Enjoying The Search
How to find your way into less familiar operas, starting with Massenet’s Werther.
The cynic, it is said, knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. The opposite is true of arts lovers, especially opera fans: what we love is so valuable to us that it makes the price worthwhile. This isn’t rational, of course, but that is one of art’s great privileges: it invites us to set aside the rational for a small portion of any day, and that time can soften harder realities. We so often seek comfort in familiar art, but the joy we take in our beloved favorites can make us less likely to approach something less familiar, and new things hold great value if we open ourselves to them.
One of the barriers to unknown operas for many people is a fear that they won’t “get it” or won’t “know it,” but just as you don’t have to know everything in life, you also don’t have to enjoy everything in art to get something important from it. You may like elements of one opera and not of another. It is a very big art with hundreds of years of history and aspiration, so there is a lot to discover and enjoy.
One thing about opera is certain: at its best, when its many elements come together, it is potentially transformative and dazzling—but it is highly unlikely to be this every time. Operas are quite like sunsets: sometimes they are of unbelievable beauty, with the atmosphere just right, and sometimes they’re enjoyable but not transformative. It is all about the feeling. And if one opera doesn’t speak to you, try another.
I vividly remember meeting a couple at the stage door in Houston after a performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre in 2015. They had both effusively enjoyed the performance, even to the point of tears in talking about it. The wife of the couple explained to me that they’d had a mutually bad experience with opera in the 1970s and had always regretted that they didn’t give it another try. Forty years had transpired during which they could have enjoyed many more operas, but they’d let one experience define an enormous art. I found it sad, as did they, but at least they found their way back to something they love.
So, what is the best way to expand one’s appreciation of operas from across the vast operatic canon? This is an art that spans the global village, so start with resisting too narrow a definition of opera. Your favorite opera may be Puccini’s La bohème, which would mean you have great taste, so you might naturally gravitate toward works that are similar to it, like other operas by Puccini or those of his era. Then again, something that is the stylistic opposite of
Puccini, like a Baroque opera, Russian opera, or one of Mozart’s glories might hold some surprises for you. You may like one of the hundreds of smaller-scale operas that have been written in the 21st century, and some of them are fabulous, or you may be drawn to the grandeur and scale of older operas with hundreds of people in them. The grand German Romantics Wagner and Strauss may be more your thing, or you may need to build up to them.
All of that is okay. You have to taste quite a few before you can get a sense of what your taste actually is, and being open to surprise and discovery is a healthy way to approach art. Try to keep from deciding how you feel about all operas based on only a few, because it is an art with a very wide range of styles.
Stepping into the unknown is hard, so think of a story that is probably familiar to you, like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. However you encounter this story, be it the play, a ballet, an opera, or a film, you probably don’t attend simply to see how it ends. In fact, Shakespeare tells us the entire story in only the sixth line of his play: “a pair of star-crossed lovers take their life”, so the experience of the play is not about what happens, but about how we feel and relate as it happens. How the story is told is as important as the story itself, and this is true especially in opera, where music deepens the surface of a story.
Many people will tell you that it is important to get to know the music of an opera before attending, and that is certainly easy to do now with YouTube containing every piece of recorded music ever written.
But, sacrilegious as it may seem to the operatic faithful, I think the most important thing before attending an opera is getting to know the story as intimately as you can. You will be considerably more available to absorb what is unique about opera, the vocalism and music-making, if you aren’t trying to take in everything at once. So, let’s start with Massenet’s Werther (pronounced in French as vair-tair, while the yummy candy spelled the same way in English is pronounced worthers.)
Start with a helicopter view, which for Werther is this: a man falls in love with a woman who doesn’t return his love, causing him to commit suicide. Now, go a bit beyond that: find a more detailed synopsis and read it several times. Read it aloud. Read it again. If you want to go deeply into preparations for Werther, read the novel on which the opera is based, Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, or listen to one of its many audiobook versions. The more you know of the inner workings of the ardent characters of this drama, the more you can enjoy Massenet’s opera. If you come prepared to listen, you will get to the heart of opera more quickly.
Werther is a man who takes his first feelings for a woman as forever feelings, never imagining that one’s affections can change or that life’s circumstances can keep people apart. His heartache, which can look to our post-Freudian, post-sexual-revolution era as mere obsession, is nevertheless very real for him, extraordinarily painful, and we hear all of this in Massenet’s music. Anyone who has experienced heartbreak—which is likely just about everyone—can relate to this opera. All of that familiar pain is in Massenet’s big romantic score, but so is comfort. The supertitles are always there if you get lost, but if you come to an opera open to wonder, you’ll be less likely to wander.
The relevance of Werther for an audience in the 2020s is not necessarily that we understand emotions more now, if indeed we do. Viewing it from a modern lens, we realize again that too many young people are still dying for love exactly as Werther did. We recognize advances in our lives through the sad reality that we sometimes haven’t advanced very far. In such a tragic story, there is catharsis, because we are likely to know someone who has experienced it. And because the story and characters of Werther are older than the United States (the novel was first published in 1774, so it was already an old story when Massenet wrote his opera in 1892), there is humanizing comfort in knowing that people from other centuries and cultures feel the same emotions as we. Timelessness is one of the hallmarks of greatness.
See how easy it is? If you’ve made it this far, you’ve already started your journey into new operatic territory. Enjoy yourself.