Why I Love the Opera and Why You Should Too: A Guide for Beginners
Most people, especially young people, feel that opera is not for them. That they just don’t “get” it. That it is just long, lame and boring. That it is just fat women with horned Viking helmets. That it is just an elitist enterprise for stuffy old white men to enjoy in their plush, gilded box seats. And most people think they certainly don’t have the money to pay for an opera ticket. While these concerns are certainly valid and understandable, they stem from certain misunderstandings about the fundamental nature of The Opera.
But they would be wrong. Historically speaking, opera actually evolved in part as a popular art form. It developed as entertainment for the masses, who were seen by aristocrats as being unable to comprehend the complexities and intricacies of high-class theater.
You certainly don’t have to be an expert in the music or the singing (very few people in the audience actually are; most are just pretending) to appreciate it. You just need to be open to the production and enjoy the theatricality of it all. Opera is bigger than Broadway. The sets are bigger, the orchestras are bigger, the theater is bigger, the audience is bigger, the theatrics are bigger. And opera singers don’t use microphones.
The point of opera is not just the music, or just the singing, or just the staging, but how the entire production comes together as a holistic, extravagant sensation. The audience is meant to get lost in the entire opera. But what does that mean? It means an awareness of the interplay between the various factors that form the operatic gestalt.
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, is the music. Most audience members do not know the fancy Italian words that describe the notes and melodies. Most audience members probably can’t even name all the instruments in the orchestra! The ultimate goal is not to be wowed by the complexity of the composition or the particulars of the music, although that may be a result, but to be consumed by the emotion that lays behind it. To realize when the music gets louder or softer, and faster or slower. These are things one can notice without knowing all the jargon. In fact, a deep knowledge of the technical aspects of the music and singing can actually detract from the experience, leading to an overly critical view.
Watch the orchestra; note the sea of violin bows swaying in sync. Just being aware of the music is more important than understanding the nuances therein. The libretto (lit. “the book,” the words, and therefore the plot, of the opera) is meant to reinforce the emotional nuances of the music. In earlier operas, librettos were written separately from the music, although that trend changed in the 19th century with the work of (anti-Semitic) composer Richard Wagner. The lyrics of the music will not be so relevant, especially if you don’t speak the language being sung. While you might only pick up a few key words and phrases here and there, the lyrics and plot are less integral to the opera experience, so that’s okay.
Naturally the singing is also an essential component of the opera. A basic knowledge of the Fachs system, which categorizes Opera singers’ vocal ranges, is helpful, but certainly not necessary. Instead, focus on the difficulty of the singing, such as the length of notes or the smoothness of the sound (or even a deliberate jagged sound). Notice the intense emotions that pour out of the singers’ voices and how the singing matches the emotional flow of the music. Note that opera singers are singing in massive auditoriums for thousands of people with no microphones. It's a Herculean feat. Also, if you check your program, you’ll see that opera singers are an incredibly diverse group. The current production of Le Nozze de Figaro at the Met Opera features singers from Venezuela, Czech Republic and Alabama!
The spectacle aspect of the opera is certainly my favorite part. An opera stage is massive, and, because the audience can be four or five levels up, needs to be very tall. This means that the sets must occupy an immense amount of space, horizontally and vertically. The result is incredibly elaborate and exaggerated sets that take your breath away. Take, for example, the street scene in Act II of Puccini’s La Boheme. The current staging at the Met Opera by Fraco Zeferreli features a two-story set with close to 250 performers on stage. When the diva Musetta shows up in a horse drawn carriage, she is literally brought on by a real horse. (The Met Opera has a lot of big money thrown at them and they don’t always know what to do with it). You are meant to lose yourself in the grandness of sets and in their immense opulence.
What must be emphasized is that opera is both a passive and an active experience. You remain seated for the duration of the performance, still and observant, but you must also be actively aware of everything that is going on. In a sense, the opera experience is an exercise in mindfulness. Be aware of the music, and the singing, and the set and every little detail. See how it comes together, and then get lost in it all.
As far as prices go, while it’s true there are tickets that can go for upwards of $400, but most opera houses also have options and programs for us plebeians. The Met Opera offers tickets for as low as $25 in the family circle (the highest seating level), and offers rush tickets the day of the performance for $25 for orchestra seats that could normally cost hundreds of dollars. Additionally, if you register as a student, which is free to do with a valid student ID, you can purchase orchestra seats to select shows in advance for just $35.
And while yes, there will be plenty of people wearing tuxedos and ball gowns at the Opera, it certainly isn’t at all mandatory – you’ll also see some people wearing jeans and a t-shirt. That being said, I personally would recommend wearing your Sunday best. Enjoy, just for a few hours, the lavishness of the opera and the feeling of pretentiousness that goes along with it. Glide up the curving staircases, dragging your arm up the gold banisters. Turn it into an experience and enjoy yourself.
Choosing an opera is an art form in and of itself. Most operas last several hours. The Met Opera website is very clear about how long each show is, and exactly how long and how many intermissions there will be in a given show. Some performances will have two intermissions, some will have none. Some productions give you more intermission time then you know what to do with.
It’s recommended that beginners start with a well known show (La Boheme, La Traviata or Tosca are classics that are performed time and time again) because, well, they’re the classics. Personally, I’d recommend that beginners stay away from more contemporary stagings, such as highly stylized or minimalistic productions. While these are certainly important to the opera canon as an art form, they diverge from the traditional grandeur of opera and generally don’t resonate as much with newer audience members. Take a look at production photos to make sure it’s a staging that piques your personal interest. Most important when choosing a show is identifying that it is something that interests you. Also, you may want to listen to the music in advance, just to familiarize yourself with the sound before going in.
You’ll probably want to read the plot in advance, too. Most classic opera plots are simple, and not particularly compelling. They are certainly high in emotion — grief, love, hatred — but they are generally not meant to be over-analyzed or thought too hard about. Trying to understand every nuance in the plot can actually detract from the overall experience. In this vein, the dialogue is not particularly important either, especially given that it will probably be in a foreign language. Most opera houses will either project English translations of the lyrics from their original language, or, as the Met Opera does, will translate them on screens on the back of the seat in front of you. This can take some time getting used to, but you’ll become accustomed to it soon enough.
Going to school in New York City opens up incredible opportunities for cultural experiences — the Met Opera is just a train ride away. Give it a go! No art form is for everyone, and opera is no exception. If you don’t enjoy it, that’s fine too.
Opera provides us with a way to forget the honking and hullabaloo of the city around us, and to take a journey to some other place and explore that world and its story. It’s an opportunity to think about artistic ambition, diversity and the experience of going together to find something greater. It takes a lot of motivated, creative people to put together an opera. But the show is only complete when an audience has seen it. Now it's time for you to make your entrance.
Photo caption: The Met Opera has a lot of big money thrown at them and they don’t always know what to do with it.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons