I do not hesitate when declaring, as I often do, that opera is the world’s greatest art form. It offers a collective, cross-cultural, and rapturous experience that combines art and athletics, virtuosity and power, the epic and the intimate.
Opera is the unamplified human voice interacting with dazzling doses of theatre, dance, visual art, and social-political commentary. It takes literally hundreds of individuals to bring an opera performance to you from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City – singers, musicians, chorus members, dancers, designers, technicians, directors, choreographers, language and vocal coaches, crewmen, ushers, administrators. I know only too well the Pavlovian associations – conjured by the very mention of “opera” to my peers: inaccessible, elitist, high society, over-dramatic, and supremely fat women with horned helmets. Temperamental tenors and “diva” sopranos “parking and barking” loud high notes in foreign languages and affording themselves endless curtain calls. Indeed, for too long opera allowed itself to reach a state in which the drama ceased to matter, and art deferred to obnoxious athletics: we applaud High C’s and forget about the rest.
My job, as an opera lover (and young baritone!), is to convince you that opera in 2011 is accessible, astounding, and – dare I say it – cool. Fortunately, the past decade has seen a hearty global resurgence of opera as theatre. In addition, as Broadway’s musical theatre has moved more towards the commercial, candy-coated and superficial, there have been many novel and ambitious new operas composed, on everything from the September 11 attacks, to President Nixon’s first visit to China, to Anna Nicole Smith’s tragic downfall.
My childhood was filled with two unique musical influences: Jewish Western cantorial music and musical theatre from Broadway. I sing in alongside giant-voiced Cantors at numerous synagogues and have embarked on what has become a mini ‘side-career’ in musical theatre. I’ve performed in lead roles in shows such as “Chicago,” “Into the Woods,” and “Joseph,” and also have taught singing and acting to children and individuals with developmental disabilities. So, of course I was majorly curious when I discovered that one of my favourite Broadway stars, Kristin Chenoweth, had originally trained to be a coloratura – the highest and most virtuosic of sopranos. Have a listen! Here is the star of Wicked, GLEE, and Pushing Daisies performing “Glitter and be Gay” from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide.
Soon after, I was introduced to Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, a true Cinderella who has risen from washing the floors of the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, to become the world’s most famous performer. A full-throated, exciting voice, a sensitive actress, and a stunningly beautiful woman, Anna certainly got me hooked on opera. Here she is as Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata at the Salzburg Festival in 2005, the production that catapulted her to fame. And, from August 2011 in Berlin (at a concert I attended alongside 20 thousand others!), we can see how Anna’s skills have evolved, as she prepares to take on roles with more vocal and dramatic heft. From Verdi’s Il Trovatore. Indeed, what initially pulled me into opera’s clutches was a handful of captivating star singers who combine vocal brilliance with dramatic or comedic gifts. At the conclusion of the article, I list some of my favourite current singers, all of whom you should YouTube!
Behind the Stage
There is so much more to opera than its star performers. In a world of increasing automation and depersonalization, opera offers a more human experience, which explores the fullest possibilities of our species. It simply cannot be mass-produced. Opera is live, unamplified voices projecting over a full orchestra. Costumes, props and set pieces are crafted by hand. Singers – and, in turn, audiences – come together from all corners of the globe and unite in a common musical language to prepare for a production. Likewise, people from around the world connect with the universal emotions uncovered by beloved operas like La Boheme. Indeed, numerous opera companies from North America and Europe have embarked on tours to Japan, bringing joy and hope to the Japanese in the aftermath of the recent earthquake and nuclear disaster.
Even with its massive scale and grandeur, opera touches the human soul. Opera is the most challenging (and expensive!) art form to produce, and perhaps therefore the most gratifying. The more one learns about the music itself, the lives of the composers and the social and political settings in which they wrote (from Verdi’s dreaming of a unified Italy, to Weill’s bitter satirizing of Nazism), the more one yearns to discover. Opera poses an opportunity to expose oneself to new languages and cultures (with English subtitles, don’t worry!), yet it also probes the tougher questions. For instance, Jews like myself will continue to wrestle with their appreciation for Wagner’s glorious operas against their condemnation of the man’s despicable and highly influential anti-Semitism.
