Appreciating Opera
by Gabrielle Euvino

If you're looking for that tingly feeling (you know—the one that sends a chill down your spine and makes the hair on your arms stands on end?), there's no better place to find it than the opera. The tragedy, romance, and drama of opera hold the basic DNA for one major shudder.

Like other acquired tastes, the more you know about opera, the more you'll enjoy it. This year celebrates opera's 400th birthday, and lucky for you, it has never been easier to enjoy the beauty and richness of what is arguably the most emotional of all the music genres. Add a beautiful set design and lavish costumes, and you have a true spectacle.


Where Opera Comes From    to top

Back in the eighteenth century, when opera was at an all-time high, everyone listened to it. In terms of popularity, opera was the equivalent of today's movies. The poor listened from high above in the balconies with the pigeons, while the wealthy sat below on velvet. For old and young alike, it was the best entertainment out there, and audience members would come with picnic baskets and camp out for the entire day and night, or just stop by for a couple of arias. Most operas were originally sung in Italian, its mother tongue, but soon French, German, and English scores came onto the scene as opera spread across Europe like a musical plague. Everyone got the bug.

Did You Know
Until the late eighteenth century, female lead parts were sung by men, often by castrati. And yes, just like the word sounds in Italian, it means "castrated." If a boy was lucky enough to possess a good voice, he might have been selected (and his parents paid handsomely) for this gruesome operation.


It's All About the Story    to top

Opera has as much drama as any Spielberg film, and the stories told are filled with unrequited love, betrayal, and revenge. In order to fully appreciate opera, you need to understand a little about the plot behind the rolled R's and high C's.

That's where the libretto comes in. Literally meaning "little book" in Italian, the libretto tells the story, outlines the plot, and paints the picture that will be so passionately expressed by the singers. (We'll get to them in a second.) Without the libretto, opera loses half its pleasure. The libretto explains who is doing what to whom and why.


The Singers    to top

Following are the primary types of singers, though keep in mind that there are several more variations than offered here.

The Ladies
Ah, those poor divas. Having to practice every day and sing all night. It takes discipline to sing opera, and whether she plays Puccini's Madame Butterfly or Mozart's Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, your average diva must possess a stamina and skill far beyond that of the average citizen. Most female roles fall under three major categories:

Soprano: the highest female voice; most divas are sopranos. Whoever plays a soprano gets the juicy part, usually a heroine or a martyr. She gets the biggest bucks for her high notes and dramatic flair. The Greek-American Maria Callas was a soprano.

Mezzo-Soprano: a female voice that ranges between a soprano and a contralto. Mezzos are generally the witches and tramps, but they also get to play the so-called trouser roles of adolescent boys, which were originally played by the castrati before women were allowed to sing on stage.

Contralto: a good contralto may be likened to a rich, deep, red wine. As the lowest female singing voice, contraltos can sound like men and play comical old women and sympathetic mother figures. The first African American ever to sing at the Metropolitan Opera was an American contralto named Marian Anderson.

The Gents
Big men wearing big hats with big voices are a given at the opera. Some of the first recorded music was opera, such as when Enrico Caruso sang the part of Nemorino in Donizetti's The Elixir of Love back in 1902. These guys don't mess around!

Tenor: high male vocal, usually the lead. The tenor is what makes opera. Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras are all tenors. They get a lot of roses for being able to hit a high C and hold it. They are known to have healthy (very healthy) appetites for food, wine, and women.

Baritone: the most common voice in adult males, the baritone possesses a deep and rich voice lower in range than a tenor. Count Almaviva in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro is a good example of a part played by a baritone.

Bass: the lowest of the male voices, the bass singer is the equivalent of a human tuba. Bass singers usually play authority figures, such as Dr. Bartolo in Rossini's The Barber of Seville.

Opera advice
To prepare for your first opera, listen to a recording of it before the big night. If you buy a CD, read the libretto that comes with it so you understand the characters and what all the crying is about.


