Falling In Love With Opera

Nov 28th, 2007 | By John Waller | Category: Music
Soprano Jurate Svedaite as Mimi in Connecticut Lyric Opera's 2007 production of "La Boheme"

Soprano Jurate Svedaite as Mimi in Connecticut Lyric Opera's 2007 production of "La Boheme"

When I first met my future wife, the person I was destined to spend the rest of my life loving, it was a chance encounter. After exchanging pleasantries, shy smiles and phone numbers, I got the courage to ask her on a date. Hoping for the best, but prepared for what experience told us both was not likely to lead to much, we met in town and spent a few pleasant hours, light-heartedly enjoying each other’s company. When our night was through, we parted excited with the prospect of something new in our lives, and both looking forward to our next rendezvous. There was much more anticipation prior to our second date, perhaps we both understood that if all went well with this one, things might turn serious quickly thereafter. We had dinner at one of the fanciest restaurants in town, enjoying the most sumptuous items on the menu. By the end of the evening, it was clear things were going very well, that something magical was happening. The night of our third date arrived, and rather than being nervous or weighted down with the expectations as on our previous evening, we both were completely at ease, ready to let the evening take us where it may…

Before we knew what was happening, without planning or wanting it, with passion and beauty and humor: we were in love. The only problem was that I was a Led Zeppelin quoting, Aerosmith singing, Pink Floyd kind of a guy, and my wife—we were married on Valentine’s Day, a month after we met—was an opera singer. No, she wasn’t built like an All-Pro offensive lineman, and no, she didn’t have long braided blond hair, wear a helmet and carry a spear. What she did have was the voice of an angel, the smile and patience of a saint and the figure of a goddess. I faced a dilemma. I knew that if this was going to last, I was going to have to find out what she saw in opera, and hopefully I could learn to see what she did so that I could share with her what she loved so passionately.

Now, all these years and dozens of operas later, I’m pleased to say that not only am I an opera lover, but you can be one, too. And you don’t have to marry an opera singer for the motivation! I didn’t come to find opera the most magnificent expression of the human condition because I had to. At least for me, opera is about the passion, the beauty, and the humor that lives deep within each one of us that is revealed to us through this centuries old combination of music, drama and high art. You, too, can fall in love in three dates—not with my wife, mind you— but with opera. Here’s how to do it.

Your First Opera: Forget the stereotypes and just go

I know what you’re thinking. Opera is for snobs. Opera singers are 300-pound Brunhildas who scream, unintelligibly, at the top of their lungs. And worst of all, opera is boring. Please allow me to dispel these notions. For starters, though it once was true that a typical Wagnerian soprano, “looks like an ox, moves like a cart horse, and stands like a hay stack,”1 today’s trend in opera is for singers to be believable in size, stature and voice. Also, with the advent of Supertitles, translations of what’s being sung projected above the stage, you don’t need to speak a foreign language to understand what’s being sung during the performance. Next, opera is anything but boring—combing a rich feast for the senses with plots filled with nearly as much lust and violence as the average Hollywood movie, opera has something for nearly everyone. Finally, according to a recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts, opera is the fastest-growing of all of the performing arts with more than 6.6 million people attending annually, and though the average patron is still a well educated middle-aged suburbanite, one third of audiences are under 35, and 17% are minorities 2.

Now that we’ve got that cleared up, if you’ve decided to give opera a try, it’s time to pick our first opera. No matter how tempting it might be to go see the one whose melody you just heard in a commercial for your favorite luxury car, airline or just about any consumer product these days, take my advice: make your first opera a light-hearted look at love. The main requirements for you are 1) it’s well-known, 2) it’s short, and 3) it’s not really old or new (Baroque or Contemporary). In my opinion, the perfect introduction to opera is Giacchino Rossini’s comic masterpiece, The Barber of Seville, which features a few pieces that are recognized by virtually everybody; both the overture and Figaro’s aria, “Largo al Factotum” have been used extensively as background music in dozens of movies, TV shows and commercials over the years. In addition to The Barber, other excellent choices are Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Gaetano Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love, and another Rossini romp, The Italian Girl in Algiers. My first opera was, in fact, The Barber of Seville, performed by a now defunct touring company in the midst of its cross country odyssey bringing opera to the little communities across America that didn’t have the resources to support their own companies.

