What Makes Opera Scary?

Pittsburgh Opera’s Answers to FAQ’s Can Help

In my efforts to encourage potential opera lovers to give it a try, I’ve learned that part of the resistance to opera–even among sophisticated symphony and theater fans–is fear of the unknown.  Pittsburgh Opera’s website has a great section of FAQ’s, and their answers can be helpful whether your planning a trip to the beautiful Benedum Center in Pittsburgh, the beautiful Maltz Performing Arts Center in Cleveland, or a live in HD broadcast from the Met in New York.  Check it out.

See you at the opera,

Tim

 

 

 

 

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Revitalize Your Romance in Five Easy Steps

0089 Photo Call _ The Elixir Of Love
Nemorino (Dimitri Pittas) enlists the aid of Dr. Dulcamara (Paolo Pecchioli) to try to win his true love’s affection.

Pittsburgh has the “Elixir” You’ve Been Looking For

  1. Get the Elixir of Love on your calendar.

Pittsburgh Opera’s production includes performances on Saturday evening, April 21

Kittie and I at the Met, 2018-01-16
I was lucky enough to see Elixir with my sweetheart at the Met, January 2018.

and Tuesday evening, April 24, each of which pairs nicely with a sporting event (see #2 below), so decide whether you prefer a weekend getaway or the extra boost that comes from playing hooky from work for a couple days. Pick the perfect night(s) for a getaway with your sweetheart (one someone you’re hoping to make your sweetheart) and order tickets today.

Note:  Use the promo code POEVANGELIST and get 20% off when you order tickets!

  1. Make it a double header: add a Pirates or a Pens game.

The Penguins, a perennial contender for the Stanley Cup, are scheduled to host the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 5 of their seven game series on Friday, April 20. The Pirates, who are off to their best start in years, host the Detroit Tigers for an interleague game on Wednesday the 25th. Whether it’s hockey Friday/opera Saturday or opera Tuesday/baseball Wednesday, this Pittsburgh double header is sure to be a winner.

up-close-at-the-pens-game.jpg
Up close at the Pens game!
  1. Book a room in Pittsburgh’s Strip District.

Whether you choose the Hampton (where I recently stayed—nice rooms, full breakfast included), the Marriott, or Airbandb, plan to stay in the Strip District, where you can park your car at the hotel and walk everywhere you need to go.

Where to Eat

On my last visit to Pittsburgh I had excellent meals at S&D Polish Deli, a super casual cafeteria with amazing food, and Gaucho Parilla Argentina, a crash-the-counter style (order then sit) chill place for wood-fire grilled meats, both on Penn Avenue in the heart of the Strip.

  1. Snuggle up and listen to a little bit of the music in advance.

As I explained in a recent post, a little advance preparation can greatly enhance your experience at the opera. Start with a quick read of Pittsburgh Opera’s PDF study guide, which includes a synopsis of the opera, some background on Donizetti and the bel canto style, and some guidelines on what to listen for.

0097 Photo Call _ The Elixir Of Love
Dr. Dulcamara (Paolo Pecchioli) with his Elixir of Love

Next, of course, take time to get familiar with some of the musical highlights.  Offer to rub your date’s feet or back while playing a few of these lovely songs in the background. Add some flowers, candles, a little Amoretto…. Encourage your amour not to fret about understanding the lyrics at this point. Just allowing the gorgeous melodies to penetrate your soul will give you some familiarity with the opera, making it easier to feel more a part of what’s going on on stage.  By all means start by going to YouTube and listening to several great tenors singing “Una Furtiva Lagrima” (“A Furtive Tear”), one of the most famous opera songs ever written. This aria, which appears very near the end of the opera, celebrates the moment when the peasant Nemorino realizes at long last that the woman of his dreams loves him back. If you find yourself yourself drawn to this music and the emotion it conveys, dig around and find a few more of the opera’s famous songs: “Quanto amore” or “Voglio dire” or “Prendi, prendi.”

