I'm not an opera expert. In fact, there are many very popular operas that I've never had the opportunity to hear or see. But I enjoy opera and I know something about it. This is my introduction to opera for any who are mystified about it. It's based on a presentation that I gave to my Sunday School class in 2004.
I want to start by telling you about a few good books about opera, namely the ones I happen to own.
Who's Afraid of Opera by Michael Walsh (1994) - This is an excellent guide to opera as an art form. Unlike the other books, it's not a guide to individual operas. I'll quote from this book a lot. You'll know, when I say "Walsh says."
The New Milton Cross' Complete Stories of the Great Operas (1952) and 100 Great Operas and Their Stories by Henry W. Simon (1960) - Both of these books provide traditional summaries of individual operas.
A Night at the Opera by Sir Denis Forman (1994) - This unusual reference offers summaries and details about individual operas, including comments and ratings of individual songs. It's definitely irreverent, and uses a lot of British slang.
The Penguin Guide to Opera on Compact Discs (1993) - This book is invaluable if you decide to buy CDs of individual operas. It provides ratings of CDs as well as short summaries of the operas. CDs of complete operas cost about $45-$50, sometimes less. You can find some of them in music stores, but Amazon.com is a more reliable source.
What Is Opera?
According to Walsh, opera is
The greatest art form yet invented by mankind.
The most beautiful music ever written for the voice.
The grandest stage spectacle that exists today.
So you might say that he likes opera. But there's another point of view. Some people say they don't like opera.
A common complaint about opera (and even the Broadway musical) is that it's not realistic; we don't go around singing all the time in real life, especially when we're expressing our innermost thoughts or when we've just been fatally stabbed or shot. But you might just as well condemn poetry, for example, or any form of visual art that isn't strictly realistic in terms of appearance. Why not say that actors with stage makeup aren't realistic? We're conditioned by a steady diet of TV and cinema that strives for realism, and in my opinion winds up with just the opposite.
But opera is realistic. Walsh says that
Opera's reality is "that of the emotions and the mind." It's "about the exploration of the heart and soul, about how our deepest desires and longings influence and affect our behavior and touch the lives of people around us."
In opera, the orchestra serves as the narrator. As Walsh puts it, the orchestral music "comments on the dramatic situation from the perspective of third-person omniscience, sometimes sympathetically, sometimes ironically."
Incidentally, there's a difference between opera and operetta; I used to think it was a matter of length. But apparently the difference is that operettas are just jollier. They're lighter and more popular in subject and style. In case you're familiar with these two examples, Die Fledermaus ("The Bat") just barely qualifies as an opera, whereas The Merry Widow is definitely considered an operetta.
A Very Brief History of Opera
Let's look at a very brief history of opera.
According to Walsh, in the mid-1500s there was "a generalized European cultural revolution against . . . the Middle Ages." "Composers and other artists . . . sought to return to some of the . . . ideals" of ancient Greek civilization, which included the combining of music with drama.
The first opera premiered in 1597. It was Dafne, with music by Jacopo Peri of Florence, Italy.
The first great opera composer was Claudio Monteverdi of Cremona, Italy, in the 1600s.
Handel wrote many operas in the early 1700s, but they're out of favor today because of their style, including the need for castrato singers in the lead roles. I'll say more about this later, when we talk about the kinds of singers in opera.
Opera hit its stride in the late 1700s with Mozart, followed by Beethoven's only opera Fidelio.
Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi dominated the 1800s. Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung is a set of four related operas. In the opinion of Walsh, the Ring "was probably the most ambitious single work in the history of art, if we don't count Chartres Cathedral."
The 1900s began with Richard Strauss and Giacomo Puccini.
Recent operas include Porgy and Bess (1935, George Gershwin) and Nixon in China (1987, John Adams), not to mention Broadway crossovers such as Showboat, The King and I, Carousel, West Side Story, Tommy, Evita, and Jesus Christ Superstar.
For me, the singing is the most important aspect of an opera, followed closely by the orchestra. The acting comes in third. Finally, if the sets and costumes are good, I appreciate them, but if they're not well done, it doesn't bother me much.
There are six basic voices: three female and three male categories:
Soprano - Heroines and younger female characters.
Mezzo-soprano or mezzo - Older or more authoritative female characters, female villains.
