Demystifying the Opera
NEW YORK—Opera may not be for everybody. It’s clearly artificial. No one would ever be fooled into thinking that it’s realistic, but the emotions have to be charged and the stakes have to be high, the editor-in-chief of OPERA NEWS, F. Paul Driscoll explained.
“I do think that most people who say they don’t like it, haven’t really experienced it. Opera is like frogs legs. People have an opinion about it whether or not they have tasted it,” Driscoll said in his office at Lincoln Center.
Driscoll talked eloquently relaying a treasure trove of encyclopedic references, factoids, insights, and witty remarks about opera—too many to mention here. But essentially, he and Diane Silberstein, the publisher of OPERA NEWS, talked about how the magazine—especially with its latest breezy redesign—wants to demystify the opera.
As the central hub of all operatic paths for the past 80 years since it was founded, OPERA NEWS is well positioned to help dissolve any notions getting in the way of people feeling welcomed to the opera.
If the opera is in a language that you do not understand, every seat provides subtitles; and if you read the libretto ahead of time, those beautiful voices and powerful music will transport you. No worries if you can only afford a $30 balcony seat instead of a $300 orchestra seat, it’s more about what you hear than what you see, and you can always use binoculars; and never mind that you may not know what to wear, it’s not a fashion show anyway.
If you feel uncomfortable being surrounded by a mostly grey-white haired crowd, remember we are all aging. You can start developing your taste for an art form that will keep you interested for the rest of your life. In the meantime, The Metropolitan Opera, for example, has designated special nights for audiences under 40.
If you find the opera houses intimidating, you can always go to a production of a smaller, more adventurous opera company, like The Industry. It performed its new opera in 24 cars, literally transporting the audience around Los Angeles to site-specific scenes of “Hopscotch,” receiving rave reviews.
Venture Opera on the Lower East Side of Manhattan opens the floor for dance parties after its performances. It’s just 1 of 73 pop up or alternative opera companies in the United States and of 988 worldwide, according to Silberstein. And there’s always opera streaming live on the Internet in high definition, although not as enthralling as live performances.
Powerful Timeless Storytelling
Driscoll stumbled upon opera in 1969, in what he called the dark ages, (tongue-in-cheek), when a friend invited him to a dress rehearsal of “Tosca” at The Metropolitan Opera. As a teenager at that time, he did not take it in “at any level of sophistication,” he said, but it cracked open a door that was later kicked in to a world that he obviously now loves.
His piercing blue eyes lit up when he recalled Mozart’s, “Le Nozze di Figaro” (The Marriage of Figaro). “The count has been horrible to his wife. We’ve all experienced a dysfunctional relationship, either as participants or as observers. In the last act, the count pleads to the countess ‘Will you forgive me,’ and then there’s a pause. For hundreds of years, audiences have listened to that pause not knowing what she’s going to say. That moment still works after 200 years. I think it’s worth experiencing,” Driscoll said.
Talking about Puccini’s opera, “Tosca,” Driscoll said that “the idea that people believe in something enough to die for it, that what you choose to believe in transcends any kind of relationship or political strife,” continues to leave an impact on him whenever he sees that opera. “I enjoy Tosca very much. It’s incredibly well constructed, and I love the way it works,” he said.
Opera exalts all the elements of theatrical production—bringing it all up a notch. It’s not only the intensity of the voices, but also the magnified acting and drama that makes it so humanly engaging.
Although at first it may all seem exaggerated, so over the top, and perhaps overwhelming, the fact that every aspect of human experience is played out on the stage in such an artificial way is perhaps the key to its cathartic effect. It allows the audience to experience a massive emotional release, somewhat vicariously through the opera singers, in a more subdued and civil way.
Opera literally means “work” in Italian. While sharing all of the basic elements of musical theater, opera singers do not use microphones.
“If you think about what would be required if you had to make yourself heard to someone who is 12 rooms away. Just projecting your voice to communicate one sentence would require a great deal of physical effort,” Driscoll said.
The singers, like athletes, use their entire bodies as instruments to amplify every conceivable emotion, to tell stories of every convoluted or simplified folly or victory that could possibly happen in life.
Driscoll saw the young Mexican tenor, Javier Camarena perform the role of Ernesto in Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” at the Metropolitan Opera in March. “He has a voice that you can hear in Queens when he sings. People went nuts! They went berserk because the idea that this one man has a voice, which can communicate human emotion in a room that holds 4,000 people and get them all on the same page is thrilling,” Driscoll said.
Honoring Opera Greats
OPERA NEWS held its 11th annual awards ceremony on April 10, at The Plaza honoring opera singers at different stages of their careers: José van Dam, Waltraud Meier, Joseph Calleja, Anna Netrebko, and Elina Garanca. At a cocktail reception before the awards, three of them generously shared their thoughts about their art.
“At the very moment when I go on stage, I give everything from my life experience that I have had at that very moment. Opera provides a sensation that no other art form can provide. It is theater, scenography, lights, costumes, it’s acting, music and voice, there’s nothing else that gets so close,” mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca said warmly.
Mezzo-soprano, Waltraud Meier’s generous demeanor was also immediately noticeable. “In the best way, opera will bring something out of you—an emotion, a feeling, a thought—that you would have never expected was in you. You live through something for a moment that is beyond reality. It is a reality that later on you can connect it again and again to your own reality, but for a little moment it opens a door to something that goes beyond expectations,” Meier said.
Meier encouraged young people to experience the opera. “Just go in there. … We have to invite them to have the courage to just say, ‘Hey, let yourself get into that, just feel it,” she said smiling.
“Today, life is strange all over the world. People are coming to the opera to experience beautiful things and to dream a little dream, and we need this. I think this is the most important thing in opera today,” said José van Dam, the bass-baritone who has been singing for 50 years.