An Opera Lesson

How ‘bout that Super Bowl and those ____? Wasn’t that play amazing when _______ the ball and then ______ took it in the end zone for the touchdown? Of course, the commercial by _________ was kind of stupid and offensive, but I sure liked the one about the dog ____. [Note to self: remember to fill in blanks after the game is over.]

Speaking of grand and potentially ridiculous spectacles, I’ve been studying opera this month. This is the time of year when the NY Metropolitan Opera provides live showings in local movie theaters, and they are a huge treat. Not only is the singing the world’s best, but the sets and costumes are fabulous, and the intermission interviews very entertaining. Think of it like boxing pay per view. It’s not exactly like being in person, but you can see a lot better and it’s much less expensive (especially excluding the Vegas flight and hotel).

Now, if anyone actually knows something about opera (which means you probably know far more than I), please correct me gently as I share my recently learned wiki-facts. For the few of you who might consider it but have shied away due to lack of knowledge; let me see if I can spark interest. And if you still detest the thought, I can at least give you a few buzz words and factoids to sprinkle in conversations.

whats-opera-docI learned about opera the way most Americans did; from Bugs Bunny. I still laugh thinking about Bugs mowing Elmer Fudd’s head with a tiny lawn mower in the sendup of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Or Elmer’s aria, “Kill da Wabbit! Kill da Wabbit!” in What’s Opera, Doc, a spoof on Wagner’s Der Ring and Tannhauser. In fact, until a month ago, I kept confusing Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Rossini’s The Barber of Seville because Bugs keeps singing, “Figaro, Figaro…” It turns out they are not the same thing (ok, opera-wise people who are sniggering, do you know what constitutes a balk? Ha, didn’t think so)… they are not the same thing, but they are based on two plays of a trilogy written by a French guy, Beaumarchais which share characters and style of farce. Those French needed to know about sequels and how to use colons…. Barber II: The Marriage of Figaro. As comic operas, they are known as opera buffo, which differs from opera seria in the way that the Marx Brothers differs from Gone With the Wind. Or for you young-uns, the way that Jim Carrey differs from Titanic.

There are all different kinds of operatic voices. You probably know soprano, alto, baritone, and bass if you were ever in high school choir, but there are also lyric voices (sweet, melodic) and dramatic voices (powerful enough to sing over the orchestra), and high/varied in the range (coloratura) as well as low (basso profundo being the lowest, or as Victor Borge says, “how low can a fellow go?”)

It helps a lot to read the plot synopsis and the dialogue – the libretto – before you attend an opera, and to know whether it will be comic or tragic. The first opera I saw was Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute, and since I was expecting a bleak cerebral Swedish examination of alienation and death, it was confusing. I kept wondering if the baritone dressed as a bird was a metaphor for something. (It wasn’t. Or maybe it was and I still haven’t figured it out.)

Which brings up a critical point for anyone wanting to view an opera – you have to see it with surtitles – with English captions. Opera wasn’t written to be heard in another language; the integration of the words with the music was the composer’s whole focus. For much of the 1900s in America, subtitles weren’t employed; opera audiences convinced themselves that they should only experience them in the original language. Critics claimed surtitles would cheapen the experience (some likened it to using a condom, others like reading Playboy instead of actually…ahem). Meanwhile, interest and paying audiences dwindled. Finally, someone (in Canada, less worried about being elitist) came up with a method to project the titles in glass in front of the players and hey presto, attendance started booming.

That elitist attitude reinforced the idea that opera was only intended for the wealthy and aristocratic, when in fact opera was the entertainment for the masses –especially in Europe – between about 1650 and 1925. In other words, up until relatively recently in cultural history, everybody was going to the opera. Dozens premiered every year, and singers, composers, and conductors were the proverbial idols of their day. It’s not a coincidence that the rise of movies in the ‘20s substituted one art form for another, because today’s average epic blockbuster is very close to an opera in scale, aim, and production. Professor Robert Greenberg (my guide in an excellent audio course on opera) defines opera as: a combination of music, soliloquy, sets, acting, and where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. If you substitute for “music” the idea of a camera shot, it’s much the same. A movie isn’t just the director’s camera shots, it’s also the casting, the script, the editing, the costumes, the cinematography, and the acting – yet the director’s view is the language of the film, much the way that composed music is the language of an opera.

Another key point – you may have heard an aria or two, sung by the Three Tenors or pop stars (check out Aretha on YouTube doing Nessun dorma—she blows the roof off). The arias do represent beautiful pieces of music, but appreciating opera by listening to an aria is like understanding a baseball game by watching SportsCenter highlights. Watching some guy you don’t know hit a home run strike out doesn’t seem particularly athletic or even interesting. Seeing a clip of Rhett Butler saying, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” seems iconic, but it’s not a substitute for the entirety of Gone With the Wind. You have to see the whole thing.

As it happens, the final four Met operas to be shown in March and April are all dramatic tragedies. If you like a good sad romantic tragedy (i.e. Titanic), then Madame Butterfly is the one to see. In general, if you’re new but interested, stick to the Italians — Puccini & Verdi are the most popular because they wrote some of the best. If you’re a little tentative, avoid the Germans – i.e. Wagner and Strauss – the Met is presenting Elektra as its final offering, but it’s notorious even with afficianados as being rather ear piercing. If you want to start lighter, try the comic operas – Marriage of Figaro and Barber of Seville translate into great cartoons for a reason.

If you just can’t wrap your head around Mozart, there are a number of modern or English language operas that are still beautiful marriages of words and music. Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess features gorgeous melodies, and even more recently set, Tommy (think Pinball Wizard) and Jesus Christ Superstar are both rock operas. There have been operas about the Death of Leon Klinghoffer, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Gandhi, and Einstein. There’s something for every taste.

So consider giving an opera a try – off Youtube, with Live at the Met in the theaters, or maybe with a local company if you’re lucky enough to have one. All you really need to know is when the big lady with the high voice sings about ______, then the portly fellow with the really low voice will villainously ___________ until the guy with the high male voice (the one with his shirt unbuttoned one button to many ) will sing about __________and ride to the rescue. Or get killed, one or the other.

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