Opera: A Beginner’s Guide
by Mel Clarke. Published March 27, 2009.
Many would consider a night at the opera either, a fantastic cultural experience, or the most boring thing they’ve ever encountered. Naturally, depending on your musical background, as well as your indulgence in the arts, it’s going to depend on how you receive such a thing.
For too long, the opera has gained a negative image as being boring, or pretentious. With so many different movements of music performance, it’s easy to get many of them mixed up. Opera isn’t just about costumes, foreign language, and whatever topic may come to mind.
In fact, it’s rather about sex, drugs, lies, deceit, death and many more devious topics.
Opera was originally compiled as a new artform in the 16th century, in Italy. Since its conception, the musical stylings spread quickly across Europe and became the latest musical fad.
Typically, an Opera is written in French or Italian, due to the ability to form such words that sound just as musical spoken as they are sung. It’s uncommon for an opera to be performed in any language that isn’t considered a ‘romance’ language, due to the fact that operas prefer to stay as close to the original stylings as possible. With the foreign language aspect, there are often screens running subtitles for your convenience. While this can help with the storyline, it can be rather unnecessary due to the well crafted music scores telling the story for you.
The most well known writer of operas is inarguably Mozart. Mozart’s music is known world-wide (whether or not you may realise it without formal music training), and his operas have permeated the world just as much as his well known symphonies. While Mozart began writing operas as a serious styling, he progressed into a more comedic style which was consequently copied and began a whole new genre.
Operas fall into a number of categories:
Opera Seria, is exactly what it sounds like. A serious topic based opera, usually revolving around some great disaster or tragedy impacting lives of a certain community. In the beginning, this was the most well known style of opera, until comical and magical stylings came along changing the face of opera.
Opera Comique includes some famous titles as Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, and the Magic Flute. Opera Comique often includes fantastical themes, like magic or indeed intense love. These themes can also include stories of great sexual adventures, mischievous escapes and triumph over evil. This form of opera also includes spoken parts instead of consistent singing.
This form is called ‘recitative’.
Singspiel is German for ‘Song Play’. This form of opera also includes spoken parts throughout, usually over music. It can also include performance of popular song and dance, to combat the traditional stylings of opera.
Operetta is a term regarding a light opera, that of both musical stylings and content. Operettas are generally shorter, with much more comedic content and a lighter musical range that is often known by the public viewing.
Opera has been a highly regarded artform throughout its many centuries of performance. However, the stories behind the performance are usually what gains a lot of interest. For example, did you know that boys at a young age were often castrated in order to maintain their high singing voice? The most famous instance is that of Farinelli, an incredible castrati, who was unable to reproduce due to the fact he was castrated at a young age. Not only was his voice an aphrodisiac to the ladies of his era, it was also the fact that he couldn’t get anyone pregnant – he became incredibly desirable. Of course, this was ruled out after some time as it was considered cruel. The system of which it was carried out involved very little medical procedures, and was often carried out with the young boys drugged up on opium to avoid any hesitation on their behalf (if they knew about it).
There are many operas that carry incredible topics. Take for instance, Puccini’s famous La Boheme. This opera is still performed today, and is probably one of the most well known. The topics include unrequited love, the lifestyle of a bohemian artist struggling to make ends meet, as well as incredible sickness and death. Throughout this opera there is never a dull moment, and always captures the audiences attention. With such extensive sets, costume design and absolutely stunning music, there’s no reason to miss out on this opera if it ever tours near your area.
Les Miserables also carries heavy content such as justice, French history, impacted with love and religion. These topics meld and create a sweeping story that is hard to forget even weeks after viewing it.
Carmen, one of the world’s most performed operas also carries storylines of deceit and lies. With twists and turns throughout the story, and short impacts of love, it carries across to the audience well and always entertains.
If you’ve ever been hesitant to see an opera, always look up its origins. While you may not have heard much about it, operas often carry intense content that could rival that of what you’d see on the silverscreen these days. Musicians and composers are always dramatic folk, so imagine their equivalent of a screenplay, but interjected with great scores of music, costume and dance.
With so many different styles of opera, as well as many different acts, it’s hard to get bored. So do yourself a favour if you’re new to the opera realm, and check it out! Opera is highly regarded as well as seeded with intense storylines that are often as deep and as dark as anything you could imagine.