Tuesday, June 21, 2011: Opera Phobia
Summer Solstice Series!
Opus Osm is presenting a week-long Summer Solstice Series of “backgrounder” articles. If you’ve ever wondered about opera, this week Zuzana Sklenková is on hand to anticipate everything you’ve always wanted to know about this glorious but confusing art form. And Elizabeth Haas (below) tells about a painless way to experience opera — in an open-air, castle courtyard.
Part 2 Opera Phobia: Opera Is Too Serious and Tragic — Right?
What do the most famous opera heroines, Carmen, Tosca, and Madame Butterfly, have in common? They all die a tragic death. Their stories are such prime examples of tragedy in opera that it seems “going to the opera” means preparing for a depressing evening of death and tears.
But does that make an opera a genre solely of darkness and heavy drama?
Among the most popular composers of opera are Mozart and Rossini, well appreciated for their comic virtuosity. And let’s not forget the Czech composers, Smetana and Dvořák, who brought plenty of wit to opuses like The Bartered Bride (Smetana) and The Devil and Kate (Dvořák).
Yet the general perception of opera as a tragic form persists. The tradition of woe in opera goes a long way, back to its roots in ancient Greek drama, when themes like love, death, sacrifice, and honor were commonplace. The Italian Baroque opera of the 17th and 18th centuries continued in the same direction and derived most of its themes either from ancient mythology or history.
Musicologists coined the term “opera seria” (or “serious opera”) for this particular type of drama, referring not only the serious nature of these works, but to typical formal features such as the three act set-up and the cast of castratos (young boys singing the soprano arias).
At the beginning of the 18th century, opera buffa, or “light opera,” was developed out of the comic musical numbers played between the acts in opera seria performances. The stories in opera buffa took place in contemporary settings and were filled with mistaken identities, disguises, and other comic tropes. And they had happy endings, too.
At the time, the two genres reflected a divided society. Opera seria was meant to be courtly entertainment for the rich and ennobled, while opera buffa was for the common man. Even composers distinguished themselves accordingly, though their ambitions often overlapped.
Statistically, there are more famous tragedies in opera than famous comedies. Composers simply tended to tackle heavier topics rather than create pure entertainment. After all, nobody expected Wagner’s or Verdi’s operas to make them laugh.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Mozart’s playful Figaro tops today’s opera popularity contest. So if you’re new to opera (or afraid to try), start with one of these buffa classics. You might even be surprised to find that you already know some of the tunes – or find yourself whistling them as you leave the concert hall. – oo
If you’re not sure about surviving a full-length opera, you can savor a menu of highlights from some opera classics this Saturday evening, June 25, at Průhonice Castle’s courtyard. The Czech Opera Company will stage an evening with famous arias by Mozart, Smetana, and Bizet.
Concert organizer and former National Theatre soloist Vratislav Kříž says, “I invited my colleagues, Andrea Kalivodová, Alžběta Poláčková, and Tomáš Černý, and we will be accompanied by the National Theatre Orchestra. We selected pieces from Don Giovanni, The Bartered Bride, and Carmen. We wanted to offer a light summer concert that people can enjoy and feel like they can almost sing along, because these are familiar melodies.”
The concert venue overlooks a garden that’s acclaimed for its generous bursts of rhododendron. The choice of place was easy, Mr Kříž says, especially given the castle’s recent designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“I think the open-air performances make opera more accessible for people who would probably not come to the theatre,” he tells Opus Osm. “I frequently see parents taking their children, or young couples who came to see opera instead of going to a disco. You don’t need to dress up, it is more casual — it has that summer atmosphere — and the singers have more opportunities to make the performance more ‘lively,’ ” he explains.
– Elizabeth Haas
Tomorrow: Czech Operas (Starter Kit)
Photo Credits: Puppets from unlabelled window display, Litomyšl: Miroslav Setnička; Průhonice: Zp