The Education of an Opera Novice

Since I was little, we always went to theater. My mom loved musicals and my dad was an unusually good sport, and we’d go to dinner theater and cabarets and melodramas. Nothing highbrow— we’re suckers for happy endings and oft-told tales.

As an adult, I’ve continued to go to theater when I can. And then, about a dozen years ago, a ballet-loving friend of mine got me into ballet. Initially, I wasn’t sold on ballet— if I didn’t know the storyline of the ballet, the music and dancing didn’t always make it clear to me, so for a few years, I’d only go to the ballets with storylines I knew well enough to follow without help. (Honestly, I was trying to decode them— “so a pirouette equals… what, exactly?” I preferred modern dance that wasn’t trying to tell me a story.) But then, they redid the theater in which they hold the ballets and operas, and installed a back-of-the-seat titling system, so that when something happens (new character comes on, etc.), they caption it. Like Ballet 4 Dummies. It helped, and we became regulars at the ballet. But our enthusiasm for season-ticket-holding waned after a few years, and we now go more selectively.

Then, a friend was in the local opera company chorus, so I started experimenting with opera, out of curiosity. My friend would occasionally let me have a free ticket to dress rehearsals, and I saw some interesting, fairly avant garde things. “Nixon in China” leaps to mind. Opera has words, which makes it more naturally relatable, for me; but I don’t have background understanding of operas to help move a casual interest to a passion.

I just began my third year as a season ticket-holder. In Denver, you can go to the opera with bad seats for less than $20 a performance, so they make the barrier to entry low. And I find that our enthusiasm is growing— mom especially loved a performance of “Don Giovanni” last year because it was baroque, I especially loved a minimalist performance of “Carmen.”

We saw “Madama Butterfly” on Friday, and it resonated so much. With several of the operas, they have a Shakespearean take on Fate. And as a Shakespeare-lover, I don’t object to that, but the rational part of my brain thinks many of these tragedies should be easily avoided. And that pulls me out of the opera. I didn’t feel that way about “Madama Butterfly.” I’m not sure that realism is or should be the goal of opera, but I think we’ve all known people who’ve found themselves in love with someone whose intentions were not honorable, and whose life became more tragic as a result. We could wish for Butterfly to be more pragmatic, more measured, but what we love about her is her authenticity, her idealism. Her actions are entirely consistent with her character. She was beautifully portrayed— the very embodiment of the word “lovely.” I felt like the male leads’ voices could have been stronger, but after Butterfly takes the stage, it’s easy enough to overlook their shortcomings, or to attribute them as character choices.

I’m not a seasoned veteran, but my love for opera is growing. And it’s a fire worth stoking.


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