Opera Review: Das Rheingold

When the Metropolitan Opera (and now other opera companies as well) first started broadcasting their operas in cinemas, the idea that I was most excited about was one day being able to see a complete Ring Cycle broadcast on a cinema screen. The benefit? For about $100, you’d be able to see all four operas compared to the thousands of dollars this would normally cost. And with the release of this Das Rheingold HD broadcast from the Met, that day has arrived.

A quick recap for those of you who are new – Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold) is the first of four operas composed by Richard Wagner that make up Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), which is really the 1800s opera answer to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s huge, it’s epic, it’s long, and crowds go nuts over it. When all four operas are presented in a festival setting where you can watch them in a week, hundreds of Wagner fans – or Wagnerians, to use the proper term – flock from around the world to get the best seats. There is no other opera that has this kind of cult following.

Rheingold is the first of the four operas and is intended by Wagner to be the “prelude evening”, in his words, of the Festival. In other words, folks, of the four Ring operas – this is the short one. And by Wagner standards, it is short – only 2 ½ hours with no interval at all. (The other three are monstrous 5 or 6 hour things, though still well worth watching.) This opera tells the tale of Alberich the dwarf, who steals the Rhinegold from the Rhinemaidens, forges it into a ring of power and sets out to rule the world – until he is foiled by Wotan, king of the gods. OK, there’s a lot more plot than that but it’s so long and convoluted that short version will do – what people really go to the Ring for is not the plot but the spectacular orchestrations and singing.

Wagnerians especially get excited when it’s a new production, which was the case with this Rheingold, being directed by the legendary theatre craftsman, Robert Lepage. The set – dubbed “the machine”, as we learned in the half hour or so of documentary material that screened before the opera started, consists of a number of long planks, that can move in all sorts of ways and have all manner of lights and images projected on them. This was especially striking in the opening. The planks were lying flat, lit only by a pale blue light, but as the overture – a spectacular piece of music starting with one low note – started to move and pulse like the Rhine river, so too did the planks rise up and down. And from what I saw in the documentary, they were run by a whole bunch of backstage guys turning cranks like galley slaves back in the Roman era, so I hope someone bought them all a beer afterwards.

But set design alone does not make a successful opera. To get a truly perfect Rheingold, you want a combination of spectacular sets, good acting and great singers. We got about two out of three. For the most part, the singing was pretty good, with standouts being Eric Owens as Alberich the dwarf, Bryn Terfel as Wotan and Richard Croft as Loge, the fire god. (Though for some reason, poor old Croft got booed when he came out on stage at the end – I’m thinking it was because he was the only character in the opera that tried throwing a bit of acting in there …)

I don’t know if Owens was cast for this reason, but it was an interesting touch making Alberich African-American – it immediately set him apart from the other characters and made you realise how badly treated he was by the Rhinemaidens – which sets him on his path of forsaking love and chasing power. His voice also was perfect – ringing out with a beautifully malevolent sound in all his scenes.

The main let-down with all of this was the acting. No one is expecting Oscar-worthy performances, but there’s an awful lot of “stand-and-sing” with the odd cheesy gesture thrown in. This made it especially difficult to sit through the second scene of the opera, which is mainly a lot of exposition and characters arguing with one another. On top of that, it’s clear that a lot of the stunts and wire-work – as characters move up and down the machine planks – are being done by extras, reinforcing that we can’t expect much more than singing from this particular cast.

But still, the last ten minutes of Das Rheingold are all but indestructible, as the gods summon up a storm, create a rainbow bridge and march triumphantly into Valhalla, with the Rhinemaidens singing plaintively below, begging for the return of their gold. It’s in this section, that Lepage’s sets, the orchestra under the baton of James Levine and the great voices all come together in an ending which is truly as spectacular as Wagner’s music. In this day and age of Ring productions, where directors hijack the story to make political points or insert ugly imagery, to see a beautiful production like this one is a great thing.

4 out of 5.

Opera Review: Bliss

Thanks to the kindness of Opera Australia and their Twitter presence, I managed to score myself tickets to the second-only-in-the-world performance of Australia’s newest opera Bliss. I should warn you that my review is going to contain spoilers, but considering that the opera always spoil plots by handing you a synopsis the minute you walk in the door, it’s not really a big deal.

This opera has been a long time coming. Bliss started life as a novel by Peter Carey in the early 80s, which was a bit later turned into a film of the same name by Ray Lawrence (who has subsequently directed the famous Lantana and Jindabyne). It’s been in the planning by Opera Australia for several years, but OA has turned over two chief conductors since that time, so for a while, no one was sure if it would ever be produced. But now at last it has. The music is by Brett Dean, violist, composer and Artistic Director of the Australian National Music Academy in Melbourne, and the opera is directed by the legendary theatre and film director, Neil Armfield.

If you’ve watched a few operas, you very quickly work out that there’s not a lot of correlation between the quality of the story and the quality of the music that goes with it. (Oddly enough, musical theatre tends to get it better more often – where you have a strong story with equally strong music to tell it.) But there’s many an opera with an absolutely rubbish storyline, but glorious music that has stood the test of time and keeps drawing audiences again and again. In fact, as a brief sidenote, I highly recommend that you get hold of the book A Night At The Opera (in the US) or The Good Opera Guide (in the UK – but it’s the same book). In it, he gives guides to all the major operas split into two parts – a serious discussion of the musical highlights and a tongue-in-cheek synopsis where he rips the plots to shreds. It’s great fun, and one of the few books on opera I’d give to a friend.

So how does Bliss hold up? Well, it’s a curious story, that’s for sure. I haven’t read the book or seen the film, so I can’t comment on its similarity to those, but the story I saw on Wednesday night was a bizarre mix of tragedy, satire and domestic drama. Set quite distinctly in the 80s in Australia, it tells of Harry Bliss, advertising executive, wife to Betty, and a father of a grown son and daughter. He’s at a party celebration 20 years of his advertising business, when he suffers a heart attack and is taken off to hospital. Shortly thereafter, Harry wakes up and decides that he’s actually died and now he’s in Hell.

Things are a bit slow for the next 30-45 minutes, and the story feels more like a satire, with Harry making his observations about life and how it resembles Hell. Things pick up when he suffers one particularly bad night of misfortunes –  beginning with an elephant sitting on his car and moving through a rather unpleasant discovery about the unfaithfulness of his wife and the even more depraved private lives of his children. After this Harry really falls apart. He retreates to a room in the Hilton, and holes himself up – pausing only to get rid of his largest advertising client, who he now feels it would be immoral to support any longer, because this particular client deals in cancer-causing materials.

However – and this is where I think the story starts to veer to the ridiculous – what would you expect a man to do who’s suffering from moral outrage that his family is immoral and his advertising business is causing cancer? Of course! You hire a prostitute! Enter the character of Honey, who from what I’ve read is only a part-time prostitute. The rest of the time, she’s a hippy. Once she enters – and this is where I think the story gets really stupid – it turns out that she’s the ray of brightness that helps Harry see some hope in the world.

Or at least that’s the way it appears. The problem is Act III which caps all this off. In Act III, Harry finds himself chucked into a mental asylum which is paid for by his son, the drug dealer. Then his wife bails him out. I’m not sure whether the insane asylum has done something to him (it’s unclear, because Harry has stopped really doing anything by this stage), but he goes right back into the advertising world working for his wife. The plot then forgets about him and focuses mainly on his ambitious wife, Betty, who we follow for the next 10-15 minutes till that subplot ends with probably the most explosive moment in the whole opera.

Then somebody must have remembered that this opera is about Harry, and we come back to a low-key fizzer of an ending which hints that he’s coping with life okay now.

Look, that’s my reaction to the story – other people may enjoy it more.

But let’s move on to the music.

Brett Dean is a very clever orchestrator. The palette of sound colours that he creates, and even subtle use of modern instruments such as electric guitars and synthesisers is great. He also has a bit of a sense of humour – so there’s a brief reference to Puccini’s La Boheme at one moment. Another clever joke is when people are talking on the phone that a squawky “conversation” sound is played on the trumpet.

And in the film’s dramatic or surreal moments, it’s brilliant. When Harry is at the restaurant with the circus, creepy carnivalistic themes enter the score. For the more shocking moments in the story, the music lends an intensity to the story.

But there are other times (like the opening party) where opera doesn’t feel like the right medium to convey the story – or certainly not this type of operatic music. While Dean’s work is not completely atonal and much more accessible than many other 20th century works I can think of, I can’t help but feel that there needed to be an element of tonality in there to give the score a sense of beauty and pathos in places. Call me old-fashioned, expecting good old-fashioned diatonic music to express beauty – but I think most of the Western world would be with me on this one (even if they weren’t quite sure what the word “diatonic” meant).

It’s quite possible, that if we’d had a bit more tonality in the final scene (the reunion between Harry and Barbara), that it would have been quite moving. Instead, we end up with the scenario that the music is telling us something potentially awful is about to happen, but the action on stage tells us that they love one another. It didn’t work for me at all.