Struggles of Opera
Opera is an art form which invites active engagement. It also prompts the most energetic responses from audiences – at La Scala in Milan, booing is not uncommon, but neither is bravo-filled standing ovations lasting upwards of fifteen minutes. This fan culture also creates a tremendous amount of pressure for singers – their career already difficult enough being reliant on two tiny vocal cords functioning optimally at 100% even with extensive air travel and rehearsals – with opera fans following their careers like hawks. Every performance, regardless of the continent on which it takes place, is analyzed exhaustively.
A soprano faltering on a High E-flat in Lucia’s Mad Scene can make headlines on opera blogs halfway across the globe. Singers who agree to star in silly TV commercials in their native lands or consent to other such celebrity endorsements, or who sing “popera” hits in concert, are cast down as “commercial crap,” aligning themselves too closely with “crossover” artists like Andrea Bocelli, easily the most lambasted singer around. Artists who take on heavy roles (think Wagner, Verdi, Puccini…) “too soon” are criticized, but so are artists who, like Pavarotti, sing a very limited number of roles. Moreover, when performances are broadcast live into movie theatres, singers are expected to give vocal and dramatic performances “large” enough to fill the actual opera house, yet “small” enough to be appropriate for cinema and DVD. All at the same time.
Globalization of Opera
Singers must abolish all “tics” or mannerisms which help them get through a performance, or risk looking rather strange in close-up. The globalization of opera, and the new pressures and expectations it brings for singers, has forced conservatories to significantly adapt their pedagogy. Moreover, weight is becoming an increasingly important factor when hiring singers, especially dime-a-dozen light or “lyric” sopranos. There are exceptions, however, for singers with truly extraordinary gifts, including those who can sing the monstrous dramatic roles of Wagner. (Some operas, like Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Berlioz’s Les Troyens are nearly impossible to cast today). Although these operas are on the decline, we are experiencing a huge surge of brilliant singers ideally suited to bel canto and Baroque operas. Indeed, when “tenore di grazia” Juan Diego Florez made the trek from Peru to Pesaro and scored huge acclaim, one could almost hear treasure troves of forgotten, whimsical Rossini operas being dragged out of the attic and returned to the stage.
The world’s top opera houses, especially the Met in NYC, are effortfully yet effectively bringing opera into the 21st century and engaging social media tools. The Met’s initiative of transmitting live performances into movie theatres around the world has even inspired the WWF to jump on board by broadcasting their wrestling matches. With english subtitles, you will understand what it going on.
Opera is steadily redefining itself as the world’s preeminent showcase of human potential in the performing arts. I do hope you will treat yourself – and a date – to an operatic experience. Just don’t try to sing along!
Today’s Leaders in Opera
- Placido Domingo, a living legend who has been singing for 40 years, is one of the greatest Otello’s of all time
- Peruvian Juan Diego Florez (famous for high, fast, florid passages and easy charisma)
- German tenor Jonas Kaufmann: known for passion, baritonal shadings, and piannissimo touches, he excels in French, Italian and German repertoire, from grand opera to intimate Strauss and Schubert lieder (songs).
- Dmitri Hvorostovsky: Voted one of People Magazine’s “Most Beautiful People in the World,” Dmitri is unmatched in Russian music such as Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.
- Gerald Finley (a Canadian, most famous for his portrayals of Dr. Oppenheimer in John Adams’ opera, Doctor Atomic, and Mozart’s Don Giovanni)
- René Pape, a German bass who turns music notes into gold, especially Wagner. Last year, I watched him inhabit the title role in Mussorgsky’s epic Boris Godunov.
- Elina Garanca’s creamy and focussed mezzo is ideally suited to the bel canto (“Beautiful Singing”) operas by Donizetti and Bellini, and she is also a sultry Carmen.
- Joyce DiDonato, also known as “Yankee Diva,” is a virtuosic, fresh, intelligent and very funny singer. She even performed an entire run of the Barber of Seville in a wheelchair – and made it work!
- Nina Stemme, a Swedish powerhouse, has risen to become today’s most riveting exponent of Wagner’s gigantic roles such as Isolde and Brünnhilde.
- Natalie Dessay began as a petite coloratura, but has emerged as a true artist, who sees the voice as in service of the drama, not the reverse.
- Sondra Radvanovsky (another Canadian!) is an extremely unique voice which must be experienced live – I saw her first Aida in Toronto and was literally blown out of my seat.