No Surprises

Understanding What Opera's About Before The Curtain Goes Up

Feb 16, 2011 by

An evening at the opera is rife with emotions: love, hate, jealousy, despair, anger, joy and wonder. It should not, however, be an evening of white-knuckle suspense.  Let’s face it, the endings of the great warhorses are known. I’m not giving away secrets when I tell you Mimi dies, Lucia goes insane (and dies) and Don Giovanni ends up in Hell. After all, the opening chords of Mozart’s Don Giovanni make it pretty clear that there is a sorry ending in it for someone.  An evening at the opera is no time for surprises.

Opera is complicated! You have a story and sets and costumes and acting and sometimes dancing and, yes, words and music.  It’s a lot to absorb.  Without a little preparation you can experience sensory overload, confusion and even fatigue (to the point of a few zzzzzs)! Operas tend to be three hours long or more.  Those three hours can be riveting, or boring.

Hints To Enjoying Your First Opera

To really enjoy an opera, especially one in a language other than your own (more about that in a later post) you need to do a little preparation. Listening to the music or even watching a DVD ahead of time is ideal. Most CDS include a booklet with the libretto (Italian for “little book”). In most cases this is literally a little book – the size of the CD case.  It usually has an article or two about the composer and the opera as well as the complete text – all in several languages.

You can often check out the CD or DVD from your local library.  Synopses of virtually every opera are available on line.  Wikipedia has articles about the most famous operas and the great composers generally have websites of their own sponsored by “Societies”.  YouTube even offers hundreds of the most famous arias performed by great singers from Enrico Caruso and Maria Callas to Placido Domingo and Renee Fleming.  Familiarity breeds…not contempt…but the joy of recognition. (Think about the five-year-old who wants to hear the same story over and over.)

Years ago I took my then nine-year-old daughter to see the world premiere of The Vanishing Bridegroom, a contemporary opera by the composer Judith Weir that was based on Scottish folk tales. I had carefully prepared my daughter, explaining the story and giving her an idea what she would see on stage.  As we wound our way through the crowded opera at intermission, two women behind us were discussing the first act.  One of them said, “Did you understand what was happening?  I was lost.” My daughter, in that clear, piping child’s voice that cuts through the surrounding noise said, “Mother, don’t they understand that you have to know what the opera’s about before you go?”

About the Author

Tani Wolff Has Written 17 Articles For Us!

I also write for a college admissions blog and create marketing materials. However, my true passion is preparing articles about Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ upcoming festival season. I spend eight to ten months each year researching the composers, librettists, time periods and performance records of our productions (as well as the music) to put together pieces that will enhance the enjoyment of our fabulous and devoted patron community. It is truly a labor of love.
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  1. admin

    Tani – Loved the innocence of your daughter’s remark. Can’t help but wonder if that couple didn’t learn something of value from a little girl.

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