Why Opera is important
By Mark Ellis Gough
When Ty Paterson asked me to write something for Opera Lyra Ottawa’s Blog I wanted to write something that was important to me. When I tell people that I’m an opera singer I’m often greeted with surprise, “Really? People still sing Opera? I had no idea!” I find this state of affairs unacceptable. The Operatic Arts are not in decline as some people think but they are evolving into a provocative medium for drama, comedy, and some of the greatest music ever written. I want to write a few paragraphs that will help convince you not only of the relevance of Opera to our cultural life, but that it is superior as an art form.
First of all, opera singers train their voices for decades to reach the apex of human vocal ability. They can pump out sounds as loud as the speakers at a rock concert using only their body and a well trained mind. They can be heard over gigantic orchestras in expansive concert halls all without the use of amplification. This differs sharply from most genres of popular music which are dependent on the use of electronic equipment and sound effects. Most popular music performances are recordings which are saturated with digital editing that make live performances almost obsolete. The ability and purity of the unadulterated, unassisted, and finely tuned voice is becoming dangerously overlooked and rare. It is important for people to realize the full potential of the human voice.
Operas are often criticized for being melodramatic. There is a reason why people make jokes about people dying multiple times onstage, singing seemingly endless love arias, and dramatic themes. These characteristics are some of opera’s greatest strengths! Opera does not shy away from death, violence, ferocious love, virulent jealousy, smouldering hate, and it has the courtesy to lay it out plainly before your eyes and ears. The Opera was designed to be an effective medium for emotion that no other art can emulate. What better instrument to convey human emotion than the human voice?
I had the pleasure of singing in two different productions of Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto this summer. I had never sung a baroque opera before and I was amazed at how effective the orchestration was. Handel’s melodies, which at first seemed simple to me, were transformed into powerful, emotional, pieces. Sesto’s aria Cara Speme begins with a slow languishing section that perfectly conveys a boy’s hesitancy facing his manhood. It is followed by a sudden, furious, violent melody where he swears to avenge his father’s brutal murder at the hands of his evil captors. It convinces you that perhaps he is not the innocent boy we saw at the top of the aria. Once the original melody returns, with lamenting violins and mournful flute, you can feel the weight of the whole world come crashing down on Sesto’s shoulders.
Opera Lyra Ottawa’s upcoming production of Lucia di Lammermoor is a dramma tragico of immense emotional proportions. The sordid love triangle between two noble families both fervently protective of their honour creates a tense environment from the first stroke of the string’s bows. The plot is carried on the wings of some of Gaetano Donizetti’s most glorious music and includes one of the greatest ‘mad’ scenes ever written on stage. Lucia’s aria ‘il dolce suono’ rivals Ophelia’s ravings in Hamlet in their tragic intensity. It is amazing to watch a personality disintegrate in front of your eyes.
When I go the opera I have a little routine. Before the show starts I read a synopsis of the plot and a translated libretto to get my bearings on the plot. I often go with musically inclined people, so when we are at dinner before the show we have a quick discussion about what musical moments are the most important and what we should be listening for. We often leave a rushed waiter behind as we scramble to arrive half an hour before the curtain goes up to participate in the pre-show chat that will give us some insight into the history of the opera we’re about to see. Even with all this preparation there is always something new to be discovered. Opera is a challenge to enjoy at times, but as with so many other things, the more you put in the more you will get out. Opera is not like films of recent years where plots, settings, and themes are force fed to you by gaudy cinematography. There is always room for interpretation of these great works by individual artists and creative teams. Each artist’s vision can be realized individually. You will be challenged as an audience member and you are expected to create your own vision of the events unfolding before you onstage. The surtitles above the stage are merely the guidelines on a vast roadway of drama.
I liken going to the opera to looking at a painting by Claude Monet. At first glance the painting seems like a group of disparate blotches of colour, however, the more your eye adjusts, the more time you spend observing, the more you notice. The flurry of colours develop shapes and lines, then they become an image seems recognizable. Eventually I feel like I’m seeing a hyper-realistic photograph where I not only see an image but feel the emotions that Monet must have felt while he was painting. In the same way when I see Rigoletto quiver in fear while singing about the horrible curse placed upon him I feel the same fear in my gut and my spine.
New and exciting operas are being composed as you read this blog. The genre has not been overlooked by composers and musicians. Although we love all of the old favourites by Mozart, Puccini, Verdi, and all the rest, there are amazing new operas that are being performed all over the world. Most new opera deal with poignant social issues that are relevant in our daily lives. Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie, Doctor Atomic by John Adams, and Little Women by Mark Adamo are all operas that have been written in the last 10 years and have all met considerable success both critically and financially.
An opera company has the ability to galvanize a community in the same way that a theatre troupe or a local orchestra can. The advantage that an opera company has over these others is that it needs many different talents and many different artists. Wagner called opera ‘gesamtkunstwerk’ or ‘the total work of art’. So many different facets are required to make a spectacular opera. You need singers, choristers, musicians, conductors, actors, directors, stage managers, carpenters, painters, costume makers, ushers, volunteers, and many others in order to produce an opera of outstanding quality. Opera Lyra Ottawa’s Chorus is comprised of nearly a hundred dedicated volunteers from the Ottawa area who share a great passion for the operatic arts. Their efforts have made every show they participate in truly remarkable. Anyone who is reading this blog can participate with an opera company in their area in some fashion, even if it is not on stage. Of course there are economic and cultural benefits from having an opera company in your area. Increasing tourist traffic and improving the cultural reputation of your city are always welcome enhancements.
Opera is a steadily evolving art form that has yet to reach its pinnacle. Every season brings new and innovative productions that push the boundaries of what is possible in a theatre. Each season also brings revivals of the greatest classics of Opera that have been adored for centuries and will endure for centuries more. I humbly request that you do everything you can to support Opera performances in your area in any way you can. Most simply, buy a ticket and go enjoy yourself with your family and friends. Enjoy opera, the pinnacle of art.