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.

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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).