A few days back, my friend Michelle noticed that I had checked intoLa Bohème at the Cincinnati Opera. She messaged me on Facebook to ask a wonderfully simple and yet terribly complex question: did I have any tips for “how to like opera?”
What follows is a slightly expanded version of my response to Michelle. I am an opera amateur, so if you’re after a deeper dive, look elsewhere.
- There is hard opera and there is easy opera. Operas such as La Bohème or La Traviata have plots about love and death that are classic and simple to follow. Bonus: are you aware of opera buffe? These are essentially opera comedies and my faaaave. Cincinnati Opera recently produced a double-bill of Pagliacci and Gianni Schicchi that slayed.
- Familiarity helps. You go to your favorite band’s concert but even if their new music is great, you really want to hear the stuff you’ve heard before. As with Beethoven or Fleet Foxes, familiarity really helps. Even listening to an opera once or twice before you attend can help you enjoy the live performance. Don’t consider it a requirement, though.
- See it live! Opera is made to be performed. Opera is big… there are often elaborate sets, complicated costumes — hell, I’ve seen Cincinnati Opera put a horse on stage. And a falcon, I think? And besides all the trappings, you need the humanity. The facial expressions, the gestures, the chemistry. Plus, opera is not usually amplified. That’s kind of its thing. Sit in the back row of an enormous hall and realize that crystal clear aria is coming from the 98-pound woman in the spotlight. And somehow she’s belting it while lying down and coughing stage blood into a handkerchief.
- Choose a language you like. This point didn’t resonate much with Michelle, probably because it sounded like “choose a language you speak.” Apparently I’m the weirdo who has favorite languages. Still, I’m leaving it in here because the language of the opera really matters. The standard is Italian, which is a vowel-filled, liquid language well suited for this kind of art. However, I prefer the sound of German. (Again, weirdo.) I speak very little German, and still need the super-titles for translation, but there’s something about the sound of German that I like. Opera comes in every language, even English. (I have still needed super-titles for opera in English.) It’s worth a bit of your time to find out if you respond more strongly to a specific rhythm, lilt, feeling of a specific language.
- Opera is not for everyone. No art is for everyone. (No anything is for everyone.) My husband Dan tries and samples and explores all kinds of art. He tagged along with me to the opera for many productions before ultimately deciding this specific medium… not for him. That’s okay. Sometimes the pressure to like something puts a bad taste in your mouth before you even begin. You aren’t stupid just because you don’t understand A Flowering Tree. (That comment is directed at myself.) Go in with an open mind but leave the pressure at home.
What did I miss?