Arts 101: Opera

It’s hard not to make fun of opera.


The 300-pound soprano stands onstage and sings of her love for the 110-pound tenor while proving that nothing can hold a louder sustained note this side of an air-raid siren.


In this art form, when someone is fatally stabbed it can take him 20 minutes to fall over, because he has his big aria to sing. The audience applauds; he expires.


Bugs Bunny, after all, doesn’t spend much time lampooning novelists or painters. No, he saves his best digs for the opera.


We kid. But we kid because we love.


In fact, opera is probably the most loved art form this side of poetry. All over the world, audiences laugh and weep at those figures who stand onstage, trying to out-sing a 100-piece orchestra.


Those who love opera love it to distraction. They would rather give up food. It speaks to them like nothing else. That’s because opera goes straight to the heart, even as it gives the brain conniptions.


“The music is incredibly moving, human and passionate,” says Scottsdale opera fan Laura Hemenway, who has been an Arizona Opera season-ticket buyer for 15 years.


She is one of many: Radio broadcasts of Metropolitan Opera performances reach 11 million people, roughly twice the audience of an NFL game on ESPN.


“I think the stigma is being lifted,” Hemenway says. “It used to be that opera was perceived as very highbrow, but opera organizations across the country have worked hard to educate the public and encourage attendance from across the spectrum.”


Gaining an audience


“To many non-operagoers, opera is overweight ladies with horns singing in a language they don’t understand,” says Joel Revzen, artistic director of Arizona Opera. “We spend a lot of time trying to dispel these myths.”


Evidently, it has been working: From 1982 to 2002, the National Endowment for the Arts reports, the U.S. opera audience grew by more than 44 percent. In 2002 (the latest year with numbers), 6.6 million adults attended the opera.


The audience is increasingly diverse. In 2002, 6.1 percent of the opera audience was Hispanic, 3.8 percent was African-American and 3.6 percent was Asian-American and Native American. The crowd may still be largely White, but nearly 15 percent is not, and it’s a growing number.


A quarter of the audience is younger than 35.


“I see young people in goth dress and body piercings at the opera,” Revzen says.


Who’d have thunk it?


The attraction is opera’s emotional power: These are primal stories told with great music.


“I had people write to me weeks after (our production of) The Consul last season,” he says. “They were still shaken.”


All about the feelings


We make a mistake when we think that opera is just drama with singing.


Unlike most theater, opera isn’t really about the story or about characters caught in a plot. One reason so many people feel estranged from opera is that they expect a naturalistic story and they get what seems to them a truckload of silliness. Lots of overwrought screaming about murder, incest, adultery and death.


But opera isn’t about the characters or the story, at least not in the way that the Odd Couple is about Oscar and Felix, or Streetcar Named Desire is about Blanche and Stanley.


No, opera is about raw emotion personified onstage, and the music characterizes those emotions much more successfully than the singers who act out the parts.


This is opera’s great power.


There is that great scene from Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, where his character’s ego has escaped and terrorizes the countryside. Like some sort of shaggy Bigfoot, it wanders through the woods killing and maiming, a monster on the loose.


Now imagine that instead of his ego, it is the character’s passion, or his hate or his jealousy or ambition, that has escaped. Put that passion onstage in a costume and let it sing its heart out: That’s opera.


Familiar chord


The music is a direct conduit to the heart. Mere words only get in the way.


“Music can convey emotions beyond words,” Revzen says. “Libretti can sometimes be banal, but the music underneath is very deep and powerful.”


Opera, like all the high arts, recognizes that inside each of us, these large things exist, and not only do they exist, but they are the most real parts of us.


Yes, we drive to work each day. Yes, we give the spouse a peck on the cheek when we leave. Yes, we look forward to the ballgame over the weekend.


But even the dullest accountant or shoe salesman has in his or her past or future the great love, the deaths of dear ones, the lost love, the fear for children’s ruin, the sense of growing older and facing the imminence of death, the sense of sharing the good marriage, or of the isolation of a bad one: These emotional states are so much larger than our 9-to-5 jobs, so much more real. They are our true selves, though we orphan them through habit.


