Opera For Newbies: Busting Myths And Belting High Notes | Texas Public Radio

Opera For Newbies: Busting Myths And Belting High Notes

Jan 26, 2020
Originally published on January 27, 2020 10:00 am

We've been starting this new year off with genres of music you might not listen to, or that you say you're not a fan of — so far, we've covered jazz, country and deep house. One of those styles of music people love to say they hate is opera, so we asked NPR's resident opera expert Tom Huizenga to explain what he loves about the music and to soothe some common opera-related anxieties.


On what to love about opera

Well there's a lot to love about opera. For one thing, it's one of the most complicated art forms because, if you think about it: you've got drama, you've got music, you've got singing, you've got costumes, you've got lighting, you've got ballet sometimes. You've got all kinds of stagecraft. When all the cylinders are firing, it can be mind-blowing. But for me, it ends up being all about the voice. They've got to do it without a microphone, over the top of an orchestra, and they've got to project that voice, even if it's soft, way up to the nose-bleed seats. A great example of delicate singing is from the Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé who sculpts a gorgeous line, with painterly precision, in the aria "D'amor sull'ali rosee" from Verdi's Il trovatore, all on a single breath.

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On the three common excuses to avoid opera: price, length and language

The average price of a ticket for the Rolling Stones' 50th anniversary tour was $624. You can go to the Met and get in for as cheap as $25.

If you're sitting through Wagner's 15-hour Ring cycle without a sandwich you've got problems, but actually that cycle is broken up into four nights. Generally, operas are really only about two-and-a-half or three hours long. Today, many people think nothing of binge-watching away a weekend on Netflix. If you can watch 10 episodes of Fleabag in a row, you can watch an opera.

Also, we need to get rid of this American thing where we only speak one language and we only care about one language. All operas are subtitled whether you see them at the theater, whether you're watching them on DVD or on television. If you listen to tenor Joseph Calleja sing an aria from Francesco Cilea's L'arlesiana, you don't need to speak a word of Italian to understand that the character is sad and he's lost his love, a love that he can't have.

On how to get started

The first thing is: Don't stress out about it. Don't stress out about the language or not knowing about opera. Just listen. And today it's easier than ever to listen because you've got streaming services, you've got YouTube and there are a lot of innovative small opera companies, especially in the last 15 years, popping up here in the United States. So I would suggest going out and starting with some very traditional operas like La bohème, or La traviata, or Carmen, or The Magic Flute -- those are tremendous operas that tell tremendous stories.

But it's also important to realize that opera is living, breathing, evolving, malleable art form. Last year's Pulitzer Prize winner for music was an amazing opera by Ellen Reid (with a libretto by Roxie Perkins) called p r i s m, which tells an arresting story of a kind of shape-shifting reality of a young woman who is recovering from sexual assault. And the music is at times menacing, mysterious and luminously gorgeous.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

We've been starting this new year off with some music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CELESTE AIDA")

ANDREA BOCELLI: (Singing in Italian).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SICKO MODE (FEATURING DRAKE)")

TRAVIS SCOTT: (Rapping) Made this here with all the ice on in the booth.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE")

LEANN RIMES: (Singing) Blue.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOVAK RADIO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA'S "WELLINGTONS SIEG ODER DIE SCHLACHT BEI VITTORIA, OP. 91"

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Genres of music you might not listen to or say you're not a fan of. Today, we're joined by NPR's Tom Huizenga. Hi, Tom.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: Hey.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. We brought you in to help us with the style of music people love to say they hate, opera.

HUIZENGA: Well, all I can tell you, Lulu, is in the next few minutes, we're going to spread an awful lot of opera love.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) I'm down with it.

HUIZENGA: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I guess when people think about opera, they're often imagining someone, you know, all dressed up, standing in the middle of a stage, belting out an incredibly high note. What do you love about opera?

HUIZENGA: Well, there's a lot to love about opera. For one thing, it's one of the most complicated art forms because, if you think of it, you've got drama. You've got music. You've got singing. You've got costumes. You've got lighting. You've got ballet sometimes. You've got all kinds of stagecraft. When all the cylinders are firing, it can be mind-blowing. But for me, it ends up being all about the voice. And to get us started, let's listen to Leontyne Price sing a little bit from this opera called "Louise" by Gustave Charpentier.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEPUIS LE JOUR")

LEONTYNE PRICE: (Singing in French).