  1. Sit back, relax, and give yourself over to the experience.

To get maximum enjoyment out of the opera night portion of your romantic getaway, make sure to check into your hotel in time for an afternoon nap (or at least some down time).  Also, you might want to keep dinner on the light side and save alcohol for a night cap (or the ball game) so you don’t get sleepy during the performance.

Plan to get to the Benedum Center early and enjoy soaking in the beauty of this gorgeous 1928 gem of a performance space. (Scroll up and check out my blog’s cover photo, which I took inside the Benedum Center). Finally, don’t be thrown off by the subtitles. It’s just like watching a foreign language film.  Within minutes you’ll be drawn in by the music and the story, and you’ll forget you’re reading.

Oh, and don’t forget to hold hands!  Enjoy!

See you at the opera!

Tim

P.S.  Please share this post with a friend or two!

 

How to Get Ready for a Night at the Opera

Get yourself ready for Puccini’s Butterfly this month!

The raison d’etre for this blog is my belief that a lot more people—music fans, theater fans—would love opera if they gave it a real try. In my posts I try not only to let readers know about upcoming operas but also to offer tips on what to look/listen for to get the most out of a night at the opera house. In this post, I’d like to share my approach to preparing to attend an opera, because while beautiful music speaks for itself, a little advance preparation—having a sense of what to expect—can significantly enhance one’s experience of an opera performance.

Preparing in Advance
The Opera Evangelist listens to a recording while reading up on the opera.

Before we get into the opera directly, let me offer an analogy:  Let’s say you’re getting ready for the newest release in the Star Wars franchise. It’s been a while since you saw the original six, and maybe adult life has gotten in the way and you haven’t seen all of the more the recent films (shame on you!), but your kid is begging you to go see this one in the theater. What do you do? One option, of course, is to feel frustrated and confused during the movie, then ask a lot of annoying questions later. Another approach is to keep interrupting the movie by asking your kid annoying questions throughout the screening. There’s got to be a better way, right? Right.

Question:  So what do you do?

  1. Read a review.
  2. Do a little digging online to refresh your memory about how the Star Wars universe works, who’s who, etc.
  3. Ask your kid a bunch questions before you go. (Which doesn’t mean she won’t still look at you like you’re an idiot, but what can you do?)
  4. All of the above.

Answer: Partial credit for 1, 2, or 3. Full credit for 4.

Obviously, going to a live opera is different in many significant ways from accompanying your kid to The Last Jedi, but just as in the above scenario, taking some time up front to get ready for the opera can make the experience both more enjoyable and more satisfying. As an example of how I prepare to attend an opera, let’s look at the Cleveland Opera Theater’s upcoming production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, April 27 & 29 at the Maltz Performing Arts Center at University Circle.

What do I do?  Not surprisingly, the answer is “I read, and I listen.”

Read a little. If I’m truly going to nerd out in advance of a performance, I may read a couple of scholarly articles or book chapters about the opera (and in the case of Puccini, a bunch of letters he wrote to his publisher and friends during the opera’s composition). But my general go to source to get started looking into a new opera is Sir Denis Forman’s A Night at the Opera: An Irreverent Guide to the Plots, the Singers, the Composers, the Recordings.   Sir Denis isn’t quite as funny as he thinks he is, but I find his light-hearted plot summaries and assessments of key moments to “LOOK OUT FOR” (see below) to be very helpful.

Sample Page from Sir Denis
Sir Denis’s “Look Out For” Section offers tips for **- “Really Good” and ***”Stunning. Brilliant” passages.

If you’re interested, leave me a comment and I’ll find a way to get you a copy of his seven-page intro to Madama Butterfly. For a less detailed but still very useful overview, check out this four-page study guide that Pittsburgh Opera created for its Butterfly a few years ago.  With plot synopsis, character intros, and a discussion of Europe’s fascination with Japanese culture at the time of the opera’s composition, the study guide would be great place to start.

