Have you wondered what opera is all about? Have you been hesitating to ask someone, or to go to the opera, for fear of standing out in the crowd? Recently, I had a wonderful conversation with Kip Cranna, musical administrator of the San Francisco Opera who said emphatically, “The world of opera is not an intimidating world. No one assumes that you know everything. In fact, I always label opera as ‘an incurable disease.’ You can get addicted to the experience, once you start!”
Musicians using the full power of the natural human voice in an unamplified manner form the core of the opera-viewing experience. Italian, German, and French are the primary languages of opera, while there are a few operas written in Russian and Czech as well. Opera singing started in the 1600s in Europe, and the core of the opera repertoire today is stories and lyrics written and performed in 18th- and 19th-century Europe.
About the musical style of opera, Cranna says, “Most pop singers today use the mid-range of the human voice, while opera singers train hard to utilize the highest reaches of the human voice and its potential for conveying meaning in a powerful way.” So, what is the traditional route for training to be an opera singer? Most opera singers start their professional careers in their mid-20s after completing college or conservatory training in music. Usually, as children, they have had musical training in the form of piano lessons, but the vocal talent that they need to shine in the opera is not discernible until they reach adulthood.
The San Francisco Opera house is the third largest in the United States, seating 3,000 on a full night. Its full roster of programming for the current season extends till July of next year. For first-time audience members, Cranna recommends the standard Italian repertoire. Some upcoming operas at the San Francisco Opera House include Norma by Vincenzo Bellini, or Verdi’s La Forza del Destino—the Force of Destiny. For those who thrive on dramatic presentations, Doctor Atomic centers on a modern theme and is set to modern, rhythmic music as well.
This year, San Francisco Opera, has announced a special one-hour opera performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, aimed at cultivating interest in young children. In this short version of one of Mozart’s famous operas, the most famous operatic musical numbers will be included, and there will be time for the orchestra to demonstrate how they work together with the other artists on stage. It is designed to be an inside view of how opera works to generate interest among youngsters.
For most opera-goers, the European languages in which the operas are sung are not familiar. To help dissolve this barrier between the audience and the cast, there are super-titles relayed in English that flash just above the stage. There is a 30-minute preview talk by an expert who lays out the story line and the historical context in which the opera is set, leading to its enjoyment once the show begins. Arriving early to take advantage of the preview lecture and reading the extensive program notes should help all first-time opera-goers to understand the plot as it moves forward.
The San Francisco Public Library has many books and audio materials related to famous operas. The San Francisco Opera’s website www.sfopera.com and audio selections on Amazon.com feature short audio clips of various operas that give some idea of the musical style.
So you have garnered some information on musical aesthetics; now comes the time for more mundane details. What does one wear to the opera? You can dress in comfortable (not grungy-looking) clothes, and you do not have to worry about hunting for a formal evening suit or a gown for the occasion.
On a visit to Vienna earlier this year, I had the opportunity to attend an opera at the Vienna Sate Opera House. I sat completely transfixed by the view I had of the orchestral pit and the stage as well. When the show was over, I stood up with 2,000 other people and clapped as the cast members walked on stage to take their final bows. And, then, a small gesture on stage brought a multitude of feelings within me. The head of the orchestra deliberately put his hands together in the familiar Indian “Namaste” and slowly everyone on stage was doing the same. There were “Namastes” all around, and any vestige of feeling that I had, of having a different skin color, or speaking English while everyone around me conversed in German, vanished. I was here to pay homage to one of the world’s great musical traditions and I clapped even harder, acknowledging that simple gesture which made me feel that I belonged.
Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is an Indian classical dancer, choreographer, and teacher, who writes about the arts.