Who’s Afraid of Opera?

Part One: The Basics

OPERA!!! If there is one word that strikes fear in the hearts of longtime listeners or casual music fans, it’s this one. Why is that? Why should this most fascinating of all theatrical art forms inspire so much dread in people – even those accustomed to challenging projects at work or in their homes?

It’s hard for me to answer that question. What I do hope to accomplish, though, is to broaden your knowledge and understanding of what can be a most difficult, and often times bewildering, subject for the vast majority of listeners.

I’ll try to make it as painless as possible, without getting too technical or verbose, and in the process enhance your appreciation of the operatic art.

Just so you know, I’ll be following the K.I.S.S. rule. What is the K.I.S.S. rule? Why, K-I-S-S: “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” The “stupid” part refers to me. My job is to help explain this patently convoluted topic in easy-to-digest doses. Your job is to sit back and enjoy the show!

Mind you, I have no intention of dumbing opera down. Quite the opposite: by breaking it up into its component parts – what I call the “basics” – my goal is to make opera as approachable as possible, to make it as innocuous an everyday activity as turning on the TV (well, not so innocuous, but you get my drift).

At any rate, I hope to take away the mystery, the stigma, and, above all, the misconception that frequently surrounds the form – that same misconception that prevents people from opening themselves up to this truly wonderful musical genre.

You may even pick up a thing or two about opera you didn’t know before, and maybe – just maybe – you’ll think about getting into it on your own (if you haven’t already done so). So, if you’re ready to get to it – and I know I am – let’s get started.

By the way, do you know where the title, “Who’s Afraid of Opera?” comes from? It was taken from a children’s program that aired on Public Television back in the early 1970s, starring the Australian coloratura soprano Joan Sutherland and her three puppet “friends”: a “wise old goat” named Sir William, Little Billy, his nephew, and Rudi, a “boisterous lion.”

Dame Joan, with the aid of professional singers, would perform scenes from a given work – Faust, Rigoletto, or Lucia di Lammermoor. She would turn, at key moments, to her puppet friends for help in retelling the plot or story – no easy task where some operas are concerned, I assure you – thus allowing kids as well as adults to be entertained and enthralled by the joys of the operatic art.

Although I can’t promise there’ll be live puppets to entertain and enthrall you, I can promise some fine performances to add to your listening pleasure.

The Overture

Well, then, first thing’s first. Let’s begin as many operas have begun throughout the ages, and that is with an overture. One of the world’s most famous and recognizable works, written by the prolific Gioacchino Rossini, is his Overture to The Barber of Seville.

After listening to this piece, you just can’t wait for that curtain to go up, can you? Rossini was responsible for many popular concert-hall favorites, including the William Tell Overture, which, believe it or not, comes from a French-style, five-act grand opera based on that historical figure.

The overture sets the stage for what we’re about to see. As American composer Cole Porter himself once discovered, while writing the musical Kiss Me Kate, “You cross your fingers and hold your heart” in anticipation. No overture does it better than the one to The Barber of Seville.

There is a plethora of such orchestral showpieces in opera. They frequently occur before the start of a work. When they’re heard at the beginning of the next act, they’re referred to as preludes or introductions; when they come in the middle of an act they’re often called interludes or intermezzos, although there’s no hard and fast rule about the nomenclature.

That self-absorbed German genius, Richard Wagner, was well known for his fabulously elaborate overtures, preludes and introductions, in addition to his extensive use of leitmotifs (or leading themes), which he wove into the fabric of his major works – The Flying Dutchman, Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger, and such.

There’s even a little room for some ballet sequences, as witness the famous “Dance of the Hours” from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, immortalized for all time in Walt Disney’s animated extravaganza Fantasia (remember those dancing hippos?).

No matter the term, the music’s stated purpose is to make you aware of, and reflect on, the dramatic or comedic situation to come. The members of the orchestra begin to tune their various instruments, as a hush comes over the expectant crowd. Next, the conductor enters the pit and confidently mounts the podium. The musicians rise, the audience applauds, the conductor raises his baton, and the music gushes forth with abandon.

Now that you’ve been properly prepared, you’re ready to enjoy the performance. Not to throw cold water on the proceedings, but not all operas begin with an overture. Some operas just…well, begin.

For instance, Il Trovatore, or “The Troubador,” that old operatic warhorse by the curmudgeonly Giuseppe Verdi, starts off with an ominous roll of the timpani. Some of you may recall this piece: it was nearly single-handedly destroyed by the Marx Brothers in their riotous 1935 comedy classic A Night at the Opera.

Verdi’s next to last work, Otello, his masterful adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice, grabs listeners by the throat, literally causing them to jump out of their seat with the full force of its crashing opening chords, a furious musical depiction of a raging storm at sea. It’s an extraordinarily effective moment I don’t mind telling you, by that greatest of all Italian composers.

All this is moot, really, and fails to answer the most obvious question on everyone’s mind: what exactly is an opera? You can think of it as a sort of play with music, with all the trimmings, trappings and appurtenances endemic to that most basic of theatrical undertakings, the musical, and that most musicals seem to enjoy – wigs, sets, costumes and makeup, lighting cues and special effects, exits and entrances, beautiful solos and/or choral passages – but expressed in a foreign tongue. That’s the short answer!

There’s more to it than that, of course. Our own American musicals, say, of the Oklahoma, Music Man and My Fair Lady variety, tend to have lots of spoken dialogue scattered between the numbers, but then so do some operas: Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Beethoven’s Fidelio are good examples of this.

There’s usually a chorus to comment on the evolving action, but not all operas have one, i.e. Wagner’s Das Rheingold and Siegfried – come to think of it, not all musicals do, either.

The Hit Tune

There are also a few standard-issue set pieces to help move the drama along: arias, duets, trios, quartets, quintets, and sextets – even the odd septet, as in the case of Jacques Offenbach’s unfinished masterwork The Tales of Hoffmann.

Then again, some operas have none of these things – think of our old friend Wagner, or, even worse, that urbane Frenchman Claude Debussy’s hypnotic Pelléas et Mélisande, where there’s hardly any action at all to speak of, let alone such niceties as set pieces.

What I’m trying to say is that operas come in a fascinating blend of colors, flavors and stripes; they’re sung in a variety of different languages (including British and American English), composed in a variety of different styles, and presented in a variety of different formats. In short, there are as many different kinds of operas as there are great works of art, literature and poetry, from whence many operas are derived. It’s what makes them unique.

If you’re planning to attend the opera sometime in the near future, you’re going to expose yourself to the elements, elements that can be found in most encounters of the operatic kind. Why, even sinister aliens from outer space have their own means of communication. Ergo, one might as well learn to recognize some of them, right? One of these operatic elements is the hit tune.

Great operas stand or fall by their great tunes – or “hook,” to borrow a phrase from the pop music world. It stands to reason, then, that the most popular works are deemed popular by their hits. One of the catchiest of the bunch is the Brindisi, or “drinking song,” a truly operatic convention if ever there was one, from Verdi’s ever-popular La Traviata.

There’s no direct translation of that title. However, most musicologists would agree on “The Wayward One,” words that more than accurately describe its protagonist, Violetta Valéry, the sympathetic, doomed heroine of the piece.

If you’ve ever seen the Julia Roberts-Richard Gere vehicle, Pretty Woman, you’ll know what I mean. But for those of you who haven’t, the opera (and the movie) concerns a woman of ill repute who falls in love with a well-to-do gentleman, with nothing but the most tragic of consequences for all concerned (the opera, not the movie, which is supposed to be a comedy with dramatic undertones and…oh, never mind, you know what I mean).

La Traviata is based on an old 19th-century potboiler, The Lady of the Camellias, which was first a novel, then a play by French writer Alexandre Dumas fils. MGM Studios later transformed it into that much-beloved film classic Camille, starring the legendary Greta Garbo and a very young Robert Taylor (he of the widow’s peak).

Verdi was an absolute master at capturing the spirit and essence of a scene with the barest of musical brushstrokes. Despite some expert solo singing, this number is actually part of a larger musical context known as the ensemble, in which the tenor and soprano share the spotlight with each other along with members of the chorus.

The Aria

But what if the tenor and soprano don’t want to share the spotlight? What if they want to show off their individual attributes all by their little old selves? To “strut their stuff,” so to speak?

There just so happens to be provisions for doing just that: it’s called the aria, or solo number. Here, the singer can give voice, as it were, to a whole range of “operatic” emotions – fear, loathing, sadness, jealousy, love, hate, bitterness, grief – indeed, whatever the composer feels best suits the dramatic purpose of his intent.

The aria can be subtle or bombastic, full of wild mood swings or the most static of declarations. It can feature high-flying vocal acrobatics, such as those found in Figaro’s tongue-twisting entrance song “Largo al factotum,” or plain old beautiful singing.

The best example of plain old beautiful singing I know of comes from Puccini’s compact melodrama Tosca. It’s the Second Act aria, “Vissi d’arte” (“I live for art”), sung by the flamboyant Floria Tosca, who is herself an opera star, which automatically makes this role every soprano’s dream part.

After fighting off an attempted rape by the nefarious Baron Scarpia, and facing the impending execution of her amorously inclined partner, the painter Mario Cavaradossi, Tosca launches into this brief prayer wherein she questions why, after a life devoted to her art and her church’s faith, the good Lord has seen fit to reward her with such terrible punishment.

Radio commentator and lecturer William Berger, author of the book Puccini Without Excuses, describes the aria as “a diva moment in every sense of the term.” Brava, brava!

