One Score 2013

NEW TO OPERA? DON’T BE SHY!

By John Schauer

Aida production

If Ravinia’s 2013 concert performance of Verdi’s Aida will be your first opera experience, this might be a good time to try to debunk some of the misconceptions that plague opera in today’s popular culture. And opera’s popularity is growing, even among that sacred 18-25 demographic that running-shoe markets would kill for. That’s why you hear more and more opera music used in soundtracks to commercials these days.

What accounts for that popularity? One explanation is that opera has more to offer than any other performing art. You’ve not only got music composed by some of the greatest composers of all time; you’ve also got the added interest of a dramatic storyline to engage your linear mind, with scenery and costumes—often elaborate and beautiful—to dazzle the eye.

Aida production

Yet for most of its fans, opera is very much about voices—beautiful voices, loud voices, agile voices, low voices, high voices. The most intelligent, musical and physically handsome singer in the world isn’t going to go anywhere if he or she wasn’t born with the right equipment in their throat. Very few enthusiasts of piano music, for instance, select a favorite performer on the basis of the particular instrument the pianist is performing on; for some people, the “instrument,” i.e. the voice, is all that counts in a singer.

Those folks are missing out on a lot, but it’s a valid starting point: there’s no need to make excuses for simply enjoying a gorgeous voice. This can lead to exploring that artist’s repertoire, and then comparing performances by other artists, and soon you find you’re hooked.

As you go on to explore operatic repertoire, cut yourself some slack, and don’t expect to like everything. The opera repertoire is so vast and varied that it’s almost unfair to lump it all together under the one term, opera. It’s perfectly possible to be a devoted opera fan and still dislike specific operas or composers. If Wagner’s mammoth music-dramas are just too much for you, you might prefer the elegant operas of Mozart, or perhaps that style known as bel canto exemplified by such composers as Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, or perhaps the blood-and-guts dramas of Puccini.

Chicago Civic Opera House

Some people are put off by operatic voices in general, which may be in part due to electronic media. Even the weakest singers in Broadway musicals, which are routinely amplified to absurd levels, can blast you out of the balcony. Opera singers, on the other hand, have to develop the power to be heard in huge auditoriums without any amplification (Chicago’s Civic Opera House seats 3,800; the Metropolitan Opera in New York seats 4,000). Some first-time operagoers are disappointed that the singers aren’t miked, but that’s an essential element of opera. Providing a microphone to an opera singer would be like giving a bicycle to a long-distance runner.

Another caveat: Don’t expect Meryl Streep-style acting from opera stars. It isn’t because they aren’t talented actors, because many of them are; it’s because that subdued style of underplaying is not written into the music. At the time the most popular operas were written, straight dramatic acting was far more stentorian and flamboyant, and that’s what composers wrote into their scores.

It is this factor, along with the exertion necessary to project the voice, that together make opera on television such an unsatisfactory experience. Television is a close-up medium that specializes in talking—or singing—heads. But no opera singer on earth should have to be seen in a screen-filling close-up. If you ever saw an opera on TV and thought it was ludicrous, remember that many die-hard opera fans feel exactly the same way.

Above all, trust your own ears, and don’t ever be intimidated by critics, whether self-appointed or professional. Opera can be great art; at its best, it is also great entertainment, and that’s something anyone can recognize and enjoy.

—JS


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