How to appreciate opera

Eva Mackevic

BY Eva Mackevic

24th Sep 2017 Music

How to appreciate opera

Curious about opera but not sure where to begin? Metropolitan Opera's general manager Peter Gelb shares some tips on how to appreciate opera, which works to explore first and why it's worth taking a trip to your local cinema for a live opera transmission. 

The Olympics of music

A scene from Verdi's Il Trovatore

In the operas of some of the most famous composers, such as Puccini, Verdi or Mozart, the music is often so beautiful, melodic and easy to listen to that you can sometimes forget how incredibly challenging it is for the singers. The world’s greatest opera singers use their entire body to produce sounds—they're a bit like vocal athletes. It’s very different from pop music, where the singers use just the top part of their body to produce sound with the help of amplification.



"To fill that kind of auditorium is almost a superhuman feat"



Opera singers have no amplification and their voices have to be able to fill the entire house, so it takes years of physical training and maintenance to reach that kind of level. 

The Metropolitan Opera House, for example, has 4000 seats, which is almost twice the size of Covent Garden. To fill that kind of auditorium is almost a superhuman feat. Because opera singers are these kind of vocal gladiators, they’re also very high-strung in a sense that they’re risking their reputation when they get on the stage and they have to hit these stratospheric high notes that can only be produced with enormous physical training and great talent.

The auditorium of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City

It’s good for opera audiences to understand that they’re witnessing the operatic equivalent of an Olympic event because the performers are giving their all and it’s an enormous effort.



What you see is what you get

What makes opera so satisfying is that it has more parts than any other performing art form. You typically have an orchestra of anywhere between 60 and 100 players; a chorus of anywhere between 60 and 100; the principal singers who can be anything between six and 12 or more, and, of course, the dancers and extras.

The conductor has to manage all these forces from the podium in the pit. He’s kind of like a general commanding an army on the stage and has to use their technical abilities and talent to make it all come together.

Conductor James Levine with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra

Again, unlike the pop world where everything is sort of fixed or aided electronically through mixers and other electronic means, there’s no hiding in opera—everything is exposed. If something goes wrong in a performance, the audience knows it right away. And when it goes right, which is probably most of the time, the audience appreciates it. It’s good to know that it’s a pure art form with no guile.



Drama and catharsis  

Sonya Yoncheva as Mimì in Puccini's La Bohème

The stories in opera are incredibly dramatic. There are some comedies, of course, but the majority are tragedies. Some of the greatest composers of opera, such as Puccini and Verdi, were more interested in tragedies than comedy, in the same vein that Shakespeare was more interested in tragedy than comedy when he wrote plays.



"There are operas that deal with incest, murder, patricide; they’re just as wild as Game of Thrones"



An audience needs to be aware that more likely than not there’s not going to be a happy ending when they go to an opera. But it’ll always be poetic and moving. Because it’s some of the greatest music ever composed and the stories are often tragic, they’re also cathartic. The audiences will leave a story like La Bohème, for example, where the heroine Mimì dies of consumption in the arms of her lover Rodolfo, and they will be sad, they will be moved, but they will also be uplifted, as great tragedies often leave us in that state.

People have this idea that opera is some kind of super-intellectual art form, but in fact, it’s the opposite. The stories are often very raw and emotional, they’re no different from the stories you see on TV, except without the singing. They’re stories that deal with some pretty racy subjects, too. There are operas that deal with incest, murder, patricide; they’re just as wild as Game of Thrones. The only difference is, they’re singing. I think you get into it once you go.



Subtitles help

In a well-produced opera, the story should be clear from the way it’s directed and the way the action takes place on the stage. And even though operas are mostly sung in foreign languages, every modern opera house today has subtitles so it’s sort of like watching a foreign film.

Subtitles at Royal Opera de la Monnaie in Brussels. Image via opera-digital 

You can watch a foreign film and feel like you understand what the actors are saying once you get into it and forget that you’re looking at subtitles—you’re just into the action. It’s the same with an opera. Because we have subtitles in every opera house—and certainly in every cinema transmission—right at the bottom of the screen, it’s really like going to a movie: you read the words and you feel like you’re hearing them.



Watch it in the cinema


Another advantage of seeing an opera in a movie theatre is the cameras. The stage of the Metropolitan Opera House is very big and there’s a lot of action going on. But with cameras, we’re able to guide the viewer through close-ups and panning shots and help direct them to the core of the action so that they’re not watching so many things at once, which can sometimes be challenging.

The behind-the-scenes of The Met's HD production truck 

Even though we want viewers to see operas in opera houses, I think it’s helpful to see an opera in a movie theatre if it’s your first time. The sound won’t be as spectacular as it is in an opera house—although movie theatres have really good sound systems—but with a large screen of the movie theatre, we’re able to convey that “larger than life” aspect of opera and also help guide the audience, particularly first-time audience. It’s an interesting way of being introduced to it.



So where do I begin…?

Erin Morley as Olympia and Vittorio Grigolo in the title role of Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffman 

If you’re new to opera, I would recommend starting with Puccini’s La Bohème or Tosca, or Verdi’s La Traviata. These are all operas that have very clear stories and the music is incredibly powerful. In operas that are really great, the music conveys the emotion, just like a great soundtrack does in a movie, except it’s even better because the music is actually speaking to your heart as well as to your brain.

There’s a complete connection between the story and the way the music is written. Tosca, for example, is the story of this very brave actress whose lover is being tortured by an evil officer and she’s trying to win his freedom. She then kills this officer because she realises that’s her only chance to set her lover free.

When she decides to kill him, there’s this great scene called "Vissi d’arte" which means, “I live for art”, and she’s singing this to herself as she grabs her dagger and kills this guy. The music here is the action and the action is the music. It’s really quite amazing how spectacular and moving it is for an audience. 


Peter Gelb is the General Manager of The Metropolitan Opera in New York 


The Met’s 2017–18 season of Live in HD movie theater transmissions features ten presentations, beginning October 7 with Bellini’s Norma. Tickets are now on sale.  

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