Overweight performers, strange plots and incomprehensible singing are the mainstays of opera -- an art that new comers (with some helpful tips) can learn to appreciate.
For many newcomers to opera, overweight women in heavy costumes screaming in a foreign language do not make for a pleasant evening’s entertainment. In fact, the entire opera scene is quite overwhelming as well-dressed patrons erupt into spontaneous applause or throw roses to the stage.
During intermission they debate about things called arias and recitatives, or gush over so-and-so’s performance in La Traviata. You, on the other hand, can’t seem to figure out with all the enthusiasm is about, and have even caught yourself nodding off during long stretches of incomprehensible Italian babble.
Should you simply resign yourself to the fact that you are not opera patron material? Not just yet. Few people are born enjoying one of the world’s oldest and most popular art forms. For most, opera appreciation requires a little study and a lot of patience.
Opera is simply a play put entirely to music. What an opera is not is a musical, which has a significant amount of dialogue interspersed between the musical numbers. In opera, the performers must sing throughout the entire two-hour or more production – a physically demanding feat that adds to the beauty of the art.
Most classic operas are performed in foreign languages only because opera was first born in polyglot Europe. Monteverdi (‘Green Mountain’ in Italian) is considered the father of opera, and his influence stretched across the continent. Operas are typically written in the language of the composer regardless of where the operatic story takes place. Georges Bizet is a Frenchmen who wrote the famous gypsy opera called Carmen. The actual opera takes place in Spain, but is sung entirely in French.
Few operas are written in English, although there are some notable exceptions -- the Englishmen Gilbert and Sullivan of Pirates of Pinzance fame and the modern day Andrew Lloyd Webber. But the fact that the majority of operas are sung in strange tongues doesn’t mean you – as an English-only speaker – can’t enjoy them.
To better follow the often-complex operatic plots, research the opera before attending. There are several good books on the market that serve as a sort of opera encyclopedia for newcomers. Brief plot synopses are available in your opera brochure, but cramming in the details five minutes before the curtain rises will not be helpful. A thorough read a day or two before the show, will aid you in following the sequence of events on stage, even if the language remains a mystery.
Remember that the majority of people in the opera hall don’t understand what the performers are singing either. For true opera lovers, it is not what the performers are saying, but how they say it. And the two principal modes of communication for opera singers are arias and recitatives. Arias are the showstoppers of any opera.
They are the pieces that have a defined beginning and end, and often demonstrate the performers well-refined singing skills. Wild applause and cries of ‘Bravo’ will almost always follow a good aria. Needless to say, arias are taxing on the performers and they couldn’t possibly sing with such gusto for two straight hours. The plot needs to move forward, however, and that is done through recitatives. Recitatives are the sung dialogue of the opera. This is the portion of the opera where many newcomers drift off.
The performers will melodically ‘speak’ back and forth with each other and at times appear to be screaming. There seems to be little rhythm or beat to these stretches of operatic dialogue. It is true that recitatives are never the focal point of the opera, but they serve as a transition, allowing performers to catch their breath before belting out another beautiful aria. Enjoying recitatives will take some patience, but just remember that there is always another aria on the way.
So you’ve read up on the opera’s plot, and know the difference between arias and recitatives, but the opera crowd still has you feeling overwhelmed? Opera patrons are very, very passionate about their art – even more so outside the United States. An opera just wouldn’t be an opera if the patrons didn’t vocally express their appreciation of the performers.
But before you bolt from your chair to scream ‘Bravo’ at the top of your lungs, it’s best to understand the subtle nuances that will brand you as a tyro. The terms ‘Bravo’ and ‘Brava’ are used liberally after a particularly difficult or beautiful aria. ‘Bravo’ is used specifically if the performer is male and ‘Brava’ if the performer is female. If the aria is a duet, then the terms can be used interchangeably.
The use of ‘Encore’ is a little trickier in that given the opera’s plot sequence, you couldn’t really ask the performer to repeat a particular aria mid-show. Occasionally ‘encore’ might be used at the end of the opera to entice the singers back on stage. However, the term is more suitable for special performances where leading tenors and sopranos sing a variety of arias from different operas for the audience.
Roses are also thrown to the stage after demanding arias, before the curtain falls for intermission, or after the finale. Throwing flowers is more popular in Europe than in the United States, and is clearly unacceptable for those not in the first three rows.
Do not be too concerned by the wide range of dress of opera lovers. Opera is one of the showiest theatrical performances, and this is reflected in the glitz of many patrons. Season ticket holders especially prefer nothing less than black ties and the family jewels. Don’t feel you have to rent the tux to get past the usher.
A dark suit and tie or a simple cocktail dress will be perfectly acceptable. Some opera halls, in order to attract a wider audience, have even relaxed their dress code to allow for more casual attire. Expect glares, however, if you do show up in flip-flops and jeans. The ambiance of the opera stretches from the stage to the balcony. Jeans on the opera patron will ruin the mood as quickly as if the leading tenor were performing in shorts.
Opera is an art that requires patience to understand and fully appreciate. The more operas you attend, the more you’ll begin to enjoy how the performers sing, rather than what exactly they are saying. To ensure a more successful opera experience, start with lighter versus heavier operas. Most Italian and Austrian operas, such as Madame Butterfly by Puccini or The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart, are considered light operas.
The recitatives are short and sweet, and the arias are quite melodic. German opera – particularly Wagner – is much heavier, and is more of a acquired taste, much like fine wine. In time, you’ll be able to hum along to the song “Toreador” in Bizet’s Carmen, and even shudder at the beauty of “Un Bel Di” in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.