A First Q & A About Opera by Regina Hopingardner

Why is opera so weird?

First of all, everything is weird if you don’t understand it: restaurants with rusty junk hanging on the walls, films made in Bombay, curling (the winter sport). Opera, however, is weird even to people who have spent their lives enjoying it; that weirdness is part of why people like it. There aren’t a lot of places you can see a show like The Flying Dutchman about a guy who has been doomed to sail the seas until he can find a woman who is willing to fling herself off of a fjord to save his soul--and where he actually finds a girl who does it.
That understood, opera started in the sixteenth century in Italy, where a group of smart, artsy guys decided that they wanted to revive ancient Greek dramatic art. They had it on some authority that the Greeks used music in their plays, so the Italians decided, “We must also have music.” They presumed, incorrectly it turns out, that Greek drama was sung straight through; more likely it merely had music as an element of the drama. From these roots, opera grew into what we have now, a form of musical drama that has been shaped by four hundred years of strange ideas. And there have been plenty of strange ideas. For example, during the first two hundred years of opera, there were castrated men, or castrati (see the next interlude), on stage singing as high as, and sometimes higher than, a woman. Some performed in drag, or at least, for some reason of fashion that I haven’t been able to figure out, wearing huge feather headdresses. After that, ideas flopped completely around and women began singing male roles. Why all of this gender-switching? The vocal range of a singer was more important than the gender, and audiences loved high voices--they still do. Most people now don’t enjoy the incongruity of hearing a soprano voice coming out of a man though. Even though we don’t have castrato singers any more, a lot of opera conventions have remained as cultural fossils: repetition of lines over and over and over, the way that all action comes to a standstill while someone sings a song about how he wants to kill the guy standing in front of him, the scarcity of actual kissing between lovers on stage. Even though these things seem strange now and can result in outright laughter from audiences who aren’t prepared for them, the operas are still good enough to merit being produced. We have to suffer the weirdness if we want to experience the good parts.
 

What’s a tenor and why do they seem to come in threes?

Tenors are one kind of singer. Opera singers are classified by how high or how low they can sing.

 

Men

Women

Highest

 

Coloratura Soprano

 

 

Soprano

 

Counter-tenor

Mezzo-soprano

 

Tenor

Alto

 

Baritone

 

Lowest

Bass

 

 There are also singers who can sing in more than one range like Baritone-Bass. Also, sometimes you will find a woman playing a man on stage, in what they call a “trouser-role,” but she’s still considered a soprano or mezzo-soprano. Physiologically, it is impossible for a woman to sing as low as a tenor can, or a man as high as a soprano unless he or she has undergone gender-altering procedures or has a rare condition that affects the production of testosterone; the vocal chords in men and women simply develop differently. There are boy sopranos, but as soon as the testosterone starts pumping, their vocal chords start to harden and soon their voices break and become lower. Castrato singers, of course, were the result of mutilating procedures meant to thwart a boy’s endocrine system. Counter-tenors are a very rare high male voice-type and falsettists are baritones who have developed their falsetto voice in order to be able to sing higher roles--think Bee Gees. Even the tenor range is borderline unnatural. Tenors have to work at stretching their vocal chords to be able to sing that high.

As far as the “coming in threes” the original Three Tenors were Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and José Carreras, three of the most famous tenors in the late twentieth century. They got together to do a concert in honor of the World Cup tournament. It was so successful that they scheduled more concerts, each concert bringing in more money than they made performing a role on stage. After that, other tenors who wanted to make some money used the familiarity of the name, “The Three Tenors” and tried to find a couple of friends to go on tour with them.

On the subject of singers though, when you go to an opera there will be a number of different classifications of singers. These classifications are determined less by the singer’s vocal range and more by how much they’re getting paid. Principal Singers are the stars of the opera, the best singers, and often they get paid per performance. If they are talented enough, they can be on stage in Houston one month and in Germany the next, the only limitation placed on their careers being their willingness to audition and their financial means to be able to travel. Featured Singers sing the supporting roles and are usually paid by the performance, but are sometimes contracted for a show or for an entire season. A singer could be relegated to feature roles either because he doesn’t have the vocal strength to sing a lead, or it could be that he is a young singer who hasn’t yet built up that strength. These singers often have to supplement their income by doing recitals and performing with orchestras. The Chorus in an opera usually belongs to the opera company and performs in every opera during the season. For a singer, getting a job in a chorus is like a professor getting tenure; it ensures that she will have an income and need not worry about auditioning for principal roles. In some cases, though, the chorus is made up of apprentice singers and they get paid nothing (unless they have been given a featured role in a show).

