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Going to the opera

Going to see an opera for the first time is likely to be a memorable occasion, for one reason or another!  If the outcome is to be a positive experience a degree of forethought, planning and preparation is necessary.

Choosing the right opera is an important first step.  Operas have been written since around 1600.  The range of styles is vast and not all are easily accessible to the beginner.  A possible list of operas suitable for the inexperienced might include (in no particular order):  La traviata  (Verdi);   Rigoletto  (Verdi);  Carmen  (Bizet);  Cavalleria rusticana  (Mascagni);   La bohème  (Puccini);   Tosca  (Puccini);   The Marriage of Figaro  (Mozart);   Don Giovanni  (Mozart);         The Bartered Bride  (Smetana);   Peter Grimes  (Britten).

For the beginner, the operas of Verdi are far more approachable than those of Wagner, whose operas (or ‘music dramas’ as he preferred to call them) are often vast in scale and in some cases take more than four hours.  Puccini’s operas are characterised by a more ’modern’, realistic feel

Choose the best production available  –  quality counts.  There can be no substitute for a high quality professional production.  It is a little like comparing a local football match with a game in the Premier League.  The rules are the same for both, but the difference in artistry and skill levels combined with the ambience of the stadium lift the Premier League experience to a wholly different plane.  (Incidentally, it can be cheaper to visit the Royal Opera House or to see the English National Opera company at the Coliseum than to watch Manchester United, Arsenal or Liverpool).

Even so, an introduction via a live local performance is preferable to one relying on a DVD or CD.  There is a chemistry, a magic, in a live performance that is impossible to recapture, even in this technological age.

It will be helpful to read a synopsis of the opera before you attend the performance, and try to notice the voice type associated with each of the main characters.  Such preparation will increase your enjoyment and understanding considerably.  Synopses and other support and background materials are plentiful on the internet and there are numerous collections of ‘stories from the operas’ in print.

So what can you expect when you take your seat in the theatre?  Forget about the ‘fat lady singing’ – she disappeared decades ago!  Try to think what are the features of an opera that make it different, that make it unique.

For example, remember that opera is not simply a play in which the words are sung.  In opera music is used to express the inner person, especially a character’s thoughts and emotional response to a situation.  (Think of the ‘thought bubble’ example suggested in What is opera?)

Because a musical expression of emotion requires more time than the spoken word, the pace of the story is slower than in a play, but the action is more dramatic; gestures tend to be more expansive and sustained.

Try not to be distracted by the fact that you can’t hear all of the words.  Appreciate that however clear the diction of the singers may be, it is physically impossible to distinguish every word even in your own language (especially in ensembles).  But realise that the words are merely catalysts for the musical expression  –  pegs from which the thoughts and feelings hang.  This is why it is useful to read the synopsis before the performance.

Incidentally, there are often far more characters on stage than in a play because of the participation of the chorus.

Before the performance on stage begins there will be an orchestral overture.  The overture serves two functions: to indicate the mood of what is to follow and, usually, to introduce one or two of the main musical themes that will be significant later.  (It is not intended as a time for chit chat and the rattling of sweet papers!)  Shorter musical interludes/intermezzi are used to introduce subsequent acts.

Opera uses four main styles of writing for voices: recitative, aria, ensemble and chorus.

A recitative is almost literally a reciting of the libretto.  Its purpose is to make a situation clear to the audience and to move the action forward.  Most recitatives are fairly short and not very tuneful.  The emphasis is on clarity and the orchestral accompaniment is sparse  –  often just intermittent chords serving as musical punctuation marks.

Like the recitative, an aria is for a solo voice but, in contrast, is characterised by long, flowing, expressive melodic phrases  –  a powerful overflow of feeling.  Most of the popularly known tunes from opera (like  ‘Nessun Dorma’ for instance) are arias.

An ensemble describes two or more solo singers performing at the same time, but retaining their musical individuality.

The chorus, of course, represents ‘the crowd’.  But notice that the singers seldom adopt the formal arrangement associated with a choir.  Their positions on stage will be determined by dramatic as well as musical needs.

Keep in mind that an opera is a spectacle; it is meant to be seen.  In the production you attend consider the contributions of the director and the designer.  For example, has the director chosen to change the time and place from that originally intended?

Is the set design realistic or symbolic?  What are the prevailing colours?  Do the colours match the mood of the production?

Has the designer used different stage levels?

Do the costumes add to our understanding of the characters wearing them?

