People who grew up with pop music and are appreciative of songs that incorporate melody, meter, and lyrics are often at a loss when it comes to opera. “What is she doing behind the horse?” and “I can’t get past the ear pain” are comments often heard from modern opera-phobes.
A fear of opera can sometimes be relieved by understanding it’s origins. Opera was invented by mid-evil European monarchs who wanted elaborate distractions in the evening to help disguise the noise from their stomach distress and the occasional drawing-and-quartering of petty criminals . The monarchs asked their court composers to come up with something loud, long, inscrutable, and if all else failed, to march in the army wearing thong underwear. Many other ancient art forms born from less inspiration endure today. Consider the Ice Capades. The Ice Capades began when early farmers had to cross frozen lakes in winter to reach their fields and held onto the tails of cows to steady themselves. The cows would become frightened and let go of their bowels. The farmers would dance wildly to avoid the bovine barrage and eventually someone put the whole thing to pop music.
Opera novices will find that learning something about the underlying story before attending a performance will enhance their enjoyment. For example, consider Mozart’s classic tale of the Magic Flute. The Magic Flute showcases many classic plot elements of this timeless art form: a gay prince, a gay serpent, a gay bird catcher who dresses in feathers — except for winter formals, some handsome slaves, a Queen of the Night, bondage, a priest (not what you are thinking,) secret initiation rites (“Oh Isis and Osiris!”,) and lovely silver bells with matching candlesticks. Oh, and a flute. I won’t spoil the ending for you except to say that it involves a happy couple moving into a very well decorated bird’s nest.
Opera has a vocabulary all it’s own. There are a few terms the opera novice must be familiar with:
Goetterdaemmerung: this is the sound an opera director makes when he hears a new opera for the first time.
Bass: the lowest male voice. A bass performer can often be identified by a large “fish-in-the-pants.”
Basso buffo: false six-pack abs worn by a leading man.
Canzone: opera people are big and often pork up on these traditional delicacies after a tiring performance. You can buy them in the frozen food section next to the cavatinas.
Sotto voce: a director will often ask a performer to sing “under the voice” or sometimes even “under the influence.” Singing sotto voce can be compared to “whistling Dixie” from an alternate orifice and can be very effective in a large theater.
Spinto: a kind of voice which is “pushed” through a constriction or “spincter.”
Many people are surprised to learn that operas have a beginning, middle and end. “Can I leave now?” is often heard in darkened opera halls from neophytes who believe it is over when the fat lady sings or who think that opera is about having a fun night out. Don’t let their comments concern you. There is a natural fear of being played the fool when three hours have passed, the muppet people on stage have barely moved, and no one has died in a car crash or gotten laid. The Friends of Opera, or the Dixie Whistlers as they are often called, publish opera guides with tips for those who are new to the art form. For example, some enthusiasts find singing along often helps their enjoyment and that of those around them. If you do not know all the words, ululating, like an Arab woman expressing grief, can fill in the gaps. A new opera buff at the Metropolitan reported, while singing along in this manner, that she attracted the animated attention of the stars at a recent performance.
Opera has a thriving market in collectables that you may also enjoy. The early “Pavarotti is a Hotti” buttons are selling on eBay at amazing prices. You might consider enhancing your opera experience by accessorizing with some of these collectables when you attend a performance, especially the faux opera costumes, in the manner made popular by the Rocky Horror Picture Show audiences. Some theaters have reserved special rooms for people who attend in this attire. Look for the audience members who are warming up by ululating to each other in the lobby. They can show you where it is.
If I haven’t yet convinced you of the joys of opera, perhaps an illustration may help you decide if opera is worth exploring. Consider the story of three friends, a psychologist, a judge and a fraternity member who went together to the opera for the first time. As they were leaving the theater after the show the psychologist said, ” I loved the Nietzschean emphasis on the absurd and the strong Jungian sub-text.” The judge said, “I enjoyed the morality play and the prototypical struggle between good and evil.” The fraternity member replied, “Did you see the hooters on that she-male?”
Indeed, opera has something for everyone who is willing to put their fears aside, as well as what they know about entertainment.