I’m delighted to have writer Deborah Koren guest posting here today. She’ll be talking about her passion for opera–an art form that I have little familiarity with. Deb blogs over at Sidewalk Crossings, a fantastic blog where she shares her love for old movies. Welcome, Deb!
Rabia asked me to write a bit regarding my passion for opera. It is a deep and long-seated passion. I’ve been listening to opera since I was a baby, as both my parents are opera lovers. Well, my dad was (as was his dad), and, after he married my Beatles-loving mother, she quickly became as big a fan of opera as he was! So, I do have a lifelong history with opera. My parents would play records growing up, we’d listen to the Met matinee broadcasts every Saturday (still ongoing, and still a part of my Saturday routine), and we would go to see live operas whenever we could. I met Luciano Pavarotti backstage when I was in single-digits. I remember my arms were not big enough to go around him when he gave me a hug!
Opera is one of those things in life I never get enough of. Why? Part of it, of course, is that I was raised on it. But beyond that, my dad taught us to value and appreciate beauty, and the music in opera can be so beautiful that it gives me chills and goosebumps just thinking about it. It is also music that thrills me and revs me up. It is music that makes me cry. Or laugh. Or simply sing or hum along.
Everyone looks at music differently, depending on what type of music you enjoy, and most importantly: depending on why you listen to music. For me, music is an emotional, passionate thing, and nothing evokes emotions quite like an opera.
Opera is like taking a movie and magnifying all the passions of it a hundred fold. Take a tragic romance story (ie: Puccini’s La Boheme). Boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, girl is dying of Tuberculosis, boy loses girl. Very sad, but rather straightforward… but when you add in Puccini’s musical component, it is no longer ordinary. It becomes something amazing. You’re not just watching the story unfold, you’re hearing it too, with music that is so beautiful, so emotional, that it grabs your heart and squeezes. And when those last few measures of the opera hit, when the music swells, and Rodolfo cries out Mimi’s name, it is utterly devastating. I admit, I cry at a lot of movies, but I don’t know a single sad movie that touches the sheer emotional power of an opera like La Boheme.
Opera is like a movie on steroids. And given how much I love movies… yeah, of course I love opera.
Opera also combines many other art forms into one. You need a writer, a composer, singer/actors, set designers, costumers and all those needed to create a staged performance, dancers (many operas include ballet), an orchestra. And there are all kinds of operas. Some of the best music ever written is opera. Some of the worst music ever written is opera. Even the best opera can be ruined by bad singers. I personally love Italian and French opera. The lyrical, beautiful stuff. Wagner, Strauss, Berg, Britten, modern stuff… I can’t deal with that. Wagner has some of the coolest stories ever, particularly with his Ring Cycle, but I cannot sit through his kind of music. It’s like torture to me. On the other hand, I used to work for a lady back in college whose primary opera love was Wagner. She didn’t like Italian opera. We were pretty much polar opposites in the opera world. Which just goes to show you, there’s something for everyone!
The good thing is, nowadays, opera productions have evolved. In the older days, there was a lot of “park and bark.” You can guess what that means. Lots of standing around on stage singing, not much movement. Oh sure, there were some good actors out there, but there are even more nowadays. Now you have singers who are great actors. They don’t stand around and sing, they become their characters and engage the audience throughout the performance. There is also a whole crop of young, fit, good-looking opera singers these days. There’s even a blog dedicated to the good-looking opera baritones and basses of today, called barihunks!
What makes a good opera? For me, it’s watching/listening to singers I love, singing music I love, with a story and characters I love. Just like I’ll watch movies solely to see my favorite actors, there are certain singers I adore, and I’ll watch and listen to nearly anything they’re in. From the older generation that is now mostly retired: Sherill Milnes, Mirella Freni, Placido Domingo (who is not remotely retired and he still sounds amazing) are my favorites. From the singers active today: Simon Keenlyside, Matthew Polenzani, Pavol Breslik, Mariusz Kwiecien, Marcelo Alvarez, Carmela Remigio. My top five favorite operas are Tosca, Don Giovanni, Rigoletto, The Elixir of Love, Turandot. I love both the music and the stories/characters of those.
If you’re interested in experiencing opera, I’ve introduced quite a few friends to opera via filmed movie versions. There you get exciting visuals to go with the music, in a more familiar format. It’s hard to go wrong with Puccini, and I would recommend Madame Butterfly. La Traviata is another opera with a brilliant movie version. Those are both tragedies, but there are also plenty of lighter operas (Barber of Seville, Elixir of Love, Daughter of the Regiment) where no one dies and there’s a happy ending. The Metropolitan Opera also currently runs HD broadcasts throughout their season at movie theaters across the country. I’ve gone to a few of these and have really enjoyed the experience of seeing an opera up close-and-personal on the big screen. I’ll be attending several HD performances in the upcoming season.
However, there is nothing quite like experiencing a live opera, nothing like the sheer power of a live orchestra and live singers in an opera house. There are almost always supertitles projected so you get the translations of the language they’re singing in.
From my favorite opera, Tosca, by Puccini, the first 1:30 of this is one of my favorite tenor arias of all time. It’s very short. The tenor is reassuring his jealous girlfriend that there is no one else in the world for him, just her (singers: Jose Carreras/Montserrat Caballe).
“Ô vin, dissipe la tristesse,” from Hamlet, a lesser known opera by Ambroise Thomas. Yep, based on Shakespeare. There’s quite a lot of Shakespeare in opera! Not a bad thing… In this version from the Met, Hamlet is sung by baritone Simon Keenlyside.