I have always loved music and it was just natural for me to also love classical music. It wasn’t forced on me and I was definitely not trying to be part of some social elite. Being four years old and all. That is a valid argument against classical and opera especially. Most people do associate it with rich people wearing fancy gowns, a kind of high societal clique where the general public are not welcome. A world where the average Joe or Josephine might feel intimidated or looked down upon. That world of the upper classes reminds me of the opening of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholy. A stifling, preening and cold place to inhabit. No wonder Kirsten got depressed!
In order for opera to survive, of course, the general public needed to be embraced. The so-called ”masses”. An expression I hate. I imagine an army of zombies when I hear that. The increasing gap between popular culture and the world of opera needed to be narrowed, I suppose. Good and bad has come from that.
So, back to the title of this post, is opera boring? Honestly, it really really can be. They tend to last at least 2.5 hours and often very little happens. A few words needed to move the story forward can be a scene lasting half an hour. Many repetitions doesn’t help this either. However, looking for a fast moving experience is kind of missing the point. We are supposed to savour the music. The music is after all, the core. Opera is like a world you can enter, perhaps more so than most other music because of its length and the visual element. It is in many ways like cinema and we all know that films can be boring too. Length again often the issue there. We live in an impatient world and it is difficult for people to slow down and take in something like opera. It’s a pity because there is, no doubt, some treasure to be discovered.
I would say the next most common problem people have with it is the ridiculous style of singing. OK, don’t get me wrong here, I do love some arias but this way of singing with a massive vibrato voice can be hard to take sometimes. It has not always been the preferred method and neither does it exist in most other cultures. I personally hate heavy vibrato such that you can hardly even hear the note the singer is trying to produce. There are of course good and bad singers and lots of different voices. Don’t imagine they all sound the same. Also, there are some operas from the Baroque era which feature singers that sing in a much purer style. You can go with those if you wish too.
What else can be said of opera. Well, another pet peeve of mine is the casting. Recently I started to watch Puccini’s La Boheme on Sky Arts and when I saw who was in the role of Mimi, the lead actress, I turned it off in seconds. It made it unwatchable. No matter how good her voice may have been, she looked totally wrong for the part. Mimi in my mind had to be somewhat of a waif. A slightly sickly petite girl from the Bohemian quarter. Not someone who who looks like they could beat you in an arm wrestling contest. That is one example, where the look is not right but the producers don’t seem to care much. The other applies to age. What on earth would possess someone to cast a 50-year-old soprano in the role of a 16-year-old Juliet? It is wrong in so many ways. Sadly, again, it is often something that is overlooked. Times are changing there though. This is the advantage of larger audiences. The general public who have grown up on films and very little theatre simply don’t have the stomach for that. So change is good in this case.
When asked if I like opera. I have mixed feelings. I went through a phase of listening to many many operas. This was typical of me. It was a challenge and that motivated me. I sat through some very boring productions. The only thing keeping me from jumping out of the nearest window was the music. That indeed is the most important element to focus on. I have amazingly only seen one full opera live. It was La Traviata in Prague and it was truly memorable. Don’t underestimate the theatrical elements either. Relating to the characters as you would in a film. It is a hugely important part also.
As a listener to opera on CD I got to know some arias that to this day really affect me. The specific performances being as important as the arias. Maria Callas singing ”Si, mi chiamano Mimi” from La Boheme is a solid favourite. It is a mono recording. Apologies for not knowing exactly which one. There are, I guess, a few. It is her mixture of innocence and that moment of passion 2/3rds of the way through when we realise the quiet unassuming girl Mimi has this deeply passionate side to her. The music that accompanies this is enough to make a grown man cry, as they say. Puccini was a master of expressing emotion in the most unashamedly romantic way. The other example is Giuseppe Di Stefano singing ”Nessun dorma” from Turandot. Puccini again. This is one of the most popular arias of all time. The three tenors are largely responsible for that. Interesting though, I was never moved by Pavarotti singing it but Di Stefano…
To finish up, opera is not just one thing. There are many different worlds to visit. It’s not all loud overly-zealous Italians either. Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande is like venturing into someone’s dream (or beautiful nightmare) and Berg’s Lulu has a modernity and an unfamiliar musical language to most that I was really taken by when I saw in first on TV. Styles of singing vary, productions can be amazing or dire. Keep an open mind. Also, as arias are popular and easy to download, consider not just the aria but the opera as a whole. For me, listening to one aria from Tosca rather than hearing the whole piece, is like looking at one scene from Goodfellas and not getting to watch the whole movie. It’s the definition of missing out. So, I guess I am encouraging you to try an opera and if it is crap, don’t assume anything.