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An Opera Primer, Continued

I've been following with interest the range of responses to my query about what opera to recommend to a first-time opera-goer.

I have, of course, my own personal biases. I do feel strongly that going live makes a difference. And it also makes a difference (as was mentioned in the comments) how good the singers are. I've had several friends come to me for advice about what to see at the Metropolitan Opera and say, "It doesn't matter if the singers are good, because I'm so new to opera I won't know the difference." To which I invariably reply, "Whether or not you appreciate all the vocal nuances, you will definitely know the difference between an excellent performance and a so-so one." Seeing a dud as a first opera is enough to turn people off from trying it again.

This spring, a sociologist named Claudio Benzecry, a professor at the University of Connecticut, published a paper on how people become opera fans. For 18 months between 2002 and 2005, he tracked fans who bought cheap seats or standing-room tickets on the upper floors of the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires: people from "diverse middle-class backgrounds who had not been brought up to enjoy opera."
(read more after the jump)

The point of the paper was to explore the ways in which people are initiated into a "high-culture" activity, and it established that people felt that opera was something that you had to learn about in order to enjoy. But what was most significant -- to me, at least -- is that it also established that people who love opera tend to experience a coup de foudre at the first encounter: a passionate love, an "aha" moment, that leads them to want to learn more about the art form. They then tend to learn from other, more experienced fans who initiate them into the lingo and into the mores (when to clap, when to boo, and so forth).

This "love at first sight" idea is important because it goes against our widely held assumption that you can gently educate someone into loving opera. The paper shows that yes, education is a part of the process, but only those who are already interested are going to want the education.

Perhaps it's my own bias, but I take the paper as confirmation that if you're introducing someone to opera (and the relative I wrote about in my original post is no child, but a sophisticated, urban-dwelling twenty-something), it's a great idea to start with the very best opera you can think of.

I should add, though, that my own personal experience fell somewhere in between the two: I was exposed to a lot of opera as a child, and then had the explosive, falling-in-love-with-opera-forever experience as a teenager. I can't say if the former predisposed me to the latter.

How did you catch the opera bug?

By Anne Midgette  |  September 4, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  opera  
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As a youngster, I heard the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on an old AM radio, only because I was afraid to change the channel for fear of never getting back to it. So, I had the music somewhere in the back of my head, even if I only had it on as background noise.

Even though I was rock n roll all the way, I did always want to try out this opera thing (I had some appreciation for classical music). My wife bought tickets to the opera for my 40th birthday. I don’t know what happened that day, but it was staggering. When the curtain went up I felt this hollow feeling take over my chest. The opera was Carmen, and I wept from beginning to end. During the Act I duet I had tears running down my face. I had never encountered this much beauty before. At times I sobbed uncontrollably. Walking out (it was the NY State theater and NYCO performance) I could not stop crying. People thought I was a loon. I guess I was. I was trying to dry my eyes, my wife is laughing hysterically, but I knew that my life had just changed forever.

I’ve been a Met subscriber ever since, cheap seats, second to the last row in the FC, mid-week performance, get on the train at 4 p.m., and walk back in the door at 2-3 a.m. My wife stays home. Someone in the household must retain a grip on reality.

Posted by: Gordie55 | September 4, 2009 11:15 AM | Report abuse

I blame Eva Turner.

Posted by: LisaHirsch1 | September 4, 2009 11:23 AM | Report abuse

The first opera I ever saw "The Barber of Seville" was a dud to my eyes when I was 16 (I love the opera now though, must've been a bad night). I thought all opera was like that performance.

And then I saw Tosca by the same company 4 years later, and I had my "Ah ha!" moment at the end of the second act.

I've been devoted ever since. I even sing it.

Posted by: IanSd | September 4, 2009 12:39 PM | Report abuse

I saw my first opera at the Teatro Colon. It was Trovatore, but I was young and inexperienced and did not quite know what to expect. I guess that for some people things also don't quite work out on their wedding night and they have to persevere. Same with opera! It also matters to have opera performed in a place of art (and the Colon is one of the world's most beautiful venues, very similar to La Scala, but on a larger scale), the esthetic equivalent of a cathedral or a museum (yes, I know, here comes everybody decrying opera as a museum-going experience, but have you been to a museum lately? There's a reason for museums, and for people to go there, and seeing a major painting in a museum is also a coup de foudre experience, very different from looking at computer-generated "paintings" in your hotel room or on an ipod.) There are some things you just can't experience in a shopping mall, or in a movie theater, while obese people chew popcorn with their mouth open behind you.

Posted by: gauthier310 | September 4, 2009 2:35 PM | Report abuse

I fell in love with opera at the age of 12 or 13. I grew up in a town of 500+ people, and it happened that someone from the next town over (a booming metropolis of 1100) was singing the lead for a university touring production of Gian-Carlo Menotti's The Medium. It was the first live performance I'd ever attended, except for high school bands. The touring production probably wasn't all that great, but I was absolutely transfixed, and music has been a dominant part of my life ever since.

Posted by: pjokelly | September 4, 2009 4:39 PM | Report abuse

Carmen was my first opera, too, although I first experienced it as a set of vinyl records while working at my university's Fine Arts Music library. I didn't experience my first live opera for another 15 years, and while it was a middling production of "Carmen" in the gargantuan modern Opera Bastille, I was still awed. The old records had only hinted at the grand scale of the work. Since then, I've attended at least a few operas every season at my local opera house, and have enlarged my interests to operas in any language, and every period (although I'll admit to being challenged the most by Baroque works).

