The long running game show Jeopardy! is a frequent guest during dinner in my house. This classic “answer and question” trivia contest is often on a small television in the background as dinner is being prepared and the table set for a meal. Recently, during one of the college or teen tournaments for the show, there appeared the “Dreaded Opera Category”, which made me laugh. For me, opera is a rewarding challenge to learn, one that I enjoy, and one that offers a buffet of artistic pleasures. Opera should really be experienced live to get the full effect. Opera houses are usually gorgeous theaters to be in, and there is an army of creative individuals working together to mount a production. Set design, costume design, and grand theater all come together for a visual spectacle. Writers distill a libretto to give the composer text to set to music, and vocalists display acting and singing talents to the artistry of a full orchestra in the pit. Even the audience attends the opera to be seen. There are few occasions in modern life for people to show off formal wear and fashion like a night at the opera. Trying to learn an opera for the first time with only a sound recording, or even video, just doesn’t do justice to the experience.
I truly understand some of the obstacles in learning to understand and love opera. Most of my “formal” music education was in the realm of instrumental music, and I was a bit of an autodidact in my efforts to become familiar with the operatic repertoire. Some of my favorite composers wrote important operas, and some important composers in history wrote operas almost exclusively. I promise you, it is well worth the intellectual effort to understand an opera performance. The first intellectual challenge is simply that of attention span. Operas are long, and excruciatingly so if one is lost and unsure of what is happening on stage. A second challenge, for a monolingual fellow like myself, is the barrier of language. There are major operas in Italian, French, German, Russian, English all regularly performed in the repertoire.
Aside from the differences in language, there are many different sub-categories of opera. There are Classical operas, comedic opera, Romantic Opera, grand opera, Verismo opera, psychological opera, opera seria, opera buffa, and so on. One of the best tools in my early self-guided study of Opera was the Fred Plotkin book, Opera 101: A complete guide to learning and loving opera. This wonderful text gives you a brief history of opera, then guides one through 11 different operas representative of various styles, each with a recommended recording. Plotkin makes specific comments to things happening at exact moments in these recordings, so you can hear exactly what he is talking about at a given moment. The book is a delightful, thorough introduction to a cross-section of the opera repertoire. If you find a particular chapter that is a favorite, he gives a list of other works in a similar style for the reader to continue with something they love. I spent many weeks with this book and the recommended recordings.
Learning a new opera is a project. I thought I might share with you one person’s approach to this 400 year old art form. To get the most out of the experience takes a bit of preparation for me. Puccini’s 1896 masterpiece La Bohème can serve as an example. (I adopted a cat that came down with a respiratory infection. I named her “Mimi”, and I hope you will get that inside joke by the end of this post.) More than one composer has set the story of La Bohème to music, but the version by Puccini has been the most popular. Giacomo Puccini was a great Italian composer of opera in the verismo style, meaning “realism”. Right away, I can expect that there are no unicorns, mermaids, Norse gods, magic lamps or other elements of fantasy in one of Puccini’s operas. The first thing I can expect is story of real people in real life situations apropos to the setting. The second thing I can expect is that the words of the opera are in Italian, and I will have to work around that since I do not speak Italian. That being said, I go through this same process when learning an opera in English, a language I am, allegedly, actually able to speak. My first step is to familiarize myself with a synopsis of the plot of the opera.
The dramatic action of an opera is usually greatly simplified from that of a novel or play. They are not usually hard to follow once you are familiar with the characters and plot synopsis. Much of the underlying expressive element is in the musical setting, which gives me a great advantage over watching a dramatic play in a language I am unfamiliar with. The second step in my approach to studying an opera is to obtain a libretto with a side by side English translation. Libretto is the Italian word for “little book”, and it is the complete text and stage direction that the composer has set to music. The librettist (the writer of the libretto) usually has distilled the essence of a novel or play down to something that is manageable to be set to music. If the entire novel were set word for word to music, the production would go on for days. Some composers have written the libretto themselves for their opera, but most of the time there is another writer for this task. When listening to a recording, I find it invaluable to follow the words and translation as they are sung. This is how I know what is going on at a given moment.
The story of La Bohème is taken from a French novel by Henri Murger, Scènes de la vie de bohème. The novel romanticizes the bohemian life of four impoverished artists in a Paris apartment. It has been adapted into several dramatic settings, including our opera La Bohème, and the hit Broadway musical Rent. Although the novel is the source material, it is not as important to me to be familiar with the novel as it is the Italian libretto created from the novel by Luigi Illica, which Puccini set to music.
The two main vocal events in an opera are the arias and the recitative. The recitative portions are the “spoken” dialog sections, where the singer has a looser, almost free rhythm delivery that mimics the pattern of speech. The arias are the musical showpieces, the big song settings to show off the star singers. It is the aria that is usually broken out in the highlights of an opera, or sung in a concert setting by a star vocalist (think the Three Tenors). Other “big numbers” in an opera are duos or trios (for 2 or 3 singers, of course) and sometimes numbers for an entire chorus in big grand operas. The arias and other big numbers contain the great musical moments that hit key dramatic points in the plot, and truly are worth the price of admission, and the time you have spent learning the opera. One can attend an opera, enjoy the beauty of the sets, the lavish costumes, and simply enjoy the beauty of the vocal performance in these arias. There is nothing wrong with enjoying opera entirely on this level, but with a little effort I have found so much more depth of meaning by being able to follow the story and dramatic action in greater detail.
Listening to recordings with a libretto is good. Watching a video of a stage production, or version made entirely for film (with subtitles) is better. Experiencing a live performance in an opera house is undoubtedly the best way to enjoy an opera. I very much approve of the practice of projecting “supertitles”, which are English translations in real-time displayed above the stage. It is a practice that has been controversial, but one that I find helps me. Opera tickets are not inexpensive, so I do what I can to be familiar with the work and insure I get the most out of my trip to the opera house. I find the live translations useful in helping me follow along, but with a little prior preparation I am not glued to the words above the stage. Detractors from the practice would say it takes an audience members attention away from the production as people stare at the words. The best solution, I think, is currently in use at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, where translations are on a device displayed on the seat in front of you. Each audience member can turn the translations on or off, depending on their preference.
A practice I am very much opposed to is the attempt to stage an opera in translation, for example, presenting an opera in English that was originally composed in Italian, German or French. Composers spent a great deal of effort marrying words to music, and putting notes, vowels, rhythm and emphasis in such a way that unites language and tune. Eviscerating that composer’s work by putting a different language, pronunciation and grammar over the existing tune is a crime against nature. Spend the time learning a bit of a new language and studying the libretto for a rudimentary understanding of the dramatic action, and avoid any bastardized versions of opera in translation. I feel strongly about this point, and I can assure you that foreign language is the absolute weakest part of my educational background. If I can do it, I know anyone reading this can.
La Bohème is one of the most popular and often performed operas of all time. It should be no problem finding a recording to spend time with, but I will give you two good leads. The Metropolitan Opera offers a library of videos which can be streamed online, offering a wide array of performances both past and present. There is a monthly fee for the service, but they offer a seven day trial which is absolutely free. Of course, La Bohème is represented in the collection.
A very nice film version of the work, made entirely for the screen, was created by Robert Dornhelm. It is in HD, and contains English subtitles. In this modern world of 144 character twitter posts, 10 second sound bites, and faster-than-instant gratification, it is healthy to stretch one’s attention span out for a couple of hours with a gripping story set to some of the most beautiful music ever composed. Give it a try, maybe someday you will be on Jeopardy! and earn a wad of cash with the knowledge.