Opera 101 for those who think they hate opera

>> Sunday, October 24, 2010

How many times have I heard someone say to me, “Oh you’re an opera singer? No offense, but I can’t stand opera.” My standard reply is always, “Oh really? Well have you ever been to an opera?” Invariably the reply will be “no” they haven’t ever actually seen one, but they just know from some of the clips and parodies that they’ve seen on television that they wouldn’t like it. Yes, the good old Loonie Toons Bugs Bunny-does-opera cartoon parodies, although hilariously pointed and funny (and some of my very favorites), didn’t do opera’s reputation any favors with the general public, and in the era where America’s Got Talent winners get all the breaks and pop music celebrities rule, respect and popularity for classical music and musicians is down to zilch. That was all too apparent when only a few weeks ago we lost one of opera and classical music’s greatest, the Australian soprano, Dame Joan Sutherland. When I posted news of the 94-year-old Sutherland’s death at her home in Switzerland on my Facebook profile, the response was limited to a few of my friends with whom I had gone to college or graduate school in music. In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, Sutherland was practically a household name in the United States, and one of the Metropolitan Opera’s brightest stars, but very few today even know her name, much less who she was or that she was one of the finest Verdi sopranos opera has ever known.

So you think you hate opera, but you’ve never even seen one. So just how do you know you hate opera? (This is a variation on the same annoying question that my mother always used to ask me whenever I was challenged to try a new vegetable.) Well, just like the popular music you listen to on the radio today, there are a variety of different kinds of opera, and if you like music and singing, then there is probably an opera out there that you would enjoy. For instance, did you know that what we term “musicals” like Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar are really opera? No kidding--they’re rock operas. And then there are the different light, comic operas of the late 18th century, (that are really hilarious), the best and most popular by Mozart including The Marriage of Figaro, Cosi fan Tutte, and The Magic Flute. And I would be remiss not to include the light operas or operettas, some of the best being by the late 19th century English team of Gilbert & Sullivan including The Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore, and the always-popular The Mikado. (It’s interesting to note here that in the early 1980s, Broadway did a successful revival of The Pirates of Penzance starring none other than the then wildly popular pop music singer, Linda Ronstadt as Mabel and Kevin Kline as The Pirate King.)

For your first opera I would highly recommend seeing a production of any of the ones I have mentioned in the above paragraph. And if you have a local college or university that is producing one of these shows, those performances are most generally high quality, and the ticket prices much lower. Plus, you get the added benefit of supporting your local college or university’s music department. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with going to see an opera that would normally be sung in another language, performed in English. If you like it, and decide that you want to see another, then perhaps later on you’ll be more ready for one say, in Italian or German. And now, English subtitles are always flashed on a screen above the stage, making it easier for the audience to keep up with the story without having to have their heads buried in the translations in the program.

Before you go, educate yourself about the opera. Learn about the plot, the characters, the composer, and the history behind the opera. The best and easiest place to do this is to look it up in Wikipedia. They have a page for the most popular to the most obscure operas that include history, characters, plots, and even a list of the most popular arias and pieces contained within each. After doing just a little homework, when you get there you won’t have to concentrate so hard on keeping up with the plot and the characters, and you can just sit back and enjoy the show.

There are some operas, or rather operas by certain composers that probably should be avoided if you’re a first-timer. Heavy, long, dramatic operas by late Romantic era composers such as Richard Wagner or Richard Strauss should probably wait until one’s taste and palate for opera has been more developed. And anything by the mid to late 20th century composers where the music and stories are a bit avant-garde might be a bit much as well. I would also wait on operas by Puccini and Verdi, although Puccini’s operas like La Boheme or Madame Butterfly might make a nice transition from the lighter operas and operettas into the heavier Italian operas by Verdi.

So if you think you hate opera, but you’ve never actually seen an opera, I challenge you to go see one. If you’ll keep to the suggestions above, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised, and it won’t be too long before we’ll have you hooked!

Update: 11/19/10  This is now a featured article on Betterfly!


Sparrow October 24, 2010 at 12:49 PM  

Excellent recommendations. I used to work in a theater and got free tickets to the performances as a job benefit. I decided to check out one of the light operas just to get the most from my job perks. I liked it. I started going to others and found, like you said, that my preconceived notions were way off.

Jasper October 25, 2010 at 8:25 PM  

Say what you like about the historical freehandedness of Peter Shaffer's film, Amadeus, but I suspect it gave many a moviegoer their first taste of opera, and in a wonderful, intriguing way.

Another candidate for spreading the love would be the Met's "Opera in the Park" series. Their free outdoor summer concerts (in each of New York City's parks) are VERY well attended and have probably done much to introduce the genre around to those who'd otherwise likely never attend one. (Of course, it's all recital-style in that venue; no staging.)

My own first interest came from listening to a tape of Puccini's La Boheme at my mother's urging, while the first staging I attended was Carmen. Both are great starters, but that said, I think a very safe entree would be Porgy & Bess.



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