How is lighting used to create atmosphere and mood?

etc.  etc.

 But above all savour the experience and, if possible, chat with a more experienced member of the audience about what you have both seen.

See also  What is opera?  Who does what in opera?

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Who does what in opera?

The making of an opera requires three things; a plot, someone to tell the story in a way suitable for setting to music, and someone to compose the music.

Most operas take their titles from their hero or heroine.  Famous operas like Aida, Carmen and Don Giovanni are good examples.  A title of this kind suggests that the opera is about the life of the central character.  In many cases the story will already exist, either because it relates real historical events one or it has formed the basis of a novel or play.

But to add music to a novel, for instance, would produce a work far too long to perform.  To make such a literary work a suitable subject for an opera it is necessary for someone (not, usually, the original author) to select, adapt, shorten and rewrite the story.  Often the opera is made to concentrate on just one aspect of the original, or to focus on one period in the hero or heroine’s life. The person who prepares the story in this way is called a librettist and the script he or she produces is known as the libretto, the text the performers will sing.  The music is then created by a composer.

The librettist and composer work closely together.  Indeed a few composers have preferred to prepare their own librettos.  A finished opera is always associated with the name of the composer: unfortunately for the librettist, his or her name is seldom remembered!

The process of creating a stage performance from something written on paper requires teamwork.  The person responsible for guiding and organizing what happens on stage is the director.  The conductor (maestro) or music director is in charge of the music and the designer is responsible for creating the set (scenery), as well as for designing the costumes.  It is vital that these three people work closely from the outset, sharing ideas and agreeing how they wish to interpret and perform the opera.

Once decisions have been made, other ‘behind the scenes’ personnel set about their tasks: first making a scale model of the stage set to ensure that ‘ideas’ can be put into practice, then constructing and painting scenery, making costumes and props (loose items used on stage such as tables, chairs, tankards) under the supervision of a production manager.  A suitable lighting scheme is planned and make-up designs are worked out.

Once on stage, scenery, props and costumes are the responsibility of the stage crew and the wardrobe department.  Lighting requirements are attended to by the lighting staff, and ensuring that everything and everyone is in the right place at the right time during the performance is the responsibility of the stage manager.

 The orchestra is rehearsed by the conductor or the assistant conductor and the chorus is trained by the chorus master or mistress.  Singers with solo parts work with a répétiteur, an accompanist and singing coach who helps singers learn and prepare their parts, through repetition.

 The singers can be divided into two groups, the chorus and the principals.  The chorus is used to provide crowds or gatherings of people of all sorts.  For example, in one opera the chorus might appear as villagers, in another as slaves, or as soldiers, monks, gypsies, smugglers or courtiers.  The role of the chorus depends entirely upon what the opera requires.  Often the chorus is used effectively to form a procession.  They do not remain static, like a choir, for example.

 The principals are the singers who perform leading roles, the solo parts. An opera will normally include several principal roles, perhaps two or three, which are technically demanding but which offer an opportunity to show off the voice to best advantage.  (These are the roles with which great opera singers are often associated.)  They are usually supported by others whose parts are important but not as extensive and demanding as the main characters.  Some principals may have ‘character’ parts which, again, are shorter and often less glamorous but which are crucial to the dramatic unfolding of the plot.

 Although singing voices are divided into four main types  –  soprano, alto, tenor and bass  –  the voices of principals are more precisely defined.  There is an extra category between soprano and contralto referred to as mezzo-soprano and one between tenor and bass referred to as baritone.  Some operas include a role for a very high soprano, who is required to perform very elaborate music with big leaps, fast scales and trills.  Such a singer is known as a coloratura soprano.

 During the past two and a half centuries or so, different voice types have been associated with particular character types.  For example, by far the majority of heroines are sopranos and by far the majority of heroes are tenors.  But there are famous exceptions: Carmen is a mezzo-soprano, Don Giovanni and Rigoletto are baritones and Porgy (in Porgy and Bess) is a bass.

Mezzo-sopranos are often used as friends of the heroine, as maids, servants or, perhaps, as ladies at court, or in roles associated with maturity and responsibility  –  as a mother figure, for example.  Similarly, contraltos are almost invariably seen as experienced and trustworthy characters  –  perhaps as a nurse or Mother Superior.  Baritones and basses (and tenors who are not performing the hero’s role) share a wider range of characters.  Basses, in particular, make fine captains of the guard, doctors, priests, gods and, of course, villains.

