Like the proverbial London buses, opera performances in my life come in clusters. I’ve just seen six operas in the space of eight days, at all levels from conservatoire students to The Royal Opera. The operas ranged from top hits to really obscure; the genres included gothic horror and satirical operetta as well as Shakespeare and other more traditional fare. My operatic binge has been simply wonderful and it’s put into focus many of the things I love about opera and the artistry that we should celebrate... as well as a few things I’d like to see done better.

Kristel Pärtna as Juliette in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette
© Estonian National Opera | Veljo Poom

In the age-old debate as to whether the words or the music are the most important, my view (which isn't everyone's) is that everything must be subservient to the story. Opera is storytelling through singing and it makes sense to me that the French use the term théâtre lyrique as often as they use opéra. Of course, some opera genres through the centuries have included a kind of vocal gymnastics show in which the singers' primary task is to wow audiences with daredevil vocal dexterity. These operas have their place, but they aren't my favourites, just as rock guitarists or jazz saxophonists who play impossible numbers of notes per minute in their solos aren't my favourites either.

I’m going to leave the thorny subject of staging for another day, so this article is about the singers and the orchestra. The most important thing to me is that the singers engage with the text, inflecting every sentence with the maximum amount of meaning and the emotion. When Violetta sings how free she is (“Sempre libera degg'io folleggiare di gioia in gioia”), does she really mean it, or is she just kidding herself? In the repeat, is that emotion the same as the first time? (Probably not.) The best singers spend untold hours coming up with answers to these questions and incorporating them into the expression they put into their voice, not only for the famous arias but for every line in the piece. My gold standard for this comes in the person of Lisette Oropesa, whose performances in La traviata this past fortnight have entranced just about everyone. If you watch Oropesa's YouTube Q&A, you'll realise that not only does she put in this work for herself, but she also expects to adapt her interpretation to suit the wishes of the conductor or director of her current production.

Lisette Oropesa as Violetta in Verdi's La traviata
© Royal Opera House | Tristram Kenton

But there’s a prerequisite here. If we in the audience are to take in the meaning, we must be able to understand the words. It doesn’t matter how lovely the sound is if the consonants have been lost to the point where we can’t make out a syllable. At that point, the voice has become no better than a woodwind instrument. What I’m asking for isn’t easy. It requires huge amounts of skill to produce enough power to fill Covent Garden while allying crystal clear diction to luscious timbre and carefully crafted phrasing. I’m in awe of the singers who can do this successfully and free me from the need to glue my eyes to surtitles. We want to see more of you and less of those singers who suppress consonants in the interest of smoother breath flow, more accurate phrasing or better timbre on the vowels.

I want to hear individual words even if it’s a language like Czech or Russian that I don’t speak, because there are always key words that should be suffused with meaning; think of Vodnik’s “Běda! Běda!” (Alas) in Rusalka, or and “Molodost i shastye” (youth and happiness) at the end of Prince Gremin’s aria in Eugene Onegin.

Bizet's Le docteur Miracle
© Guildhall School | Helem Murray

Ideally, when artists are singing outside their native language, I’d like them to get the accent right. There are some truly excellent language coaches around who are aware not just of pronunciation but also of the singing idioms and conventions of the language and period of the work being sung (teachers get very exercised about Italian double consonants). Top language coaching may not be within the reach of everyone, but some of the best foreign language singing I've heard recently came in the unlikely location of Estonian National Opera (well, I thought it was unlikely), where the entire cast of Gounod's Roméo et Juliette produced exceptionally correct, idiomatic, intelligible French.

But even the best crafted, most intelligible singing can be drowned by the orchestra. I love hearing conductors who have been diligent in adjusting the volume of different sections of the orchestra to give maximum help to the singers and who have selected tempi and lengths of rubato which give their singers the chance to breathe and to develop the shape of phrases. In the Covent Garden Traviata, Antonello Manacorda achieved this to a remarkable degree. It’s a different skill from conducting a symphony and it isn’t always easy. One famous orchestra is reputed to play as loudly as they fancy (if the singers can’t be heard, that’s their problem) regardless of what the conductor says. I respectfully suggest that the time for that attitude is in the overture and any orchestral interludes. Some opera houses have decidedly variable acoustics – volume levels which work fine for some seats may be problematic in others in ways that may vary for different instruments. It would be wonderful if conductors could take the trouble to learn how their orchestra sounds in different parts of the house and to optimise the sound for a broad swathe of the audience.

Innocent Masuku and Erin Gwyn Rossington in Pauline Viardot's Cendrillon
© Guildhall School | Helen Murray

When our singer has mastered injecting the right level of emotion into intelligible words heard above the orchestra, hopefully with a beautiful timbre to match, the job isn’t over. The next piece of the puzzle is physical acting and interaction with co-stars. Compared with operas in days gone by, the standard of acting has improved to an extraordinary degree. Conservatoires and opera companies put so much more effort into teaching acting than they used to and it shows in the abilities of younger performers. It’s not just about acting in a vacuum, it’s about on-stage chemistry. If you are a pair of lovers, are the sparks flying between you? If a pair of rivals, are you squaring up to each other like rutting stags? If you’re the put upon parent of a flighty child, can I see the resigned despair on your face and the disdain on the part of your child? In this last clutch of operas, I’ve seen great examples of all of those and many more. The cast of the Royal Swedish Opera's Candide turned in some real virtuoso acting in a staging that was so surreal that it must have been incredibly difficult to act in. And by the way, in my years of going to opera, it’s generally been in the biggest and most prestigious houses that the attention to on-stage chemistry has been lacking. It’s hard to know whether that’s because of limited rehearsal time, a greater focus on sound production or simply because of the age and personalities of the stars involved. But generally, it improves every year.

Bernstein's Candide Act 2
© Royal Swedish Opera | Sören Vilks

So far in this article, I’ve deliberately left the focus off the basics of singing well, i.e accuracy, attractive timbre, good intonation and so on. That’s not because these basics are unimportant, but because the quality of teaching and the level of effort and achievement of young singers seems to have improved so much – even in the last decade – that we can almost take them for granted. Opera schools across the world are turning out extraordinary numbers of singers perfectly capable of tackling arias that would have been considered extremely challenging in the past. Yes, I still hear the odd singer who masks uncertainty of intonation with excessive vibrato or who doesn’t quite reach the pitch of their big money note. But the most severe of those kinds of faults are becoming a rare occurrence on fully professional stages. Even in a small scale production by tiny London company Gothic Opera, I couldn't have faulted the professionalism of the singing quality.

Gounod's La Nonne Sanglante
© Gothic Opera | Nick Rutter

Most of all, what my recent binge has taught me is that opera as a genre is thriving. These have been productions of an exceptional variety of work, played by committed, quality artists to enthusiastic audiences. As well as dying consumptives and star-crossed lovers, I’ve seen inquisitors, heretics, ghostly nuns, handsome princes, a survivor of cannibalism, an army officer disguised as a quack doctor – and it’s been grand. Rumours of the death of opera, as Mark Twain might have put it, have been greatly exaggerated.