6 questions to ask before seeing an opera

Opera is all about intense emotion — the composer, the characters and the spectator are all swept away on a flood of music and spectacle. Here's how to get in on the fun.

6 questions to ask before seeing an opera

1. What is opera?

  • First and foremost, evening wear isn't required.
  • An opera is a drama in music, with dance, lavish costumes and sets. Like any stage play, it has different acts and scene changes.
  • Unlike a musical, most opera has no spoken lines and is entirely composed of song with musical overtures and interludes.

2. Is there any special lingo?

  • The written lyric is called the libretto, delivered as melodic arias (solos), duets and dialogue between the various players.
  • The greatest operas combine several memorable arias, a tragic tale and intriguing characters.
  • A female star of great rank or pretension (often in life as in art) is called a diva — a goddess.
  • "Tenor" describes the highest natural male voice, "basso profundo" the lowest.
  • "Soprano" is the highest female voice followed by "mezzo soprano" and "contralto."
  • The varied singing styles and techniques give opera its rich texture and complexity.

3. What's it all about?

Driven humanity, passion and towering emotion.

4. But isn't it elitist?

  • Don't think of opera as "not for you." In a short time, you'll find yourself singing along to "Song of the Toreador" from Georges Bizet's Carmen or "La donna è mobile" from Guiseppe Verdi's Rigoletto.
  • You may even have been persuaded to buy running shoes, aftershave, breakfast cereals or fizzy drinks by opera. Advertisers use it because it evokes an emotional response.

5. But it's in a foreign language!

There are English operas, too, but the language of opera is the universal language of the heart. Also, many theatres supply the lyrics, either in the program or by displaying them above the stage.

6. Where do I start?

  • The most accessible operas are from the Romantic period in the second half of the 19th century, usually sung in Italian.
  • Try anything by Giacomo Puccini (Tosca, La Bohème, Madama Butterfly), or Verdi's Aida, Rigoletto, La Traviata or Falstaff.
  • For an English-language opera, try Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten.
  • Before seeing your chosen opera live, get to know it on DVD first. This will increase your appreciation of it on the night and add to your sense of anticipation, which is a powerful part of the experience.

There are few rushes like the emotions you can feel at live opera. It may be an old tradition, but if you give it a chance, it can take hold of you like little else.

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