Alto or contralto (not often called for) - Mostly evil women.
Tenor - Heroes and younger male characters.
Baritone - Older or more authoritative male characters.
Bass - Male villains, older or very high-ranking characters (kings, priests, judges).
Boy soprano - A boy whose voice hasn't yet been deepened by puberty.
Castrato - A boy soprano so good that his puberty was surgically prevented. (This is no longer done. One of the last died in 1922, and was the only castrato whose voice was recorded.) As I mentioned earlier, Handel's operas often called for a castrato as a male lead. As another example, in Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice, the male lead Orpheus was written for a castrato, and is now often played by a female alto, and otherwise by a male countertenor.
Countertenor - Near-falsetto, almost a male alto.
High soprano - A soprano who can hit the really high notes.
Coloratura soprano - A soprano who can sing bel canto, a style of opera singing with a lot of frills and curlicues.
Opera aficionados often discuss and compare the most talented singers, but I have neither the time nor the knowledge to do that. Anyway, hero worship should not be taken too seriously. If you go to an opera just to see a famous singer, you're missing the point.
Here's a selection
(2 minutes 57 seconds) to illustrate three of the terms we've learned: it's an aria that requires a high soprano who is also a coloratura soprano. This is the Queen of the Night's "Revenge Aria" from The Magic Flute, by Mozart. It's a very difficult piece, and isn't always carried off successfully. The Queen of the night says to her daughter, in German, "Hell's revenge boils in my heart. If you don't kill this guy I want killed, you're no longer my daughter."
The various forms of singing that are written into opera can be characterized like this:
Recitative is a kind of singing-talking that carries the dialogue and the plot.
An aria is simply a solo. It expresses the character's emotions.
Duets, Trios, Quartets, and so on, up to Octets, known collectively as Ensembles, also express emotions. Generally the individual singers are singing different lyrics, because everyone has their own point of view.
A Chorus is many voices singing the same thing.
As an example of a quartet, here's my favorite
(4:32), the "Quartet" from Verdi's Rigoletto, in Italian - The first voice is that of the Duke, a tenor and a philanderer. He's trying to get to first base with Maddalena, an alto and a woman of the world. After the first verse, Maddalena's voice comes in, saying, "Yeah, yeah, I know your type." Shortly thereafter Gilda, a soprano, Rigoletto's innocent young daughter, overhears this conversation from outside the window and laments that her heart is breaking because the Duke has used the same lines on her. Finally Rigoletto, a baritone hunchback court jester, eavesdropping with Gilda, says, "Taci - Hush! Your tears are useless. Now you know he was lying. Let me start planning my vengeance." Beyond this point, all four are singing at the same time, each expressing their own thoughts.
Now here's an example
(3:02) of a chorus, the "Soldiers' Chorus" from Gounod's Faust, in French. To the tune of a march that may be familiar, the soldiers sing about how brave and glorious they are.
Another example of an aria
(6:42), this one by the famous Luciano Pavarotti, singing in Italian. This is "Nessun Dorma" ("No one sleeps"), from Puccini's Turandot, and apparently much-played at European soccer matches. Calaf, a tenor, has made a bet with the princess, telling her that she can execute him if she can guess his name by dawn. This puts him in somewhat the same position as Rumplestiltskin. So of course she demands that all of her subjects work all night to find out his name. Calaf sings, "Nessun dorma. No man shall sleep tonight. But my secret will be safe."
Here's one more example of a chorus
(3:01). This is the "Prisoners' Chorus" from Beethoven's Fidelio, in German. At a prison filled with innocent victims of an evil fascist governor, the kind-hearted jailer allows the prisoners a brief outing in the courtyard. They're saying, "What joy to be in the open air! Only here is there life. The prison is a tomb."
We've heard examples in Italian, German, and French. Opera is written and sung in many languages, based on the composer's or librettist's preference. (The composer writes the music, and the librettist writes the lyrics. Usually they're two different people.) Italian is perhaps the most beautiful singing language, followed closely by French. German is a bit noisy with its guttural sounds, and Russian is the same. The principal advantage of English is that it isn't foreign.
