Tuesday, June 17, 2014

9 things you might not know about opera

Y’all know that I’m crazy about opera and have been very lucky to have seen some pretty major stuff. But sometimes we, both opera lovers and opera singers in the making, forget that our world is kinda far from most people’s reality. Let me explain myself a little better, since we are always in contact with people who have some knowledge about the art form or work with it sometimes we assume that people in general know things, but they don’t. And this is not a critique to those people, not at all. Why am I saying this? Well over the last couple of years I’ve successfully been turning my best friends into opera fans. And some of the questions they’ve asked I sincerely thought were common knowledge, but they’re not. So I decided to make a list of some of the main basic things I get asked about opera a lot along with some fun videos to illustrate.

1- Opera Singers do not use microphones when singing in an opera house. That question I get asked a lot, I remember I was chatting to a friend of a friend during the intermission of Don Giovanni and he was finding it hard to believe that the singers weren’t using microphones. So traditionally opera singers NEVER use microphones when performing an opera in an opera house or doing a recital in an opera house or in a concert hall. We are taught from a very early state that our most timid sounds have to be heard by the deafest of old ladies sitting way in the back of the house. Being heard without a microphone has a lot to do with the singer but also a lot to do with the space he’s performing in. Most opera houses and concert halls have been through meticulous acoustic treatment in order for the sound of the voice or any instrument to travel to every seat in the house. But of course there are exceptions, when doing outdoor concerts (like the famous concerts the Three Tenors did) one must use a microphone.

This is a video of one of the most famous opera singers nowadays, Anna Netrebko singing in an outdoor concert using a microphone but then ditching it. It’s pretty funny!

Another case singers might use a microphone is when the opera house is doing a recording or a live broadcast of the opera. But those microphones are used only to get the sound and transmit it through the radio or the movie theaters, it’s never used to enhance the size of the voice inside the opera house.

2 – There are subtitles available in every opera house nowadays. Many people come up to me and tell me they’d like to go to the opera but they fear they’d be bored because they don’t understand Italian/German/French. It came as an utter shock to me to realize that so many people did not know that opera houses do have the translations of the text available. Most houses have a thin screen way up above the stage where you can see the translations to what’s being said on stage on the language of the country you are in. The guys at the Metropolitan Opera House had a pretty hard time implementing that kind of gadget because their musical director, James Levine, simply said “Over my dead body there will be translations hanging on my stage” (I’m paraphrasing it, I don’t remember the exact words he said). So the Met invented an amazing translation system that is quite perfect for highly cosmopolitan cities like New York. So every seat has a digital screen in front of them, there you can choose whichever language you want for your subtitles, English, German or Spanish, or the language the opera is in (Italian, French, Russian and so on…). Or if you are a purist and don’t want subtitles you don’t even have to worry about glancing sideways and catching a glimpse of your neighbor’s subtitles because the screens are made for their content only to be seen from certain angles. So even if your neighbor is using his subtitles, you won’t be able to see them.

Another cool insight about the Met’s subtitles is that there are actually two people every single night who actually operate the subtitles system. So it’s not automatic, it’s hand operated in case they slow down the tempo or pick it up the subtitles will always accompany the opera to perfection!

3. Opera is not an unreachable art form fit only to the rich. I know most opera tickets can be pretty expensive, but not all of them. The Metropolitan Opera for instance has an amazing student ticket program that sells tickets to college students for really cheap prices. Plus there is the amazing Family Circle at the Met where prices vary from $40,00 to $2,00. Plus there are $10 rush tickets being sold at the Met on week days 10 minutes before the performances and that also happens at Carnegie Hall and I imagine happens in a lot of other houses.

Here in Brazil students and senior citizens pay half the price of the ticket to any opera performance or concert. And I gather there are many other opera houses who have special sales for tickets. It might seem as if I’m highlighting the Metropolitan Opera too much but that’s only because I have been there and know a lot about this particular house.

4. There can be as many stagings of the same opera as you can possibly imagine. Many people tend to think that opera productions run about just like musicals such as The Lion King, there is only one version of the staging and that’s the one that is done all over the world. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Both things couldn’t be more different. First of all in opera you don’t have to buy the rights to the music since the work becomes public domain after 100 years of the death of the author (which is the case of most of the standard repertoire). In opera the stage director can come up with whatever concept of costumes, when and where it is going to be set, sets and even the singer’s interpretation as he wishes, the sky is the limit. What cannot be changed under ANY circumstance is the music. In opera you can’t change anything about the music, not even a single note, the music is always the same, immortal. Same goes for the lyrics.

There’s a pretty funny story about a musical theater stage director who went to direct his first opera at the Met last year. He was in a technical stage rehearsal along with his creative team and the musical director and his team. And turned out that there wasn’t enough instrumental music to cover his set change and so he turned to the conductor and said “Just double the measures then” and there was a silent gasp and dead silence as the entire Met Opera stared daggers at him in horror. The opera in this case was Verdi’s Rigoletto one of the most traditional pieces in the opera repertoire so you can’t just double the measures. This production however was quite good, it was set in Las Vegas, take a look at the video bellow.

5. Some girls play boys. This is another thing I thought in my imagination that was common knowledge, our famous trouser roles. Trouser roles (or pants roles) is a term used to talk about male roles that have been written for the female voice. Most of the time mezzo sopranos sing this kind of role, they are usually young man and sometimes very naïve but most of the time very true of heart (with the exception of Nero of Rome I guess). These roles can also be taken by counter tenors, those are guys who sing with a ladies’ voice. But what is really great about trouser roles, apart from all the incredible musical effects that are brought to the table, is the amazing ability of the female singers to convincingly play men and make us forget for a while that they are actually women.