Because a lot of operas have crowds or party scenes (mostly to make things seem more exciting on stage than they are) there might be extra people on stage who don’t sing. These extras are called “supernumeraries” and if you look at their names in the program, a lot of them will be related to someone who works for the opera. They hardly ever get paid anything besides the occasional broken cookie from the lobby concessions. If you live in a city with an opera company, you might want to try to be a “super” in one of their shows. You would get to go to the rehearsals every night and sit through hours of a conductor yelling at the chorus for missing their cues.

Why are there so many fat ladies in opera and why aren’t things over until they sing?

Not all opera singers are fat; I would guess that obesity rates are about the same as for the rest of the population. The image of the fat lady opera singer came about because of cartoons more than anything--mostly cartoons of Wagner’s heroine Brunhilde wearing a giant moo-moo and a horned hat and plate armor pressing her breasts up into her chins. The expression, “It’s not over till the fat lady sings,” probably was influenced by Wagner’s intensely long opera Götterdammerung which can run to five hours. The last scene is of the above-mentioned Brunhilde riding her horse into a funeral pyre and singing triumphantly. According to legend though, the first person to say this was a sports announcer referring to a baseball game. I wouldn’t suggest taking your opera cues from ESPN.

It is true, however, that, unlike other performers such as dancers and actors, opera singers don’t need to watch their weight in order to be able to sing. Unlike those other performers, however, the voices of opera singers are very delicate. They can’t smoke or binge on alcohol (because it could damage their throats), and they have to make sure that they don’t catch colds. Singers also have to eat well to keep up their strength because shows can sometimes go on for hours. Like everyone else though, singers sometimes eat foods that aren’t good for them or they keep eating after they’ve had enough to eat already. If you go to enough operas you will see a fat lady sing, but you will see plenty of thin ladies as well.

Sometimes, singers look fat when they just have big chests. Part of what makes some singers (Renée Fleming, Luciano Pavarotti, and Beverly Sills, to name a few) able to sing so loudly is that they were born with a ribcage that is larger than average. It makes sense in that, the more air they can get into their lungs, the more air they can force out when they sing. It’s not necessary to have a large ribcage to be a good singer, but as in the case of a tall basketball player, it certainly helps. Maria Callas had a petite torso.

Why are they making those kooky faces while they sing?

It takes a lot more work to sing operatically than it does to sing “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” Singers talk a lot about the mask of their head, which is the front part of their skull, and how they project sound into certain parts of the mask. The mask as a medical entity is mostly sinuses and the other cavities, places where sound can resonate. To get an idea of the mask, try singing some high notes and pay attention to how the sound seems to be concentrated in different parts of your face depending on how high it is. The higher you sing, the higher up on your head the sound is being forced out. Keeping that in mind, the reason singers make weird faces is that they are shifting their heads in relation to their vocal chords so that the air will have the shortest distance to travel from their lungs to the sound’s exit point in the mask.

Why don’t they just sing it in English?

Most operas have one person, the composer, who wrote the music and another one, the librettist, who wrote the words. In the early days of opera, most of the librettists were Italian, German, and French; the English didn’t produce much opera until the twentieth century. Obviously, the European audiences who originally went to see these operas would have understood the language, in the same way that you understand songs on the radio in your own language. Eventually, if the opera was good, people in other countries, such as England, would want to see it. The problem is that operas are written with the words and the music dependent upon each other to tell the story. The same way that, in trying to sing “Happy Birthday” in Chinese, it would be hard to get the right words to match up to the tune, translating operas can be difficult. Sometimes you will see operas where a translator has written English words for the opera, but they never quite say the same thing. Most of the time if you see an opera at a theater or on TV, the singers will be singing the original words in Italian or whatever, and as with foreign films, there will be sub-titles or super-titles projected on a screen over the stage to translate for you what the people are singing.

Keep in mind that even if they were singing in English, you might not be able to understand every word. In operatic singing, the most important thing is the sound, not the articulation of the words. It can be so difficult to hear the words that some American opera companies use supertitles even when the opera is in English, as they put it, “for clarity.”

Singers themselves often don’t know exactly what they’re saying. While many good singers will study Italian or French if they intend to focus on those repertoires, most singers tend to learn parts phonetically. They certainly read translations so they have an idea of the meaning, but I don’t think at the end of the night you could expect them to carry on an independent conversation in the language they’ve been singing in for four hours.