 

Listen to the words and the singing.  Once you’ve read a little bit about the opera, it’s time to dive in and listen.  In my experience, it’s worth taking even a little time to listen to a recording, following along in the libretto, or script.  Here’s what Fred Plotkin, former performance manager of the Metropolitan Opera and author of Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera, has to say about listening to an opera while following the libretto:

“While listening to a recording of the opera, you should try to read both the [Italian] and the English columns (see example below). This is not as difficult as it seems once you get the hang of it. In reading the English, you will know what is happening, when, and which music relates to those events. By reading the [Italian] while listening to the singer, you will learn what the words sound like and better understand the art of the composer.”

Butterfly Libretto Excerpt
Side-by-side translation of an aria from Act I.

If you’re not so into tracking down a libretto (here’s a link—there goes that excuse), then at least give yourself the gift of listening to the opera’s opening (so you’re on familiar territory right away) and to a few of the more famous arias and duets. (YouTube is the easiest way to go here. Just search for some of the lovely duets as Butterfly and Pinkerton are falling in love: “Bimba, bimba, non piangere,” “Vogliatemi bene,” or “Viene la sera.” And certainly listen to Butterfly’s most famous aria, “Un bel di vedremo.” (One beautiful day he’ll come back for me. Spoiler alert: Don’t hold your breath, sweetheart!  I’ve seen Miss Saigon.  I know how this is gonna end.)

Listen to the music. No sooner does Fred Plotkin make his case for listening closely to the words—in two languages no less—than he immediately starts a chapter on “Listening to the Music” in which he advises: “Try to disconnect yourself from literal, rational thought; where music is concerned, allowing yourself to feel it without the encumbrance of analysis is crucial. When you feel music, you will find meaning in it that has nothing to do with words or events.”  So who’s right, the Fred of “you should to read both” languages or the Fred of “disconnect yourself”?

Both, of course.

Digging into the story and the language of the libretto and feeling the power and beauty of the music are each rewarding in distinct but complementary ways. Put them together, and add scenery, costumes, lighting, and a room full of opera lovers, and you’re in for a treat. Buy yourself and a friend (or a dozen friends) tickets to Cleveland Opera Theater’s gorgeous Madama Butterfly, and come on down the Maltz. Whatever level of familiarity you have going in, you’re going to see an excellent performance, and the music and story will certainly carry you along. See you at the opera!

 

Moby Dick is Here to Stay

Set shot with mast and crew
Captain Ahab (Roger Honeywell) tells the Pequod’s crew that ‘the fire of St. Elmo’ which illuminated the ship in a storm ‘is good luck’

Here’s a fact. Keeping up a blog, even with the low threshold of three-four posts per month, is hard. I had a nice steady flow going in December and January, but it’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted, and the guilt it awful. Perhaps I’ve been overthinking it. My intention–in general–is to do advance leg work and to post well enough in advance of an upcoming production driving distance from CLE (or Met in HD) to have a chance of influencing someone to give the opera a try. Well, I missed the boat with Pittsburgh Opera’s marvelous production of Moby Dick. That ship has sailed. (OK, enough seafaring puns.) The production wrapped up on Sunday, March 25, so it’s too late to encourage you to go see it this time around, but I’m telling you, this is an opera that’s going to have some staying power. This is a rare contemporary opera that I feel confident is going to become a fixture in the standard repertoire.

Eight things I loved about Pittsburgh’s Moby Dick:

