Late Departures: Operaaaaaaaaaaaaa!

An opera singer

If other people love it that much, might it be worth a go?

I like words. Thirteen years of a monthly reading group and a large collection of Emma Bridgewater’s Black Toast are testimony to that. So classical music, with the exception of sing-a-long Last Night of the Proms has never much done it for me. Since music plus words, or rather score plus libretto equals opera, it seemed worthy of a try.

Opera singerOpera North came to town, so within a week I was able to see four very different offerings. They also very helpfully offered free talks before two of the operas, great for a novice.

What I now know:

  • Like books, operas do vary in quality. Lesley Garrett gave a fantastic performance in La Voix Humane but it was “recitative” style, so sung with just odd flourishes of music which didn’t do it for me. The Verdi was passable, but I only really loved the Mozart.
  • It’s not Shakespeare. Correction: Some of it is Shakespeare, but very much simplified. Expect fewer characters, not too many plot twists, and unleashed emotions rather than witty banter. There seemed to be a good deal of cross-dressing still though – as “castrati”* aren’t so readily available a number of male roles are taken by females.
  • Unlike most other forms of entertainment, you seem to be expected to know the plot before you see the opera. The pre-show talks even explained them. This was nicely reassuring –you didn’t have to concentrate too hard on the words. For those without talks, Wikipedia provided synopses.
  • Surprisingly, I preferred the operas in Italian to those in English. All those words ending in vowels do make it more beautiful. And the surtitles (get me!) were totally legible on TV screens in the boxes of our theatre. Some amusingly cumbersome Anglo-Saxon. I hate to say this, but in English I couldn’t always understand the higher-pitched ladies.
  • Three quarters of the operas I saw ended in suicide. I think the final one may well have done if it wasn’t called La Clemenza di Tito (or Tito’s Clemency). Written for the coronation of Leopold II, Mozart obviously hoped to encourage him to be a kindly King of Bohemia. But with the exception of that, there were no Hollywood endings.
  • There are some wonderful stories around the creation of operas – like how Verdi was persuaded to compose Otello by his, let’s say “commercially-minded” publisher. I enjoyed getting to know these – I’m not much of a historian and they brought both the operas and the periods they were written in to life.
  • The whole experience had me feeling like a complete youth, which was worth double the ticket price! It also showed how much opera must mean to the very elderly and infirm people in the audience. It was also the slowest moving group I’ve even known – every performance seemed to start late as we tottered to our seats.

If you would like to get started:

  • Do the opposite of me, and pick some well-known operas to see. They are classics for a reason – they are the best! “Rarely performed” in a description should be a giveaway.
  • You don’t need to spend a three-figure sum on each ticket. At our theatre prices range from £15 right at the back to £59 in the dress circle. It’s worth looking out for deals – they offered 10% off for folks attending three nights – check with your auditorium.
  • Or go see a Royal Opera House production streamed live to a cinema near you for less than £20. Details on your cinema website or via the ROH website.
  • Do find out about the plot before you go. This could be either from a talk or the programme, some of which can be purchased in advance. But there are plenty of resources online too – Wikipedia, the Met’s “Stories of the Operas”, or from the Opera Opera site.
  • Let me know how you got on by creating your own 140 character Tweetable summary including #henpicked.

In Late Departures, women try something that they’ve somehow managed to avoid in their first few decades of life. If you have made your own late departure, please share it with us!

*A (high) note on castrati – it’s just as bad as it sounds. Young men with beautiful voices were castrated to stop them dropping in pitch as they reached puberty. However, men have learned a technique to sing those roles these day, without having to part with any crucial dangly bits. Often women who sing contralto (lower down than soprano) will dress as men to sing those roles.