As someone who has taught thousands of people to love opera, whether one-to-one, in a class, through broadcasting, or in my writing, I am always surprised when I am asked questions such as "Who is the best singer?" or "What is the best opera?" There is no answer to such a question, but at least an interest is being expressed.
MORE ON CLASSICAL MUSIC:
Benjamin F. Carlson: When Classical Music Sends Chills Down Your Spine
Alexis Madrigal: The McDonald's That Broadcasts Classical Music
Benjamin F. Carlson: How to Listen to Classical Music, and Enjoy It
But I am never as surprised as when someone tells me, "I hate opera!" When I enquire how many operas that person has seen, the answer is often something like, "one, when I was 15 years old." Such a statement is akin to claiming not to like literature because you once read a book you did not like.
We millions of people who love opera are not trying to keep it to ourselves. It is a large, extravagant, embracing art form. It is also relatively young, having been founded in Florence in 1597 as an attempt by a group of scholars to create a new art form, an opera lirica (lyric work) that incorporated all the ancient arts: singing, instrumental music, poetry, theater, dance and visual arts. It has evolved through the centuries, and is created in many languages and styles.
But all great operas have some things in common:
- music that reaches right into your heart and soul;
- a story with emotional truth that we connect to, even if the plot seems to be what some people consider "irrelevant";
- the phenomenon of human beings producing glorious sound with no assistance from microphones or other technology;
- a powerful sense of theater, whether that is communicated through acting, stage direction, costumes, scenery, lighting or sometimes on just a bare stage in which a singer in street clothes can create theater through exquisite singing of music of heart-stopping beauty;
- the ability to transport you from our mind-numbing, multitasking world to a place where you can engage your emotions deeply and freely in ways that don't happen elsewhere. Opera lovers are more in touch with the vicissitudes and pleasures of life because opera is like one of those fun-house mirrors that enlarges and changes familiar images and allows us to see them in new ways.
While I could never say what the best opera is, and seldom reveal what my favorite one is, I have no doubt the Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto is the perfect work for someone sticking a toe in operatic waters. And yet it also never fails to move even the most experienced operagoer with the freshness of its music and a story that is both accessible and psychologically complex. There are three great roles: Rigoletto (a baritone) is a jester at the Renaissance court of the Duke of Mantua. He is quick-witted and sharp-tongued, able to ingratiate himself to his boss but also off-putting to the courtiers who will have impact on his fate. Rigoletto, a widower, keeps his virginal daughter Gilda (a soprano) locked up at home because he fears that she will be led astray by someone at court. And the Duke (a tenor) is a self-serving libertine who is often sympathetic to audiences because he sings some of the most beautiful music ever written. The genius of Verdi is to use that music to show how someone so awful can seem attractive through a seductive presence (here created by the music).
When we meet the Duke, he sings "Questa o Quella," ("this one or that one") indicating his indifference as to which woman he will bed that evening. The explicitness of this must have startled audiences in Venice, where the opera premiered in 1851. It is not that they did not understand such behavior, but they had seldom seen it expressed so bluntly on a stage (Mozart's Don Giovanni, similarly licentious, has more comic elements, while Verdi's Duke is a horny man on a mission who almost always gets his way).
Listen to Luciano Pavarotti caress the sound of the music and the words of this aria (song). You do not need translations to know exactly what is happening.
While translations sometimes help you understand some of the words, in opera the primary emotional and dramatic message is always in the music first and the words second. So the key to connecting opera is to listen.