What comes to mind when you hear the word “opera?”
I ask this question every time I give a presentation on opera. Those unfamiliar with the art form will usually shout out a variety of words like: intense, melodramatic, big people, screaming… So I begin by sharing what I once heard a voice teacher say: “Opera is screaming in slow motion.”
He was joking, of course. It is the nature of the vocal sounds in opera that may trigger the association with screaming, especially in the high notes of female voices. Bad, shrill operatic singing can indeed grate on the ears, just like screaming. Great singing, on the other hand, can glue you to your seat or keep you on the edge of it. At its loudest, it can overpower you in the most gratifying way. At its softest, it can provoke sublime emotions even more intensely than the loudest sounds. The human voice is miraculous. And even more so when it is trained to serve the music of the master composers by partnering with the orchestra. Then, there is no nuance of emotion that it cannot awaken. Add to this partnership costumes, stage direction, sets, lighting, and other visual effects, and you have total magic.
Still, an agreement needs to be made between you, the listener/spectator, and this art form. It is called “suspension of disbelief,” a term coined by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Chapter XIV of his Biographia Literaria. Coleridge meant it as an act of “poetic faith.” Let’s call it operatic faith. To truly experience an opera, you must be willing to set aside any expectations of realism and allow yourself to exist on operatic time. Opera suspends or slows down action to a greater degree than many films or plays in order to take us deeper into the emotions and thoughts associated with a situation or a person. That doesn’t happen only in the aria—the solo piece, the equivalent to the monologue in theater. There are many duets, trios, quartets, quintets, sextets, and more, in which the action stops as two, three, four, five, or six characters can come together to voice their own feelings and perceptions simultaneously yet privately.
Operas are stories. Whether they are about people or gods, their plots are driven by the most basic human emotions and experiences: from love, hate, jealousy, lust, and joy to friendship, betrayal, loyalty, and so much more. Opera gives another dimension to what we live and feel. It dilates time and it dissects emotions. We can then experience the fundamental expressions of humanity more vividly, in finer detail, and often in a cathartic way.
The suspension of disbelief is essential on a visual level as well. Some roles require experienced singers even though the actual character in the story may be very young. For instance, in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, the title character is only fifteen years old. However, because the role is difficult and needs a certain type of soprano voice, the sopranos who take it on usually have years of experience behind them and they may be at least twenty years older. I have heard people laugh when a mature soprano playing Butterfly sang, coyly, that she is fifteen. Another moment of ridicule-inducing unrealism occurred at the actual premiere of Verdi’s La Traviata: when the doctor character announced that the heroine had only a few hours to live because she was dying of consumption, the audience laughed. The soprano playing the protagonist was much too robust and healthy-looking to be credible. Well… here is where we would need to step back from the visual, and let the voices along with Puccini and Verdi’s music pull us into the devastating emotions of the stories.
How about the stereotype of ample-bodied opera singers? An opera singer does not need a large frame to have a powerful voice. For some, there may be a correlation between big bodies and volume, but that is not universal. As opera singers do not use microphones, their vocal power comes from learning how to combine the ideal projection of sound with physical support of the voice. We all have our own built-in personal amplification system, our “resonating chambers” in the head, nose, mouth, and chest. When we sing operatically, these chambers serve to amplify the sound so that it can be heard over the orchestra to the back row of a 3800-seat opera house like the Met. The physical support comes from learning how to breathe properly, how to use our abdominal diaphragm, and how to engage the whole body in the process.
In opera, there are seven main types of voices. For women, they are soprano, mezzo-soprano, and contralto. For men: countertenor, tenor, baritone, and bass. These types are divided into several categories. In the soprano voice type, for instance, they range from coloratura soprano (the highest soprano voice) to dramatic soprano. But let’s discover more about voices in Part II of this series.
Opening photo: La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi performed by members of the Dnipro Opera and Ballet Theatre. Photo Bigstock
Click to read more in Maria-Cristina’s opera series: