Learning how to Like an Opera Takes Time

An opera begins long before the curtain goes up and ends long after it has come down.

Maria Callas

The human voice is the most beautiful instrument of all, but also the most difficult to play.

Richard Strauss

While in my music school in Poland, our teachers provided us with free tickets to the symphony and opera.  I was in my preteens, when I saw my first operatic performance. It was Aida by Verdi.  The heroine is a young, attractive Ethiopian princess captured and enslaved by the Egyptians.  On stage, however, I saw a middle-aged, overweight soprano being courted by a good-looking tenor.  This was a grave disconnection for me and from then on, I saw opera as an anachronism, a comical piece of art, even though it was designed to be a tragedy.

Then I grew up. I learned the history, got acquainted with composers and artists, and listened, listened again and again.  Learned to hear difference between Italian and German opera.  Without knowing the opera, one cannot understand the Italian soul.  The 19th century showed, how much the history of Italy was intertwined with opera and vice versa.  Giuseppe Verdi (Joe Green as introduced by Victor Borge) was treated like, or even better than, royalty and elected to a political office.  King Victor Emmanuel ll nominated him as a Senator of the Kingdom.  His contribution to the success of Risorgimento was undeniable.

Singers were also treated like royalties, their wishes were fulfilled, and all whims were tolerated.

Women singers were usually more popular than their male counterparts.  Prima donna was an official title for the leading soprano. Diva was a superb and celebrated singer.  This title is depreciated nowadays so much, that it is given to any female singer appearing on stage more than once.  Diva comes from a Latin goddess, and she was treated as such. And they were and still are excellent.

Here is Maria Callas in her signature aria Casta Diva by Bellini.

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U-wiHzq_Bbk[/embedyt]

A good opera singer needs to also be a good actor/actress.

Here is a mad scene from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, singing Anna Netrebko.

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qc3Ml_Sse7M[/embedyt]

Voice control is important, and some singers are just incredible.

Here is Diana Damrau in Mozart’s The Queen of the Night.

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YuBeBjqKSGQ[/embedyt]

Have you ever seen a hockey fight?  Well, not everyday brawl.  I am talking of goalies’ fight.  You didn’t?

And what about a fight between two leading sopranos?  It happened between Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni during the live performance of Haendel’s opera.  The difference was, that there was no referee to stop the fight.

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=41op6uFXSTc[/embedyt]

But before women were allowed on the stage, someone else had to sing high voices. Those were castrati.  It started in the mid-16th century.Their voices were described as an ecstasy to the ear, although the particular body habitus was repulsive to some.  They started to sing in churches, where women were allowed to attend, but not to be heard.  The best ones achieved the status of celebrities.  Only a small percentage of operated on boys’  voices could achieve high prized singers positions, so risks of mutilating operations were very high. The practice was eventually abandoned and prohibited by law in Italy in 1861.

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KLjvfqnD0ws[/embedyt]

Male singers are often no less celebrated.  Their voices are exquisite, and their technique is masterful. One of the most difficult arias is written by Donizetti in La fille du regiment and has nine high C notes.  It’s so difficult that singing can damage the performer’s voice. During one of the rehearsals, the conductor demanded the tenor to sing the entire aria.  The singer refused.  The conductor wasn’t giving up.  Finally, the tenor said:  “Maestro, I have only ten of those notes left in me.  Do you want me to sing them now, or later on during the gala performance?”

Here Juan Diego Florez is singing the famous aria.

Here is one of my favorite arias, Una furtiva lagrima from Donizetti Lucia di Lammermoor sung by Rolando Villazon

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3aS6M8j3pvQ[/embedyt]

Opera is one of the most and may be the most formidable visual art forms.  It requires solo singers, a choir and a large-scale symphony orchestra. Quite often, composers include ballet dancers. Scenography can be very sophisticated, including even large animals on the stage.

It’s worth mentioning, that the budget for the Metropolitan Opera in New York in the 2011-2012 season was $325 mil, roughly half of it came from private donation.

Still, it comes to personal perception.  I love to listen to full operas and my favorite arias.  Cheesy plots don’t bother me a bit. The more I know, more I listen, the more I appreciate the art of this antique piece of art.  I do cherish good singers and sprezzatura with which they present their craft.  The feeling is the same, as watching Michael Jordan shooting the incredible basket, Sergei Fedorov skating around the defenceman on the ice or watching a good surgeon gliding through the difficult operation.  How in the world did they do it? And even when you look intensely, you don’t see a bead of sweat on their foreheads.

Do you have to be Italian to understand opera better?

Probably not, but it helps.

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