How to enjoy opera as a beginner

comic opera

Wondering how to enjoy opera, because everyone portrays it as difficult to appreciate? It’s full of magic, passion, adventure, rebellion… there’s so much to enjoy!

Ask the man (or woman) on the street what they think of opera. Go on, do it. What did he (or she) say? Something about screeching ladies in horned helmets, right? Well, that’s partially true – Wagner’s Ring Cycle did feature horned valkyries. But there’s far more to opera – think murder, true love, magic, mistaken identity, abduction, rebellion, vendettas and sex. Think passion.

What is opera? A (very) quick history

The history of opera is terribly long and virtually impossible to condense into a nice, tidy paragraph. But I’m going to give it a go. It starts in the late sixteenth century, in Italy, with a clique called the Camerata de’Bardi. In trying to revive the Greek dramas, they create something totally new: A play in which all the lines are sung. It’s an instant hit, and spreads to all across Europe. France puts a special spin on opera and creates the opera-ballet in the 1700s. During the Romantic era of the 1800s German composers create dark and dramatic masterpieces based around German legends. Atonality, minimalism and opera’s punk little brother, rock opera, preside over the 20th century. The twenty-first century has yet to receive a definitive characteristic, but my guess is that it will be remembered for the operas based on current events, such as genocide and refugee camps. Understand, this is a very brief synopsis; nearly every country in Europe has hundreds of years’ worth of unique opera history.

You don’t need to be a languages buff to enjoy opera

It’s neat to understand the musical and stylistic influences, but not really necessary to enjoy opera. Because opera comes from all over the world, it’s rarely sung in English. Even so, one doesn’t have to be multilingual in order to appreciate opera. Opera houses began projecting translations above the stage, called ‘super titles’, in the mid-1900s and the practice is now standard. Some newer theatres even have screens displaying the libretto (script) in various languages on the back of the chairs.

Mythbusting opera stereotypes

There are plenty of stereotypes about opera. However, they are stereotypes for a reason. Let’s put some of those opera stereotypes into context…

1. Are operas long?

Yes, the majority of operas are long. The average length is about two to two and one-half hours, though three and four hours isn’t unheard of. This is because while most movies follow a relatively straight plot, most operas take all sorts of diversions. You’ve got arias – scenes in which time is temporarily suspended so that characters may sing about their feelings. You’ve got musical interludes. Plus, let’s not forget – several minutes of applause after really impressive singing does add up. What’s more, if the opera is comedy (called opera buffa as opposed to opera seria, which is, you guessed it, serious!) then it’s a safe bet that there will be a scene where all the villagers gather round and sing about how great wine is. No lie.

2.  Is opera expensive?

It’s also true that opera is relatively pricey, at least for an unemployed student such as I. Tickets range in price from $20 for a seat in the balcony to over $80 for a front row seat. But when you see the ornate costuming and scenery, and hear the orchestra and singers, and experience the special effects and lighting – it’s easy to understand why opera tickets cost as much as they do. Of course, there are methods (of dubious legality) to get good seats for less. One of the oldest tricks is to get a ticket for a seat in the balcony, but switch to an empty seat in the front during intermission. Not that we condone such actions, of course.

3. Do you have to dress up to go to the opera?

The myth that it’s necessary to attend opera in black tie, however, is no longer true. Many people still do opt for full formal attire, as it’s a great excuse to wear fancy gowns and tuxedos. Showing up in paint-splattered jeans and flip-flops probably will get you some snide looks, but a sundress or nice pair of trousers and a blouse would be perfectly fine. Alternatively, you could go in your old jeans and simply respond to any negative comments with something like “More importantly, were you as surprised as I was to find that the recapitulation of the intermezzo was taken in two-four despite the alto saxophone’s use of rubato?” Be careful to say that only after the intermezzo has been played, of course.

4. Can you only watch operas in an opera house?

And, of course, it’s not necessary to actually go to an opera house to experience opera. DVDs and CDs are available at video rentals and public libraries – some libraries actually let you keep operas out longer than regular films. There’s also the internet; like everything else, opera can be watched online.

So go forth and get cultured! Bravissimma! Or, wait until next week when yours truly will be highlighting some of the greatest tragic operas – stay tuned for necrophilic love!

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