I have been meaning to do a CD review for a while, but the CDs that I’m currently working through are part of a 10-CD box set, so with weekend time a bit scarce, I haven’t yet finished the box set, and so cannot do a review.

So I thought to fill in time and spice things up a bit, I’d do a few posts on opera in the meantime.  To start with, though, I thought I should tell my conversion story (I think that’s the corrrect term) of how I changed from hating opera to absolutely loving it.

We’ll start with the hating.

Opera was never something I liked.  It was in the same sort of class as lieder, really.

However, it must be stated, that nobody else in my family liked opera either.  So I didn’t actually hear too much of it growing up, because it was never on the record player or anywhere else.  We didn’t own any operas.  But I must have heard bits and pieces on the radio, because I came to hate the sound.  It always just sounded like some singer bellowing at the top of their lungs, accompanied by a loud orchestral blast from behind.

I liked pure orchestral music, and I didn’t mind choir music.  But this loud bellowing in Italian was getting too much for me.

I realised now that there were two main problems (and they really are the two main barriers to liking opera): 1) not liking the opera sound and 2) not understanding what the singers were singing about.  Actually, a third issue in my younger days was 3) not having enough money to get into opera – but that’s a different issue.

Believe it or not, if you really want to be an opera fan. However, Barrier Number 1, Hating the Opera Sound, is something that must be conquered if you wish to do so.  And not everybody can.

The operatic style of singing involves using your throat and voice in a different way from contemporary singing (which is why, for instance, musicals sound much different from operas, even though they’re essentially the same thing).  This style of singing has a few pros and cons.

The pros are that a good opera singer can project his or her voice out into a theatre full of people with no microphone whatsoever, and be heard perfectly.  (Remember, also, that the singer is also trying to sing over the top of a full-size orchestra that is accompanying.) The pros are also that this sound can vary dramatically depending on what type of singer you have.  Working up, there are the basses, who usually play the baddies in an opera because they have low, menacing voices. Baritones are next up.  They’re higher than basses, but still not tenors, so they tend to get the sidekick roles, or the wise old men roles.

Tenors, of course, with their soaring vocal range, become the heroes of the piece.  If a tenor is an opera, he’s going to probably a) get all the women, b) wipe out the bad guys, c) get heartbroken, d) possibly break some hearts himself and e) die tragically.  And in most cases, he’ll do all this on the one night.

Then, next, we have the mezzo-sopranos.  They’re not as high as the sopranos, so they tend to get female sidekick and wise old women roles.  They also get to play the role of the operatic female tyrant. If you’re going to have a mother-in-law, evil queen, you name it, she’ll be a mezzo.  Finally, sopranos, who are always going to be the heroines of the piece, with their high gliding notes.  If you really want to get specific, there are also coloratura sopranos, who specialise in being able to rattle off long strings of very high, very fast notes, all without breaking a sweat.  Truly amazing to hear.

However, the cons of this sound are: 1) these voices all vibrate, which largely separates it from straight normal singing.  And, usually, the higher the voices go (especially sopranos), often the louder and more noticeable this vibration becomes.  It is this sound which most people can’t stand.

The only way to get used to it is just to listen to some opera and grow to like the sound.  If you try it enough times, you gradually will come to like it.  The second con of the opera sound is 2) to get the power in the voice, regular vowel sounds get squashed a bit.  So, even if a singer is singing in English, it can still be difficult to make out the words. (Unlike a musical, where these things are fairly clear.)  So, without a set of the lyrics, it can be quite difficult to listen to it.

Anyway, for all those reasons above, I never liked opera.  However, during my teenage years (15-18 mostly), I started getting to like oratorios, which are long pieces for choir and soloists, usually on Christian themes. (Two of the most famous ones, and two of my favourites, are The St Matthew Passion, which tells the story of Christ’s death and The Messiah, which tells of Christ’s whole life. More on that another day.)

Unbeknownst to me, listening to these oratorios got me used to that operatic voice sound.  The first barrier had been crossed.  But I still could never really get into opera.  Whenever I listened to bits and pieces of it on radio, it just never interested me.

But all of that was to change . . . and I’ll post about that another time.

