Opera – the good, the bad and the really wicked!

Chances are, even if you’ve never even stepped inside a theatre, you know some opera already! How about that World Cup song that Paul Potts sang when he won “Britain’s Got Talent”? Opera. Or the British Airways advert music? Opera. Or the music to the Stella Artois beer adverts? Opera! Advertisers love it, film makers use it all the time, and yet people often say opera is ‘snobby’ or ‘inaccessible’. Rubbish! The composers who wrote opera created it for one reason – for people to enjoy. Just like Andrew Lloyd-Webber or Cameron Macintosh, most opera composers wanted to fill their theatres with happy audiences who had paid good money for their seats!

In all fairness, opera did start out as entertainment for the really rich, such as kings and emperors. The first operas were more like ballets with singing, as much about movement as music. However, as the rich people who had paid for these shows began to run short of cash, opera composers needed to change their tunes – literally.

Probably the most famous composer whose operas became really popular in the theatres of Europe was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Some of his operas were indeed written for wealthy patrons, such as Emperor Joseph II of Austria. Joseph II may have provided the cash for the operas, but he didn’t always appreciate what he had paid for; he famously told Mozart that his opera “The Marriage of Figaro” had “Far too many notes”! Mozart, however, didn’t restrict himself to working with the nobility. He teamed up with one of the great impresarios of his time, one Emanuel Schikaneder, to create a show about a young girl who is in the clutches of a magical cult, and the young man who is sent by her mother to rescue her – and kill the cult leader. But, it turns out that the cult members are actually the good guys, and the girl’s mum has some serious hangups… Sound like a soap opera? That’s exactly what Mozart intended (if soap operas had been invented in the 1780s, of course!) The opera may be called The Magic Flute, (Die Zauberflöte in the original German), and feature boys with superpowers and three rather foxy ladies who may or may not be witches, but deep down it’s about growing up and making your own decisions. It’s also more like a musical than you may expect, with dialogue and lots of comedy from the hero’s sidekick, the bird-catcher Papageno.

After Mozart, opera became much more commercialised. People began to flock to theatres to see the latest operas, complete with their celebrity lead singers. Composers borrowed from the latest novels and adapted them for the stage, just as tv and film does today with famous books, and audiences couldn’t get enough of them.

Perhaps at this point it might be useful to look at what an opera actually is. The Oxford dictionary defines opera as “A dramatic work in one or more act, set to music for singers and instrumentalists”. The word itself dates from the mid 17th century, from the Latin word meaning 'work’. So, how is an opera different from, say, a play or a musical?

In most operas, there are no spoken words, everything is sung from beginning to end. In Mozart’s day, composers replaced the dialogue between big numbers – the solos (arias), duets and chorus numbers, etc – with a form of sung dialogue, called recitative, or recit for short. The recit moves the action along, whilst the big numbers are more reflective. You can see the same effect in modern musicals such as Les Miserables; songs like “Castle on a Cloud” or “Bring Him Home” don’t actually advance the action much, but let you know what the characters who are singing these songs are feeling. It’s the same in opera.

Yet opera is more than just music – it’s drama too, so if you are only listening to the music and not watching the story, you’re missing half the action! You’re also missing out on the thrill of seeing it live, which makes a big difference. Just as people love to go and see their favourite pop band live on stage, then nothing beats the excitement of seeing opera live on stage too. As soon as the music starts, you’re on a rollercoaster ride of music, action and emotions, with a story that often makes “Eastenders’ look like a stroll in the park! You can actually feel the music in your body, sense the power of operatic voices almost rattling you in your seat, and yet there will be moments when the whole theatre goes quiet, and everyone is waiting for the next soft note to sound.

So, what are the best operas to go and see if you have never been before? Good question! Often, it’s best to start with an opera sung in English, so you can understand what’s going on and get the jokes! The English National Opera in London, www.eno.org, always perform in English, as do many smaller touring companies that visit theatres all across the UK. Take a look at what’s on in your area using our database here at www.bachtrack.co.uk, and see what looks interesting – it’s a simple as that. Most opera companies have websites where you can find out more about the operas, listen to the music or watch video clips – www.englishtouringopera.com has loads to watch. You can always read what the opera is about at www.operatalent.com, or www.wikipedia.co.uk too. If a whole opera seems a bit too much first time around, try an opera highlights show, like a ‘best of’ album, by companies such as www.hatstandopera.co.uk.

If you don’t know where to start, here are our top three ‘first’ operas to look out for.

The Magic Flute, by Mozart. You’ve read about his one already, so just ask yourself, what would I do in this situation? Poor Pamina is thrown into a world of magic and confusion, just, perhaps, like a certain young Harry Potter…

Carmen, by Bizet This is pure soap opera, a real Ricky and Bianca storyline, with two people who can’t live together and can’t live without each other either. Boys, if you’ve ever fancied the most popular girl in school, you’ll know how the soldier Don Jose feels. And girls, if you’ve ever wanted to be the most popular girl in school, here’s why it might not be the best goal to have! In Carmen, you’ll meet celebrity bullfighters and sneaky smugglers and Carmen herself, who sees her future ahead, and it’s not all a bed of roses…

The Barber of Seville, by Rossini If you love the adventures of Tracy Beaker, you’ll love this too! When Rosina wants to go out with a boy her guardian hates, she gets the local hairdresser to give her a hand. Full of disguises, surprises and non-stop tunes, this is a comedy when you’re never quite certain if it really will turn out all right in the end.

OK, we can’t resist squeezing in a fourth:

La Bohème, by Puccini If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to live away from home with four lads in a flat of your own, this is the opera for you! These guys may be seriously broke, but they know how to have a good time. The problem is, they keep falling for the local girls, which inevitably means – disaster. The opera’s two main characters spend a lot of time either chatting each other up or moaning about each other when they’ve split up, and it does have a very sad ending, but then, that’s life. The opera has fabulous music, the lads in the flat are great fun, and your mum (and dad) will probably cry their eyes out at the end. (We know you’re too cool for that!)

Kirsty Young

Kirsty Young is Director of Hatstand Opera, a touring company that you’ll discover performing all the best bits from operas to audiences aged 9 to 90+, across the UK. Hatstand Opera also enjoy watching kids explore their voices (and making a LOT of noise) in their opera workshops, and not letting the teachers get away with sitting there quietly either… For more details, visit www.hatstandopera.co.uk.