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.