How Opera Got Its Groove Back
I remember the scene. Cio-Cio-San stands vigil through the night waiting for Pinkerton to return to her and their young son after years away, only to realize as the dawn breaks that he isn't coming. Even from my seat in the last row of the top balcony, I could feel her heart break through Puccini's haunting melody.
That was the night I fell in love with opera.
Madame Butterfly can do that to you. But opera can be a hard art form to unlock, especially if your only references are what you've heard in Bugs Bunny cartoons or the famous saying that "it ain't over 'til the fat lady sings."
Not all operas have fat ladies. But most have dramatic story lines, luscious melodies and fabulous costumes and sets. In U.S. cities with opera companies, fall is the beginning of the season, and Oct. 28 marks the start of National Opera Week. That makes it the perfect time to learn more about this much-loved but often misunderstood music genre.
Here are some of the basics:
Understand what it is. Operas are dramatic tales of love and loss, hope and despair, set to lyric music performed by a live orchestra with trained singers, lavish costumes and elaborate sets. First staged more than 400 years ago, opera's two main parts are the music, called the score, and the words, called the libretto. Unlike musicals, which mix songs with the spoken word, in opera the entire story is sung. Roles are usually associated with certain types of singers, with the soprano playing the female lead and the alto her mother, servant or rival in love. Among male singers, the tenor typically is the hero (think Pavarotti) and the bass is the villain, father or king. Stories can be the simple boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl variety, or complex re-tellings of ancient myths or legends.
Start with a classic. For our second opera ever, I took my husband to see Nixon in China. John Adams' avant-garde celebration of the historic thawing of American-Sino relations features a minimalist score and a hard-to-decipher Act III that takes place entirely inside the characters' heads. My husband never went back. A better choice for a trial run would be a known crowd pleaser such as Madame Butterfly or Mozart's The Magic Flute.
Learn the story. In opera, somebody always dies, and nobody's surprised when they do. People don't go for the suspense. They go for the music, staging, costumes and to see how current singers handle the material. Once you've got tickets, read about the opera ahead of time so when the curtain goes up, you have a clue about what's happening.
Listen before you go. Listen to highlights of the score ahead of time to familiarize yourself with what you'll be hearing. If it's a well-known opera by Puccini or Bizet, you may be surprised by how many melodies from La Boheme or Carmen you've heard before. Remember the music from the famous helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now? That was opera: Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walkure, to be exact.
Get there early. Many opera companies have pre-functions to acquaint the audience with the evening's performance, or just for fun. Portland Opera, for example, opened its 2011-2012 season with a street fair at a park next to the theater with food carts, a beer garden and a free simulcast of the night's performance.
Dress the part. In laid-back towns like Portland, it's not unusual to spot opera-goers in denim and fleece. But if you want to fit in, leave the casual attire at home. Standard dress for men is a suit, tuxedo or at least a jacket, and for women, a dress, gown or pants, especially if you accessorize with a little bling. The performers will be dressed to kill (or be killed); you may as well too.
Study the program. Besides the people watching, getting to the theater early lets you read the playbill, or program, another way to learn more about what you're seeing. Most programs include articles on the opera, composer or director as well as biographies of the singers, choreographer, lighting and costume designer or other behind-the-scenes helpers.
Read the supertitles. If a production isn't sung in English (many are not), opera companies have supertitles, also known as surtitles, displayed above the stage so you can follow along.
Be polite. Follow the same etiquette you would if you were attending a play. Turn off cell phones. Don't talk during the performance. Leave eating or drinking for intermission. I still get irritated thinking about the women who ruined my night at Portland Opera's otherwise mesmerizing version of The Flying Dutchman a few years ago by talking and crinkling candy wrappers throughout.
Stick around after it's over. After a performance, the opera company may sponsor a brief discussion session in the auditorium with the director, conductor or other member of the cast or crew, a great opportunity to ask questions about the staging or a plot point you didn't understand.
Get involved. If you really fall in love, put yourself on a company's mailing list or join an opera guild. Groups such as the Seattle Opera Guild or Opera Guild of Northern Virginia raise money, hold previews and bring performances to local schools. Or audition for a part as a supernumerary or "super," a nonsinging role that operas rely on to fill crowd scenes. Opera companies in Portland, New Orleans and Chicago, for example, post applications for supers on their websites.
Give it a (cheap) test run. If you're not ready to fork over big bucks for a ticket, watch an opera at the movies. New York's Metropolitan Opera hosts an annual series called Live in HD that broadcasts live and recorded performances to movie theaters around the country. The 2011-2012 season features 11 performances, including Don Giovanni on Oct. 29, Faust on Dec. 10 and Götterdämmerung, the last work in Wagner's four-part Ring cycle, on Feb. 11, 2012. Check the Met's website for times, participating theaters and other details.
Hear a Houston Grand Opera re-broadcast of Madame Butterfly, sung in Italian, on Saturday, Oct. 29, at noon Central time on WFMT.
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