You notice I used the word brava just now. Do you know why? We shout brava whenever a female singer has completed her solo. What do we shout for a male singer? We shout bravo. And what about a whole stage full of singers? Why, bravi, of course! See? You’re getting the hang of it already! Give yourself a round of applause.

The Duet

I mentioned before that opera is a unique art form. One of the many reasons for its uniqueness lies in opera’s ability to allow several singers at once to express their feelings to one another, or to themselves, at one and the same time – while still enabling the audience to follow the story along a clearly defined path, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. How could that be?

On the spoken stage, such a simultaneous verbal outpouring from all parties would be virtually impossible to comprehend – all that overlapping dialogue would only generate confusion on the part of the listener.

Not so with opera! The intertwining of different voices, and especially an emotionally engaging melody or two, can carry us through any potential barrier to our understanding of, and appreciation for, the scene at hand.

How is this accomplished? Ask the composer! Or better yet, in his absence listen to the music. Another of those operatic conventions is also one of the most memorable duets in the standard repertoire, “Au fond du temple saint” (“Within the sacred temple”), from an early work of composer Georges Bizet: The Pearl Fishers or, in the original French, Les Pêcheurs de Perles.

Two childhood friends, the tenor Nadir and the baritone Zurga, are reunited after many years apart. They reminisce about their mutual love interest, the beautiful priestess Leila, the romantic cause of their initial breakup.

With their voices soaring eloquently upwards at the climax of this stirring piece, they nonetheless have their own thoughts on the matter, which is differentiated by the blending in-and-out of their respective vocal lines, and by the distinctiveness of the two vocal timbres themselves.

Although Bizet is best known for his exceedingly popular and path-breaking work in the opera Carmen, I believe he did an exceptionally fine job with The Pearl Fishers.

The Quartet

As you can see, things are complicated enough when two singers are involved together on the stage. Imagine what would happen if more members were introduced into the mix: the tendency would be to make matters worse, would you agree?

Well, you’d be wrong! That’s the beauty of opera: just when you think it’s reached a saturation point of no return, along comes a composer of the caliber of, say, maestro Verdi to throw a wrench into the works, to give new meaning to old forms, and, most importantly for the average layperson, to delight audiences with fresh insights.

Only opera can take a series of unrelated solo voices and combine them into a dramatically viable as well as musically enjoyable whole. From a recipe for disaster we get opera’s pièce de résistance, one of the art form’s true miracles – and a marvelous example of ensemble writing at its best – in the Quartet from Act III of Rigoletto.

Here, the four main characters – the womanizing Duke of Mantua (tenor), the prostitute Maddalena (mezzo-soprano), a young girl named Gilda (soprano), and her father, the hunchback Rigoletto (baritone) – are gathered at an abandoned inn just on the outskirts of town.

Verdi and his librettist wisely decided to separate the four main vocal categories into adjoining pairs, each with their own musical personality. The first pair, the Duke and Maddalena, is meeting inside the inn for nothing more than illicit reasons. The second pair, Gilda and Rigoletto, is strategically placed out of their line of sight but can observe the lascivious goings-on from afar.

While the Duke attempts to seduce the voluptuous Maddalena, who is playing hard to get (not very satisfactorily, I might add), Rigoletto berates his daughter, in the operatic equivalent of “I told you so,” for having fallen for such an obvious, two-timing cad. As much as she concurs with dad’s opinion of her ex, Gilda, like any starry-eyed teenager in love, simply can’t give up on the good-for-nothing Duke.

They’re all going at it in another language, yet we can gauge each singer’s individual responses to these events by their characteristic vocal lines: first, Maddalena’s and the Duke’s, alternately playful, giddy and full of light-hearted chatter, are punctuated by the mezzo’s bawdy laugh (“Ha-ha”) and the tenor’s rising excitement at his latest conquest; this is followed by Gilda’s and Rigoletto’s more sedate, more controlled reactions, and in a decidedly minor mode – amplified by the soprano’s downward-sweeping tones and the baritone’s dire imprecations.

Music with drama, drama with music: opera is all this, and much, much more. From the overture at the beginning, to the multiplicity of numbers scattered throughout each act, right on through to its bittersweet ending, opera engages our emotions, challenges our thought processes, and expands our musical horizons as to what’s possible on the lyric stage. It hasn’t survived four hundred years of shoddy treatment and abuse for nothing!

What it all comes down to is this: opera is a heightened form of theatrical “realism” – an imperfect imitation of life, as surely life itself must be.

If this little presentation has put all of this into some perspective, then I have achieved my goal. And, if this brief introduction to the basics of the operatic art has been helpful in setting aside your concerns about the form, then I encourage you to come back so that we may continue this fascinating journey into the joys of opera.

Copyright © 2009 by Josmar F. Lopes

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