Sunday, December 18, 2016

Project 366 - Do Not Skip This Chapter!

To mark the fifth anniversary of ITYWLTMT, we are undertaking a long-term project that will introduce - and re-introduce - musical selections in the context of a larger thematic arc I am calling "A Journey of Musical Discovery". Read more here.


For a time, I wanted to name this Chapter “Read This If You Want to Win $1,000,000”, but chose not to, as I did not want to be accused of false advertising…

Yes, I’ve teased this long enough, this is the chapter on opera.

Why People don’t (think they) like Opera

Here’s part of a discussion I found on the Internet about “Why Do People Hate Rap And Opera?”. I thought some points here were worth sharing… Here goes:

There's little doubt that both rap and opera have traveled with significant prejudicial (if stereotypical) baggage: Opera is for rich, white, elderly snobs; rap is made by poor, young, black thugs. Some people reject both groups, while others relish degrees of perceived inclusion.

I don’t know if this thought process captures the “practical reasons” why opera is disliked, though there is some merit to the social argument… Opera (and maybe less so for rap) rarely relates to everyday lives. It either recounts events that occurred generations ago (fact or fiction), or gravitate around social circumstances that people can scarcely relate to – the world of fantasy, or of lifestyles of the very rich or very poor. I think there’s merit to the fact opera plots don’t always relate to us. But the same argument applies to many films, for example, yet there isn’t as much wide-spread aversion to film, even art film.

That having been said, the very fact that operas delve into situations that are often times much more dire and exaggerated for dramatic or comedic effect is actually what makes opera an ideal escape – our everyday troubles and adventures pale in comparison to the tales of the operatic world!
If one gets past the stories, then the next stumbling block for many is the singing. It’s one thing to be a good singer (that is sing clearly, and on key), but opera singing often reaches the upper or lower limits of the singing register for a given voice tessiture, either for operatic effect, or in order to “keep up” with the music. In many ways, a good “Broadway” singer doesn’t necessarily cut it in opera, and there are very few examples of opera singers crossing over to popular repertoire or musical comedy. In a sense, it is like the difference between Formula 1 car races and NASCAR. Racing is racing, but the tactics, the circuits and the cars themselves are very different, and it explains why few NASCAR drivers “move up” to Formula 1 and from Formula 1 to NASCAR.

If the singing isn’t a problem, then maybe it’s language – the three main opera languages are Italian, German and French, though there are operas composed in every spoken language. But, if the opera you are listening to isn’t sung in a language you are fluent in, that could be a turn-off.
Finally, there’s length. Operas are perceived as being several hours long. Though this is true in some cases, most operas last about as long as a premium feature film (two to three hours), so I find that last complaint less legitimate, though I agree that three hours of focused attention, following a plot that’s hard to grasp in a foreign language can be mentally taxing and challenging, same as watching some minimalist Swedish art film.

This chapter – and the listening guides that I suggest – is meant for opera “newbies”, who are up to the task of trying this out for size.

Opera Basics

The basic building blocks of an opera production are –

The Cast – the ensemble of singers, composed of voices of different tessiture. Remember the Shaw quote about opera being about the Tenor wanting to sleep with the Soprano being foiled by the baritone… Voices and singing styles are chosen to meet the needs of the opera storyline, and the musical style of the work.

The libretto – (Italian for “book”), this is the text that is being recited or sung. Sung numbers are known as arias, and spoken dialogue is known as recitatives. Unlike the common perception, most opera isn’t “sung end to end”, though in some cases recitatives are half-sung rather than plainly spoken.

The Staging – this is the part that distinguishes opera from an oratorio. An opera is a “sung play” where singers are expected to “act”, and use the set, props and their bodies to convey the action, not simply sing. This means two things in my mind – one, that every production of a given opera is distinct, based on the stage director’s conception of the work and, second, opera is a dish best enjoyed “in person”, as the visual plays an important role. Opera is very popular on radio (a tradition that has existed for over 100 years) but has taken a large leap in recent years when the great opera companies began to stream High Definition live performances in Movie theatres.

The Style – the “style” of an opera is a multi-faceted thing. It has to do when it was composed [Baroque opera is very different that Bel Canto (Italian Romantic) opera], the kind of opera [opera seria (serious) or buffa (comic)], or even the derivative form [operetta being “less stuffy” than “Grand Opera”].

All four components contribute to the final result, and ultimately with the audience response to the performance. Some singers are better suited to certain styles than others; some material is more adaptable to different stage direction or concepts than others. And, some people like funny operas, and others only respond to tragic situations and characters. Some tragic situations can be enhanced or ruined based on the prowess of singers and their ability to deliver their lines as envisaged or required by the Composer.

Spoiler Alert – You may need a Synopsis

Like I said, most of what we would call the “opera repertoire” is suing in one of mainly three languages, and even if one is fluent in the language, it can be difficult to follow the libretto when it is sung in certain styles (or sung by singers who don’t have proper diction or mastery of the sung language). This is why, in modern opera houses; we find subtitles or surtitles – a visual aid providing the libretto, with translation in real time. If, like me, you find this is a distraction, then you are left with the old-fashioned options of either having a copy of the libretto for quick reference or you get the gist of the action beforehand so you can follow the main threads.

The Internet provides many sites where one can get libretti and synopses (a synopsis being the high-level summary of the action, broken down for each act of the opera) for many of the operas in the repertoire. In many cases, you can get the libretto in both the original language and translated into English. One such site is the Swiss site Opera Guide.

Take for example, the opera Carmen by Georges Bizet. The site provides a synopsis in English, and the libretto in the original French (unfortunately, no English translation, though I’m sure you can find one somewhere else on the Web).

The drawback with taking in the synopsis rather than following along with the libretto is that you get “spoilers” – well, there isn’t a perfect solution… Besides, the action only gets spoiled the first time you take on the opera…

Recommended Listener Guides

In order to make things less intimidating, the operas I programmed for the most part are short (one act, about an hour in length). I also included some hyperlinks to the synopsis and libretto for each work.

Listener Guide #63 - Amahl and the Night Visitors (Synopsis and Libretto)
Composer: Gian-Carlo Menotti
Librettist: Gian-Carlo Menotti

Listener Guides #64 - Carmen (Synopsis and Libretto)
Composer: Georges Bizet
Librettist: Henri Meilhac, and Ludovic Halévy
Language: French
(Tuesday Blog - 6 Sep 2011)

Listener Guide # 65 - Die Fledermaus (Synopsis and Libretto)
Composer: Johann Strauss
Librettist: Carl Haffner, and Richard Genèe


Listener Guide # 66 - Cavalleria Rusticana (Synopsis and Libretto)
Composer: Pietro Mascagni
Librettist: Guido Menasci

Listener Guide #67 - Pagliacci (Synopsis and Libretto)
Composer: Ruggiero Leoncavallo
Librettist: Ruggiero Leoncavallo