by KAITRIN CUNNINGHAM
Throughout the summer months, the Vienna State Opera broadcasts live performances on a large screen outside the building. These broadcasts are free, they’re quite popular, and it’s fun to buy a bottle of wine or a radler (beer mixed with Austrian ginger ale, brilliant), a Bosna (a frankfurter served with spicy mustard, onions, cilantro, and curry powder on a baguette), and watch some of the greatest singers in the world. There are obviously drawbacks: ambulances rush past with sirens blaring, cars honk their horns, and rain and wind and darkness can render the evening cold and wet. But the worst disturbance, for me, has always been the passers-by who, hearing the music and seeing the screen, decide to do the loud, showy, purposefully-unflattering imitation of the music and artists. I usually laugh, roll my eyes, and try to refocus on the show, but it always throws me off. People mock opera and opera singers in the same way they throw shade at abstract art; it’s easy to mock what you don’t know and to write it off as being boring or pretentious when, in fact, it’s pretty darn rad.
If opera has taught me anything, it’s that there’s no problem you can’t sing your way out of. It is an art form in which the visual, the auditory, and the literary intersect beautifully, and the result is splendid. Breathtaking. Moving and life-changing. It’s a part of who I am.
The Internet is full of quizzes these days. You can find out which Disney princess you are, what country your personality most resembles, which Harry Potter house you belong in. Just for fun, let’s do one here:
- What’s your favorite language? Choose from Italian, German, Sanskrit, or Klingon (yup, there’s an opera in Klingon).
- What’s your favorite way to die? Poison, tuberculosis, stabbing, or riding your horse into a flaming Valhalla?
- Who’s your ideal partner? A naïve country boy, a bird-man, a wealthy baron, or a mezzo-soprano dressed up like a boy?
(see bottom of the page for "answers")
Rest assured, there’s an opera for every predilection.
Opera is over four hundred years old. The plots of early operas were often taken from Greek mythology. Orpheus alone is the basis for over seventy operas up to the present. Most of them follow the standard storyline (girl dies, boy follows girl to Hades, boy gets girl back, boy screws up, girl goes back to Hades), but some, like Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice, resolve with a happy ending, and some retain only the names of the characters, like Jacques Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfers (best known for the “Infernal Gallop,” better known as the Can-Can), in which the lovers are quarreling spouses and Orpheus is blackmailed into rescuing Eurydice, who is at the center of a romantic triangle involving Pluto and Jupiter.
After its creation in Italy, opera moved to France, England, and Germany. While Italy was still a loosely organized group of city-states, France was a monarchy, and the king called the shots. French composers developed the French overture (played before the opera began, so the king could make a showy entrance), introduced ballet into the plot (because the king loved ballet), and an Italian transplant named Jean-Baptiste Lully obtained a patent that gave him the monopoly over opera in France until his death (he died of gangrene after stabbing himself in the foot with a wooden staff while keeping time too aggressively).
The English were late to the party thanks to the Puritans, who had shut down all theaters immediately after taking power. Up until the Restoration in 1660, theater and music outside of church were forbidden. The composers John Blow and Henry Purcell emerged from that period, and then English opera essentially went dormant until the late nineteenth century. In Germany, a few composers wrote a few operas, but they weren’t of the highest quality and have been largely lost to time. A for effort, guys.
Opera really starts to get interesting around the second half of the eighteenth century. Gioachino Rossini and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart both wrote operas featuring fan favorite Figaro (who I would marry if he were a real person). Figaro is the every man. He’s funny, he’s perpetually broke, he’s faithful, and he’s always trying to bring the man down. His introduction aria in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville tells you pretty much everything you need to know about him. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro is one of the three operas he wrote with librettist (lyricist) Lorenzo da Ponte. Librettists are rarely remembered in opera, but da Ponte is an exception. His words form an essential foundation for the genius of Mozart’s music. The work is a scathing critique of the nobility of the time, and da Ponte was able to communicate that while escaping the notice of the Viennese censors, no small feat. Da Ponte actually moved to New York City and opened an Italian grocery store before getting hired at Columbia and eventually founding an opera company that was the predecessor of the Metropolitan Opera. The American dream, y’all.
A few years before Rossini’s Barber of Seville premiered, two monsters of the operatic genre, Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi, were born. Wagner is most famous for large women wearing horned helmets. And Verdi is best known for people who are able to sing long arias while dying, usually of a wasting disease. In other words, they wrote operas so good that people can only describe them with clichés and stereotypes.
Wagner introduced a number of changes that are still a central part of opera today: he darkened the theater, increased the size of the orchestra, and placed the orchestra under the stage in the orchestra pit. His operas are true spectacles. The characters are Templar knights, Scandinavian gods, virtuous Scottish maidens, and even dragons (it should come as no surprise that J.R.R. Tolkien was a huge Wagner fan). These larger-than-life characters require larger-than-life voices, as well. Listen to Birgit Nilsson sing the Liebestod (“Love-death”) from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. It builds and builds, almost until you can’t stand it anymore, rising to a climax that is sweet and beautiful and painful all at the same time (insert sex joke here).