If you don’t feel like going to the opera to read, be comforted in that you can usually tell what’s going on without understanding any of the words. First of all, the program will give you a synopsis of everything that’s going to happen. Secondly, opera singers are trained to over-act. They wouldn’t call it overacting; they would be more likely to call it “projecting their emotions to the back of the house.” Whatever you call it, it’s usually not difficult to tell what singers are feeling. If you can’t figure out what they’re feeling, with opera, most of the time what they’re feeling is torment.

If she’s dying and coughing, how can she sing?

Operas are often tragic, which usually means that someone dies. In the nineteenth century, when a lot of the best-known operas were written, many people died from the lung disease tuberculosis (TB), also called consumption. When a person has this disease, their lungs fill with fluid and they cough up blood until eventually it gets harder and harder for them to breathe and they die. It’s not surprising that a lot of singers were terrified of catching TB. When composers and their writers, or librettists, were coming up with tragic plots they needed to have ways for the singers to die. Since there aren’t a lot of ways to show someone dying believably on stage while they’re singing, writers used tuberculosis in the way that movie directors will use car chases, as an easy way to create drama. At the same time, everyone knows that the singer isn’t actually dying, so the final song she sings is supposed to show the emotion of her situation rather than the way an actual person might sing if she were dying of TB.

Why does my auntie like opera so much and I’m so bored?

Your auntie, I presume, has probably taken more time--and had more opportunities while growing up--to see operas and learn about them. It’s hard to like opera if you don’t know anything about it, but the best way to learn anything about opera is to go see some operas. There are a lot of books that will tell you things that the authors think you need to know about opera in order to enjoy it--the history of the Camarata, the leit motifs in Wagner, the tonal modulations between acts, the famous singers who once performed the roles--but none of it will make sense if you don’t actually see an opera. I suggest that at first you merely listen to the music and look at the sets and costumes. In a good opera you should be able to find at least a few things that are interesting. Next try to follow the story. Many opera stories are complicated and interesting. In Il Trovatore there is a gypsy woman who long ago stole the baby of a man she hated and burned the baby on a pyre, substituting her son to be raised as the man’s son. At the end of the opera, she discovers that it was actually her own baby that she threw on the fire. I think this even beats the complications that show up on daytime talk shows. In addition, the gypsies pounding their anvils in the big chorus scene are enough to stir anyone up.

Once you are comfortable with what’s going on, you can start to listen to the ways different singers sing and you can try to tell the difference between tenors and baritones. Most programs will have something about the composer and about the first time the opera was performed. You can pay attention to the orchestra if you get bored with the singers, or watch what the chorus and the “supers” do in the background of a scene. If you’re sitting on one side of the stage, see if you can spot the people who work backstage. They will be dressed all in black, so they may be hard to find in the dark off-stage. The best times to find them are right before the end of the acts because they will be waiting off-stage to change the sets as soon as the curtain comes down.

If you get completely bored, you can start looking at the other people in the audience (don’t turn around to look at people though because they will sneer at you) look only at the people you can see without moving in your seat). Opera is a see-and-be-seen kind of place. During intermissions you can look behind you and up at the ceiling. The lights for the stage might be hanging in between the ceiling tiles. At the back of the theater high up will be the lighting control booth. There might also be spotlights hiding near the back of the theater and little doors that the spotlight operators use to get to them. You can look at the program. If you have a pen, you can draw on the pictures of the singers. It’s amazing how many singers look good with antlers. If you totally run out of things to keep you busy, you can do what I do: think about the people you have crushes on and imagine how nice it would be to be sitting in the dark at the opera holding hands with them.

If you try and try again and you find that you just can’t manage to have a good time, maybe opera is not the thing for you. Sell your season tickets to a scalper and go bowling.

Why do they sing the same words over and over again? Why don’t they just stop and talk like normal people once in a while?

There are two kinds of singing bits in opera: aria and recitative. Arias are the pretty songs; it means “air.” Most of the time an aria is sung by only one person and the pieces are about what the person is feeling. The action (what action there is) on stage stops and we get sucked into their emotions. The words don’t matter as much as the music and most of the time you can tell by the tone of the music what the words are saying anyway. Recitative, which is related to the word “recite,” are the parts where characters are talking. Things happen, plans are made, people have conversations. The words are what matter and the music here is relatively disposable. In some operas the orchestra doesn’t play at all during the recitative or a harpsichord plays only a few notes at a time to keep the singers on track.