What to Wear    to top

This one is pretty simple. First, there are no rules, so relax. Most opera enthusiasts do often dress for the occasion, especially for an opening night, so if you're so inclined, dress to the hilt: Ladies, wear your heels, pearls and perfume; gents, take out that tuxedo from the back of the closet, this is what you've been waiting for! Otherwise, clean clothes will suffice.

Did You Know
The cummerbund on a man's tuxedo was traditionally used as a place to put opera tickets.


A Quick Breakdown    to top

You enter the theater and take your seat. There is an excited buzz surrounding you as the crowd files in. The lights dim and there is a moment of silence before the orchestra suddenly comes to life. Although the curtain is still down, this is the moment everyone has been waiting for.

Generally, most operas start with either an overture or a prelude to get your attention. This leads us into Act One, which sets up the drama of the story and introduces the characters. Act One is followed by an intermission, affording you the opportunity to enjoy some of the bubbly and stretch your legs. Then we go to Act Two: more story, more singing, followed by another intermission. And finally Act Three, the Finale. This is the climax and conclusion of the opera, the part where the fat lady sings.

What to bring to the opera:

  • tickets
  • cough drops
  • binoculars
  • libretto


Opera Etiquette    to top

What to do before the opera:

  • Arrive early; latecomers are often not permitted inside the auditorium until after the first act.
  • Use the restrooms—those acts can be pretty long!
  • Eat something light enough to keep your stomach from growling, but not so heavy as to make you sleepy.
  • Turn off your beeper and cell phone.

What not to do during the opera:

  • Talk
  • Open up candy wrappers
  • Applaud before the end of the aria, the very end. (Better yet, wait until the audience has begun its thunder.)


A Glossary    to top

You don't need to speak Italian to appreciate opera, but a quick glossary of terms might help:

a cappella: voices without music, no instruments

aria: a song or melody sung by a single voice

bel canto: "beautiful song" in Italian

cadenza: a passage toward the end of a song designed for the singer alone to strut his or her stuff

canzone: literally "song" in Italian

coloratura: describes the "color" in a passage, including those difficult trills and sparkling arpeggios singers train all their lives to sing

duet: two people singing simultaneously, often with different words and melodies

forte/mezzo forte: loud/not so loud

piano/mezzo piano: soft/not so soft

falsetto: the high part of a man's voice

fugue: a baroque-style passage in which three or more distinct musical lines are tossed from voice to voice

libretto: literally "little book" in Italian, the script for the piece

opera buffa: comic, "buffoon" opera

opera seria: serious, more formal opera

operetta: a cross between opera buffa and opera seria, an operetta is usually very light

overture: an instrumental composition introducing the entire opera

prelude: a shorter overture

prima donna: a female opera star

recitativo: sung dialogue between arias that helps advance the story

vibrato: a slight wavering in pitch used to enhance notes


An Operatic Sampling    to top

There's just so much to choose from, limiting the picks to ten is next to impossible. However, you've got to start somewhere. According to Ticket to the Opera by Phil Goulding, "The Ten Best Operas" are:

  1. Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro, 1786
  2. Mozart: Don Giovanni, 1787
  3. Rossini: The Barber of Seville, 1816
  4. Verdi: Rigoletto, 1851
  5. Verdi: La Traviata, 1853
  6. Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, 1868
  7. Wagner: Die Walkure, 1870
  8. Verdi: Aida, 1871
  9. Bizet: Carmen, 1875
  10. Puccini: La Boheme, 1896


There's No Excuse    to top

With widespread access to technologies such as radio, television, and now the Internet, it is not an accident that opera is more popular than ever. Singers such as Maria Callas, Enrico Caruso, and of course the Three Tenors—Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti—have been household names for generations now, and new, sexy voices like that of Andrea Bocelli combine opera with pop for a variation one might dare call "popera," if not for the purists (who would probably faint at the term). However, as the dust starts to settle on the twenty-first century, you have to wonder how today's music will fare over the next four hundred years, and if the fans of the future will be tuning in with as much passion as the opera lovers of 2000. Figaro that one.


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