Opera for Dummies

The first time Phantom of the Opera came to Utah, I remember watching a news story where excited fans were praising and gushing. One woman said, “I’m just thrilled. I’ve never seen a real opera before.” Music snob that I was, I thought it was hilarious that she confused the Broadway musical for an actual opera. Of course, I was conveniently forgetting that I had never seen a real opera before either. It’s kind of pathetic that Pretty Woman and Little Women have watched more opera than I have.

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As a music major, I took many music history classes and I’m sure I answered correctly all the test questions about opera without ever actually watching one all the way through. Although I love listening to art songs, I have always had a bit of a bias against opera. Like most prejudices, mine wasn’t based on any actual knowledge or experience. It just wasn’t appealing to me.

The only full-length opera I’ve seen live is Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw (based on the Henry James novel) at the Eastman School of Music in October 2000. It was 14 years ago, but I can still remember a particularly disturbing scene – not that it was graphic in any way, but there was just something about the combination of Britten’s music, James’ suspenseful story, and a particularly convincing portrayal of the pedophile/ghost Peter Quint that sucked me in and has stayed with me all these years. It was quite an overwhelming experience and afterwards whenever I visited the school and saw the student who had played Quint in the hallways I was still totally creeped out by him and found myself feeling extra protective of my son, which is probably a sign that he played his part well.

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I know there are many different styles of singing so it’s ignorant of me to lump all opera into one big “Not Interested” pile. And maybe that’s the problem – I am pretty ignorant when it comes to this area of music. Ignorant by choice. And unlike other genres of classical music, opera can’t really be sampled in bite-sized chunks. I’ve tried it, but there’s no way to fully understand an aria outside of the context of the bigger story, no way to really appreciate it without watching an opera in its entirety. I haven’t put in the effort and up until now that hasn’t really bothered me.

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But lately I’ve been feeling sheepish about my lack of opera knowledge. I decided the only way I would ever get around to watching any opera would be if I went to see one of the live performances the Metropolitain Opera broadcasts from New York to local movie theaters around the country. I’m sure it would be more ideal for me to support a live local performance, but at this point in my life, trying to arrange that into our schedule seems impossible. And if I’m not even sure how I feel about opera in the first place, I’d rather go for the convenient choice. Plus, if it’s the Metropolitain Opera it’s got to be good, right? So this week I ditched my family on a Saturday and spent four hours at the movie theater watching Mozart’s The Marriage of FigaroI knew I was in the right place when I saw the line of elderly people waiting for the doors of the theater to open at 11 a.m.

I realize I haven’t seen any other versions of this opera to compare, but I thought Ildar Abdrazakov and Marlis Petersen were refreshingly funny as Figaro and Susanna and Isabel Leonard played a beguiling Cherubino. This newest version of the opera is set in the 1930s, so some of the talk about the count’s “feudal rights” doesn’t exactly fit, but I liked the whole Downton Abbey/Upstairs Downstairs look to it, especially given the subject matter.

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So much was expressed through physical humor that I really don’t think I could have understood or appreciated it as much by just listening to it and reading along with the libretto. Since it’s a farce, the storyline is pretty silly but I couldn’t help getting swept up in the plot twists and in the humor and on-stage chemistry of the performers. It was clever and fun and a pleasure to watch.

 

Although I was already familiar with a lot of the music, I really didn’t have a complete understanding of the meaning and context until I watched the whole thing. And now that I’ve got the opera bug, I’m thinking I might just have to go see the rest of the season’s performances. I’ve still got a lot to learn, and it would get me out of policing the kids’ Saturday chores.

If you’d like to see The Marriage of Figaro, you can go see BYU’s production this week (it ends this Saturday). And I’m sure it will be good because the role of the countess will be played by Rebecca Pedersen who was the winner of the Metropolitan Opera’s competition in 2013, the second youngest winner in the history of the competition. Also, half the cast was in the movie theater with me Saturday and, no joke, they actually sang along in parts with the opening credits.

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