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A Beginner’s Guide to the Opera

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Opera music is scary. I don’t say this just because it deals with supernatural heroes, vendettas, or natural disasters, but because many people balk at the idea of attending a concert where the songs are in a different language and the word “bass” means the large instrument that looks like an upside-down violin in the back of the orchestra pit.

The audience doesn’t move around throughout opera; it’s likely that there won’t be any colored lights flashing over the crowd; and most terrifyingly, there is no texting allowed. So yes, opera music can be a bit scary. In spite of these things, though, I am here to tell you that opera can also be exhilarating. Stirring. Chilling, in the way of the best ghost stories.

Opera is one of the oldest art forms, possibly beginning with the narrative songs of ancient Greece. As such it has quite a capacity to touch the human soul. The singers must have immensely powerful and pure voices to tackle the kind of music composers give them, yet they must also convey the larger story of the opera, whether it be a love story, a tragedy, or even a comedy of mixed-up identities.

Like Shakespearean plays, operas take some work to understand, but the result is well worth it. You’ll be able to enjoy the art and connect with a tradition. If you want to know what to expect from your first opera, read on.

One of the first things that you should know about operas is that most of the world’s best-known operas are not performed in English. Don’t go expecting to sing along like you would to the chorus of your favorite Coldplay song. Instead, even though the words are foreign, focus on the way the music and syllables blend together.

To help you understand what’s happening onstage, most operas provide supertitles, which are translations written on a large screen above the stage, or in some cases on the back of the seat in front of you. The words roughly correspond to the singers’ lines and convey the essence of the sentence, if not the exact meaning.

Italian, German, and Russian are all languages whose vocabulary is well suited for classical music. And if an opera is in English, you may still have trouble hearing exactly what words the singers say, simply because the music requires a different rhythm than spoken text. The syllables may be accented differently or spoken very quickly.

After a while, it becomes easy to look up to the supertitles and back down to the stage without missing anything important. Hopefully, the singers are also using their facial expressions and body movement to illustrate the emotions of the music.

Unlike in a musical, though, principal singers don’t break into flashy dance numbers while they’re singing. They need to keep eye contact with the conductor in the orchestra pit so that they can communicate with him about the speed and phrasing of the music. Their solos also have a special term: arias.

An aria is a complicated melody sung by one person, such as the famous “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot. A recitative, on the other hand, counts as the dialogue of opera. The singers speak in much more conversational manner, with a tendency to talk about what is happening onstage, rather than reflecting on past events, as an aria would do. Sometimes the orchestra accompanies recitative, but there isn’t as much of a tune.

At the core, operas are really just about people. Granted, these people sing more beautifully than the general public, but the songs in opera are there for the integrity of the score and the purpose of the story. A character sings when he or she has made a decision, or is in love, or is trying to hide from an enemy, or at any other important moment.

Opera plots often come from famous books or a country’s myths, so there are many exciting twists and turns. In Don Giovanni, a giant statue comes to life to drag the main character down to his doom, while in Das Rheingold, a dwarf morphs into a toad to impress a god with his powers. Das Rheingold is actually one of four operas that Richard Wagner based on ancient tales of gods and powerful objects.

The most important thing to remember while watching an opera is that the music motivates every bit of the sung text and the acting. It is all about the composer’s themes and intentions, and how the performers can best communicate those. Because of this, even the passages where someone isn’t singing are still vital to the plot. The orchestra continues to develop musical motifs, much like narrative sentences in between characters’ dialogue in a book.

Over the years, classical composers have played with different ways to convey this ideal, so if you see more than one opera, you may be surprised by their structures. Baroque opera, by composers such as Monteverdi and Vivaldi, is the most formal of all. It follows a structured progression of overture, recitative, and aria, whereas a classical opera is more likely to have a looser musical order, as well as elements of comedy.

Romantic opera, like that of Puccini or Verdi, is the grandest of all. The orchestral accompaniment is lush and complex. You may even see a modern opera, like Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach. This particular piece contains fragmented portions of Einstein’s life set to repetitive tonalities, with interludes that Glass referred to as “knee plays,” simply because they linked each section together like a knee joint. Opera composers continue to innovate and push the form to be a more comprehensive synthesis of story and music.

Whichever style of opera you see, at the theatre it’s polite to dress nicely, preferably in business attire or even something more formal, like what you would wear to a dinner party. You’ll want to arrive with enough leisure time to find your seat and scan the program.

In fact, the program often contains very helpful notes to explain the story, give some background on the singers, and tell a little bit about the director’s vision for the show. Don’t be the poor person playing Duck-Duck-Goose in the dark as you stumble through a row to find your seat while the curtain rises.

The orchestra will tune once the house lights start to dim. At that time, the conductor will enter and the audience will applaud, because he or she is the person who will control the feel of the show from that point forward: how fast it is, how loud it is, what sort of expression the orchestra produces.

This is also when you should be absolutely sure that your cell phone is off, not just on vibrate. Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” might be the hit song on the radio, but no one is going to appreciate hearing it go off in the middle of “Dalla Sua Pace” during Don Giovanni.

As the show starts, settle back in your seat and relax. Notice the intricacy of the costumes and how the set design creates another world. Hear how the orchestra’s rhythm playfully mixes with the impossibly fast, clear notes that shimmer from the singers.

Opera singers frequently do not wear microphones, so their volume comes solely from lungpower and the acoustics of the theatre. They’ve worked carefully for many years to perfect their pronunciation and use their voices as an instrument alongside those in the orchestra pit.

Keeping these things in mind will help you to better understand the beauty and power of a classic art form like opera. Music and song unify to tell a story, express a virtue, and celebrate what humans can do with their voices.

Just remember that there won’t be any mosh pit or sing-along moments in theatre – but there could be strobe lights, fog, mystical characters, fascinating stories, and lovely music. As advice columnist Miss Manners puts it, “Music worth listening to is worth listening to.” Opera is this and more. It can be scary, but also thrilling and downright magical. Get your tickets today.

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About Laurel Savannah