Listening to opera from different countries gives you an idea of the personality and character of each individual place, and Giuseppe Verdi is about as Italian as you can get. His characters are passionate, charismatic, and relatable. His opera La Traviata is the most performed opera in the world. Violetta, a beautiful Parisian courtesan dying of consumption, falls in love with Alfredo, a naïve young man from Provence. Through Alfredo’s father’s scheming, the lovers are separated, only reuniting just before Violetta’s death (though she manages a duet and an aria before finally succumbing to her disease). Here’s the “Brindisi” from La Traviata, a drinking song (Verdi is famous for them).
As long as we’re on the subject of dying sopranos, let’s move along to Puccini. Musicologists often argue that Puccini contributed little to music with regard to development and innovation, which is a bit of a sore subject for singers. Perry Lorenzo, the former education director at Seattle Opera, put it differently: “Intellectuals tend to poo-poo Puccini. His music always makes them cry, and they don’t like that” (Perry was a wonderful man who supervised my internship at Seattle Opera when I first expressed an interest in singing. He passed away in 2009 but I still think of him all the time. How could you not? He said things like “poo-poo Puccini!”). My poor brother once accompanied me to a performance of Madama Butterfly in which I feel to pieces sobbing at the end. He very nobly accompanied me out of the theater, and bought me a beer to cheer me up. Madama Butterfly is about a Japanese woman, Cio-Cio San, who is married at fifteen to an American Lieutenant, Pinkerton. He leaves for America and she waits for him faithfully in Japan, giving birth to a son after his departure. Her maid begins to lose hope, but Cio-Cio San both admonishes her and renews her own commitment to her husband in the aria “Un bel dì” as she describes the day when at last she’ll see his boat pull into the harbor. When Pinkerton finally returns three years later, he has brought a new American wife with him and intends to take the child and return to America to raise him. Cio-Cio San, in despair and heartbreak over the loss of her love and the loss of her child, commits seppuku. It’s horrible and beautiful and tragic and I’m tearing up a little even as I type out the synopsis.
Puccini brings us into the twentieth century, which saw some significant thematic shifts in opera, including the introduction of psychoanalysis (thanks, Freud). The forerunner in this was Richard Strauss, who wrote some of the creepiest operas of all time. In his opera Salome (based on a play by Oscar Wilde), the titular character falls in love with John the Baptist. When John the B does not return her advances, she performs an erotic striptease (for which some daring sopranos will strip fully naked onstage) for her stepfather Herod until he agrees to give her whatever she wants. She asks for John the Baptist’s head, and when she receives it, she sings a long and passionate love aria to it, before kissing it full on the lips. That particular part of the story didn’t make it into the Bible, as far as I know. Pay close attention at 3:56 in the video, you’ll hear the “monster chord,” probably the creepiest chord ever written. To quote a favorite professor of mine, “I always have to take a shower after watching Salome. It’s just creepy.”
Opera has always pushed the envelope, be it stylistically, thematically, or otherwise. Modern operas continue in that tradition. The opera ‘u’, written in Klingon, premiered in The Hague in 2010. Last year, John Adams’ 1991 opera The Death of Klinghoffer was revived at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and was widely protested for being anti-Semitic (though Ruth Bader Ginsburg attended the opera and praised it while Rudy Giuliani stood outside protesting, a juxtaposition that frankly delights me). And the opera Two Boys, which premiered at the Met in 2013, features screenshots and a chatroom window as a backdrop. Though you will run into the occasionally stodgy opera patron, or pretentious musician who treats you like a philistine, rest assured that the majority of operagoers – musicians, amateurs, and neophytes alike – simply want to experience wonderful music and timeless stories.
Though not every town has an opera house, the Met has started doing live broadcasts at movie theaters all over the world. The tickets run around $20, and it’s a really nice experience, especially if you can’t swing a trip to New York City to see it in person. I’ve included a list of some of my favorite operas and favorite opera singers that you can look into – a lot of complete opera recordings and videos are available on Spotify and YouTube. Happy listening!
Operas to check out: La Traviata, Le Nozze di Figaro, La Rondine, Macbetto, Die Fledermaus, Rusalka, Eugene Onegin, L’Elisir d’Amore, Die Zauberflöte
Singers for your next YouTube binge: Maria Callas, Anna Moffo, Jessye Norman, Elina Garanca, Maria Ewing, Stephanie Blythe, Jonas Kaufmann, Juan Diego Flores, Piotr Beczala, Thomas Hampson, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Erwinn Schrott, Ryan Speedo Green, Morris Robinson, Samuel Ramey
Answers re: Your Opera Personality:
- Italian opera: Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo, German opera: Der Freischütz by Carl Maria von Weber, Sanskrit opera: Satyagraha by Philip Glass, Klingon opera: ‘u’ Eef van Breen
- Death by poison: Adriana Lecouvreur by Francesco Cilea, death from tuberculosis: La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini, death by stabbing: Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti, death by riding a horse into a flaming Valhalla: Götterdämmerung by Richard Wagner
- Naïve country boy: La Rondine by Giacomo Puccini, bird-man: Die Zauberflöte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, wealthy baron: La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi, mezzo-soprano dressed up like a boy: Le Nozze di Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
videos from YouTube; photos belong to Kaitrin Cunningham
Kaitrin Cunningham hails from Spokane, Washington. After finishing bachelor's degrees in French, English literature, and music performance, she obtained her Master of Music in vocal performance at the University of Arizona. She currently lives in Vienna, Austria, where she is learning German and pursuing her dream of being an opera singer.