  1.  The libretto is great.  Gene Scheer has managed to turn this behemoth of a novel into a crisp script that covers a lot of ground in just about two-and-a-half hours. He does this by choosing just four days from the many months out at sea, four days that get to the heart of the Pequod‘s doomed voyage, selected to set the scene, show the passage of time, the restlessness of the crew, and the mania of their captain. And to get us to the fateful day when the crew finally meets the whote whale—and its fate.
  2. The music is great, and–pleasant surprise–a lot more melodious than a lot of contemporary writing.  Jake Heggie, who also composed the opera version of Dead Man Walking, is the real deal.  With just two lulls, one in each act, Heggie’s score drives this intense sea journey inexorably to its tragic conclusion.
  3. The set was amazing. Check out the picture above.  The main mast dominates the stage, letting us know we’re on a ship and creating a whole new plane for action.  The mast is surrounded by a turntable that was able to be moved qucikly not only to suggest a variety of spaces but also to create a sense of fast action during whale chase scenes.  The surrounding map of the world and dynamically lit sky made for a truly captivating backdrop for the action.
  4. Key performers were excellent.  Lead tenor Roger Honeywell, whose brooding Ahab lumbers slowly along in Act I, picked this piece up and carried in on his back in Act II.  In a chilling depiction of how easily a charismatic leader can lead a mob toward his goals, Ahab (below left) whips his crew into a frenzied chant of “Kill Moby Dick.”  Baritone Michael Mayes (below right, top) was amazing as Starbuck.  For me, the heart of the show was Starbucks’s aria at the end of Act I–the moral heart of the piece, and the moment of greatest heartbreak–when he comes upon a sleeping Ahab and passes on the opportunity to save the crew by murdering the captain. If only he had been able to stop Ahab’s manic quest here.  Finally, the relationship between Greenhorn (whom readers know as Ishmael) and Queequeg was tenderly rendered by Sean Panikkar and Musa Ngqungwana.
  5. Use of dancers was very cool, especially when dancers took “thrown” harpoons in hand and leapt across the stage with them to suggest the trajectory of the harpoons and the subsequent “sleigh ride.”
  6. A few more personal notes.  A personal highlight was taking my friend Mark to his first live opera and having him enjoy it.

    Mark and I in Pittsburgh
    No one would have guessed when we became friends 38 years ago that Mark Altstadt and I would celebrate our 50th birthdays at the opera.
  7. Sitting next to the lovely Ashley Fabian, a soprano and resident artist who will sing Gretel in the main stage production of Hansel & Gretel in the fall. We just by chance ended up seated next to her, and she was gracious enough to chat with us before the curtain rose and during intermission, offering us an insider’s insight.  I’m hopeful The Opera Evangelist’s readers will get to know Ashley (left) via a guest post this fall! AshleyFabianHeadshot_(002)
  8. Having attended the workshop for educators with the amazing Marilyn Egan (below right), I really knew what to expect going in. Advance preparation really does enhance the experience, and Marilyn does a great job.

    Marilyn Egan Teaches Moby Dick Workshop
    Pittsburgh Opera’s Director of Education, Marilyn Egan, PhD, leads a workshop for educators on March 1.

Having attended four operas in Pittsburgh over the past few years, Pittsburgh Opera is starting to feel like a home away from home.  It’s an easy drive from Cleveland, and if you can get past all the Steelers garb, Pittsburgh’s a really fun city.  I recommend putting an upcoming production at Pittsburgh Opera on your calendar!

–All production photos David Bachman Photography for Pittsburgh Opera.

 

 

 

 

First Impressions: First-time Opera-goer Rachel Elson

On Saturday, February 24, I had the pleasure of taking Rachel Elson, a family friend, to her first opera.  We attended the live Met in HD presentation of Puccini’s La Bohème, featuring the amazing Sonya Yoncheva as Mimi.  Afterward, I asked Rachel to share some of her impressions.

Rachel Elson NYC Photo
Rachel Elson, mere blocks from the Met, in September 2017.

The Opera Evangelist:  This was your first experience of opera. What did you think?

RE:  What a cool art form!

I was fascinated by how intimate and emotional the performances were. Every scene was packed with intense feeling, positive or negative, in a way that radiated from the screen and through their voices. Because people express and perform emotions differently, I couldn’t help but feel that each actor was bringing their own unique qualities and interpretations to the role. This makes me think that it would be awesome to see the same operas performed with different singers or produced differently.

OE:  Many people don’t realize that operas today feature supertitles (or in the case of the cinema presentations, subtitles) offering simultaneous translation. Some people find subtitles off-putting. Did you have any difficulties following the story or getting used to the subtitles?