These are all ladies playing guys, way above we have Sarah Connolly as Octavian in Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, then Vesselina Kasarova as Sesto in Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito, the Joyce DiDonato as Cherubino in Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro and finally Alice Coote as Nero in La Incoronazzione di Poppea 

My little sister is a cosplayer and she’s done her fair share of male cosplays. I showed her these two clips bellow and she didn’t realize that they were women until I told her. The clip bellow is of Sarah Connolly as Giulio Cesare in Handel’s Giulio Cesare. 

6. To become an opera singer people have to study up to 10 years before hitting the stage. People have this delusional notion that a singer has a natural gift and just sings their heart out without much preparation. The natural gift thing is great if you are lucky enough to have it, but in being an opera singer that counts as 5% of the package. Opera singers need to be excellent musicians, after all we are dealing with the greatest composers of all time, you simply cannot have a singer who can’t read music or accompany a musical score. Learn languages, in opera the pronunciation is paramount, sometimes if your pronunciation isn’t up to the standards you can get fired. Opera singers also need to be outstanding actors because they are, after all, acting on a stage just like in a play. And most importantly a singer must practice, just like an athlete, every single day. That’s why some people say that opera is the equivalent of the Olympics of singing, because it’s hard and it’s so NOT about just having a pretty voice and a God given gift.

There’s this wonderful quote by Joan Sutherland that I think says it all “One is just given a talent, and it’s one’s duty to make the most of it”. Being an opera singer is real hard work all the time, even after you start your career. Especially after you start your career!

7. There are operas being composed as we speak! People seem to associate “opera” with “old” and true, most of the operas being done nowadays are by composers like Puccini, Verdi and Mozart who have left this world quite a while ago. But there are also living breathing composers who are getting their works performed in big time opera houses today.

For instance, we have the amazing “Dead Man Walking” by Jake Heggie which tells the story of a nun who decides to become the confessor of a man on death row. You think that name sounds familiar? It’s because it’s based on the true story of sister Helen, who wrote a book about it and also had her story told in an Academy Award winning movie back in the 90’s. Plus the music is so gorgeous, Jake Heggie is a fantastic composer with the most gorgeous sense of singing line that always keeps us on the edge of our seats. Here’s a little musical treat from this opera.

Another modern opera that has just last year had her North America debut is Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys”. It’s also based on a true story that happened a little over 10 years ago. It’s an opera about the dangers of the internet chat rooms and what can happen if you get sucked in. It’s a mystery story, sort of a detective story about a 16 year old boy found in a crime scene soaked with blood of a 12 year old dead boy. As the opera unfolds you learn how the boy was utterly manipulated by people at chat rooms to do something completely out of character, like murder. It’s pretty cool. 

8 – Forget about stereotypes most professional opera singers are just like you and me. For me the two worst images that are sold of an opera singer are that they are unhealthy overweight people that just “park and bark” (stand and sing) and that they are arrogant and won’t give anyone the time of day. Things have changed so much! There was a time when singers were not required to look the part and sometimes not even to act so much, all that was important was the sound. But nowadays with all the major changes people have been through the public wants more. The sound still has to be beautiful but they also want a Violetta (the heroin of La Traviata) who looks like a courtesan who has pneumonia. As the world changes so does opera, now we have High Definition cameras pointing at the faces of our singers being transmitted live all across the globe, changes had to be made, and they were.

Take opera singer Lisette Oropesa for instance, she’s a young soprano with a very fantastic career who sings at the Met all the time. She’s also a runner, if I’m not mistaken she runs every day. Once she sang the National Anthem at the opening of a marathon and then ran it!

This picture is a clear example of how amazing and receptive opera singers can be. It's a picture of one of the greatest opera singers nowadays, Joyce DiDonato, with a bunch of friends of mine who adore opera after her performance in La Cenerentola at the Met last month
As for the singer’s attitude, I’m not saying that all of the singers are nice. But in my experience I’ve only had great things to say about the way opera singers have treated me. Almost all of them were truly interested in what I had to say and I actually got to talk a lot to them. They are flesh and bone people who, if they are not too tired or late, love to hear feedback so fresh out of the performance.

9 – You can experience operas from all over the world with one click. Many opera houses like the Royal Opera House in London and the Metropolitan Opera are streaming live their operas at the movie theaters. Other opera houses like Glyndebourne and the Vienna State Opera stream their opera online, and those streams are most of the time completely free of charge.

There are also SEVERAL radio transmissions from operas from all over the world. I remember I was quite happy to have been able to hear Cendrillon from Barcelona in the beginning of this year through the radio station website. And also to hear my utmost favorite Tosca (Sondra Radvanovsky) sing the role live through the radio several times during Christmas time.

Opera houses all over the world have been making an extra effort to reach out to people by joining social networks such as Facebook, twitter, Youtube and even Tumblr. For instance the Met did a cocktail competition for the opening of the 2012/2013 season through Facebook. You had to make up a cocktail and the most voted would get first rate tickets to see L’Elisir D’Amore. And the Royal Opera House just did a stage director’s diaries series with their artistic director Kasper Holten about their new Don Giovanni production, it’s got 11 or so videos of Kasper filmed throughout the process of rehearsals until opening night. Another great thing the ROH did just about a year ago was have an entire day being streamed live online of everything that happens at the opera house, stage rehearsals, master classes, scene rehearsals, orchestra rehearsals, classes, the works!

rehearsals of ROH's Don Giovanni

You see? We’re not so different you and me! So give opera a chance, I’m sure you’ll love it!

Cheers people!

1 comment:

  1. Good and very useful article! I also forget that some ppl are not so aware of things which are quite usual for me!