So we end up with a story so abstract from humanity that we can’t really relate to it and a score that doesn’t provide the emotional catharsis that most great operas do. Don’t get me wrong – there’s still plenty to see – Peter Coleman-Wright (Harry) is a great baritone, and there’s some stunningly dramatic moments. But it’s never going to become a beloved favourite to millions of people.

2 1/2 out of 5.

DVD Review: Wagner

Amazingly, I hit 3.30 this Saturday afternoon, and I’d knocked over all the urgent jobs I had to do. So I’ve been spending the afternoon doing relaxing things that I enjoy doing. It’s been a remarkably nice afternoon.

The point of all that is that I gave some thought to blogging and thought that maybe if I made an attempt to just review one thing a week, the task wouldn’t be so overwhelming. That way, I could give some thought to what was the most remarkable piece of culture I consumed in a week, and could give it some thought, rather than trying to review everything. I mean, after all, if you really want to know what else I’ve been watching or listening to, you could always ask, couldn’t you?

So I thought I’d kick this vague attempt at jump-starting my blog back to life again with a review of possibly one of the more bizarre programs created for TV – the 1983 miniseries “Wagner”.

1983 was the 100th anniversary of the death of the composer, Richard Wagner, so this documentary was timely when it came out. The original version (or “the complete epic”, as you can see in this picture) was about 9 hour longs.

However, I just put up this picture, because there’s actually no image on the net that matches the version I watched, which is a cut-down DVD (now out of print) that runs for a rather more modest 5 1/2 hours instead. (That’s far more likely to make you watch it, isn’t it?) So maybe part of the bizarreness is the fact that I’m missing 2-3 hours worth of material. It could well be, because having seen it twice (the first time was several years ago on video), I still shake my head at how obscure and difficult to follow some moments are. I know a little bit about the life of Richard Wagner, which helps, but woe betide anybody watching this thing cold.

Why is this show so bizarre?

For starters, nobody seems to want to take ownership over it. With most old TV shows, directors, cameramen, etc are all keen to crawl out of the woodwork to mumble commentaries and tell inane stories on extra features whenever a show is released on DVD. Not so Wagner. It’s quite clear that my cut-down version has just been copied straight onto DVD from the video tape version I watched. (And I understand the American version pictured here is no better.) So effectively, we’re left with sound and video that date from the VHS era. Which studio owns the rights to this? Does no one have the original negative? Where’s the director?

Well, actually, I know he’s around. You can visit his website. But it seems the studios haven’t bothered to call upon him to help out in bringing this thing to DVD. Hmm . . . Maybe I should send him an email. I might just do that when I’ve finished this.

Anyway, Wagner. For those of you who have no idea who Wagner is, you can skip the next couple of paragraphs. For those of you who have no idea who Wagner is and don’t even care, skip the whole review. It’s not going to get any more interesting from here on in.

Richard Wagner was one of the most radical music composers to come out of the 19th century. He composed several major operas over his lifetime, including the amazing Ring of the Nibelungs, which consists of four operas that are meant to be performed across the space of a week. In total, there’s about 15-16 hours worth of opera in the Ring.

Wagner continues to be one of the most unusual composers that ever lived, because his personality and music were so extreme. The man himself was a complete egotist, who believed that the world revolved around him, and that as a great artist, he should be denied nothing that he needed. So, it comes as no surprise that he cheated heavily on his first wife, stole his second wife from another man (who, in a bizarre twist, still continued to be devoted to the composer) and generally left a trail of debts and scandals in his wake. In the second half of his life, things took an even more dramatic turn, when King Ludwig of Bavaria (barely out of his teens) became so enamoured of Wagner and his music, that he poured large amounts of the country’s money into funding Wagner’s operas. This caused no small upset in the nation.

But, at the same time, standing alongside these massive character flaws, the music Wagner composed has an extraordinary power and emotion to it. (I say it in the present tense, because to this day, Wagner’s music still stirs audiences in a way that most composers do not. Wagner fans will think nothing of traveling the world to see a performance of the Ring live. They will do this for no other opera.) While Wagner does have a tendency to drag on in some parts, when he hits his high points, they are among the most spine-tingling moments of theatre you will ever see or hear.

But, at the same time, there’s a disturbing trend towards immorality that bypasses us in the music. The epic Tristan & Isolde, which tells of a knight who falls in love with a princess betrothed to someone else. To an audience in the late 1800s, this was as good as committing adultery, but Wagner’s music makes us buy into the romance straight away. In the Ring, he was to feature all sorts of incest and philandering, but his music convinces us that love is much more important than law.

Some might say, we should throw out his music on that basis – and also on the far more disturbing basis that his music became a favourite of the Nazis several decades after his death. But his music, on its own, is so majestic and beautiful, that it has become part of our culture. Even if you don’t know Wagner, you know movie soundtracks, and we wouldn’t have things like the Star Wars theme if it wasn’t for Wagner.

