New to Opera? Here are the answers to some FAQs.
What is Opera, anyway?
The word “opera” is derived from the plural form of the Latin word “opus” or “work,” so opera loosely means “many works.” It is an art form that is primarily theatrical in which the actors sing their lines, accompanied by an orchestra. These are three of the “works”: theater, singing actors, symphonic music. Others include choral singing, visual design, dancing, costume design, history, poetry, mythology, and a host of others. Because opera includes so many disciplines it is called “The King of Art Forms.”
Composers of operas are storytellers who use music to enhance the emotions of the moment, or to recall some past action or to anticipate some future action. Think of what a song like “O what a beautiful morning,” would be like if the words were simply spoken. Or an Adele song without the music. You know the saying “A picture is worth 1,000 words?” The same thing could be said of a musical phrase.
Musical theater – “Oklahoma,” “The Sound of Music,” etc., is derived from opera. Musicals include spoken lines interspersed with music and dance. Opera is usually bigger, and more complex, and music plays the primary role. Opera is musical theater on steroids.
How can I understand what’s happening?
The lyrics in opera (called the “libretto”) are usually written in the native language of the composer. Many of the favorite grand operas are written in a foreign language – Italian, German, French and so on. Occasionally operas are translated into English. However, librettists use a highly developed
form of language which is designed to link sonically with the music. Thus, many operas are presented in their original language and translations in any other language lessen their impact. Nowadays, most operas are presented in their original language with “supertitles” which shows the lyrics translated into the viewers’ language on a screen, usually above the stage, so you can follow the plot. You’ve seen foreign movies with subtitles? Same thing! Opera Maine has done this since its very beginning.
A couple of suggestions, though. Try not to spend all your effort on reading the supertitles as all of the good stuff is happening on stage. Become familiar with the plot in advance, either in the program notes or in references elsewhere. Google any opera name and you’ll get as much info as you need for any opera.
You’ll be interested to know that many librettists were as famous as the composers they wrote for. In this country, for example, for a Rogers and Hammerstein musical, do you know who wrote the music and who wrote the lyrics?
What are the rules?
Forget “rules.” Opera has the unearned reputation of being elitist – fancy dress, upper class, snobbish, etc. This was never really true except perhaps in the days of European nobility. Even then, there was much rowdiness in opera houses. Today audiences are comprised of people of all stripes. Dress ranges from formals to shorts and sandals. They cheer as much as baseball fans if they feel like it, and can even boo if they are disappointed. If there is a “rule,” it is to respect the work being performed and the participants in it. There’s nothing so wonderful as the silence of an audience absorbed in an opera production.
Where should I start?
Opera Maine offers several ways to help you “get into” opera.
- You can attend our “Serenades,” which brings professional opera singers into patrons’ homes. They are held every other month or so, and are a great way to find out more, meet new people and hear some wonderful music performed by our artists. To get information, ask to be on our mailing list or call (207) 879-7678, or visit the Events page.
- Attend a “What is it about opera?” program. These are also given in private homes or to groups, such as book clubs, libraries or even businesses. In private homes, hosts invite friends or family to a coffee, a cocktail hour or even a full dinner. An Opera Maine representative attends and gives a presentation about opera that usually includes opera excerpts from a DVD. Libraries and clubs can offer these as part of a series of programs. This program has been successfully given for a number of years. You can get more information elsewhere on this website, or by calling us at (207) 879-7678. You may even choose to host!
- Attend a Metropolitan Opera live HD broadcast. These are actual live Met productions that are presented in movie theaters all over the world. These can be seen locally at the Cinemagic theaters in South Portland and Saco, the Regal Theater in Brunswick and many others around the state. Opera Maine acts as host to the theaters in South Portland and Brunswick. The productions are not only wonderful (it is the Met, after all), but informative too as during intermissions we are taken backstage to meet the singers and to learn much more about the opera being performed. Visit www.Metopera/HD for programs and dates.
- Become a volunteer for Opera Maine. This is a great way to get involved with the company and meet those who will become your great friends. The opportunities are too long to list here, but you can fill out the form on this website or call (207) 879-7678 to find out more.
What operas should I see first?
If we have to give you a list, we recommend these as a good way to start:
Carmen. It has love, lust, betrayal, and revenge. If that’s not enough, the music is unforgettable as is the title character. Written by a Frenchman, Georges Bizet. You can find more information elsewhere on this site.
La Boheme by Puccini. A beautifully told bittersweet love story that will leave you in tears – guaranteed.
Aida by Verdi. The “grandest” of Grand Operas with much pageantry, throughout which is woven a love story involving a slave girl and a nobleman.
Others would include La Traviata, Marriage of Figaro, Barber of Seville, and Madama Butterfly, to name a few more. You can experience these here at PORTopera, the Met HD broadcasts, your local library, or by picking up a CD or DVD.
Any final advice?
When you experience opera, remember that the composer wrote the work for you to feel emotion, to be entertained, to be aurally and visually stimulated, and to be left enriched. So, open yourself to it. Remove skepticism, “suspend disbelief,” be absorbed by it, own it – and you will begin to understand what it is about opera that has enthralled millions for centuries. And you’ll find that it will add a piece to your life the likes of which you never dreamed.
If you have any questions about opera that we can answer, please call us at (207) 879-7678.
We have many patrons on our board who would love to help you!