Going to my first opera was an experience I’ll never forget. I was dressed in my best (and only) suit and a little afraid that I’d be the only man there not wearing a tuxedo. When I got to the hall, I was relieved to find that not even half of the attendees were formally attired—I was pleasantly surprised to see one of the community’s most affluent members wearing a sport coat, open shirt, boat shoes and jeans! Seated at the back of the main floor, the orchestra section I learned, I had a great view of the stage, and was able to enjoy every second of the comedy without interruption. The Barber of Seville is the story of the love-struck Count Almaviva, who disguises himself as the student Lindoro to win the love of the beautiful Rosina, ward of old Dr. Bartolo, who has his own plans for her hand. Throw into the mix the rapscallion barber himself, Figaro, a small army of musicians, soldiers and townspeople, and the stage is in constant motion with all kinds of tricks, deceits and, of course, comical singing and acting. Two hours of this great fun came and went, and when the final curtain came down, with great gusto and enthusiasm, I joined in with the multiple rounds of wild applause and bravo, bravissimo. As we were exiting the performing arts center, I ran into one of my old friends from High School, who like me, had been brought apprehensively to the evening’s performance by his decidedly more cultured better half. We both left thoroughly entertained and inclined to give opera a second try, all the while humming the musical highlights of The Barber.

Your Second Opera: Make it a night to remember

Assuming that you had a great time at your first opera, don’t let more than a few weeks go by before planning your next opera excursion. This time, let it be one of the great spectacles of the repertoire, of which there are dozens to choose from. I recommend you make your selection from among an exclusive list of the ones that, year after year, for decades on end, remain the most performed of the classical repertoire: Madama Butterfly (delicate Japanese girl is loved and left by fickle American), La Boheme (the life and loves of the original Bohemians of Paris) and Tosca (diva in love with painter is object of obsession of head of secret police) by Giaccomo Puccini; La Traviata (consumptive courtesan chooses honor over love) by Giuseppi Verdi, and Carmen (Spanish gypsy seduces soldier, who gives up everything, only to be left for another) by Georges Bizet. Though there have been thousands of operas written over the last four hundred or so years, these five represent the greatest works of some of the greatest composers who have ever lived.

After deciding on your opera, do yourself a favor, buy the best seats you can afford to at the best opera company within a reasonable distance from your home. I am fortunate to live within a two hour drive of Lincoln Center and one of the world’s greatest cultural institutions, the Metropolitan Opera. The Met’s storied history includes some of the finest moments the stage has ever been graced with, as well as some of the funniest mishaps the stage has ever had the misfortune of hosting. Once, for example, during a performance of Carmen that included live horses, one relieved himself on stage, and when Don Jose stabbed Carmen (the two main characters), she didn’t collapse to the ground as the script calls for. A second stabbing came with an accompanying cry of, “Die, fall, damn you!” The mortally wounded Carmen replied, “I will if you can find me someplace clean.”3 Every famous opera house, not only the Met, has its share of shining moments—and a few that remind us that we’ll all human.

My second opera was a Met performance of La Boheme, starring two of the brightest stars of the day as the delicate, dying Mimi and the struggling poet Rodolfo. The breathtaking sets and costumes were created by one of the greatest stage designers of the twentieth century, Franco Zefferelli. So complete was my absorption into the opera, that seated high above the stage in the Dress Circle (third balcony), I distinctly felt as if I were a voyeur perched upon a higher rooftop than that spotlighted below, and that I was as much a witness to a real-life drama as I was a spectator of the opera. I could feel how cold and hungry the hapless bohemians were during Act One. The culmination of Act Two is a parade of no less than one hundred revelers winding through the streets of Paris together with a marching band and mischievous waifs darting in and out of the procession. Set outside a tavern in the dead of winter on the outskirts of Paris several months later, Act Three is dark and cold, bleak and hopeless; the lightly falling snow slowly accumulates like the desolation that begins to overwhelm Mimi as she confides to Rodolfo’s best friend, the painter Marcello, that she is dying and wants to spare Rodolfo further anguish by leaving him. Act Four, back in their rooftop garret, begins with Rodolfo and Marcello pretending to be happy without their lovers, but, tenderly both unwittingly reveal how brokenhearted each is. Their melancholy is shattered with the news the Mimi is on her way up the stairs so that she may die in the arms of her love. I walked out of the great hall drained, stunned, wrung out of every drop of emotion—while at the same time completely enthralled, uplifted, inspired, and pretty certain that this thing called opera was carving out a special place in my soul.