Operas are often translated into English for American and British audiences. Whether this is a good thing is a matter of opinion. Today, opera houses have supertitles, a display of the English translation of the lyrics on a screen above the stage; so the singing language doesn't matter that much. In fact, it's often hard to understand lyrics even when they're sung in your own language, so supertitles are provided in any case. Some people feel, perhaps subconsciously, that a song is more acceptable as art if it's in a language they don't know - a bit like abstract painting, perhaps.
Some More Selections
Here are five more examples. The first
(4:50) is the "Jewel Song" aria from Gounod's Faust.
Marguerite expresses her girlish excitement when she opens a box of jewelry that the devil Mephistopheles has left for her to find. She puts on the jewelry, looks in a mirror, and asks, "Can this beautiful girl really be me?" The "Jewel Song" is a showpiece for sopranos; in the Tintin comic books, it seems to be the only aria that the opera singer Madam Castafiore knows. - - - >
(7:16) is another soprano area, "Caro Nome" ("Dear name") from Verdi's Rigoletto. Rigoletto's daughter sings about her newfound love for the man she believes to be a humble student. In reality, he's the lying, cheating Duke of Mantua.
Also from Rigoletto, "La Donna E Mobile" ("Woman is fickle")
(3:02) is the Duke's signature (tenor) aria, in which he says that women are fickle, and the man who tries to win a woman's heart is doomed to sorrow. This is wildly ironic, since no one could be more fickle than he is.
One of the most highly regarded quartets in all of opera
(4:56) is the understated "Mir ist so wunderbar" ("I feel so wonderful") from Fidelio. Musically, it takes the form of a canon, a piece in which a melody and imitations of that melody are begun in different parts successively, so that the imitations overlap. The subject matter of this quartet isn't that important, but here goes: Marcellina (soprano) is keen on Fidelio, who she doesn't know is actually Leonore disguised as a male; Leonore (soprano) inwardly pities Marcellina's misguided love; Rocco (bass), the jailer as well as Marcellina's father, rejoices over the (apparent) romance between his daughter and Fidelio; and Jaquino (tenor), Rocco's assistant, is torn up over (apparently) losing Marcellina to a rival.
Finally, we have a fine soprano showcase aria
(7:38) in "Mein Herr Marquis" ("My dear Marquis") from Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus ("The Bat"). Adele, a chambermaid at the Eisenstein home, has come to the Prince's party, pretending to be a woman of higher station. Eisenstein, pretending to be a Marquis, meets Adele at the party and tells her that she looks like a chambermaid he knows. In the aria, also known as "The Laughing Song", Adele laughs at the idea that he could mistake a woman with her face and figure for a chambermaid.
If you do decide to attend an opera, I hope you do it because you appreciate the art of it. There are, of course, other reasons for attending an opera:
To see and be seen.
To have culture rub off on you with no effort on your part.
To cheer on your favorite singer.
To see if the Queen of the Night muffs the revenge aria.
To be the first person to yell "Bravo!" at the end.
Finally, it's best not just to show up in total ignorance. Here are some suggestions for ways to approach an opera that you'll have the opportunity to attend:
Read the story of the opera, preferably from multiple sources.
Listen to the opera on CD, preferably while following the libretto. (The libretto is a printout of the lyrics, and comes with any whole opera on CD.) I try to listen often enough that at least some of the melodies become familiar.
Read newspaper reviews if possible.
But if you don't have time for any of that, just go to the opera. Get there a few minutes early so you can read the synopsis in the program. Then keep your eye on the stage and on the supertitles.
Met HD Broadcasts
A dandy alternative to attending an opera is to see an HD broadcast of an opera in a movie theater. The Metropolitan Opera, a few times a year, broadcasts a live opera in HD (high definition) to selected movie theaters. Sometimes there's a later "encore" of one of these shows, so it's not "live" then, but who cares?
Here's why an HD Broadcast is even better than attending a live opera in person:
Your view of the opera is better than even the best seats in an opera house.
You see the stage from a variety of angles.
You can see close-ups of the singers. You can even watch the soprano's throat vibrate.
The captions are on the screen, and easier to read than supertitles above the stage.
The intermissions sometimes include fascinating looks backstage and interviews with the cast.
It's way, way cheaper.
The Met website lists the upcoming HD broadcasts; scroll down to see the schedule. There's also a list of local participating theaters; click at the top where it says "Manhattan, NY", type in the name of your location, e.g. "Richmond VA", and then press Enter.
I hope you've enjoyed this brief introduction to opera.