Opera reacquaints us with that true self. It reminds us that as humans, we are more than our next promotion, more than our membership in the Kiwanis Club. That is opera’s job, that is its glory.


That is your experience of erotic passion up there singing to Don Jose in Carmen. That is your heroic inner self killing the dragon in Siegfried.


“With opera, you are given permission to recognize yourself,” Revzen says.


Listening to opera, you fall into a trancelike state and all the boring parts of life drop away, and you experience only the marrow of it all: The things that, when you come to your deathbed, you regret not having had more time for. No one, as they say, ever regretted they didn’t spend more time in the office.


“Why is Boheme so powerful? Because some part of us feels it so deeply,” Revzen says. “We are connected to the love between Rodolfo and Mimi and have compassion for her suffering. We feel sorrow.


“It’s real life.”




Someone’s been spreading terrible lies about the arts: that they are difficult, elitist or meant for only a special few.


The arts are meant for everyone.


Opera on DVD:  5 great videos


* La Traviata: Verdi’s great opera directed by Franco Zeffirelli with Teresa Stratas and Placido Domingo. (Universal, $24.95)


* Magic Flute: Mozart’s Singspiel magically directed, in Swedish, by Ingmar Bergman. (Criterion, $29.95)


* The Marriage of Figaro: A sizzling update of Mozart’s greatest opera, directed by wunderkind Peter Sellars (Universal, $39.95)


* Carmen: The sexiest Carmen on film, Julia Migenes seduces Placido Domingo. (Columbia/Tri-Star, $27.95)


* The Barber of Seville: Hermann Prey is a perfect Figaro in this La Scala production directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. (Universal, $29.95)



A glossary of opera terms


* Aria: An opera singer’s solo — a song on steroids.


* Baritone: The second lowest male voice, usually a villain.


* Basso: The lowest male voice, when not a villain is usually a king. Sometimes both.


* Bel Canto: Italian for “showing off.” A type of Italian opera with especially florid vocal writing.


* Buffa: Comic.


* Castrato: A male soprano, made so by the once popular practice of castrating teenage boys before their voices cracked.


* Chest voice: The deepest and strongest register of a voice.


* Coloratura: A singer specializing in vocal acrobatics.


* Comprimario: Sidekick.


* Contralto: The lowest female voice, often used for earthier, sexier parts, rather than the “good-girl” parts the soprano gets stuck with.


* Counter-tenor: When not enough boys volunteered to be castratos, they settled for tenors who sang falsetto.


* Diva: A celebrated female singer, a k a pain in the neck.


* Gesamtkunstwerk: Richard Wagner’s word for the “complete art work”; an opera in which the words, music, staging and choreography are all created by the same monomaniac.


* Habanera: A type of Cuban dance in a swinging rhythm made famous by Carmen.


* Head voice: The highest, emptiest register of the human voice. The singer’s ability to switch from chest to head tones without anyone noticing is especially prized by opera connoisseurs. Whole reviews are based on whether this occurs in a performance or not.


* Leitmotiv: A tune that keeps coming back, like cucumbers.


* Libretto: The words.


* Mezzo-soprano: The midrange of the female voice. Mezzos often play either the heavy or the “trouser role,” i.e., a cross-gender part in which they pretend to be young males. Kin-ky. Hence the saying that mezzos play “witches, bitches and boys.” Carmen is a mezzo. She is not a boy.


* Number opera: An opera with discrete arias and ensembles, each of which is numbered in the score.


* Overture: The music the orchestra plays while the audience reads its programs.


* Prima donna: The star.


* Recitative: Pronounced “retch-ta-teev” and for a reason. The parts that would be spoken in a musical, but are sung in a quasi-singsong fashion in opera.


* Singspiel: A kind of German opera in which audiences don’t have to endure recitative.


* Soprano: The highest female voice, reserved for heroines, because the high voice is best for expressing distress.


* Tenor: The high male voice, usually the hero and usually half the size of the heroine.


* Verismo: An Italian style of opera that tells stories about regular (i.e. poor) people and their jealousies and betrayals. Usually ends in a murder.

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