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April 29, 2004

My One Opera Tip

Dear Friedrich --

I spent years as baffled by opera as most hetero-male clods are. Hard not to marvel at the singing and music, of course. But as theater ... Good lord. I stared at those fat, lousy actors and wondered how the fans around me could possibly find the spectacle so enthralling.

These days, though, I've finally got it, and I've become an opera fan myself, if of the ever-a-beginner type. The Wife and I, in fact, would see an opera once a month if only we could afford the luxury. Being middle-class instead, we manage to treat ourselves to excellent seats (at retail prices too -- no bargaining for us!) about twice a year. Still: bliss.

My tip for other clods who, despite everything, are intrigued by opera? To get yourself started out on the right foot, skip the 19th century warhorses and go Baroque instead. Why? Because the key thing to "get" about opera is that it isn't meant to be realistic, it's meant to be symbolic. (It's the greatest of art forms, but it's also the silliest of art forms.) And the 19th century warhorse operas you're likely to be dragged to at first are often semi-realistic in style, which can confuse lunkheads like us. You're likely to sit there thinking, Sheesh, why isn't this more like a movie?

Baroque opera, on the other hand, is flagrantly unrealistic. There's no mistaking it for anything but a super-stylized artform, more akin to ballet or pantomime than to movies. Also, hey, Baroque operas feature buckets of great tunes. Handel's the Baroque-opera Man, as far as I'm concerned. A typical Handel opera has an adorable, mythological love-farce plot, and a couple of dozen of the best songs (aka "arias") you'll ever hear. An evening at a Handel opera makes for wonderfully sumptuous and accessible -- as well as, ahem, moving and beautiful -- entertainment. His operas have always left me completely happy.

If you want to try Handel's opera work out on CD before committing to an expensive opera ticket, don't buy a CD of one of his operas -- too much recitative (aka "the boring stuff between the tunes"). Buy a collection of his arias instead. Given that Handel was, IMHO, as great a composer of touching/sweet/whistlable tunes as Mozart was, any collection of his arias should be a winner. Why not try this one here?



posted by Michael at April 29, 2004


1) Mozart Rules!!!

2) Go to Munich, and see anything by Mozart or even Wagner.

They speak German in Munich (duh!), which gives a whole different perspective on the thing. They perform Mozart like a regional Shakespearean theater in England - like a real, living play, in other words, rather than as the camp experience of New York's Metropolitan Opera, where the visiting diva firmly plants herself on the stage, belts out her aria and immobilely awaits her standing ovation.

3) All performances at the Munich Opera except the most extraordinary have half-price tickets that go on sale about half an hour before the curtain goes up. We saw Der Fliegende Hollaender from the royal box for around $20.

Posted by: John Massengale on April 29, 2004 11:53 PM

My favorite night at the opera was Handel's "Semele". No other artform offers such extremes of silly and sublime!

Posted by: Bradamante on April 30, 2004 1:20 PM

I don't know from opera, but I know what I I listen to my L.A. classical music station (KMZT or "K-Mozart" as they like to call themselves)I keep enjoying everything by Handel I hear. Of course, the question remains if Handel would have wanted such a fan as myself, but I guess this qualifies as one of the downsides of fame.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 30, 2004 11:12 PM

I'd like to know more about the occasion of this post. Did you just see Xerxes at the City Opera? It was certainly shown in the last month, and I would have seen it myself if I had been able to get a ticket.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on May 1, 2004 6:53 PM

Were you deliberately baiting me, Michael? ;)

Although, for men, it might not be so bad to start them off on something early like Mozart, Handel or Monteverdi is just too too much. Snooze.

For a woman who is interested in getting acquainted with opera, you cannot go wrong with any opera by Richard Strauss. Surprised? Don't be. Strauss operas are all about women... their feelings about men, relationships, and their own self-images. (Who says opera has nothing to say to the modern woman?) It is rather rare in opera to see women presented in a realistic way, and budding female operagoers can relate to a Strauss heroine. Who among us has not felt the desperate emotional traps of a Barak's wife, the sad vanity of a Marschallin, the joie-de-vivre of a Zerbinetta, or the homicidal rage of a Salome?

Posted by: Sasha Castel on May 4, 2004 3:16 AM

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