Getting Opera: some perfectly scandalous facts

Even though by historical standards opera is a very young art genre (as opposed to, say, theatre or painting), the amount of nonsense that has been said, written, and published about it over the past two centuries truly defies imagination. At least eight different conflicting OFFICIAL opinions exist on any and all of its aspects; whenever an expert opens his or her mouth to utter a comment, ten others jump at the commentator’s throat … No. Not really. As it is with pretty much everything today, opera commentary has become politically correct, i.e. vague and uncertain, lest someone should take offense; so much so that it is taken as a matter of course that folks who ask straight questions are amateurs while those who provide straight, to the point answers are ignoramuses. Straight answers are an endangered species facing extinction.

This would be comical if it weren’t so detrimental to opera.

Constantly complaining about the “lack of new blood,” opera’s powers-that-be and their voluntary assistants with music school diplomas and insecurity complexes make every effort to confuse, rather than enlighten, the newcomer.

At one of our recent live seminars, as Ricardo was busy elucidating types of operatic voices for an eager audience consisting mostly of novices, a man with a pot belly raised an objection, proclaiming in screechy tones that the tenor was NOT the highest male voice in opera. Ricardo countered by saying that FOR ALL INTENTS the tenor IS the highest male voice … “And the High C,” interrupted the “erudite,” continuing to flaunt his pseudo-knowledge, “is NOT the highest note in the tenor range. There are parts in operas from the Seventeenth Century to the present that include the High F! You’re ignorant! You don’t now what you’re talking about!”

He continued to “demonstrate” with increasing frequency how knowledgeable and superior he was until finally I had to escort him out. Our live seminars are pretty expensive ($60 per person, locally; $200 per person when we go on tour); folks flock to us to find out how they can enjoy opera, and we absolutely have to give them their money’s worth. If you think your knowledge and expertise are valuable and sellable, by all means, set up your own seminar.

Anyway, the point I’m trying to make here is that the knowledge that certain tenor parts do in fact include that silly-sounding High F, and that the countertenor does in fact sing higher than the ordinary tenor, is the ultimate reward to those who insist on pointing such things out whenever an opportunity presents itself. Such people don’t really enjoy, nor even care about, opera. They have no respect (never mind love) for their fellow human beings, either. Just as the biblical Pharisees took all joy out of religion (and annoyed Jesus and his apostles every chance they got), operatic Pharisees today take all joy out of opera, distracting and annoying those who for one reason or another wish to wrench it from the stifling control of elitist bureaucracy and restore it to its proper owner: the audience. If there is a special place in hell for the operatic Pharisee, I hope it features a large auditorium with good acoustics, in which the unrepentant pedant will be forced to take in day and night, FOREVER, a repertoire consisting exclusively of operas that include countertenors and/or High F’s.

(Let me explain. I’m not merely an artist, critic, or connoisseur; I’m an epicurean as well. I have an EXTREMELY LOW BOREDOM THRESHOLD. Seriously, I do. I absolutely HATE being bored. I cannot stand it. Boredom to me is unbelievable spiritual and mental torture. There is exactly ONE composer of note who employs ONE countertenor part in ONE of his operas, and the opera is not a very good one, either. There is exactly ONE opera by a notable composer that features a High F, and that opera is BORING. I go to the opera to be moved and entertained; I purchase recordings that I know will move and entertain me. You couldn’t pay me enough to endure three acts of BORING music, no matter how many important and reputable folks have praised it and built their careers around it. My taste, my ear, my perception are, to the best of my knowledge, pretty standard; from which I conclude that since, after taking in two thousand live operatic performances of all kinds, I still find Bellini’s operas tedious (and Debussy’s, and Berlioz’s, and Berg’s, too), so will thousands of others potential opera buffs. To expose a novice to a tedious piece FIRST is to turn him or her away from opera forever. My rhetorical question to every operatic Pharisee out there goes like this. I have turned countless folks into die-hard opera buffs. What have you done?)

Opera as we know it is not rocket science. There is so little one has to know beforehand to enjoy a GOOD opera fully that it all fits into the three-hour format of Ricardo’s “Getting Opera” course, with time to spare (our live seminars feature questions-and-answers sessions and a fifteen-minute coffee-and-cigarette break). Neither of us is affiliated with the opera industry, or music industry, in any way. Ricardo’s opinions are entirely objective, his expertise true, his approach honest and very effective.

What “Getting Opera” does is sweep away the layers of nonsense accumulated over the past two centuries: the nonsense that is put into textbooks and guides, the nonsense that is taught in music schools and proclaimed fatuously from the lectern; and leaves in just what used to enable an ordinary clerk or factory worker in a fifth ring seat (in New York, in New Orleans, in Milan, in Vienna, in opera’s heyday) to appreciate every note and every shade of harmony of the beloved operatic masterpieces.

The entire history of opera is presented as if it were an adventure story, with subplots, intrigue, love affairs, gunfire, and callous meddling politicians getting in the way. The three major opera periods, which include the sixteen great operas written by five composers are covered in full. The differences between the styles are thoroughly (and humorously) explained and easily grasped. The best recordings are used to illustrate each point, and before you know it, you find yourself familiar with several opera plots (libretti). Some terminology sinks in as if by magic, so much so that the listener will be able to hold his or her own in a conversation about opera – with anyone.