A Few Notes for People Who Have Never Been to the Opera and Think It's Not For Them
Photo credit: Alastair Muir
I recently attended the San Francisco Opera's Carmen, and absolutely loved it. But before I get into why, let me just tell you about a conversation I have at least once before every time I go to an opera.
Friend: Hey, do you want to [play sport/do karaoke/come to a thing] tomorrow?
Me: I can't -- I'm going to the opera!
Friend: Really? Why?
Me: Because it's weird and amazing and awesome!
Friend: I've never been to the opera. It's not for me.
This bothers me for a number of reasons. First of all - if you've never been, how do you know it's not for you?
"I've heard opera music, and I don't like it."
Well, so here's the thing: hearing it over a speaker and hearing it live -- getting chills through your whole body and asking yourself how it's possible for another human to produce a sound like that -- are completely different.
Here's the other thing: typically, when you hear opera music, it's without translations. The music is still impressive and beautiful. But when you see it live, not only can you feel it resonating in your own lungs -- you can also read the subtitles. (Yes, the theaters have subtitles.)
Opera lyrics can be a lot of things -- touching. Beautiful. Crass. Sneaky. Sexy. And, sadly, I'm sure a lot of the intricacies are lost in translation. But every time I see an opera, there is are dozens of lines that makes me laugh, smirk or say, "Wow -- I need to remember that for later."
The second thing that bothers me about hearing, "I've never been -- it's not for me," is... aren't you at least curious?
As a play expert, I've spent a lot of time studying the psychology of adult playfulness. In general, there are four types of sensation seeking behavior: thrill and adventure seeking; experience seeking; boredom avoidance; and disinhibition.
Of these, thrill and adventure seeking and experience seeking are the healthiest and make us feel the most alive. They bring us joy and excitement. (Boredom avoidance and disinhibition are a little less ideal, and are more likely to bring us relief than joy.)
Curiosity is what drives playfulness. And playfulness is what makes us happy, creative people.
So it always makes me sad to hear people aren't even a little curious.
Like, can't you force yourself to be curious? Because probably, you're not actually "not curious." You're probably just comfortable and complacent. (Read more about the human instinct for idleness.)
Now, I'm going to make a confession: before my first opera, I didn't think opera was for me, either. The only reason I went is because a family I love had an extra ticket and invited me to go with them.
I went because I wanted to spend time with them -- plus, I'd never seen an opera, and it was for free, so why not?
But I had an unexpectedly amazing time! It was so cool to compare my expectations to the reality -- and, as a lifelong fan of musical theater, it was fun to compare and contrast these two art forms.
I found myself thinking back on the experience every few weeks or so... and eventually, I began craving another opera.
My first, by the way, was also Carmen -- though it was a traditional interpretation, unlike the current production, which is very modern, overt... and naked.
And Carmen might be the best possible opera for first-timers. When Bizet wrote it, his goal was to make it accessible to common folk like me. It was supposed to be catchy and broadly appealing, and people were supposed to be humming it to themselves when they left the theater.
This was definitely the case for me.
For this reason, Carmen is one of the most referenced operas. Trust me: you have heard these songs before.
You've heard the sultry and seductive "Habanera" in Pixar's Up; you've heard it in Family Guy. You've heard it in Meet the Parents, Doctor Who, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Archer and Glee. (And, of course, Looney Toons.)
And then there's the Toreador Song -- which you will wish was your theme song.
And many others.
But the thing is -- opera is so beautiful that it's pervasive throughout our culture. Since Carmen, I've also seen La Cenerentola (Cinderella -- and omg it was such a riotous performance!), The Marriage of Figaro, La bohème (which Broadway later reinvented as Rent) and Pirates of Penzance.
Unbeknownst to me, each of these contained at least one song (err... aria?) that I was already familiar with. For example, we all know this:
There is a lot to appreciate at the opera other than the singing -- the orchestra, the sets, the choreography... and even just the fact that you are watching a live performance, and anything can happen!
For example, in the performance of Carmen I saw this week, Don Jose was chasing Escamillo with a knife. So these guys are singing and stage fighting and jumping from car to car (yes, there were cars all over the stage)...
When Don Jose landed on a car and broke a windshield. It was loud, and glass fragments flew everywhere.
Neither actor flinched or acted like anything was wrong. Still, though -- I couldn't help but wonder if that was supposed to happen.
I was 60% sure it was not, and 40% uncertain.
A few minutes later, the chorus came flooding back onto the stage to break up the fight -- and along with them, a few stagehands with brooms and dustpans.
Photo credit: Alastair Muir
It was a little weird to have people sweeping up broken glass during a performance. But I also thought it was extremely dangerous to have all those actors out there dancing around in broken glass.
This ended up being one of my favorite parts of the show -- watching a huge cast dancing and acting around the stagehands as though nothing was wrong. The show must go on!
It added a very raw and human element to the experience.
(Of course, at the end of that scene, they dropped the curtain and added an unscheduled intermission to clean up the glass. I was glad -- I'd had too much sparkling water during the last intermission, and really had to pee!)
This, of course, is true for any live performance. Anything can -- and has! -- happened.
The last thing I will say here -- and I've said it before -- is that part of the reason people are so lonely these days (in a 2008 study, one in four adults reported feeling so isolated they didn't have one close friend to talk to) is because entertainment increasingly takes place inside the home.
I get that putting on your shoes takes energy. I get that going somewhere is harder than not going somewhere. Believe me -- I spent 45 minutes on the train and skateboarded almost two miles to get to the War Memorial Opera House.
But everything's always worth it. When people ask how my week was, I excitedly gush about the performance I just saw. Even if I didn't end up loving it, I could still feel good about having had a completely new kind of experience. And I could still feel good about supporting the arts (you can also support the arts by donating to my Patreon :D).
Seriously, if you think opera isn't for you... I think you should give it a shot. Dress up! Go out! Have fun! Hide a bottle of wine in your purse if you're really concerned it will be boring -- but I assure you, it won't be.
Also worth noting: not all operas are in foreign languages. The Medium, for example, was written in 1946. Here's "Monica's Waltz," in which Monica sings what she thinks Toby would say to her if he weren't mute. Isn't it sweet?
Also, during soundcheck for the congressional debate I moderated last week, I asked Democratic candidate Bob Harlow what his favorite opera is, and he recommended Nixon in China, which I'm pretty sure is also in English.
About the Author
Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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