“Whatever you do, don’t make me sound like an opera singer!!!!”
That is how I began my first singing lesson. A fairly inappropriate move under any circumstances, but in this case the declaration was made to Elizabeth Coss, a renowned soprano at the Metropolitan Opera, close friends with and colleague of Luciano Pavarotti. Oops.
“You are twelve years old.” She answered, “Chances are I can’t make you sound like much of anything. If you do as you are told, I might be able to teach you enough musicianship and proper habits that as you and your voice develop you can continue to have teachers that will work with you, and they can teach you to sound like something as you get older. I have professional students in New York City that will happily pay twice what you do for this hour. So no more demands; you listen to me. Come on time, learn your music and always ALWAYS respect your teacher.”
Needless to say, I was not – yet – a fan of opera. And Elizabeth Coss taught me how to be a respectful student. How to listen. How to develop great habits as a music student. And as a result, other teachers, later in my life, helped me eventually sound (willingly and enthusiastically)…. like an opera singer.
Opera, like many things, is an acquired taste. There is a reason that when one mentions opera that some people wrinkle up their nose, just like mentioning blue cheese. And while I never felt motivated to learn to appreciate blue cheese, I personally feel that opera is truly worth it. Opera is more available, more accessible than ever, and with the Opera Festival in Jerusalem this week, it’s a great time to give it a try.
I can’t gift you with the years of patient teachers, or my college classes on the history of Opera at McGill Conservatory, but I can try to offer you some quick tips to make attending the opera a better – even fun – experience.
- Read the Libretto
Early opera goers, before the days of movies and musicals, came to the opera knowing the story. In many cases, they knew the entire script, or libretto. The libretto is in the language of the opera. Tonight’s performance of Donzinetti’s L’elisir d’Amore is in Italian. But you can read the libretto in English online. (Sorry; I didn’t find it in Hebrew folks.)
If you know the plot before you go, you will enjoy it more. If you know the lines, and can follow the scenes, you will enjoy it even more. Many of us have experienced this with watching Shakespearean plays, but it applies even more here.
There are several options to learn the story, and to find the libretto if you just google it. But one option is http://www.chandos.net/pdf/CHAN%203027.pdf.
- Don’t clap.
Operas are generally made of two types of singing; recitative and arias. Recitative is less melodic and is the precursor to musical theater. Think of it as “speak singing”. Arias are the songs that are dispersed throughout the opera. The arias are the “musical numbers” so to speak. It is considered an important part of opera etiquette to not clap at the end of arias. It is not a cabaret show, and it interrupts the flow of the drama. So wait until the end. And then clap – a lot. Perhaps refrain from the “woot woots”.
- What to Wear?
This entire post was inspired by a couple of friends who are also going to the opera…. But apparently have found appropriate attire to be the most important part of the prep!
The images of opera-goers that come to mind for most are of elitist, snobby and stuffily dressed aristocrats in black tie and gowns. The opera used to be outrageously expensive. It was a luxurious evening out, and for most who decided to splurge on the tickets, they treated it like the elegant night on the town that is was. Hence the super-fancy dress.
In the past forty years, there has been a big push to make opera more available and appealing to everyone. This includes directing choices in more relevant eras, popular performances like “The Three Tenors” and more affordable tickets. And the change in dress correlates. Opera in Israel is generally anything goes, and I have seen the audience come in jeans, sitting down the row from those in their traditional black tie garb.
A night at the opera is a big investment in time and in money. So wear what makes it feel like the special evening it should be for you. Just no big hats. Fancy dresses might match your favorite poofy hat you bought for weddings, but no one likes to try and follow singing in Italian, action on stage and changing scenes trying to peek around your poofy hat.
Why do I emphasize the poofy hat? Maybe because I wore a very elegant hat to a Cecilia Bartoli performance in Lincoln Center in 2003. The other audience members did a very good job of letting me know how unwelcome that was without saying a word….
- Comfortable is just as important as appropriate.
This Wednesday in Jerusalem, it’s outdoor opera – in Sultan’s pool. Which means there is a very good chance that it is going to get quite cold. I personally don’t want your chattering teeth to interrupt my listening to the star of the show’s beautiful high notes, so make sure you bring layers, and maybe a blanket.
- Opera Glasses?
Another stereotype of the stuffy opera-goer, is a small pair of fancy (and silly looking) opera glasses. Opera is often in huge theaters, and it isn’t always easy to see. Opera glasses were traditionally a practical yet elegant solution. It’s is okay – and probably recommended – to bring binoculars with you. I hope there is at least one moment where you want to be able to see just how a diminutive woman can make such a HUGE sound. Those moments are fun; and you will want the binoculars.
If you really have time, then try to listen to the score in addition to reading the script. It won’t spoil the surprise, it will help you enjoy the performance. Find some of the music on youtube.
Relax and have an amazing time at an incredible opera with an incredible conductor in the heart of the greatest city in the world, in the center of the universe. And if you aren’t going to Wednesday’s opera performance in Jerusalem grab another opportunity. Visit Jerusalem-opera.com and check out the other offerings of the Opera festival throughout the rest of the week.
I hope you let me know personally (@ima2eight) if you make it to L’elisir d’Amore. I’ll be the one with binoculars and a cozy blanket…. but no poofy hat.