A Few Words To The Opera NewbiesMar 2, 2008 (Updated Aug 7, 2008) Write an essay on this topic.
The Bottom Line O yes, opera is for EVERYONE. Forget the stereotyping and have a listen. I bet you aren't so immune to opera that there isn't one that can light your fire!
For The Opera Newbies: A Few Words To Help You Suspend Your Disbelief At The Opera
Opera may seem either an intimidating art-form or a preposterously unrealistic one to those unfamiliar with classical music, but it really shouldn't be. As in every other music and theater genre, it has the same goal of communicating a story convincingly to the audience; be it a totally fantastic tale we can only abstractly derive morals from or a realistic story that causes us to revisit our own similar experience and think more about things. The only requirements anyone needs to be able to enjoy the opera are a sufficient sense of hearing and an appreciation for music and drama... and for a well told tale! Considering how wide-ranging a music genre opera is, it is only prudent for you to keep an open mind and withhold judgment about the opera until you have sampled enough works from various compositional styles to warrant an informed opinion of it. Below are a few tips for those new to the opera and would like to explore further:
1. Sample widely. There are many operatic sub-genres which can sound as different from each other as Eminem is different from Celine Dionne. Every listener has his/her own different taste or preferences, and what your best friend calls 'heavenly' may sound like a bunch of banshees yelping in hellish agony to you... and vice versa. I wouldn't dream of using a dark and dissonant work like Elektra or Lulu to introduce a newcomer to opera, but I have known a few people who actually take to them as the buttered side of the toast would take to the floor when dropped. So... It is important to form your own ideas based on first hand experience rather than on others' opinions.
If you enjoy lighthearted and fun music, the first sub-genre you should probably try are the many operettas by Offenbach, Lehár, Zeller, Johann Strauss (II), or Millöcker. If you are into heavy and romanticized melodrama, the first things to try would be the German and French opera of Wagner, Richard Strauss, Massenet, Berlioz, or Gounod.. Or even the late romantic Italian and verismo (depicting the brutal everyday life) opera of Mascagni, Puccini, and Verdi. For the lovers of virtuoso music with spectacularly rousing songs as well as touchingly melancholic ones, you will find much to cheer about in the Baroque and the bel canto opera of Vivaldi, Händel, Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. And then there are the marvelously versatile Mozart opera that appeal to just about everyone. If you find the modern dissonant and free-form music your cup of tea, then you probably would eat up the 12-tones compositions by Berg & Schoenberg, Debussy's expressionistic Pelléas et Mélisande, or the modern opera of Weill, Adès, Henze, or Glass, too.
The major opera composers, from oldest to most recent, are:
(Baroque Era) Claudio Monteverdi, Georg Friedrich Händel, Jean-Phillipe Rameau, Christophe Willibald Gluck; (Classical Era) Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Giovanni Paisiello; (Romantic Era) Gioacchino Rossini, Richard Wagner, Vincenzo Bellini, Modest Mussorgsky, Gaetano Donizetti, Jules Massenet, Giuseppe Verdi; (Late Romantic Era) Giacomo Puccini; (Modern Era) Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten, Philip Glass.
It is also a good idea to sample many different performances of each opera. There are artists who can make even Händel's spit-fire bravura music sound as stimulating as a drugged house cat dozing on the sofa, and then there are a few who can make even the most laboriously dull song ever written sounds like a sparklingly jovial cup of espresso steaming out of that loveliest-looking apparatus on your kitchen counter. Often times it isn't that one rendition is 'better' than the other as that they are 'different'. This is to be celebrated, I think. It is amazing how differently the same operatic character can be portrayed by different singers. The following clips are the same aria, Dopo notte, atra e funesta, of the larger than life Saracen knight Ariodante from Händel's opera of the same name. They are all different heroes! (Aris Christofellis is a male sopranist, the other two are lyric coloratura mezzo-soprani)
www.youtube.com/watch?v=SGcO5_oOIUQ (Aris Christofellis)
www.youtube.com/watch?v=_lNjKwnOPrY (Anne-Sofie von Otter)
www.youtube.com/watch?v=VnmXfdvYCRw (Vesselina Kasarova)
Some styles of singing (especially concerning music from the Baroque Era) are frown upon by some seriously snobbish audience as being 'traditionally wrong', but I note that what is considered 'traditional' in music has a way of changing from one generation to the next. Register breaks (the 2 places in the vocal range where the singer has to change the way s/he resonates his/her sound) weren't 'flaws' until the modern (from the 1900's on) audience decided that they are, and many legendary singers (i.e; Giuditta Pasta, Pauline Viardot-Garcia, et.al.) used them artistically in their vocal coloring. Today, however, many people demand that the modern singers sing the music written to suit the legendary voices of the 1800's using today's techniques that requires seamless integration of the vocal registers (so that you don't hear any 'gear shift' as the singer changes from head to chest voice and vice versa). Is that really reasonable? That kind of thinking is why Elvino in Bellini's La Sonnambula (and many other bel canto roles) is never heard sung in the original keys anymore (and it should also be noted that the 'original' keys were tuned lower than what we have now)!
Also, only after the mid 1810's or so did the opera composers start to commit every note and improvisation onto the score. Their predecessors didn't, trusting instead in the performers to improvise according to the 'prevailing tradition'. None of us were alive in the days of Händel to be able to assert absolute knowledge of what the 'prevailing tradition' were (audio recording wasn't invented until much later), and so none can rightly claim the 'absolute right way' of performing these music. I am not a composer, but it is amazingly fulfilling to me when the chemistry students I tutor can derive their own ways of solving unfamiliar problems. I think many composers would be thrilled to hear how new singers keep deriving new meanings and nuances from the music they composed from long ago (providing that it fits with the rest of the work, that is). That the music is given a new life by each new generation of singers is as close a guarantee to vibrant immortality instead of the perpetual state of stagnation as these artists could get to!
To illustrate, consider how the versatile Bulgarian mezzo Vesselina Kasarova sings the aria 'Deh, per questo istante solo' from Mozart's opera, La clemenza di Tito, in Salzburg in 2003 (www.youtube.com/watch?v=tSxMYkJ87Qc) and how she does the same number in Zürich in 2005 (www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFmvp8Duc_M). One version isn't necessarily 'better' than the other, they are differently interpreted to fit two very different stage directions. Neither production is traditionally staged (since the opera is set in Rome during the reign of Titus Vespasianus). The Salzburg Festival performance follows the more straight forward reading of the relationship between Tito and Sesto as estranged friends (with Sesto being rather afraid of Tito... a psychopath who happens to be indulging himself on a mercy-granting spree), while the Zurich Opera production reads them as ex-lovers. These two clips should drive home the importance of taking each performance of an opera on its own term and not to pre-judge a performance based on your own pre-conception of it. Each rendition fits its own staging and not the other's. How tickled pink would Mozart be to see how versatile the song he penned still is, more than 200 yrs after he wrote it!
2. Put some work in and read up on the opera's plot/synopsis before listening. Many folks like to 'rough an opera' by trying to figure the plot of the new work they're trying as it unveils on their first listening, but I think that's putting too much faith in the reasonableness of the wacky poets who penned the opera's libretto! More than a few opera have plots that are preposterously illogical and are still being performed today only on the strength of its music. Add the difficulty of deciphering the sung words (in Italian, German, French, Russian, or Czech at that), and the odds are good that you will find it a stretch to enjoy a performance that you can neither follow nor understand!
Most opera houses provide sur-title (the projection of the lyric being sung onto the proscenium above the stage, or, in the case of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, to the back of the seat in front of you) in English... or the language of the country you are in. That helps a lot, but also comes with its own quirks like unintentionally disrupting the mood of the moments with ill-timed projection or when unintentionally amusing translation turns up just when a solemn passage is being sung. Knowing the story beforehand would save you from having to divide your attention between what is actually going on on-stage and what the sur-title is saying about it.
Renting a DVD of the opera is a good way to prepare yourself before attending a performance of it for the first time. The DVDs usually come with multilingual subtitles these days. Some even include extra features like interviews with the performers or a behind the scene look at how the production works.
3. Know the lyric, but let the music be your chief storyteller. Also, listen for recurring themes during the course of a German opera. These are what we call 'Leitmotifs,' representing specific 'pathos' or specific character in the opera, and their arrangement often tells the story even when no one is singing.
Mozart is quite notorious for composing music that sounds 'at odd' with the words the character is actually singing. In which case, you should always believe the music and not the lyric.... It's Mozart's way of communicating the character's untruthfulness or indecision.... And in some cases, even his way of getting away with making rebellious jokes at the expense of a specific audience (usually the insufferable nobles of the court in 18th Century Europe).
A good example is this can be found in 2 comparable arias by Fiordiligi and her sister, Dorabella, in the opera Cosi fan tutte. The lyric of both arias has the sisters expressing their distress at the separation from their respective fiancé and their resolve to remain faithful to him. Musically, however, Dorabella's 'Smanie implacabili' (www.youtube.com/watch?v=wW1e1llWIWU) belies her fickle nature and heavily hints that she is bluffing in order to be able to cheat on her fiancé, Ferrando, when the opportunity presents itself without feeling terrible about it (putting up a fake resistance to allow herself the excuse of having at least 'tried' to resist the temptation). On the other hand, the music of Fiordiligi's 'Come scoglio' (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gqnz4K5ORSM) says that she is sincerely outrage by the idea that she would ever be unfaithful to her beloved Guglielmo. Two very lyrically similar arias, two very different pathos. In order to 'get' this comical contrast between the two characters, you must believe the music and not the words being sung. Once you both understand the music's pathos and what contradictory words the character is singing, then you're in on the fun rather than being left out of an 'inside joke'!
4. It is entertainment. Seriously! There is no quiz afterward. Life won't cease to exist and civilization as we know it won't end after a missed note or a stage miscue. A good command of mathematics is a useful tool for the architects to design beautiful buildings that won't collapse. In the same vein, good singing techniques are the means that allow the performers to bring the operatic characters to life in a performance rather than being the end in itself. There are singers who can sing all the right notes beautifully without telling you anything meaningful. Do you really listen to the opera in order to hear how well polished someone's singing techniques are or do you listen in order to be told a story? Are you going to the opera in order to critique the mechanics of its performers or are you there in order to be entertained?
Don't let the snobs who look down on any 'imperfections' tell you that performers are only supposed to sing in a certain manner (usually according to the snob's own personal preference) or that they mustn't improvise on what is written on the score. Individuality and differences in interpretations are the qualities that add richness to the original ideas put down by the composer. If everyone must sing the same way, then we might as well dub the performers 'a glorified bunch of singing parrots' rather than 'artists'. A good performance of an opera should leave you with the experience of having been told a compelling story.... of having had a few hours escape to a world unlike that which you routinely experience. Sure, there will be some of us who prefer technically flawless singing rather than more intensely dramatically convincing one. To each his/her own. If you enjoy it, that is all that should matter to you. Others may enjoy it or not, but that is their own problem.
5. Also remember this... as larger than life as some of these gifted performers can appear to be on stage, they are people just as we listeners are. If we are allowed a slip once in a while, why aren't they? Expectations are good as long as they are realistic and fair. The singers are responsible for their own singing and how convincing their acting is, but not for the staging concepts, the choreography, the costumes, the performance tempo or how loud the orchestra plays. So...before you rant about a performance, take a few seconds to think and assign the faults to the right parties. Consider what the singer is directed to do as s/he sings that dastardly difficult number before trashing him/her for a slurred note or a slight mis-timing in an otherwise spectacular performance.
Have a look at these 3 clips of performances of the same aria (The Queen of the Night's 2nd aria from Mozart's The Magic Flute) and note how a bit of choreography can put a strain on their singing.
1. minimal movement (http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=5amsGy6Ku04)
2. a bit more (http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=uUEbgNS15dw)
3. run for your life! (http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=gp6DFkWUsbc)
Keeping in mind that these gals sing unamplified (no microphone!) over a live orchestra, can you imagine singing the last chromatic ascending scale of this thing while on your knees and leaning forward? That's nothing short of murderous (the Queen sings 4 high F6's in the course of this short burst of temper)! I would be a lot more lenient of any musical mishaps occurring in clip 3 than I would should one occurs in clip 1, where the singer can just concentrate on the singing without having to act so much.
Also, one shouldn't equate the perfection one hears in studio-recorded recital with what is reasonable to expect in a live performance. Opera singers don't record whole songs in one go anymore, they do different phrases separately, focusing on getting everything just right. This results in the maximum realization of the singers' potential to perform the song... technically. It also tends to have the side-effect of losing the 'spontaneity' or sense of 'immediacy' in the interpretation of the song.
Have a look/listen of (www.youtube.com/watch?v=hTpIRFiKTqo) Vivica Genaux's studio recorded version of the lung-busting virtuoso aria, 'Qual guerriero in campo armanto' that Riccardo Broschi composed for his brother, the famous castrato Farinelli. She didn't sing the whole thing in one take.
Now... the live performance version by the same singer www.youtube.com/watch?v=XHvWgkUCB7s
And it is an excellent performance! Try singing that yourself and, unless you are a very well trained singer, you'll find it hard going trying to even finish half of it. If these virtuoso opera arias ever sound like an easy thing to sing to you, it isn't because it is easy, but because you're hearing a supersinger singing them... And even supersingers don't always hit everything just right and have to, you know, take a breath every once in a while.
Keep these in mind the next time you try to judge a performance based on its live radio broadcast or a recording of one, where you can only hear but not see what is happening on the stage. Unless it is a singer who has an established reputation for missing things or having sloppy technique, then perhaps a benefit of a doubt should be granted when you hear a slight miscue. Sometimes these singers already have all they can handle to just keep singing without dropping dead from exhaustion or getting nailed by the various extraneous things that the modern stage directors like to impose on them without any regard to how demanding the music already is on their subjects. There are so many good singers around these days that only a handful of singers are 'big' enough to argue with the stage director's choreography without suffering a career-threatening retribution.
The myth of the 'perfect singer' (usually belonging to the overly mourned past generations) is just an impossible fantasy some opera fans toy themselves with. Every generation of music lovers has proclaimed the same old 'truth' that great singing died yesterday and everything is going downhill from now (the world and civilization as we know it included. It's a handy package). Why dwell on the ghosts of past ideals that never was as impeccable as your nostalgia likes to make them out to be while chastising the evolving talents of today for not being the answer to your every needs? The great artists are the ones who can mesmerize us.... flaws and register breaks and pimples and all.
6. Go to a live performance at least once if you can
There are many great CD and DVD recordings of opera performance available now, but if you are really interested in checking out the opera, there is nothing compared to hearing it live in theater where the unamplified sound envelops you as you experience some of the greatest acting singers alive bringing preposterous operatic characters to life right before your eyes. Where float pianissimo notes hover bodilessly over your head, and where you can feel as well as hear the blast of well supported fortissimo from the tiny soprano who can somehow singularly reduce all the instruments of the modern orchestra to dust with her voice.
Followings are a few sample clips from different operatic styles that should give you some ideas of what type of opera would be best for you to begin your exploration into this music genre with:
R Broschi: Idaspe: Qual guerriero in campo armato (www.youtube.com/watch?v=hTpIRFiKTqo)
Händel: Alcina: Ah, mio cor (www.youtube.com/watch?v=7l_0_8KPGZg)
Händel: Serse: Ombra mai fu (www.youtube.com/watch?v=PqaZ6CtRjPM)
Händel: Alcina: Sta nell'ircana (www.youtube.com/watch?v=7MlWRp8Vius)
MOZART & THE BEL CANTO OPERA:
Mozart: Don Giovanni: Don Giovanni, a cena teco m'invitasi (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ue72gvJvpi8)
Mozart: La clemenza di Tito: Se al volto mai ti senti (www.youtube.com/watch?v=W-Y1yjF29VU)
Rossini: Il barbiere di Siviglia: Una voce poco fà (www.youtube.com/watch?v=EiS9ciE4_sU)
Bellini: I Capuleti e i Montecchi (www.youtube.com/watch?v=XvaWNTPi3Us)
Bellini: Norma: Casta diva (www.youtube.com/watch?v=SCzsFIIsWuo)
Donizetti: Maria Stuarda: Act III prayer (www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FCjKFp66hg)
GERMAN & FRENCH OPERA:
Wagner: Die Walküre: Magic Fire Music (www.youtube.com/watch?v=3sB_-rxMtAM)
Wagner: Tristan und Isolde: Isoldes Liebestod (www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLoHcB8A63M)
R Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten: The Dyer's Wife's lament (www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6scoMMPwgw)
Meyerbeer: Dinorah: Shadow Song (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ugy_zds3qHY)
Saint-Saëns: Samson et Dalila: Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rz9dVX_Uu6M)
Gounod: Roméo et Juliet: Balcony Scene(www.youtube.com/watch?v=4RF53PLRWuM)
Leoncavallo: Pagliacci: Recitar!/ Vesti la giubba (www.youtube.com/watch?v=6R0iaRcUqDI)
Verdi: Don Carlo: O don fatale! (www.youtube.com/watch?v=G2qJPkirkcw)
Verdi: Macbeth: Sleepwalking Scene (www.youtube.com/watch?v=qK0fBaH_gfE)
Puccini: La Bohème: O soave fanciulla (www.youtube.com/watch?v=DD-CcKrndfA)
Puccini: Madama Butterfly: Un bel di vedremo (www.youtube.com/watch?v=s_L0m1vYrmk)
Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov: Coronation scene (www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFWhl13AEuU)
Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin: Tatiana's Letter Scene (www.youtube.com/watch?v=XKVE33P5p2o)
Janacek: Jenufa: Kostelnicka resolves to drown her own grandson (www.youtube.com/watch?v=KiC7gJHLVMU)
Dvorak: Rusalka: Song to the Moon (www.youtube.com/watch?v=uHXAC6lTXR8)
Offenbach: La belle Hélène: On me nomme Hélène la blonde (www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ICL86-qG3w)
Johann Strauss (II): Die Fledermaus: Spiel ich die Unschuld vom Lande (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xfh-05FNvNg)
Zeller: Der Vogelhändler: Schenkt mann sich Rosen in Tirol (www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLTe82MewXM)
Berg: Lulu: Melodrama (www.youtube.com/watch?v=1TgioVULbPg)
Glass: Einstein on the Beach (www.youtube.com/watch?v=WmX_GgozpQs)
Portman: The Little Prince: The Pilot meets the Prince (www.youtube.com/watch?v=eWUooj5vILI)
OK... As it turns out, these are a bit more than 'a few words', but if they have sparked a little more interest in you for the opera or eased the exploration process of your adventure into the genre (aside from providing some ammunition to ward off the opera snobs with), then it was all worth it for me. I'll admit that in the USA, the cost of attending a live opera performance can be prohibitive. But if you can afford it, you'll find that you get so much back for what you paid for. Most opera houses offer bargain deals with subscription to multiple performances... and if you are young and can stand for 3-5 hours straight, the standing room tickets can still be had for $20-$40 nowadays. If you have time to spare, becoming a supernumerary (stage extras) at the local theater is a good way of getting to listen to these great singers from a much closer distance than the folks who pay $170 for the orchestra level seat are! Just be sure not to fall into any trap door or get eaten by the dragon or trampled by Brünnhilde's celestial horse and you'll likely come away with enough insider gossips and anecdotes to impress any culture-minded girl you meet at the next bar with.
Instead of pointless lamentations about the degradation of the TV shows you have to put up with each night, go out and rent an opera DVD or two. Why not? You might even pick up a few useful foreign words in the process. I attended Donizetti's Maria Stuarda at the San Diego Opera a few weeks ago and now know enough Italian cuss words to make my mother blush... Now if only I could get someone to translate Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle from Hungarian...
Commandments for the Operafans, 10 Beginners-Friendly Opera, Some Friendly Diva Opera Arias, Some Friendly Divo Opera Arias, Some Friendly Operatic Duets, Some Friendly Operatic Ensembles, A Few Tips for Opera Reviewers, 15 Favorite Opera Youtube Clips (2007), Newbies' Guide to German & French Opera, Newbies' Guide to Operetta
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