Before I get to my thoughts on Opera Sauvage by Vangelis, just a comment on the word, “opera”. Many in the U.S., when hearing the word, imagine unintelligible languages, put to music and resonated by rotund, large-lunged vocalists. But “opera” is merely the plural of “opus”, which means, “work”. So, “opera” just means “works”. In fact, an opera need not contain any vocals at all. Not to begin this post with nit picking semantics, but it seemed important to dispel any underserved negative associations we may have with the word, “opera”.
This may make for a somewhat lengthy post, but since this is my first post on a Vangelis album, maybe I should also include a little background on one of my favorite composers: His full name is Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou. Born near Volos, Greece on March 29, 1943.
Mainly a self-taught musician, Vangelis supposedly began composing at the age of four. He rejected traditional piano lessons and throughout his career did not have substantial knowledge of reading or writing musical notation. He studied painting, a hobby he still enjoys, at the Academy of Fine Arts in Athens. When he was six, his parents enrolled him into a specialized music school in Athens. About his lack of music reading ability:
“When the teachers asked me to play something, I would pretend that I was reading it and play from memory. I didn’t fool them, but I didn’t care.” –Vangelis, Life Magazine, July, 1982
Vangelis began his professional music career working with several popular bands of the 1960s such as The Forminx (of which I’m totally unfamiliar) and Aphrodite’s Child. If you are acquainted with Enigma’s album, Mcmxc A.D., some of Aphrodite’s Child’s songs from 666 will sound very recognizable, right down to the risqu’e feminine moans (e.g. Compare Aphrodite’s Child’s 666: “Seven Bowls” and “Infinity” to Enigma’s Mcmxc A.D.: “The Voice & The Snake” and “Mea Culpa”, respectively). Today, 666 is considered by many a psychedelic classic. I find 666 interesting, but not often playing on my iPod.
In 1980, Vangelis joined forces with Jon Anderson, the lead singer of the esoteric rock band, Yes, and the duo went on to release a number of albums together as Jon & Vangelis. Though I’m obviously a fan of Vangelis and later posts may demonstrate my appreciation for Yes, I find the blending of these two talents lacking. I’m not sure what inspired this union, but I suspect Vangelis valued Jon’s vocal clarity, allowing the lyrics to stand out from the music. This same dichotomy stands out in Geddy Lee’s high-falseto vocals in the rock group, Rush. But I can be much more forgiving of Geddy, as he’s singing Neil Peart’s thought-provoking lyrics. I get no similar satisfaction from Jon.
Writing, composing and producing more than four dozen albums in a career spanning over five decades, Vangelis is regarded by some music critics as one of the greatest electronic music composers of all time. I’m in that camp.
If none of this is ringing any bells, as of yet – Vangelis is most recognized for his Academy Award-winning score for the 1981 Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire. Though this is an excellent soundtrack, my exposure to many other Vangelis albums has relegated Chariots of Fire to my “less listened to” category, but I would still put this album far above much of what else passes for “music” nowadays. The soundtrack’s single, Titles, won Vangelis the Academy Award for Best Original Music Score and also reached the top of the American Billboard. And I never made it through the movie.
This is supposed to be a post on Opera Sauvage, but maybe you now have some idea of who this Vangelis guy is.
Opera Sauvage is one of the animal documentary scores Vangelis composed throughout the 1970s and early 80’s, including L’Apocalypse Des Animaux and La Fête Sauvage. The success of these soundtracks brought him into the film-scoring mainstream.
Apparently, 1981, when Opera Sauvage was released, was a pivotal year for Vangelis. I state this merely from my own subjective taste. Opera Sauvage was the first of many Vangelis albums I would acquire over the years (my current inventory stands at 31 titles, plus two from Aphrodite’s Child). As I look back over this discography, most of what I consistently listen to is Opera Sauvage and later. One exception is China, but it was also released in 1981. It is unclear what happened in Vangelis’ life at that time to inspire such, to me, a dramatic shift in his compositions, but I’m grateful for it. From the early 1980’s forward, his works are significantly more orchestrated, lively, even mind expanding.
What brought me to purchase this first of many Vangelis albums? One Friday in the mid-80’s, after a hard workweek, I came home exhausted. I just wanted to relax. My typical rock station, WEBN, wasn’t quite conducive to that aim, so I just merely turned the dial until I came to something that would allow a little peace. I settled on WVXU. Apparently, this station would play an entire album on Friday nights. That evening it was Opera Sauvage. I recall lying on the bed with my feet at the headboard – not sure why. Almost immediately, the stress began to leave my body. In spite of the relaxing quality of the music, I actually felt myself becoming more awake – my mind opening up. At the end of the album, disappointed it was over; I recognized that I simply had to have this album. As the DJ announced the artist and title, I quickly scribbled it down, misspelling it all.
This was before the internet and the album was obscure, so tracking it down took a little bit of effort. But when I finally got my hands on it, I was in for a bit of a surprise. Apparently, I’d listened to this album before! I recognized the cover from a CD that I’d borrowed from my boss a couple of years earlier. But my proclivity towards rock music at the time had relegated this CD to the “boring” elevator music category. I felt appreciative of the second chance to experience this album. And that single purchase has dramatically influenced my music tastes to this day.
Since this post is already somewhat lengthy, I will spare you the detailed comments on each of the songs. However, I will include one Youtube clip that contains some of the first song, Hymn: Ernest & Julio Gallo Wine Commercial – 1986. You may recognize it.
Give it a watch. If your taste in music doesn’t require raising your blood pressure and pulse rate, I suspect you will find Opera Sauvage a favorite addition to your collection and, like me, a fan of Vangelis. Stay tuned for more of my favorite recommendations of Vangelis and other artists.