When my partner John and I met for our very first date, it was clear that we clicked given the easy flow of the conversation around the many interests we had in common. Both of us were huge fans of music, theatre, art, television and movies, among others. However, one area where we were at different places in life, was our appreciation of opera.
John had a clear passion for the art form, while I had never really explored it before. He explained that if I was open to it, opera was really a natural next step, if I already liked music and theatre as much as I did.
As far as I knew, up to that point, my most recent (yet limited) opera experience was Sweden’s pop music competition, Melodifestivalen, in which the song selected to represent Sweden at Eurovision 2009 was “La Voix” composed by Fredrik Kempe, co-written with and performed by Malena Ernman. It was a fun song that blended pop, dance and opera for a very unique and memorable tune. For me, the song’s chorus, sung in opera style to a disco-ish beat, was a great appetizer for the journey ahead.
But when it came to opera, initially, I had a number of apprehensions:
How will I “get it” if they are singing in a foreign language?
Much like foreign movies, in North America, operas are sub-titled, even when you attend in person.
Aren’t operas long?
On average, operas can last three to four hours but there are intermissions (sometimes two). (NOTE: For your first time, you might avoid operas by Wagner that could keep you there for 6 hours).
Won’t it be a stuffy, pretentious event? Will I have to get dressed up?
To go to an opera, you can get dressed up but overall, in Canada, opera does not have to be a black tie affair. People dress smartly for the event. As for pretentious, I’m sure you will find pretentious people at any event, not just at opera. Think about opera much like you would an art gallery or museum. People who attend are fans of the art form.
Will I be able to relate to the material?
Absolutely! The storylines are universal and traditional. Operas are built on a foundation of dramatic drivers, much like you would find in any good story-telling: love, desire, passion, betrayal, jealousy, revenge, dishonour, lies, adultery, murder and injustice, among others.
Also, at most operas, you will be handed a programme on your way in, providing a synopsis of the show. Armed with a quick explanation of the storyline and its characters, it is very easy to get swept away by the opera experience.
Once John took the time to walk me through these basics, I was good to go and ready to give it a try.
For my first opera, the stars lined up perfectly as John picked Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” from Opera Atelier in Toronto. It was the ideal indoctrination for me: a light comedy with fun, upbeat music, beautiful costumes, amazing sets and performed masterfully by a glittering cast headed up by Phillip Addis in the starring role. To me, the show was absolutely perfect in every way and one that started me off as a new fan of opera.
In the next step along the journey, I started attending “Metropolitan Opera Live in HD”, a series of live opera telecasts via satellite from New York City delivered to movie theatres around the world. For the price of about two movie tickets, it is a great opportunity to test the waters and see if it strikes a chord.
To me, this is a great complement to the opera journey as in each season, The Met presents a dozen classic and new operas, performed beautifully by acclaimed opera stars like Renee Fleming, Anna Netrebko, Deborah Voigt, Joyce DiDonato, Placido Domingo, Piotr Beczala, David Daniels, Isabel Leonard, Susanna Phillips and Michael Fabiano among many others.
Each performance is a masterpiece, comprised of glamourous costumes, breathtaking sets and elaborate productions, sometimes comprising a cast of hundreds. The action does not stop at intermissions as the Met HD telecasts take us behind the curtain, interviewing the stars and the creative masters who make the shows possible. I really enjoy those Saturday afternoons!
From there, my exploration continued as I attended a few more operas in person, in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto. When my partner and I travel, we make a point of checking out to see if any operas are playing as another opportunity to experience this brilliant art form, live.
The biggest surprise to me along the journey was the fact that several of the songs were instantly familiar to me. Those little serendipitous moments bring a smile to my face every time, especially when I know we have Bugs Bunny to thank for that! Throughout my childhood (all 49 years of it) I have loved classic Bugs Bunny cartoons and must have seen most of them hundreds of times, without really knowing I was already getting an education in opera through the background music. Clearly it stuck and added significantly to the enjoyment of my opera experience as an adult.
Even if you have seen a given opera, you could see it again and have a completely different experience as stories can be reinterpreted in different ways, through the eyes of different directors and different actors. A given opera could be placed in a setting hundreds of years ago, a few decades ago or even today. Each variation brings a new freshness and an opportunity to rediscover the classics over and over.
It is hard to believe how many misconceptions prevented me from experiencing opera. Today, to me, opera really is a feast for the senses and far more accessible to the general public than I originally thought.
If you are curious about opera, in North America, PBS offers a show called “Great Performances” often showcasing broadcasts of great operas, which you can sample and enjoy from the comfort of your own home. If you can start with something light and fun like “Don Giovanni”, “Cosi fan tutte” or “Barber of Seville”, or a brilliant classic like “Carmen”, you might be pleasantly surprised and become a new fan too.
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Have a great day,