Wednesday, November 23, 2016

How To Watch Opera

So... As you regular readers are well aware, I've been doing opera reviews for a while now. This is not something I'm doing to prove how cultured I am or anything like that. I review a lot of the entertainment I take in: most all movies I see at the theater, books that I read (though I skip some of the short stories), some of the TV shows I watch. Reviewing the operas we go to is a way to both cover something local (which is another thing I do lot of, talk about local events) and to share something that I'm doing. I don't actually look at going to the opera as being something highbrow.

Yes, I'm well aware that "people" tend to view opera as highbrow, but that's not because it is. Opera suffers from the same fate as lobster.
Yeah, I'm not going to explain that right now, but opera, traditionally, was entertainment for the masses not the rich and elite, just like, during his day, Shakespeare was "popular media." My position is that it should, again, be entertainment for the masses.
Yes, I know there are barriers to that, barriers that will probably not be overcome, but that doesn't mean I can't hope and encourage you to check out some opera.

Here's how to go about doing that:

1. Go see Hamilton: An American Musical. Okay, so, sure, that's a bit impractical for most people including myself, even though it is coming to San Francisco. At least for the foreseeable future, it's way out of our price range (more on cost later). However, if you want to get into the technicalities of musical theater, Hamilton is an opera and, if nothing else, you should listen to it. And then again. And probably again. Trust me, we've been on about Hamilton in our house for well over a year (including having had custom Hamilton t-shirts made for 2/3 of our kids for Christmas last year (and I would show you a picture if those weren't in the pictures I lost in the great hard drive crash)).

The point? To show you the potential of opera. The medium itself is not confined to centuries old music and people in fancy clothes.

2. Watch some foreign movies with subtitles. This is the big roadblock for most people, and it's because most people don't read. People who don't read can't keep up with subtitles and also watch the movie. Not that it's not possible to develop the skill of watching something with subtitles without also being a reader, but people who only take in movies and TV are much less likely to move in the direction of shows with subtitles.

So, yeah, most (by far) operas are performed in languages other than English, mostly because they were written in other languages than English. However, some venues offer supertitles [Basically, a subtitle. No, I don't know why they're referred to as supertitles at the opera, but they are.], which I strongly recommend. If not, translations of the songs are available, so it's possible to follow along that way. [SFO always has nights with supertitles for each opera they're doing, and we always go to those shows, even when the opera is being performed in English. (Believe it or not, it helps.)]

3. Pick a genre you like. This is a bit more difficult to do, because it's not like opera contains all of the genres in modern pop culture. Or all of the sub-genres. In one sense, all of opera breaks down into two broad categories: tragedy and comedy, but, then, isn't that true of all fiction? (Or non-fiction, for that matter.) All I'm saying is do your research. Puccini is not like Mozart. Find a story category you tend to like, then...

4. Listen to some music! Don't worry about the words since it's most likely going to be in Italian or French or German, but you want to find music you feel like you can listen to, you know, since you'll have to spend a couple of hours listening to it.

5. Evaluate the cost. This can be a big one. I'm not going to try to tell you that going to the opera is like going to the movies, though movies are expensive enough! However, check out ways to make going cheaper. For instance, many venues offer staggered pricing on the seating, so, if you're like us, you're going to want to choose the cheap seats. Also, the San Francisco Opera offers package deals so, if you buy, say, tickets to three operas at once, you get them for significantly cheaper than if you bought tickets to three individual operas. For us, with what we do, the tickets end up being about $25 each. That's actually a pretty good value.

I'd also suggest getting some on disc to watch, but that's a lot more difficult than you'd think it would be.

Or you can skip all of that and do what I did, which was kind of just to jump in. Okay, so that's not precisely true but, effectively, it's true. When my wife finally agreed to let me take her to the opera (after years of refusing because she thought I wouldn't like it and didn't want to have a bad experience with it (because she loves it)), I let her pick the first operas we saw. That, admittedly, is an easy way of doing it. Basically, you should find something that works for you.

Look, what I'm saying is this:
Give it a try. It's not like you can lose in that scenario. Sure, you might not like opera, but, then, you just might. And, really, I'd say try two or three different ones, because you might not get a good one the first time (like the first opera I saw when I was 20 was horrible, and I let that convince me for a long time that all of opera was bad, but I was a kid; what did I know?). And seriously, go check out Hamilton.


  1. I wasn't aware there were any tickets left for Hamilton. I thought it was bought out for eternity. If there were, then yeah, I'd totally go to the opera :)

    1. Jeanne: There are some other cities which will be showing it, so there might be available seating in some of them. Maybe.
      Just go listen to the music, though. It's great stuff.

  2. I'm not sold on Hamilton; I've heard snippets and it doesn't sound like I'd enjoy it too much, despite the idea being a great one.

    I saw an opera about 20 years ago, when a company came to Milwaukee and as a promo gave out free tickets for a Thursday show. We all went. I liked it. I'm sure they've got operas that play in Madison here. Or at least Chicago. Maybe someday we'll make it to one.

    1. Briane: Sit down and listen to it; you might surprise yourself. I did. And my wife. Her response was, "Wow, I didn't think you'd like that." But I'm primarily a lyrics guy over music, and it has great words.
      And if you listen all the way through and have a still beating heart in your chest, you're bound to cry.