There have been operas that have spoken dialogue, like in a Broadway musical, but most composers didn’t want to break the musical spell by having people switch to a regular speaking voice. Some composers, whom you probably will want to stay away from at first, went so far with keeping up the musical spell that they have no recitative at all. These “through-composed” operas, especially the ones by Richard Wagner, will wear you out because you have to pay attention to the music and to what the characters are singing at the same time--for four or five hours.

Why does everyone dress up to go to the opera?

Because they can. How many places can you legitimately wear a tuxedo or a formal dress and not have to be a member of a wedding party? That being said, you can wear anything you want when you go to the opera. The ushers aren’t going to hand you an ugly tie or an ill-fitting jacket if you walk in wearing a plain shirt; however, they might give you a funny look if you show up in shorts and a tank-top wearing Homer Simpson flip-flops. If you care about “being seen” by others, you might feel more comfortable in something at least semi-formal.

Why is it so expensive to go to the opera?

What you won’t see on stage, but you will if you look in the program, are the hundreds of people backstage and in the orchestra pit who need to eat dinner just as much as the singers do. They make the giant sets, costumes, props. There’s the electric bill for all of those lights. People will pay $100 to see a grimy rock band singing the same tired songs in a show repeated fifty times in two months. Is opera really that expensive? Opera is a rarity and so, in order to cover the costs, the individual tickets must be priced higher than tickets for a play might be.

Originally, opera was not intended to be affordable. If you wanted to see an opera, you had to pay for a production to be presented in your palace theater (or else you had to be friends with a prince or a bishop who could do so). Until the late eighteenth century, the Venetian republic was the only place where opera was performed at public theaters where anyone could buy a ticket.

Today, opera companies are established free from the direct intervention of aristocratic patrons, thus they have to cover their expenses through ticket sales. For those of us who don’t have $300 to spend on a single night out, most large opera houses offer half-priced tickets the day of the show. You just have to be willing to stand in line. The Metropolitan Opera even has standing room tickets that cost less than a cheap steak dinner. You can also check out DVDs of operas from most public libraries, watch opera on TV, and in some places even see live productions broadcast in movie theaters. The idea that opera is expensive and exclusive is merely another one of those weird conventions of opera that persist.

How are you supposed to know when to clap?

If you don’t know when to clap, it’s simple: wait for everyone else to start, then join in. There are some peculiar conventions about clapping that can even depend on which opera house you are in or which show is being performed. Sometimes people clap at the end of each aria; sometimes they only clap at the end of a scene when the curtain is going down. There are even some rare times when people don’t clap at all. If you clap at the end of the first act of Parsifal, people are going to go, “Shush,” and make disappointed faces at you. Opera is full of silly rules like that.

Why is that guy shouting, “BravA”? Shouldn’t it be “BravO”?

“Bravo” is Italian for, “Well done, dude.” If you want to say, “Well done, Ms Diva,” you have to put an “a” on the end to make it feminine: “brava.” Masculine and feminine endings are an Italian way to keep men and women distinguished, a way that we English-speakers gave up long ago. If you want to say, “Well done, y’all,” you would make bravo plural by calling out, “bravi.”

How do I know if a singer is doing a good job?

If lots of people start yelling out “brava” the instant the singer has finished her last note, she’s probably done a good job (if you hear only one or two people shouting, they’re probably relatives trying to make her feel better). Otherwise, it’s a hard thing to distinguish. If you get an excited feeling in your stomach while she’s singing, or if you feel a little tingly at moments, those might be signs that you’re listening to a good singer (or that you’re having a serious health crisis). Did you feel what she was meaning to make you feel? Did you forget the boring scene leading up to it? When she finished, did you feel a sense of satisfaction? Do you want to listen to her sing it again? If you liked what you heard, then the singer was doing a good job.

Of course, there will be singers you don’t like whom other people might think are fantastic. Everybody has an opinion. One thing to remember is that, unless you’re in North Platte, Nebraska watching a ninth grade production of La Bohème, all of the people performing in an opera have had years of singing lessons. They know what they’re doing.
 

Can I boo?

Only once you know enough about opera to express a boo as an educated opinion.

What happens if I fall asleep?

Don’t worry, it has happened to the most devoted opera fans. Just hope you don’t snore or drool on the lady next to you. Try to stay awake the next time.