 Sometimes (and especially to bring an act to its close) a small group of principals will sing together, each commenting on his or her own situation or emotions.  Such a group is described as an ensemble.

See also What is opera?

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What is opera?

Many would describe an opera as a play set to music  –  a play in which the characters sing the words rather than speak them.  But that won’t do.  After all, it is usually easier to understand words that are being spoken than to understand them being sung.  So why complicate things by adding music?

Consider first why people sing and when they sing? Songs are used on many occasions  –  when people are happy, when they are sad, when they are in love, when they join together for a common purpose such as a church service, a football match or a protest march and so on.  On these occasions the songs express more than just the words, they also express the singer’s feelings.

Every time a composer sets words to music it is because he or she believes that the music will increase or improve the listener’s understanding of the words: music intensifies the feelings being expressed.

We experience the power of music every day as we watch television.  Almost all programmes are introduced by music, even news and interview programmes.  Its purpose is to set the mood for what is to follow.  In films, soaps and plays, music is often used not only to create the mood for the action taking place but also to suggest what is about to happen, or sometimes to tell us what is really happening although the characters might not be aware of it!  For example, something a character does might be leading to disaster without that character knowing it.  Perhaps he or she is entering a dangerous situation.  Dark, mysterious background music warns us, the audience, of what lies ahead.

Or two young people could be attracted to each other and might even be falling in love, without realising what is happening.  ‘Romantic’ music in the background tells us what they are feeling and could indicate how their friendship will develop.  If, later, we hear the same music, it reminds us of those people and their feelings for each other, and perhaps of that earlier meeting.

Music, then, is able to express feelings in a different way from words alone  –  sometimes more powerfully, sometimes more tenderly, and with a range of feelings between these two extremes.  It is able to create mood and to remind us of past events as well as to suggest what might happen in the future.

In an opera, for all the reasons mentioned, a composer uses music to help tell the story.  But an opera composer is also particularly interested in expressing the private thoughts and feelings of characters as well as their conversations.

Think of it this way: in comics or cartoons an artist often draws a ‘bubble’ above a character in which he writes the words that character is speaking or, sometimes, what the character is thinking.  Now apply a similar process while watching a play or soap.  From time to time, perhaps when the mood is tense, press the pause button.  While the picture is frozen, imagine a bubble over each character.  What words might you put in each – either what the character might be saying or what he or she might be feeling or thinking?  Think what sort of music might be best suited to each.

One thing is almost certain; that a character’s feelings and thoughts will take longer to play and sing than to be spoken.  Music needs time to convey the right message.

In an opera, characters sing to each other (as in conversation or in an argument) but there is often a good deal of singing in which a character is thinking aloud about his or her actions, feelings or behaviour  –  thoughts which, it is pretended, can be heard only by the audience, although there may be other characters on stage at the time.  In a play, a soliloquy is an occasional feature; in opera soliloquies and asides occur frequently and are essential characteristics of the art form.

Sometimes such singing can seem to be extremely ‘unreal’, for example when a character is dying but sings for several minutes about his or her life, the past and, maybe, the future.  In a play such a delay would often be thought to be absurd.  But remember that in opera such musical moments help to give us an understanding of characters.  In real life it is often said that when a person is dying their whole life flashes before them: in opera it takes rather longer!

Unreality  –  the ‘unrealness’ of the story and its characters  –  is a feature common to many operas.  But although an opera might not represent a slice of everyday life as we know it, it will almost certainly be about personal qualities, behaviour and relationships, which we recognise and which are true of people everywhere and at any time in history.  In their different ways nursery rhymes, fairy tales, fables, myths and legends similarly give us examples of how people behave.

Even though some operas are musical treatments of famous plays, poems or novels, an opera is much more than just a play set to music.  Like most plays, an opera has a range of characters and is divided into acts and scenes.  But the music is not something which is simply tagged on: it offers a different way of sharing the emotions and thoughts of individual characters.

Singing, acting, orchestral playing, sets, costumes, make-up and lighting combine to create an intense dramatic experience.  Particularly for the newcomer to opera there is no satisfactory substitute for the live performance where all of these different aspects can be appreciated.   Approaching opera for the first time through just one medium, for example the music alone, inevitably reduces the full intended impact and can dampen the appetite for more.

Surtitles are used in many theatres where opera is regularly performed, but prior knowledge of the story will also enhance enjoyment.

To follow:  Who does what in Opera?

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