Your Third Opera: A Mozart masterpiece

Now that you are on the verge of making a lifelong commitment to this majestic art form, to ensure that your next experience at the opera house doesn’t disappoint, make your third opera one by Mozart. Based on his musical legacy, which includes twenty operas, forty-one symphonies, numerous choral and sacred vocal works, and concertos for virtually every instrument of the orchestra, it’s not difficult to support the argument that Mozart was the greatest composer of all-time. Mozart was to opera what Shakespeare was to the theatre—while others might have written more brilliantly in separate sub-genres after their passing, both of these masters were equally as influential and gave life to reigning masterworks in each of the different facets of their respective fields. Add the larger-than-life figure of Richard Wagner and the tragically short-lived Vincenzo Bellini to the opera composers previously mentioned, and you have the composers of the vast majority of all of the operas preformed today. Of those greats, only Mozart has a work that might be considered the finest example of each of the three main categories of opera: opera seria (serious opera), opera buffa (comic opera), and for lack of a proper Italian term, what I’ll call fairy-tale opera. His contributions of Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute, respectively, can be debated amongst experts as the finest example of each category, and for this reason, you can take your pick from among the three for your next opera without fear of disappointment.

My third opera was Don Giovanni. Based on the story of the legendary Don Juan, the opera chronicles the life of the heartless seducer, the trail of women he conquered and scorned, and the chain of events, mistaken identities and supernatural forces that lead to his descent into Hell. At times hilarious, at times tender, at times blood curdling, at all times musical perfection, Don Giovanni, in fact, has been hailed by critics for more than two hundred years as “the perfect opera” and has remained an audience favorite since its premiere in 1787. The first Don I experienced was a production by a little opera company in my area, and despite not being staged with the grandeur and panache of the Met, it was still spellbinding and a wonder to behold. Maybe the singers weren’t world-class, or the scenery and costumes a little on the worn side having been rented out to similar outfits for many years, but the sneering and haughty Don, his cunning manservant Leporello, the stately yet obsessed Donna Elvira, the naïve (or is she) Zerlina, and a special guest from beyond—these characters are etched upon my memory as I think back fondly on that imperfect production. There was a point in the performance where one of the doors of the Don’s palace wouldn’t open; the audience, and the entire cast I’m sure, held their breath in anticipation of what was going to happen next. After several banging attempts, Leporello appeared, stage left, adding a little joke in English that brought the house down in uproarious laughter, and after a chorus of well deserved bravos from the delighted audience, continued his dialog in Italian.

Somewhere between leaving the theatre that night and reading the review in the paper the next morning, I finally put all of the pieces together and, at least for myself, I came to understand what opera is all about. It is not only about the potent mix of music and drama, the laughter and despair, the glitz and glamour, the splendor and magnificence, it is also about living for the moment, for no matter how well rehearsed or professional the performers are, as in any life, you can never be certain exactly what’s coming next. It is also about the diverse people in every community coming together to breathe life in to a work of art that has been part of our shared cultural heritage for generations. And, just as importantly, as long as those who care about it do something to keep it alive, it is about passing on the tradition so that it will remain a part of the human experience for generations to come.

In the years since my first operas, I have had the great fortune and distinct pleasure of seeing some of the world’s greatest singers performing the most magnificent operas ever written with some of the finest opera companies in America and Europe; I have also seen my share of local opera companies and student productions that have left just as lasting an impression on me and that have contributed as much to my passion for opera. Through it all, my wife has been my patient guide and companion for nearly everyone of those experiences (including those that she has performed in), and were it not for her insight and gentle introduction to the world of opera, I might have been able to make the transition from the hard core rock-n-roller that I once was to dedicated and devoted opera lover that I am today. That doesn’t mean that I don’t pause to sing along to the songs I grew up with as I’m scanning the radio dial for the next classical music channel, and that doesn’t mean that your life will change because your musical experience has broadened. But then again, it just might!

By: John M. Waller

1 Tanner, Steve and Nancy. Quotable Opera: Aria Ready for a Laugh. Sound & Vision. Toronto: 2003.
2 National Endowment for the Arts, 2002. Provided by OPERA America.
3 Anecdotage.com: Famous People, Funny Stories.

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