Howls of a horned Viking woman. Boomers’ entertainment. Guaranteed headache. Tedious stuff with not a single word to be understood, and in the end, someone dies. You have to be born into a musical family to understand such a complex genre.
The opera is surrounded by numerous preconceptions. But here I am, a musically illiterate millennial from an ordinary family who found more value in opera than in movies and series. What’s more, I consider the immersion in opera streamings as one of the best side effects of the 111 days of quarantine.
In the pandemic, even its imaginary elitism has disappeared. For 20 consecutive weeks, the New York Metropolitan Opera has released a new show every 24 hours for free. To keep up, sometimes I wake up at 4 a.m. or go to bed at 2 a.m., I also see five operas in a week or three in two days. The important thing is that it’s always worth it. But why?
At the links are my recommendations of what I have just seen. You can rent the shows for a few bucks at the Met website, and then discuss them with me.
OPERA IS 3 IN 1
When the soul desires high culture, you can opt for a theatre play. Or look for a philharmonic orchestra concert. Or listen to a solo or choral singing. Or you can choose an opera and enjoy all of the previously mentioned to the fullest.
Only in an opera, a huge orchestra lead by a great conductor merges with the magnificent voices of multifaceted artists. For instance, the beauty of the soprano and the depth of Anna Netrebko’s acting talent are limitless. She is equally amazing in the roles of blind Iolanta, introverted Tatiana, impetuous Juliet, provocative Manon, and bitter Anne Boleyn.
OPERA IS AN IMMERSION INTO THE LANGUAGES
Italian, French, German, Russian, English, Hungarian, Hebrew, and even dead languages like Sanskrit and Akkadian — you don’t need to know them to enjoy their sound.
The arias themselves are the gift of the gods for those who want to improve listening, amplify their vocabulary, or appreciate the beauty of a language. Slow singing, diligent pronunciation, subtitles, and a translated libretto that you may study in advance, are of help. Along with elegant speech, it makes anyone a bit of a linguist.
OPERA IS TIMELESS CLASSICS
Othello is known to have strangled Desdemona. But why did he do it? Was she guilty? And did she say her prayers that night? The answers are in the original play and the self-titled opera. In some cases, a librettist and a composer may shorten or dramatize the events. However, the original stories’ background remains the same.
In general, the operatic repertoire is perfect for patching cultural level gaps. From universal history, there are Biblical legends (Nabucco, Salome, Thaïs, Samson and Delilah), ancient civilizations (Nabucco on Babylon, Aida and Akhnaten on Egypt), great dynasties (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, Roberto Devereux). From universal literature, there are Shakespeare (Otello, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet), Goethe (Faust), Pushkin (Eugene Onegin), Gogol (The Nose).
OPERA IS FANTASIES AND EXPERIMENTS
Some of the fictional characters and their stories became famous precisely for the operas dedicated to them. They are collected all over the world, and you can travel to Paris with La Bohème, to Japan with Madama Butterfly, or to China with Turandot.
Unexpected twists also occur. For example, Metropolitan Opera moved one of its productions of Rigoletto from 16th-century Mantua to Las Vegas of the 1960s, Carmen, from Seville of the beginning of the 19th century to Franco’s time, La Sonnambula, from a small Swiss town to the bustling theater backstage.
OPERA IS UNIVERSAL MUSIC
Discoveries like —oh, this is from advertising!— frequently refer to the opera. Indeed, even a person who is unfamiliar with the genre has eventually heard Ride of the Valkyries, has murmured La donna è mobile, or has tapped to the rhythm of Habanera.
There is a reason why so many acclaimed composers —Mozart, Bizet, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Puccini, and dozens of others— became famous as authors of operatic scores and their names are known far beyond musical circles.
OPERA IS TREMENDOUS SCENARIOS AND COSTUMES
Many times the operatic stagings are at the height of fashion magazines in perfection and the height of Hollywood cinema in spectacularity. Some of them at every moment embody the atmosphere of Flemish paintings (Anna Bolena), the depth of symbolism (Akhnaten, not available), or the power of minimalism (La Traviata). Others recreate painstakingly entire blocks (La Bohème) or are just eye candy (Romeo and Juliet, Thaïs, Samson and Delilah).
The best of all is that everything happens in real-time, without a green screen, digital effects, or any editing. They are just light, colors, fabrics, projections, water, paper snow, huge puppets, juggling, transforming scenes, and, most importantly, the coordinated work of dozens of professionals. Even the fans of the Marvel-style epic scenes will appreciate the result.
OPERA IS AN OPTION FOR ANY MOOD
In opera, as in cinema, there is a genre for each moment. For family viewing, there are romantic comedies (La Sonnambula, La Fille du Régiment, L’Elisir d’Amore) and fairy tales (Cendrillon, Hansel and Gretel).
For adults there are melodramas (La bohème, Carmen, La Traviata), criminal stories (Macbeth, Rigoletto, Lucia di Lammermoor), art (avant-garde — The Nose, Wozzeck / conceptual — Akhnaten, not available), biographies (Satyagraha on the life of Mahatma Gandhi; not available), westerns (La Fanciulla del West), erotica (Salome, Thaïs) and even psychological thrillers (Marnie, Bluebeard’s Castle).
OPERA IS ALMOST ALWAYS A GOOD CHOICE
The not-so-brilliant shows happen. A debatable cast (Salome), a messy narrative (The Magic Flute), cardboard characters (Francesca da Rimini), heavy music (Wozzeck), a barely melodic singing (Marnie) or a weird staging (Papelucho of the Municipal Theatre of Santiago), — something can go wrong.
The charm of opera is that even an ordinary show does not provoke the feeling of wasted time. Bad acting gets saved by the beauty of voices, a boring story by good music, and something remains in the memory. Ultimately, just like with any mediocre movie or book, you can always say: Enough.
— I will to give opera a chance. Where do I begin?
Great! Even if your only aria so far is that one from The Fifth Element, no problem. You can tune into operas at any age and with any education.
Tip 1. Start with a proven classic with an intriguing storyline, good action rhythm, multiple characters, frequent scene changes, and diversity of arias. In my opinion, the opera that best corresponds to this description is Aida.
Tip 2. Add some context. Who is the author of the opera, and how did he come to compose it? In which historical period does it take place? What was the reaction of its first audience? A brief scanning of the Wikipedia article suffices.
Tip 3. Get ready for a long pastime, since most operas last from two to three hours. However, unlike cinema, it is easy to watch them in parts thanks to included intermissions.
Tip 4. Notice the details. Savor the melody gradations, subtle tones of voice, exchanges of glances, the elegance of decorations, and the beauty of costumes. Opera is a perfect exercise in mindfulness.
Tip 5. During and after the play, think about why has this opera stood the test of time? What makes it current today? How has morality changed? Why did the story end this way, and what would you do in the characters’ shoes?