Everything you wanted to know about opera but were afraid to ask

Confession time. I have never been to an opera.

I’ve seen Shihad play more times than I can remember. I’ve been to performances of “experimental music” that I’d rather not recall. Kapa haka? Count me in. But never opera. Which seems like a bit of an oversight on my part.

La Traviata
NZ Opera’s La Traviata. Image supplied

Luckily NZ Opera are performing Verdi’s La Traviata in Christchurch starting this week and a combination of factors have led to me taking up the challenge of my first ever operatic experience –  namely that I love big, loud live music, getting to dress up, and being inside the restored Isaac Theatre Royal.

But not wanting to dive in without some idea of what to expect I sat down with Christchurch opera singer and member of the “Trav” cast, Amanda Atlas who answered all my silly questions and made me think this opera lark might be quite fun, actually. This is some of what I learned*.

The top 6 things you need to know about opera

  1. It’s not amplified. The singers don’t have any microphone assistance, unlike what you might get with musical theatre, for instance. Opera singers have to be powerful enough to sing over the top of a full orchestra and still be heard. This is why operatic training takes a long time and why the top singers are usually a little older. However…
  2. Opera singers are not all fat. That’s not really a thing. As evidence I offer the cast line-up of La Traviata. Who would have guessed a cartoonish stereotype wasn’t actually realistic?
  3. It’s just like watching a foreign language film, but live. Everything is sung in Italian (depending on the opera – there are operas in German, for instance), but there’s a screen above the stage with “surtitles” so you can follow what’s happening.
  4. There’s an intermission (and there’s a bar). I may have expressed mild concern that the performance is scheduled to start at 7.30pm and doesn’t end until 10pm but Amanda assured me that there would be a break, if for no other reason than the orchestra needs one. Fair enough! Happy to enjoy a mid-opera wine while they rest their talented fingers.
  5. You can wear jeans! Yes, opening night is a bit more glamorous and folk tend to dress up a bit more, but people can and do go to opera in normal street clothes (and nobody boos or throws rotten fruit at them).
  6. It’s not super expensive. Well, some seats are but opera tickets cost about the same as other concerts you might go to (I checked, and indeed, our Weird Al Yankovic tickets from last year cost about the same as those for La Traviata).
Amanda Atlas
Professional opera singer, Amanda Atlas. Image supplied.

Amanda Atlas’ passion for opera is clear whenever she speaks about it… she also completely spoiled the plot of La Traviata by telling me the ending but I’m hoping that won’t matter too much. I will only say that it’s about a French courtesan named Violetta who has consumption and falls in love…

This production of La Traviata is a traditional one – think beautiful costumes and chandaliers. The word Amanda uses is “sumptuous”.

Opera is timeless

…opera doesn’t necessarily have to be reinterpreted because the stories are timeless, it’s all love and relationships generally, and power and sex and betrayal and they’re just great stories, and interpreted by great composers. I’ve always been extremely moved by it and there are some operas that I find difficult to sing because I get so emotional.

It’s full of emotion

It turns out emotion is a big part of the appeal of opera, for both performers and audience.

We want to make the audience feel that emotion and cry…and the music is just glorious and heart-breaking.

The music just captures human feeling and emotion with the naked human voice. Like when you hear a Māori waiata or someone singing at a funeral, there’s this inherent emotion in the human throat when it’s not interfered with and for me, I think that’s what opera can really access in a way that some other things can’t necessarily.

Sometimes it’s like…Game of Thrones?

When it comes to picking favourites, it turns out that emotion also has its part to play, as Amanda explained the difference (for her, at least) between Italian operas and those in German.

Cover of The New Grove Guide to Wagner and His OperasI particularly love Wagner, which is the big, heavy German, crazy “brother-sister incest, and Gods striking down dwarves, and crazy over-the-topness” – it’s Game of Thrones basically… and that’s where my voice sits the most, so that’s my favourite thing to sing.

Also because for me personally when I sing Italian repertoire there’s something about it that actually does really make me emotional and so I sometimes find it more difficult to sing well because I’m…. not staying cold enough to just keep my technique solid. So when I sing Wagner, because it doesn’t get into my soul quite so much as Italian stuff, there’s a slight remove therefore I find it much easier to sing.

The Isaac Theatre Royal has great acoustics

It made me so happy when it reopened and it is wonderful to sing in. We’re really lucky to have it. It’s probably my second favourite theatre in New Zealand. My favourite one, funnily enough, is the Civic Theatre in Invercargill. The Civic Theatre in Invercargill has the best acoustic of any theatre I’ve ever sung in. It’s a very similar looking theatre, same style with the three tiers, but this one’s second.

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*Added opera vocabulary word for fun, “sitzprobe”, literally a “sitting rehearsal”.

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