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