Friday, January 25, 2008

How to Enjoy Opera
A friend of mine once described opera as "fat people screeching at the top of their voices in a language I don’t understand for reasons I can’t grasp." At one time this characterization may have been valid. For most of its history, opera was available to very few and thus had few advocates.
That has all changed. Today, opera radio and TV broadcasts, DVDs, supertitle translations, media exposure and the like have brought opera to millions of people. It has been widely reported that opera is the only one of the performing arts that has grown over the past decade.
The reasons for this include the fact that opera involves several art forms: music, theater, dance and the human voice. In today’s visual world, it is the most appealing art form to the eye. Another important factor is that opera has entered the world of celebrity personalities. The death of Luciano Pavarotti a few months ago was covered world-wide. The "Three Tenors" albums are among the best selling of all time. Many opera singing leading men and women have heart-throb good looks. The technical development of staging can produce grand spectacles on stage and on film. The Metropolitan Opera HD live broadcasts into theaters is bringing all of this to thousands of new fans.
If you are curious about opera but still feel a bit distant from it, I think I can help you come to enjoy it. Believe me, the enrichment that results will add enormous depth to your life. I suggest a painless step approach that involves limited effort and increasing enjoyment as you move along into this wonderful world.
Listen to "Opera’s Greatest Hits"
I suggest you do this by opera. There are numerous recordings out there that offer highlights from specific operas. I suggest you seek them out from friends or buy them on line. Some operas are more accessible to the beginner than others. Start with these: "La Boheme," "La Traviata," "Carmen," "Madama Butterfly," "Aida," "Tosca." There are many others you could try, but I think with these you’ll get a good taste of what’s out there, enough to encourage you to move on. You’ll be surprised at how familiar some of the music is and, trust me, how much you like it.
Dig Into One of these Operas
Once you decide you want to move on, you should get (or borrow) a CD or DVD of one of these operas. I suggest "La Boheme" as it is a classic tragic love story with some of the most emotional music you’ll ever hear. Recordings usually come with a synopsis and libretto (words to the music). Become familiar with the plot of the story and if you feel ambitious, follow the libretto. You don’t have to do it all at once–an act or two on Day 1, and the rest later. (I don’t think many of you will be able to stop). Listen to the opera several times. You’ll find that you will be anticipating the beautiful arias and climaxes and that your enjoyment of it will become accumulative. Also begin to notice the different voices, the louds and softs, the phrasing to match the libretto, the different colors that the voice is capable of. Becoming familiar with a particular singers and following them is all part of the deal.
Expand Your Opera "Repertoire"
After "Boheme," try "Carmen." This is the classic love triangle with the unforgettable Carmen as the centerpiece. It has one "hit" after another and high drama. If you have the chance to listen to several versions, try to figure out the differences in how the Carmen character is interpreted. She can be a slut, a misfit, a manipulator, a woman of great passion, a tragic figure, or several of these all at the same time. This will help open another door for you–how many ways an opera can be interpreted and performed. After "Carmen" try "La Traviata." Verdi was one of the great composers of opera–wonderful melodies, beautifully paced drama, never a dull moment! Then "Tosca" and then "Madama Butterfly." Save "Aida" for a DVD–talk about spectacles!
Now Dig In!
Now you should work your way through the composers we’ve talked about (except Bizet, composer of "Carmen." His other operas are somewhat obscure). Puccini’s "Turandot" is another spectacle that includes the famous tenor aria "Nessun Dorma." Verdi’s "Rigoletto" features one of opera’s most fascinating characters and has a particularly sinister conclusion. "Otello" and "Falstaff" are probably Verdi’s greatest operas and most challenging to the listener. Try "Otello" first.
Open the Door to More
Mozart was a true genius who composed hundreds of works in the short 35 years of his life. His operas are sophisticated, occasionally cynical, often amusing, with magical melodies and fascinating plots. Start with "The Marriage of Figaro." It’s important that you understand the historical context of Mozart operas–actually of all operas–as Mozart always had a message applicable to his time, but also to ours. There are many other composers, too-Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Massenet. You’ll come across more as you go on. You might also begin to listen to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on Saturday afternoon, usually on public radio. And if the HD live broadcasts are offered in your area, attend by all means. Check the Met’s website for details on these broadcasts.
The Special Case of Wagner
I have not talked about probably the greatest opera genius, Richard Wagner. His operas are long and very complicated, mostly dealing with characters of legend. He plumbed the depths of the human character, nearly developing a new art form, the music drama, in the process. But his music is so overpowering, and dominant, it did not succeed in sharing the stage with the theatrical and the literary. So Wagner is a another blog. Meanwhile, just get a taste by listening to the recording "The Ring Without Words," conducted by Loren Mazel. You’ll see what I mean by "overpowering." So now, go ahead and enjoy opera and let me know how you are doing.

1 comment:

Frank Gardner said...

I used to agree with your friend. Now, the more I hear the more I like it.
Wonderful painting Jack. Very Hopper like. I can really get the feel of it when I click on the enlargment. I can see why that painting was so popular with your collectors.