RE:  I occasionally ignored the English captions in order to construct meaning solely from the singing, body language, and facial expressions. This proved to be a surprisingly reliable way to follow the narrative, and it helped immerse me in the story, because I was able to create the story for myself as it progressed.

OE:  That’s really cool. I’m glad you gave yourself that opportunity. I like to do that sometimes, too. I wonder if that aspect of the experience was even more satisfying during the live HD broadcast, because camera work allows you to get a closer up view than at the opera house.

RE:  It was definitely worth seeing the Live Met in HD broadcast! I was surprised to discover how intimate the Met in HD experience was. I’m accustomed to the in-your-face nature of live, in-person theater performances, and I assumed that seeing a broadcast performance (although live) simply wouldn’t be the same. However, I felt no sense of disconnection between myself and the characters and narrative of La Bohème while I sat in the Cedar Lee Theater. With the screen occupying almost my whole field of vision, I felt deeply embedded in every scene and touched by the intense emotions of the opera; the impressive sound quality placed me right in the front row at the Met.

The incredible behind-the-scenes features during the intermissions of the live broadcast were another unexpected treat. Rather than removing me from Puccini’s Parisian landscape, the interviews and set backstage explorations brought me so much closer to the work as a whole. I gained insight into the process of production and added a huge amount of depth to my appreciation of the narrative itself. Much like reading about the plot and history of the opera in advance to its showing strengthened my understanding, these features were enlightening in a way I wouldn’t have found elsewhere.

OE:  Was there anything you didn’t like? Were there aspects of the production that seemed weird or old-fashioned?

RE:  The pacing of the production seemed so strange. The first act was heavy on exposition, and accordingly very lengthy. The second act, however, I feel like nothing much happened and it was over very quickly (although I did really enjoy the vast set and chorus). Same as well with the third act. These were very, very dramatic scenes but it seemed like the story didn’t progress very much! In summary—much ado about nothing.

I felt that the opera was awash in “grand” feelings and lacking in complexity. I think that this might be the nature of opera itself (very grand, awesome), and for me it’s both a good and bad thing. I wanted more nuance to the narrative and feelings, as this would’ve brought the production more into the present, which would make it easier to relate to, but maybe that’s a difficult balance to strike when the narrative is full of such strong emotions (happiness, love, despair, jealousy).

OE:  These observations, I think, may be particular to La Bohème, which is structured more as a collection of scenes rather than along the lines of a traditional plot. (In fact, the novel on which Puccini drew inspiration for the opera, Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, is comprised of a series of vignettes of the artistic life in 1830s Paris.”  I don’t think you’d have that feeling with every opera, especially most operas written after the height of the bel canto era in the early 19th Century.

So, will you come back?

RE:  Definitely. Overall I really, really enjoyed it.

OE:  What would you tell someone who’s never been to an opera to encourage her to attend?

RE:  Opera is a worthwhile challenge. It feels unusual in the powerful intensity of the emotions being performed on stage, and this moving quality is a huge draw that is hard to achieve in film or theater. Whether you see it live on stage or on the screen, the artistry, craftsmanship of the set, and strong narratives create a completely immersive experience and ease the introduction to a new kind of art. Most of all, it’s rewarding to see a relationships develop and a story slowly emerge from such beautiful music.

A (Mostly) Puccini Quiz

Test your knowledge of opera with the following short quiz (answers below).  I’ll send a prize to the first three (3) subscribers who let me know in the comments that they got 5/5 correct.

