music. Who doesn’t know “The Toreador Song?” Although the opera is sung in French, it takes place in Spain. It is a story of seduction, love, outlaws and murder. Carmen, the heroine, is a beautiful but lawless Gypsy woman. She uses her powers of seduction to get her way and bypass the law, but is herself seduced.

Carmen sings and dances the spirited, “Habenera” in a tavern. The lyrics proclaim, “Love knows no laws.” She catches the eye of the soldier, José, whom she seduces. When she is thrown in prison, she uses him to help her escape, thereby making him an outlaw as well. He deserts and joins her gang of smugglers. In the meantime, the Toreador sweeps her off her feet. José has lost everything, and he kills Carmen in a jealous rage. Everyone loses in this tragedy.

We must pair this delightful aria with a beer that resembles Carmen herself. A beautiful and passionate woman, sweet but seductive, assertive and compelling. Yes, it’s the Duchesse de Bourgogne, Belgian Flemish-style ale. It’s a surprising drink because it tastes of cherries and raspberries though it is not made with fruit. It’s seductive—try drinking just one.

We have paired Flemish Ale, brewed in Belgium, with a French opera about a Gypsy in Spain. As we end this column we show, once again, that beer, like opera, is truly international!

NOTE:  This column is dedicated to my friend and inspiration, Fred Tasker, master wine columnist (The Miami Herald and WLRN radio), and his beautiful daughter Annie, a journalist and mezzo-soprano.

ED: Dr. Westbrook is, in fact, a highly regarded Doctor. Her new book is  Ask an Oncologist: Honest Answers to Your Cancer Questions

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: