How to Learn More About Opera

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So your girlfriend or boyfriend is an opera fan. Or you were switching stations on the radio and suddenly heard something you liked. Or you feel the need to get more "high culture" in your life. Whatever your reason for wanting to learn about opera, don't be nervous--it's less painful than you think. You can develop an ear for this time-tested and culturally stimulating form of music.

Destroy Your Assumptions

  • Most people have preconceived notions about what an operatic experience entails. The following may sound familiar:

    1. "I won't go to the opera because it's only for rich people."
      This is not true. Yes, getting front-row seats at most top-notch opera houses would cost you a month's worth of groceries. But if you're willing to sacrifice your fantastic view of the performers' feet, cheap seats (especially for students) are usually available.

    2. "I won't go to the opera because it puts me to sleep."
      Not unless you're bored by murder, intrigue, magic, switched identities and star-crossed lovers, in which case there's little hope for you. OK, maybe this is pushing a little too hard, but it really is exciting if you give it a chance. It's just a matter of choosing the right opera--one with catchy music and a fast-moving storyline. Don't worry, we'll give you some recommendations later that will keep you from nodding off and drooling all over those expensive velvet seats.

    3. "Opera is a dead art form, so it's not worth going."
      Composers today are experimenting with opera, trying to find new ways of keeping the form alive. And the fastest-growing opera audience in the United States right now is people in their 20s and 30s, so the classics do keep their appeal.

    4. "I won't go to the opera because it's all sung in some foreign language and I can't understand it."
      It's true that most well-known operas were written in Europe and are frequently performed in their original Italian, German or French. Today many opera companies perform translations so the audience can follow the action as it's going on. Lots of others are following the Metropolitan Opera's lead and installing subtitles above the stage or on the backs of seats. No matter what language the opera is in, though, if you follow our instructions you'll be prepared to enjoy yourself.

    Now don't you feel silly? Opera is nothing that you thought. But before we rub our shallow victory in your face, realize that some of your preconceived notions are correct:

    1. Opera is long (compared to other forms of entertainment).
      Because all of the words in opera are sung, not spoken, it takes a longer time to move through the plot. You can expect to spend at least 2½ to 3 hours at the opera house, including at least one 15-minute intermission to stretch and wait in line for the bathroom. At least that's more relief than Spielberg gives us.

    2. Opera is basically a play set to music.
      Yup. Sure, there's dialogue, questions, arguments and even moments of silence in opera; however, the addition of music makes everything more dramatic.

    3. Opera is classical music.
      Wait, didn't we just say that new opera was experimenting with different types of music? True, but most standard opera is what you'd consider classical music. There are some exceptions, like The Who's "Tommy," a rock opera written in 1969, but you shouldn't expect to hear guitars and drums coming out of the orchestra pit. Don't be scared off by the words "classical music," though--watching people act on stage is a world apart from watching the ceiling during ninth-grade music-appreciation class.

Learn Some History

  • Part 1: The dawn of opera

    Opera as we know it began in the Baroque period (1600-1750) when a group of Italian composers decided to imitate the masters of theater: the ancient Greeks. The Italians believed that the Greeks had sung their plays, not spoken them, and thus the Italians decided to set their own stories to music. Although they were completely wrong about the Greeks (Sophocles was tone deaf), they did produce a totally new art form. Opera today remains very similar to what the Italians developed.

    When the Italians created opera, it consisted of two main components, both of which continue to be an integral part of opera:

    * Recitatives, which contain dialogue set to music and generally propel the plot forward. This is when you think of the actors just singing their sentences. It's not a song, just tuneful talking.

    * Arias, which are more melodic and elaborate on a certain feeling or action. These are the songs that the fat (or thin) ladies sing. Choruses, in which many people sing at once, may also be interspersed.

    Part 2: The spread of opera

    As opera made its way across Europe, its styles began to change as well. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) helped bring German into the previously Italian-dominated opera scene. He wrote many operas, in both German and Italian, which are very accessible because of their fast-moving plots, interesting stories and beautiful music. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), another very famous composer of this period, wrote only one opera, "Fidelio," which propelled German opera forward.

    It was during the late 1700s that opera clearly separated into two genres: opera seria (grand, serious opera) and opera buffa (comic opera, meant more for the lower classes). Opera buffa eventually evolved into what became operettas (e.g., Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado"), which in turn evolved into modern musical theater.

    It is during the Romantic period (late 1700s to the mid-1800s) that we start to encounter the image of the fat, loud, opera-singing woman. Operas became more melodramatic, prompted by the emotionalism that had started to develop in all of the European arts. Not all of the Romantic composers wrote in such a dramatic style (the Italians Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini wrote many less fancy operas), but the scene was dominated by two names: Richard Wagner (pronounced "VAG-ner") and Giuseppe Verdi. The German Wagner broke away from the recitative/aria tradition and decided to write a particular melody for each character or theme that would appear whenever they/it came on stage. His operas are very complex and hard to listen to, even for the most experienced opera lovers. Verdi, on the other hand, can be very accessible with a little preparation. He wrote a huge number of operas, completing 20 by the end of his life; although not all are masterpieces, he is still regarded as one of the best composers of opera, if not the best.

    Part 3: Recent opera

    In the early 1900s, the United States tried to shove its way into the opera scene, especially with George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," which portrayed the lives of African-Americans in 1920s Charleston. While Gershwin's opera is considered to be an American masterpiece, the U.S. hasn't had much success in continuing the operatic tradition, apart from popularizing some musical performances that are usually not thought of as "operas," such as "Les Miserables" (a British import). Looking ahead, new opera seems to be getting more publicity in the U.S., and the line between musicals and opera is becoming blurrier: Michael-John LaChiusa's Broadway musical "Marie Christine" has been called opera, as have some of Stephen Sondheim's shows.

    For some more history, check out the opera-history site in Resources.

Recognize the Performers

  • If you've ever watched PBS (and we know you have, even if it was an accident), you'll recognize the Three Tenors: Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti (now deceased) and Jose Carreras. Though they sang many beautiful arias, watching three fat old men on a bare stage may not get you hot and heavy. Nevertheless, it's good to know what roles exist in a standard opera.

    The women: Female opera singers are categorized by how high their singing voices are: soprano, mezzo-soprano and alto (from highest voice to lowest). Traditionally, the sopranos are the heroines, and the mezzo-sopranos and altos are the mothers, witches, sidekicks and older women. Lucky them.

    The men: Male opera singers are also categorized by how high their singing voices are: tenor, baritone and bass, again from highest to lowest. The tenors are the famous singers and usually play the hero, while baritones and basses are relegated to the position of evil dukes, fathers, bakers and criminals. Sound familiar? That's not to say that the mezzos, altos, baritones and basses don't get good music; but for your sweet, old-fashioned love story (or tragically fated romance), you can count on the sopranos and tenors to bring you to tears.

Research and Listen

  • Research

    This is where your local library comes in. Because operas usually take up two or three CDs, they're pretty expensive to buy, so to play it safe and listen to a few for free before deciding what to invest in.

    The operas we recommend for your first try all have humorous, dramatic stories, and music that you've probably heard before. If you see CDs called "The Best Of..." or "Selections from..." any of these operas, those aren't bad bets either, since they highlight a lot of the best, most familiar music. It's good to start out with something you recognize, because it makes the whole art form less intimidating. Here are our recommendations, in chronological order:

    * Mozart: "The Marriage of Figaro." Two servants of the Duke Almaviva want to marry, but the Duke has other plans for the would-be bride. It's up to Figaro, the groom and a comic hero, to plot his way out of the tangle.

    * Mozart: "The Magic Flute." A supernatural tale featuring a questing prince, his bird-catcher sidekick who's searching for the perfect bride, and the mysterious Queen of the Night.

    * Offenbach: "The Tales of Hoffmann." Based on fairy tales written by the German author E.T.A. Hoffmann, these stories are more twisted than you'd expect.

    * J. Strauss: "Die Fledermaus." Lots of lighthearted waltzes and a completely frivolous plot. By the way, it's not about a psycho chasing some poor shlub named Mr. Fledermaus; its title in English is "The Bat."

    * Gilbert and Sullivan: "The Pirates of Penzance" or "H.M.S. Pinafore." These Brits wrote operetta, the 19th-century equivalent of the Broadway musical. "Pirates" and "Pinafore" both have catchy melodies and poke fun at the British upper classes.

    * Bizet: "Carmen." Passion and treachery in a Spain filled with gypsy women and toreadors. Lots of Spanish-style music you're probably familiar with.

    * Humperdinck: "Hansel and Gretel." Although the name "Humperdinck" may bring to mind an evil dwarf or the obnoxious prince from "The Princess Bride," this opera is nothing but charm. You know the story already, but you've never imagined it with a singing witch.

    * Gershwin: "Porgy and Bess." Follows the lives of African Americans in 1920s Charleston, South Carolina, with influences of jazz and swing.

    * Bernstein: "Candide." From the composer of "West Side Story," this opera tells of the innocent and optimistic Candide, who journeys with his mentor from land to land getting into adventures and searching for his love, Cunegonde.

    There are other fantastic operas out there that may be good for beginners, including Puccini's "La Boheme" and Verdi's "La Traviata," but these are the most lighthearted and easiest to listen to.

    Listen

    Here are our tips for effective listening:

    * Read the plot summary. The plot summary that comes with most opera CDs may give away the ending, but it's worth reading it just to know what's going on--you can relax and listen better when you're not worrying about catching every syllable. Sometimes, the liner notes provide good background history (the opera's place in music history, its compositional style, or why the composer chose the story); this is also interesting, but definitely not mandatory.

    * You can look for a performance in English if you like, but most operas come with a libretto, the words and translation written down, so you can read along and follow the story.

    * Listen in segments. If you get bored and your mind starts to wander, shut off the CD player and come back to it in an hour or a day or two. Listening to one act or even one scene at a time keeps listening from getting monotonous. You might be surprised, though, at how much you get caught up in the story. Even playing it in the background while you're working or driving will familiarize you with the music. If all else fails and you find one opera unappealing, try another from a later or earlier time period, or by a different composer.

    * Your library might also carry videos. If that's the case, pick up a performance of an opera you've become familiar with and see what it looks like on stage. All this, of course, is only preparation for the next step: seeing how opera was meant to be performed.

Spend a Night at the Opera

  • Live opera adds a whole other dimension to the music. After all, operas were designed to be performed, not just heard. Once you're familiar with some of the music, watching an opera on a stage--where you can see the action unfold and hear the live orchestra and singers--will captivate you even more. So here's your assignment:

    1. Find out about the opera scene near you. If you live in a large city, you're set: New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Houston and many other major cities have their own opera companies that usually perform from September to May. To find an opera house near you, try checking out Stanford's OperaGlass listings (see Resources.)

    2. Start with an opera that you've already listened to, so you can compare your vision with the opera company's. Keep in mind that it's always more dramatic watching people on stage than plugging in your CD player; we're confident you will prefer the live version.

    3. Don't worry about those foreign languages. Many opera companies perform in English translations or have supertitles projected above the stage that translate for you simultaneously.

    4. Finding cheap tickets is mostly a matter of time and perseverance, with some luck thrown in. If you're a student, ask about discounts; some theaters take up to half off the regular ticket price. And most operas have plain old cheap tickets in the top balcony.

    5. For sold-out shows, people sometimes hawk unused tickets outside the theater, but you're taking a risk to assume you'll find some for a decent price. (Scalping opera tickets? The uncultured heathens!)

    6. To get the most out of your cheap tickets, bring a pair of binoculars, and always keep an eye out for empty seats down in front right before the show starts!

    7. Summer festivals are usually less expensive and might have outdoor performances, which add a nice picnic atmosphere to the performance. Get there early so you can see what's going on.

    8. Finally, make a fun event out of the evening. Dress well, have a nice dinner, then sit back, relax and enjoy the show.

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