So back to the miniseries. How do you portray a man like this? As a hero? A ratbag? Tony Palmer does the film in the only way I think you can do it – as the man was. We watch Wagner’s life unfold, portrayed by the extremely watchable and eccentric Richard Burton. Burton was in the last few years of his life when he made this, so he looks a wee bit old to be playing the young revolutionary Wagner in Dresden, but by the time we get to the familiar mutton-chopped figure we’re familiar with from the pictures, he’s completely convincing.

The next bizarre thing is the dialogue. You don’t realise until you see something like Wagner what a complete joke most “period costume drama” films are. As a general rule, in most of these films, we’re watching thoroughly modern people wearing old clothes. Not so Wagner. I would say the dialogue comes largely from Wagner’s writing, because I couldn’t see such complex and lengthy monologues being made up by a screenwriter . . . again, maybe I should email Tony Palmer and ask him.

Every five minutes or so, we seem to see Wagner ranting about something. How brilliant he is. How music needs to change. The fact that he wants a united Germany. How much he hates Jews. The point is made quite clear that the roots of Nazism were alive and well in this man. Every now and again, a moment will occur when you think, “Oh, he’s not so bad,” and then another jaw-dropping piece of anti-Semitism will come out, and you’ll change your mind again.

So why would anyone want to watch this guy for six hours? . . . For exactly the same reason that we go to his operas. . . the music. Ranging from the quiet and sublime to raging and ominous through to majestic and soaring, there’s just something in Wagner’s music that catches our ears. Certainly, there were scenes in this series that just had me transfixed, just because of the power of the music.

Very well conducted by the famous Georg Solti, the music blasts through most of the scenes. Combine that the with the cinematography of Vittorio Storaro (of Apocalypse Now fame), and you have a morally disturbing, striking looking and gorgeously sounding piece of art.

In the end, it’s hard to say what I think of it. I don’t love Wagner any better than before. I don’t actually think I’m meant to. But, at the same time, if you told me that you were going to burn all his music and any recordings of it, I’d be pretty heartbroken. What does this mean? I can’t explain it beyond the fact that there is a certain transcendent power to music that can cross all sorts of barriers.

4 out of 5.

Review Backlog 2 of 10: The Good Opera Guide (Denis Forman)

Well, folks, this is it. If you want a book on opera (and you’re not an opera academic), this is the one. I should preface all comments by saying that in Australia and the UK, this book is called The Good Opera Guide, in the US, it’s called A Night at the Opera, but it’s the same book, regardless of which particular title/cover, etc. that you purchase it under.

Denis is English (unlike Phil from the last review, who is American) and maybe that’s why he can afford to be so irreverent. But he served as Deputy Chairman of the Royal Opera House for 9 years, so he certainly knows his opera.

This book doesn’t necessarily contain much in the way of introductions to the opera – but there are a lot of appendices containing a glossary of terms, composer and singer biographies and anything else useful to help you get into opera.

But the meat and potatoes of this book is Denis’s opera descriptions. Unlike any other book on opera, he divides his descriptions into two sections. The first one talks about the plot, the second section talks about the music and tells you what to listen out for.

The music sections are very good, and Denis is quite enthusiastic and down-to-earth when describing the music. Also, he rates the musical sections from no stars through to ***, so even if you don’t agree with him, you can tell which bits he likes, which is helpful to know what to listen out for.

As far as the plot description goes, however, Denis just as enthusiastically trashes the opera storyline completely as he describes it. For instance, here is his description of the background for Il Trovatore:

“Stand by for the most confused baby-swapping plot in the business. So let’s get that sorted first.

“Count Luna II has a younger brothercalled Garcia. One day when Garcia was a baby an old gypsy woman was found breathing over the cradle. Garcia fell ill. Garcia’s father Count Luna I believed the gypsy had cast a spell on the baby. Disregarding the due processes of law he had her hunted down and burned at the stake. The gypsy’s daughter Azucena understandably mad for revenge seized – as she thought – the wretched baby Garcia and chucked him on the fire. Mistake! It was the wrong baby – her own (and nobody noticed). Thus she was left with Garcia and brought him up as her son under the name of Manrico, our hero, true brother to our villain, Count Luna II. Get it? Then the rest is a pushover.”

And in this vein he continues to rubbish the stories of the most famous operas of all time. All of which they thoroughly deserved.

