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Telling What Is Told

What makes a good first opera? 

Opera lovers want two things:  
More opera.  
More people to attend opera so there can be more opera.  

They passionately share their ideas for first operas with anyone who might be on the fence, and these are always wonderfully passionate conversations. So, what makes a good first opera?  

HGO’s 2022 spring repertoire provides two amazing answers to that question, because Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet and Puccini’s Turandot are two of the grandest operas in the legacy repertoire, and they are very different from each other, so a new opera-goer can get a nice range of styles and experiences between the two.  

But choosing a first opera is more than just picking the right work, because opera can feel like a country club with floating membership requirements and mysterious rituals. Opera lovers don’t mean for it to be this way, so the best thing you as an opera lover can do is to help break down those barriers for others. Help opera novices with what they may see as challenges; see sidebar at right for some common questions they might have. 

If you are a newcomer to the opera, know that opera lovers are incredibly passionate about their favorite art. They are like Trekkies, except instead of the Federation they talk about divas and costumes and Wagner stagings and Verdi baritones. Opera fans can debate dauntingly minute details, but don’t let their discussions intimidate you—just enjoy the passion of it all. 

As you get to know this very broad art, you will notice that certain stories have formed the basis of many historic operas: The Trojan War, the Greek Myths, Cinderella, Orpheus, and Romeo and Juliet have all inspired many operas, and each is slightly different even though they share stories. This is part of opera’s appeal but also challenging when you are new to it.  

Operas like Romeo and Juliet and Turandot tell archetypal stories, and it is through their music that they distinguish themselves from other versions of the same tales. Romeo and Juliet was an old story even when Shakespeare wrote his play, though the play on which Shakespeare based his famous tragedy was quite different from the one he would write. Before Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet was not a story about two warring families and how their enmity can harm their children’s lives; it was a cautionary tale to children of the consequences of not listening to their parents. Shakespeare changed that forever.  

Like opera, contemporary movies often take something familiar and transform it: what is Batman but a version of Hamlet? Having familiarity with the story of Romeo and Juliet greatly helps the enjoyment of Gounod’s beautiful opera. The translation of Shakespeare’s poetry into French also helps comprehension, because Gounod’s opera brings the world of Romeo and Juliet directly to the heart, and his music removes a barrier to meaning that can sometimes be created by Shakespeare’s dense poetic English text, great as it is.  

Turandot is a parallel fairytale world that happens to be set in a mythical ancient China, though the original setting was Russia. For maximum enjoyment, remember that it is not a historical document about any country: it is a love story within a violent fantasy world. Absolutely nothing in it is literal except its emotions, so best to enjoy it that way. And Puccini’s score is, well, miraculous. 

Opera FAQs 

What will I wear?
A whole cinematic culture (think Pretty Woman) has given the impression that opera requires expensive clothes and wedding-level preparations. It doesn’t. There is no dress code. Dress up if you find that fun, but come more casually if you prefer. We don’t care what you wear. 

How will I understand it?  
Relax: there are titles over the stage translating every line.  

What if it is long and boring?
Some operas are long, some aren’t: Turandot, for example, is shorter than any of the Spiderman films. Music is the narrative engine of opera, and music is temporal, so the more you love music and give in to its power, the more you will enjoy opera. If you are only there for the plot, you might get bored. Listening, and not just reading, is the key to being really engaged and enriched by coming to the opera. 

Why do we applaud when the lights go down, and how do we know when to start applauding?  
The opening applause is for the conductor, and those sitting way upstairs can see the conductor’s entrance before those sitting downstairs. It is one of opera’s rituals, but it also has a practical purpose: if an opera begins quietly, as does Tristan und Isolde or La traviata, the opening applause makes it quiet enough for you to hear. 

The 19th Century composer of the famous operatic version of Romeo and Juliet that we perform this spring is Charles Gounod (“Goo-KNOW”). He lived from 1818 to 1893, and during the second half of his life he enjoyed enormous fame and success; he was not the struggling artist of popular imagination. Together with his French librettists, he brought Shakespeare’s famous Romeo and Juliet into a type of focus that makes a perfect first opera. The score is perfumed and tuneful, like being in a magic garden, and the tragedy plays out in a particularly heartbreaking way.  

Whether or not you recognize a note of Romeo and Juliet, I can almost guarantee you know the music of Charles Gounod: his “Ave Maria,” one of the most recognizable pieces in all of classical music, together with the very different song by Franz Schubert on the same Latin text. Gounod’s is an ingenious composition: he imposed a beautiful original melody over a simple Prelude from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, which are two books of studies in each key that are well-known to musicians. The Gounod “Ave Maria” has been recorded countless times, famously by Barbra Streisand on her Christmas Album, and most gorgeously by Leontyne Price on hers, a recording for the ages. If you’ve never heard Ms. Price sing it, find it and hear it as soon as you can—singing doesn’t get any more beautiful.  

Ah, composers…. This is another potential hurdle for first-time opera goers. We talk about composers a lot. Why? It takes a village to make a work of art, but every artistic medium has a leading creator: in films and spoken theater/musicals it is the director. Ballets are led by choreographers, who will sometimes alter music to fit their creations, something that never happens in opera. In opera, composers govern everything: operas take years to plan, and the budgeting process is largely led by the demands of composers.  

Take Romeo and Juliet, for example: the actors playing the title roles in the opera, as opposed to on film or on stage, are unlikely to look like teenagers because to be accomplished enough to sing the roles requires a little more maturity. A gifted 16-year-old actress could play Shakespeare’s Juliet, but no teenage soprano could or should assay the demands of Gounod’s score without harming her voice.  

Shakespeare, more than any other writer in English-speaking history, created the way we see ourselves. If you are a speaker of English, part of your life is Shakespearean, and though his Elizabethan world is long lost to the waves of time, he still often appears to know us better than we know ourselves. What we know of Shakespeare the man is famously negligible; he didn’t even take much care in signing his name twice with the same spelling. But Shakespeare the fellow soul is another matter: Cleopatra, Lear, Richard III, Julius Caesar, Viola, Rosalind, Prospero, and the world’s beloved Romeo and Juliet all came from his bubbling mind, a huge collection of characters that are a summit of art in the long arc of humanity. Shakespeare’s plays are so unfathomable that there remains an inevitable movement convinced that Shakespeare was a fake and that someone else put pen to paper. Nonsense. William Shakespeare wrote his plays. He was real, and so was his pen and paper and so was his boundless imagination.  

There are thousands of operas based on the Shakespeare plays, most of them from the 16th and 17th centuries and lost, and most of them unsuccessful for a simple reason: Shakespeare’s prose carries such a melodious kind of verbal music that most attempts to add real music can fight with it and rarely win. This is where Gounod’s opera succeeds so beautifully, because he could capture something in music that words cannot. His opera soars just as does the 76th Shakespeare Sonnet, and for similar reasons: it describes the deep impulse to tell and sing timeless stories. As always, Shakespeare said it best: 

“O know, sweet love, I always write of you,  
And you and love are still my argument.  
So all my best is dressing old worlds new, 
Spending again what is already spent:  
For as the sun is daily new and old,  
So is my love still telling what is told

Patrick Summers

About the author

Patrick Summers Link

Patrick Summers is the Music and Artistic Director, Margaret Alkek Williams Chair, at Houston Grand Opera.

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