1.  In Puccini’s Tosca, which was broadcast live in HD in cinemas last month, the line “the kiss of Tosca” refers to:

a.  The moment when the painter Cavaradossi musses Tosca’s hair in the church

b.  Tosca’s jealousy of the beautiful blonde woman Cavaradossi has used as a model for Mary Magdalene

c.  The stab wound with which Tosca slays the evil Scarpia

d.  The passionate final embrace Tosca and Cavaradossi share at the end of the opera

2.  Which of the following operas, composed by the 19th Century German composer Engelbert Humperdinck–based on the Grimms’ fairy tale–will be performed at the Cleveland Institute of Music from February 28 to March 3, 2018?

a.  Hansel and Gretel                  c.  The Twelve Brothers

b.  Rapunzel                                 d.  Cinderella

3.  The 2017-18 Met in HD season features at least one opera by each of the big three major 19th Century bel canto composers.  Which of the following, though in Italian, is not from that period?

a.  Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore              c.  Rossini’s Semiramide

b.  Mozart’s Cosí Fan Tutte                     d.  Bellini’s Norma

4.  Which of the following operas by Giacomo Puccini was the basis for the wildly popular and critically acclaimed musical Rent:

a.  Turandot                              c.  La Bohème

b.  Tosca                                    d.  Madama Butterfly

5.  Which of the following operas by Giacomo Puccini was the basis for the wildly popular and critically acclaimed musical Miss Saigon:

a.  Turandot                                 c.  La Bohème

b.  Tosca                                       d.  Madama Butterfly

Answers. 

  1. C     Ouch!
  2. A     Hansel and Gretel.  Order tickets at the CIM box office or at www.cim.edu.
  3. B     Mozart’s Cosí Fan Tutte, which, while not usually lumped into the bel canto operas, certainly features a lot of “beautiful singing.”  Catch it at your local cinema on March 31 or April 4, 2018.
  4. C     La Bohème, which will be broadcast to audiences worldwide this Saturday.  If you’re in Cleveland, please join me at the Cedar Lee 12:30 P.M. Saturday or 6:30 P.M. Wednesday.  (First timers are always on me!)
  5. D     Madama Butterfly, which the Cleveland Opera Theater will be bringing to the stage at the Maltz Performing Arts Center on April 27 and 29, 2018!  Order your tickets today!

The Elixir of Love

How to Fall in Love with Italian Opera in Five Easy Steps

  1. Get the Elixir of Love on your calendar.

Figure out which local movie theater is screening the Met in HD presentation of Donizetti’s romantic comedy, L’Elisir d’Amore, the perfect alternative to fighting the restaurant crowds on Valentine’s Day. (Or, if you’ve already got set plans for the 14th, check out the live broadcast this Saturday at 12:55 PM.)

Kittie and I at the Met, 2018-01-16
At the Met with my love, Jan. 2018
  1. Get familiar with some of the music.

Go to YouTube and listen to several great tenors singing “Una Furtiva Lagrima” (“A Furtive Tear), one of the most famous opera songs ever written. The aria, which appears near the end of the opera, celebrates the moment when the peasant Nemorino realizes at long last that the woman he loves loves him back. If you don’t find yourself stirred by this showstopper, you are at low risk of falling in love with Italian opera. If on the other hand, you find yourself drawn to the music and the emotion it conveys, dig around and find a few more of the opera’s famous songs: “Quanto amore” or “Vogilo dire” or “Prendi, prendi.”

  1. Get cozy.

Grab a date and rub his or her feet or back while playing a few of these lovely songs in the background. Add some flowers, candles, a little Amoretto… use your imagination. Encourage your amour not to fret about understanding the lyrics at this point. Getting familiar with some of the melodies will give you a few familiar spots on game day, which will help to pull you in and make you feel like part of what’s going on.

  1. Sneak some mini-bottles of champagne into the cinema.

Or, if popcorn and diet coke is more your thing, make time to hit the concession stand on the way to you seat. If the idea that opera is snooty is one of the things that’s been putting you off, the opera-in-cinema experience is totally different. Grab your favorite movie theater snacks and munch away!

  1. Sit back, relax, and enjoy.

Don’t be thrown by the subtitles. Within minutes you’ll be drawn into the music and the story, and you’ll forget you’re reading.

Bonus step: Repeat frequently, varying the dose as needed. Puccini’s La Bohème is coming up next on the Met in HD, Saturday 2/24 (live) and Wednesday 2/28 (encore).