Opera has always been a collection of the most C-grade stories held together by A-grade music, and I’m all for someone standing up and saying so. You would think that this approach would take all the fun out of music, but Denis is such an opera buff, it only makes it more enjoyable. (In fact, taking the upper-crust mystique out of it just makes it more accessible.) So if you were only going to get one book on opera, this would be the one.

5 out of 5.

Review Backlog 1 of 10: Ticket to the Opera (Phil Goulding)

And now that I am back and quite refreshed from my time away (I think just being back in a lower altitude with more oxygen is a great help . . .), I can finally start work on the backlog of reviews I have been holding off on for a while.

Starting with this book, to get back to the long-lost past of opera posts. This book I picked up in a below-ground bargain bookstore in Brisbane (the bargain bookstores used to litter Brisbane – I’m not sure how prominent they are now). I think it cost me less than $10. I can’t remember now.

Whatever it was worth, it was ridiculously cheap for the pleasure it has given me. Phil is not a musical expert at all, and from the looks of his photo was a septegenarian when he wrote the book. But what he does like is opera.

And so, in as friendly a manner as possible, he takes you right inside the world of opera, with information on its history, the different styles, etc. etc. But the highlight of the book is what he calls The Collection – a list of the 85 most performed operas by the New York Metropolitan Opera. The New York Met being renowned for their conservatism at opera program, you thus get a list of 85 of the most popular operas of all time. In fact, the top 25 are called The Warhorses, because they’re so famous in the opera world.

This book, which I got shortly after seeing the Madame Butterfly movie I posted about a while back, was great, because it gave me a list of operas to go try next. I must have spent the next two or three years (and a good deal of my disposable income, of which there was a lot more when I was living at home with the parents) tracking down CDs of all 25 (which I might review at some time in the future if I get some time to listen to entire operas) and also going to a few live performances, courtesy of the dirt cheap youth rates provided by the wonderful folks at Opera Queensland.

Goulding is so enthusiastic, and with a sense of humour a little bit like your story-telling old uncle, you’ll be willing to give anything a try (even Wagner). This would almost be the best opera book available for novices, if not for the king of all, which I shall review next . . .

But for this one, 4 1/2 out of 5.

Continuing the Confessions of a Former Opera-Hater

Hi all,

I do apologise for my long absence on these pages.  I never intended for it to be that way, but Ridiculous Amounts of Busyness just hit me during the last week and a half or so, and sadly, the blog suffered.

So let’s make amends, as I return to my ramblings on opera . . .

Last time I was saying that I couldn’t really stand much operatic music when I was younger.  But there were some exceptions to the rule.  I think one of the earliest positive experiences I had with opera was an old New Zealand tourism ad from the late 80s/early 90s (somewhere in there; I find my sense of time gets blurry that far back) that some of you here in Australia may well remember.

It consisted of an aerial camea soaring across the green hills of New Zealand towards a majestic snow-capped mountain and, as it does, a tenor is singing “Nessun Dorma”, Pavarotti’s famous showstopper aria from Turandot.  (I looked for the commercial in vain on YouTube, otherwise I would have showed it to you.) It was a spectacular piece of work, and I’m sure it made many people want to rush out and go to New Zealand.

But, actually, the thing which finally converted me over, was coming across this film of Madame Butterfly  in my local video store in Brisbane.  It had a quote on the back by Martin Scorsese saying that he really liked it, so I figured I’d give it a try.

On top of that, it was set in a fairly real-world setting with a cast that looked their parts.  So there was none of the artificial “standing around and singing”, and, of course, it managed to bypass the problem of large opera singers, who look way too old to be half as romantic as they’re supposed to be.

But what grabbed me most about this one was the story.  To keep it brief (because I might review the CD in full one day), an American sailor comes to Japan and buys himself a nice little package deal of a house with wife thrown in (it was probably the other way around, but he’s pretty excited about both).  B.F. Pinkerton (that’s his name) is pretty excited about the arrangement, and thinks it’s a bit of fun.

But right from the start, he’s telling us that this is just a bit of a fling for him, and that one day he’slookign forward to having a real American wife.

At which stage, Cio-Cio-San, his new bride, arrives.  She’s only 15 (well, in the story anyway – the singer is usually a fair bit older), and comes floating in with a soaring aria, and we realise straight away that a) she loves Pinkerton to bits and b) because of a), everything’s going to end badly.

Anyway, to watch the music in the film really helped because finally a) I knew exactly what they were singing about and b), I could follow the whole story.  In the end, the sheer emotion of the story won me over and after that, I was hooked.

Soon after, I was making tentative steps into opera, with the help of couple of books and a lot of CDs.  But I’ll review them all individually as book and CD reviews in future posts. (I’ll try to get back to this sooner rather than later.)

Confessions of a Former Opera-Hater

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.