For past few years, I’ve taken my daughter (and once my son) to the opera. We’ve seen the OU Opera twice and we’re about to see the Dallas for a second time. I’ve been an opera fan since high school while at Midwestern Music Camp at the KU in Lawrence, Kansas.
I came to play tuba and baritone. We played a medley of Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chenier. I was mesmerized by the melodies to the point that I sought out recordings of the opera in the KU music library. There, I found the CD release (a big deal in the 80s) of the Carreras, Marton, Zancanara production of Chenier. I listened to it straight through three times that week. Upon return to Norman, I discovered that OU had a very large music library itself with many records, cds, and videos of opera and opera singers. I could be found there nearly every weekend in high school and through college where I studied music.
My hope was that my wife, a wonderful coloratura soprano, would join me in being an opera buff. But she was not interested in it like I was. But many years later came my daughter. At an early age, she found her voice and has sung nearly incessantly at school since. She is talented and she is interested in opera, perhaps not interested to the level that I am, but enough to want to see operas with me. I’ve taken her to The Marriage of Figaro, The Coronation of Poppea, La Boheme, and tonight we will see Manon.
I’ve been to the Dallas opera only four times, but I’ve become accustomed to the trip. We knock off early on a Friday and get gussied up. Depending on how early we can leave we might eat in the Dallas Arts District or we might pick up McDonald’s on the way. We always stop at the Fried Pies place at Turner Falls. I like to get to our nose-bleed seats in time to read through the play bill and settle in.
The experience of live opera is not like what you’d expect. When you hear an opera singer on tv or radio, it can be off putting. It can sound shrill and very loud. People complain that it hurts their ears. But live opera is easy on the ears because it is entirely acoustic. Often, the first question people ask when they hear that I like to go to operas is “Are they miked?” The answer is not traditionally. I’m sure it happens, but it is very controversial. I explain that much of the opera singers training is learning how to make their body the resonator instead of a mic/speakers. It’s truly remarkable to think that something as small as a human larynx can be heard in such a large hall over an orchestra.
The house is big with 5 levels: orchestra, box, mezzanine, dress circle, and grand tier on the very top. The Winspear Opera House in Dallas has 2300 seats. There are no bad seats in any of the houses I’ve been to. The acoustics make it possible to enjoy the opera from the highest tier.
The second question is “How do you know what they’re singing?” For most of history, you either knew the language, or you just figured our what was happening. In Europe, though, most people would have known the language. Operas are generally in Italian, French, German, Russian, and English and were often sung in the language of the locale. But now, we get supertitles. They put the English translations on a screen above the stage. Before going to the show, I generally read a synopsis, listen to the arias, and listen to the leads in the cast to orient myself to the performance.
When the lights go down, there is nothing but the orchestra and the stage. Sets and costumes are often stunning to see. So much so that spontaneous applause may break out when the curtain goes up. As the show progresses and you become invested in the characters and story, feelings intensify and if the performer is up to the task it is not uncommon for people to gasp, sigh, laugh (there are comedies), and weep. The human voice when expressed passionately and beautifully enough can be powerfully mood altering. Seeing an opera can be a very emotionally fulfilling experience.
The trip back from Dallas to Norman is the not-so-fun part. We usually leave the parking garage around 11pm. This gets us home at 2am. When we saw La Boheme, there was a lane shut down for a few miles. We got home at 3:30am. Tonight, we will likely get home at 3, but it will be worth it. There are few things I like to do more than seeing an opera and spending time with my daughter.