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!

 

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