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3 thoughts on “Confessions of a Former Opera-Hater

  1. See, once you learn to love it, there’s nothing else like it!

    I’ve discovered youtube can be quite a profitable place to look up opera – often with the added benefit of seeing the actual performance/production that goes with the music. I’ve never liked opera CD’s – you’re only getting half the experience. Thank goodness for DVD – and youtube!

  2. Thanks for posting. Is this Jess or Anthony? It’s great to hear from people involved in the South Australian opera scene. My wife and I were there in 2004 for the Ring Cycle, and were most impressed. I didn’t get to hear L’enfant et les Sortileges while I was there, but I remember hearing about it, and it sounded very interesting.

    And also, how come SA gets things like a Little Women opera? They’re never keen to try anything new at Opera Australia until some other state has had a crack at it first . . .

    Anyway, regarding opera on CD vs DVD, I actually tend to head in the opposite direction. I usually prefer CDs to live opera, though I’m aware of the limitations.

    Live Opera Advantages: You get to *see* the action, the set design can often be innovative and unusual, and the acting and the singer can keep you awake long after a particular aria has started to get repetitive.

    Live Opera Disadvantages: Compared with a CD, the live sound of an opera can be somewhat disconcerting. There are the coughs of the audience, the thumps of footsteps around the stage, and the fact that different singers can have different volumes. Because nobody is miked up (well, they shouldn’t be, anyway), sometimes some singers can sound quite faint. Sometimes the acting can be bad (though not usually in Australia – most operas I’ve been to in Australia have far outshone the typical big European and American operas I’ve seen on DVD in terms of the sincerity of the acting – there’s not much “stand still and sing” stuff going on in Oz). And, of course, there is the often-controversial argument about the waist size of singers, which I won’t go into . . . .

    Whereas on CD, the production can be just as you imagine it, if you get a good recording, the singers will usually be the best in the world, the voice and orchestra levels are perfectly balanced so it’s full-blown orchestra with the voice miraculously soaring over the top of it. And as long as you’ve got a libretto, you can perfectly follow what’s going on.

    Of course, I’m realising that CDs have actually probably created an artificial sense in my mind of what live opera is supposed to sound like.

    Opera on DVD is a nice middle-ground, though. Because, if it’s done right, you get the great sound and the acting. Certainly, there are some great productions out there on DVD.

    Anyway, thanks for posting and hopefully we can keep the discussion going. I’ll try to get back to opera posts soon.

  3. Glad you made it across to the Ring Cycle – it was a pretty impressive undertaking, eh? We (this is Anthony by the way) were fortunate enough to get tickets to the whole cycle as well, and were blown away by the scale of it: the Adelaide Festival Centre stage is already the largest in Australia I think, and they rebuilt the theatre to make it BIGGER! Our seats were right up the back, but that was no problem for Lisa Gasteen! What a performer! Sorry you missed the L’enfant, it was a successful production.

    Why does SA get Little Women? Why did we get Dead Man Walking, the Phillip Glass trilogy, Sunday in the Park with George, or even the Ring? I’m not sure, but there definitely seem to be more risk takers here than in the rest of Australia.

    I agree with you about the advantage of being able to hear every word on a well balanced CD – but I think you are right to realise that it does give you an artificial impression of opera’s balance! It depends on the theatre to a large degree, the size and open-ness of the orchestra pit etc. Adelaide has a particularly large theatre, and balance is often a problem in repertoire with larger orchestras like Boheme, but less of a problem in lighter things. But things can still seem pretty “distant” overall, even if the balance is ok. But I always need to remind myself when I go into the theatre that I’m probably NOT going to hear everything as well as I would like to – that way, when it DOES balance well, I’m pleasantly happy!

    I confess I usually avoid any production on DVD that looks anything like “traditional european opera house” and go straight for the unusual and unconventional productions – so my experience with opera on DVD has been generally sitting back and marvelling at all the brilliant sets, costumes, and ideas! The OpusArte series have some great things – I love the Royal Opera Falstaff with Terfel, all the bright primary colours. And there is a few I think from Festival Aix-en-Provence, including a very special La Traviata where everything Violetta experiences is played out like her life flashing before her eyes, she’s already dead at the beginning of the opera!

    Let me know if you get over to Adelaide for Little Women!!

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