HUIZENGA: They've got to do it without a microphone, over top of an orchestra. And they've got to project that voice even if it's soft. Here's a good example of that with this singer named Montserrat Caballe. She's a soprano from Spain. She died a couple years ago.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the greats.

HUIZENGA: Oh, totally. And listen to how she sculpts this line from this Verdi opera. And she does it all in one breath - 23 seconds. You think she's going to stop, but she keeps going.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "D'AMOR SULL'ALI ROSEE")

MONTSERRAT CABALLE: (Singing in French).

HUIZENGA: Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, it's extraordinary.

HUIZENGA: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We've been hearing a lot about the female singers. But I mean, there is a huge cadre of amazing male singers.

HUIZENGA: Oh. And I love the over-the-top tenors, too. And there are few tenors more over the top than Franco Corelli, this kind of muscular-voiced Italian. You can kind of think of him as the Ferrari of tenors.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

HUIZENGA: His heyday was the 1960s. And let's hear a little bit of one of opera's biggest hits, "Nessun Dorma."

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Indeed, it is. Closely associated with Luciano Pavarotti - but it's really Corelli who knocks it out of the park.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NESSUN DORMA")

FRANCO CORELLI: (Singing in Italian).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean...

HUIZENGA: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...You know, I want to immediately sort of start, like - yes. Yes (laughter).

HUIZENGA: What's not to love, right?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, what's not to love? I mean, I grew up listening to opera. So I'm a fan. But there is a laundry list of problems people say they have with opera. And I'm wondering how true these really are. Let's start with price.

HUIZENGA: All right.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, aren't operas expensive?

HUIZENGA: It's all relative, really. The average price of a ticket for the Rolling Stones' 50th anniversary tour was $624. And you can go to the Met and get in for as cheap as 25 bucks. So...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know...

HUIZENGA: There you have it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. OK. All right - fine. The other thing - operas are long, aren't they? - I mean, if you're sitting through "The Ring" (laughter).

HUIZENGA: If you're sitting through "The Ring" without a sandwich or two...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

HUIZENGA: ...You've got problems. It is a 15-hour-long opera. But it's divided into four sections and four evenings. So that's one thing. Operas are really only about 2 1/2 or three hours long. And, I mean, listen. If you can watch 10 episodes of "Fleabag" in a row, you can watch an opera that...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Or "The Witcher" - yeah.

HUIZENGA: Exactly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You can go see "The Ring." All right. The other thing people say is that they're in a foreign language.

HUIZENGA: Well, OK. We have to get rid of this American thing where we only speak one language. We only care about one language. And I would say...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hear, hear.

HUIZENGA: ...All operas are subtitled, whether you see them in the theater, whether you're watching them on DVD or on television. And here's a case in point. You don't need to know a word of Italian to know that the character is sad and he's lost his love, a love that he can't have.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEDERICO’S LAMENT")

JOSEPH CALLEJA: (Singing in Italian).

HUIZENGA: That was the tenor Joseph Calleja, who's an amazing singer from Malta.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So how can someone who hasn't given opera a chance try it out? What should they listen to?

HUIZENGA: Well, I think the first thing is, like, don't stress out about it. Don't stress out about the language and about not knowing about it and just listen. And I think today, it's easier than ever to listen because you've got streaming services. You've got YouTube. And there are a lot of innovative, small opera companies, especially in the last 15 years, popping up here in the United States. So I would suggest going out and maybe starting with some very traditional operas like "La Boheme" or "La Traviata" or "Carmen" or "The Magic Flute." Those are tremendous operas that tell tremendous stories. But then it's also important to realize that opera is really a living, breathing, evolving, malleable art form.

Just take, for example, last year's Pulitzer winner for music - was this amazing opera by Ellen Reid and Roxie Perkins called "Prism." And it tells a very arresting story about the kind of - the shape-shifting reality of a young woman who's recovering from sexual assault. And the music is, at turns, menacing, mysterious and, as we hear in this excerpt, just luminously gorgeous.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOST IN THE BLUE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Vocalizing).

HUIZENGA: What do you think about that?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's amazing. That's amazing. It's a good note to go out on. That's NPR's classical music producer Tom Huizinga. Thank you so much.

HUIZENGA: Thanks, Lulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOST IN THE BLUE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Vocalizing). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.