Opera (English plural: operas; Italian plural: opere) is an art form in which singers and musicians perform a dramatic work combining text (called a libretto) and musical score, usually in a theatrical setting. Opera incorporates many of the elements of spoken theatre, such as acting, scenery, and costumes and sometimes includes dance. The performance is typically given in an opera house, accompanied by an orchestra or smaller musical ensemble. (Wikipedia)
For most of my adult life I have been allergic to opera. It must also be said that for nearly half of my adult life (some 20 years) I hardly went near a classical music venue, nor played the piano. A chance conversation with a then colleague – now a very good friend – in the art publishing industry (where I worked before I had my son) revealed a mutual love of classical music and, in particular, live concerts and suddenly I was a regular at the Wigmore Hall, enjoying fine chamber music in one of London’s most perfect venues.
As a child in the late 1970s, I went to many operas with my parents, who were subscribers to the Welsh National Opera (WNO) on tour. We were living near Birmingham at this time, and from a young age (around 5) I was regularly taken to concerts by the CBSO at Birmingham Old Town Hall, where the orchestra was conducted by a vibrant young man with wild curly hair, who has gone on to enjoy a glittering and acclaimed career with some of the finest orchestras in the world. Going to the opera was something else we did, as well as listening to classical music LPs at home, and piano lessons, of course. I was lucky enough to see many fine performances, including the most exquisite production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute with sets designed by David Hockney, and a Madame Butterfly which was all Japanese sliding screens and Zen gardens.
Later, as a teenager at school in Hertfordshire, I went to full dress rehearsals at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, enjoying an afternoon out of school to see some of the ‘greats’ of the operatic world – including Sir Thomas Allen (in Britten’s Peter Grimes) and Dame Janet Baker. These were memorable occasions, not only for the music, drama and spectacle, but also for the plush scarlet and gold opulence of the Royal Opera House.
A rather disastrous trip to Glyndebourne with my fiancé (reader, he married me) to see Britten’s Death in Venice put me (and my husband) off opera. By this time, I had also formed a very deep dislike of anything by Wagner and had decided (perhaps unfairly) that anything by him would be overblown, over-sung and over here.
Musical friends and colleagues have tried to tempt me back to the opera, assuring me that I will love it, pointing out that I absolutely MUST see anything by Wagner, and citing his important influence. (Some people have even tried to suggest that my dislike of Wagner is an obstinate form of philistinism: I just don’t like his music – get over it!)
Across my social networks, in particular on Twitter, I am connected with many people who absolutely adore opera, passionately and fervently, and who go not once but thrice to Covent Garden or the Coliseum (home to the English National Opera) and beyond to see repeat performances of operas featuring the singers, conductors, producers and directors whose work they admire and love. I began to wonder what I might be missing out on: these people were enjoying fine performances and an enviable social life at the opera at the same time.
When I started reviewing for CultureVulture.net at the beginning of the year, my co-reviewer, Nick, suggested we might cast our reviewing net a little wider than piano recitals and art exhibitions, assuring me that we would not be penetrating Wagner’s Ring, but could happily enjoy operas by Mozart, Bizet, Rossini, Puccini and Handel. And so on 3rd May 2014 we found ourselves in the dress circle at the Coliseum for the first night not of Così fan Tutte, but Thebans, a new opera by Julian Anderson based on the Theban trilogy by Sophocles.
Modern opera for the “opera newbies”? We were really jumping into opera at the deep end, but despite the grim narrative (family intrigue, incest, murder), I really enjoyed it – the music was arresting, with some exquisite chorus and wind writing, the brutalist setting was interesting, and the cast were convincing and committed. Within moments, I believed I was there, in Thebes. In addition to this, it proved a thoroughly good night out: the opera crowd are different to the (largely) superannuated Wigmore hall audience and the atmosphere in the foyer and bar was cheerful and noisy.
Opera is of course very different to chamber music or solo piano recitals. There is drama, there are costumes and sets, there are memorable arias and choruses, there is action and emotion, dance, theatre, “speaking to music” (recitative), comedy, tragedy, pathos and poignancy – the full sweep of human experience is here.
Of all the strands of classical music and the performing arts, opera seems to receive the best press – and the worst press. It continues to be regarded as elitist, snobby, inaccessible (eh?), expensive (ahem – opera tickets are often cheaper than West End theatre or pop concerts) and generally the exclusive preserve of toffs and poseurs.
This has not been my experience, so far. Thebans was an esoteric and admittedly quite “difficult” opera to enjoy, per se, but the audience didn’t strike me as especially high-brow. And at Opera Holland Park on Saturday evening (my first visit to this wonderful venture, now in its 25th year, which runs a busy and varied summer season in the grounds of Holland House in London’s Holland Park) the audience was positively garulous, hugely enjoying all the comedy and dramatic irony contained in Rossini’s ever popular Barber of Seville. (And not forgetting noisy interjections from the peacocks who live in Holland Park.)
If anything, opera seems to me to be rather more relaxed than the “sitting in the dark in hushed reverence” atmosphere of the Wigmore Hall, and based on my, albeit limited, recent experiences, the etiquette of opera going is much looser. For example, you can clap after a particularly fine aria or chorus set-piece and no one glares at you as if you have committed some major musical faux pas, and there is a very tangible sense of shared experience.
On another level there is of course the music. Far from being inaccessible, opera is full of memorable, hummable tunes (something my co-reviewer is very keen on!). I bet most people could hum Bizet’s Toreador’s Song (from Carmen) or Nessun Dorma (from Turandot), which has been elevated to the rank of a sporting anthem, or the magical duet from The Pearl Fishers. We hear excerpts from opera in film and tv soundtracks, and in adverts, so embedded is this art form in our Western cultural landscape.
This week my Twitter feed has been full of tweets about the new production of Dialogues des Carmelites at the Royal Opera House (conducted by Sir Simon Rattle), Poulenc’s sublime opera set during the violent upheaval of the French Revolution (the set includes a working guillotine). It sounds fabulous – musically, dramatically, emotionally – and I really hope it may be available online or DVD, or in repertory at ROH at a future date, as I’d really like to see it.
Meanwhile, I am back at the “Coli” (as we opera buffs say!) for the first night of a new production of The Pearl Fishers by Bizet on 16th June. And in the autumn, new productions of Xerxes, The Marriage of Figaro and La Boheme beckon….
And what of Wagner? Well, I’m not sure I’m quite ready for the ladies with horns on their heads just yet…..