Fall In Love With Opera

Today, we’re all a bit scared of opera, a distant planet in the galaxy of music, especially in the eye of your average Everyman and Everywoman. Opera, just as all that we define “classical” music – from the solemn atmospheres of Baroque composers, to the overwhelming passion of Beethoven – is still seen as difficult to approach, an élite type of music, something one has to “understand” to appreciate. Surely, having a bit of background in music history or theory may help recognize the technical difficulties of certain arias or the sheer creative afflatus behind others, but reading opera – and indeed, all music –  in this light means constraining it within boundaries that do not belong to it.

Thinking of it, our grandparents and great-grandparents were not afraid of opera at all: they knew the arias of La Bohème and of Cavalleria Rusticana, could sing along Carmen, even if they may have followed sounds rather than words, depending on whether or not they knew Italian (the language most pieces are written) French or whichever other language held hand with notes in each specific occasion. They had become familiar with Puccini’s E Lucevan le Stelle and Donizetti’s Una Furtiva Lacrima thanks to their old gramophones and the voice of Enrico Caruso, and would hum them every now and then, while going on with their daily routine. Nevermind if those high notes could not be reached properly: that music had all the colors of a Fall sunset and all the scents of a Spring garden within, it was impossible not to love it.

To embrace it, we should get rid of the misconstrued idea opera is for only few, and go back to our grandparents’ attitude. We should forget what we’ve been told or came to believe, and let music take the lead. Music is one of the few things in life that can move us on an almost instinctual level, that can truly and unapologetically bring us to tears without a reason. Nothing stirs human feelings and emotions as deeply and, sometimes, inexplicably as music does and that’s the same for all, regardless of their musical education. This is the first reason to love opera: because it stirs our souls and, sometimes, makes our hearts skip a beat.

Of course, all music does, to a certain extent, but there’s a perfection to the way opera (and also polyphonic music) achieves it: a perfection created by calibrated musical harmonies, by the studied balance of each and every instrument playing in the orchestra, not mere accompaniment to the voice, but emphasis to each of its quivers. Even breathing becomes music, in opera, and can change the way we understand a word or a phrase.

And then, of course, there’s the voice. Voice alone is a reason to love opera. A voice can change the way an aria is perceived by listeners, creating a whole new set of emotions every time we listen to it: Callas’ Mimì is different from Freni’s, yet they’re equally beautiful and touching. Voice makes an opera ever changing, yet stable in its grandiosity, interpretation exalting the talent of the composer.  And you don’t need to be an expert to understand all of that: as we said, opera is a matter of “feeling” music, not only of comprehending its technical complexity.

De la musique avant toute chose, music before anything else, wrote Paul Verlaine, and this is, indeed, what opera is. Yet, there is a whole universe revolving around it, a universe where each planet and star adds up to the reasons we should love it. A universe made of sounds and emotions, but also of suspense and humor, of intrigue and tragedy, of fashion and colors. Because operas are stories put into music, with their heroes, heroines and villains, where plots are complex and characters multifaceted, much like those of modern movies. A young, enamored woman awaiting the return of her deceitful husband (Madama Butterfly), a dark princess who discovers passion (Turandot), a world of love and jealousy painted in the vivid colors of Realism (Cavalleria Rusticana): a variety of plots and characters, looking different each time, yet moved always by the same forceful feelings and emotions.

And then there is the stage: music is the heart of opera, but scenographies are the essential backdrop enriching the action. So much creativity and visual genius has walked along with the music throughout the decades, and so much effort has gone into developing costumes and accessories, making of the world of opera not only a world of music, but also of design excellence, of avantgarde takes on classical plots, of sometimes risqué costumes. All this to say opera is not only a joy to the ears and to the heart, but also to the eyes.

Opera, opera. A complex world, indeed, but not inaccessible at all. It is at once mirror to the most human of feelings and to the most heroic of characters, home to betrayals and senseless love, to injustice and happy endings. A place where, above all the beauty and complexity of sceneries and characters, reigns the most divine and human of all arts, music, the ultimate prayer and the rowdiest of companions, the only thing on earth able to hold hands with Man’s soul.

And it’s this little piece of truth we should always keep in mind, if we start thinking opera is “too difficult” for us or that we don’t have the right background “to understand it:”  what it really does, in the end, it’s simply speaking to our souls.