Posted by: CruzerSF | September 5, 2009 2:18 AM | Report abuse

My first opera was Marriage of Figaro in high school. It was a traditional production and struck me has horribly stuck-up and stuffy. In college, I saw an LAO production of La Boheme...not bad. But I got hooked when I moved to DC for grad school, and signed up for Washington Opera's Generation O program (cheap tickets that a grad student can afford). That was the season that I saw Andrea Chenier, which to a novice seemed audacious and edgy and heartbreakingly dramatic, as well as Billy Budd. Never looked back, hooked for life.

Posted by: anony2 | September 5, 2009 9:46 AM | Report abuse

Well, like a lot of people, I started with Boheme. The production was god awful and the performers were all so-so. However, I did have such an "ah-ha" moment during "O Soave Fanciulla" and I saw (or heard) for the first time what opera could be.

Posted by: mcfan107 | September 6, 2009 6:27 PM | Report abuse

(In response to Ms. Hirsch, since the earlier Opera Primer thread is "temporarily disabled"):

I think that we have to be careful here in speaking about Arabella and age. I recall Hofmannsthal’s comment in the libretto about Jews interested in buying Mandryka’s family’s forests, but I don’t recall him precisely specifying ages. This is one of the richnesses of this work, in my opinion. Mandryka could have lost his first wife in childbirth when he was 25 or 23, and Arabella could be pushing 30 (if not 32), for all we know. The librettist allows a lot of room for the human imaginations of his viewers/readers; and I expect alert opera newcomers (of any age – 13 or 93) to be fascinated by this. (With Don Carlo/s, we can consult history and determine more precisely the ages of Don Carlos, Rodriego, Philip, Elizabeth, and the others. However, even with this precision, I think those women and men on BART or the Metro reading Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” or Audrey Niffenegger’s “The Time-Traveller’s Wife” are going to find more in “Arabella” or “Don Carlo/s”, than in “The Barber of Seville.” General Directors and publicists should know this, but they are afraid of change, in my opinion.)

Your point about persons as property or possessing access to desired financial assets is, of course, well taken; but this is theme of much Western literature and opera from Homer and The Wife of Bath through The Return of Ulysses to His Homeland, The Marriage of Figaro, The Ring, Falstaff, The Dyer’s Wife, Peter Grimes … and An American Tragedy. (For example, the Marriage of Figaro is not just about the “jus primae noctis”.)

Posted by: snaketime1 | September 8, 2009 9:22 AM | Report abuse

I was infected with the opera bug by Milton Cross and Boris Goldovsky! It happened in 1946 when our high school French teacher assigned the class to listen to the Saturday broadcast of "The Tales of Hoffmann" from the Met and write a report on it (due on Monday). The enthusiasm of Cross's delivery of his opening made me feel that I was being welcomed to something wonderful and not to be missed. No Met announcer since has projected anything approaching his enthusiasm. The present host is far better than her immediate predecessor, who often sounded as though he was announcing funerals. But the contrast was blatant a few seasons ago when a recording from an earlier season included a bit of Cross's announcements at the ends of the acts.

And Goldovsky's so-called "musical and dramatic" analyses in the first intermissions continued the welcoming tone. He must have tired of covering the same ground repeatedly for the same operas in season after season, but if he did, it never showed. He was clearly sharing with you the wonders he found in the score of the opera of the day.

The enthusiasm of both men never flagged, and I think a similar, personal enthusiasm from whoever is introducing another to opera is crucial to success. Not to say, "This is wonderful. You'll love it," for goodness' sake, but be enthusiastic just about the experience of going to a performance (or even tuning one in) and let the novice discover the wonders on his/her own with perhaps a little discrete pointing out of "sign posts" along the way.

I'm not sure it makes a lot of difference what the first opera is so long as the experience is approached in the right way. Certainly, I've never heard of anyone recommending the Offenbach as Opera No. 1 (although I don't think it is necessarily a bad choice).

Posted by: wsheppard | September 8, 2009 11:26 AM | Report abuse

My first was La Traviata at the Wharton Center at Michigan State Univ. It was a travelling company from NYC (probably the City Opera) was spectacular sets. First rate, traditional production of a first rate opera.

Posted by: alecrogers1 | September 9, 2009 5:01 PM | Report abuse

A fascinating subject with thousands of good answers. I do agree “live” does it best, but I do not think it has to be great singing or conducting. In my 40s I revisited opera after a little Puccini interest in my 20s. But before I took the plunge to SF Opera, I saw several little local productions – “Tosca” in a church where she had to be stabbed because there was no place to jump from! And a “Traviatta” in the same church where I sat a few feet from the little orchestra and had my first thrill of “Oh, that sound is coming out of that violin, right there.” And a really amateurish “Fidelio” in a school auditorium that hooked me only because the glorious music itself survived everything.

The next thing I knew I had season seats to SFO and was hooked on Wagner, Strauss and Britten.

Yes, there is a special magic being in a real opera house, but even in a city not everyone is ready for that level of “commitment”. The whole experience can be very intimidating for many people. So I vote for something a little less grand, a little more “human” sized.

Posted by: stevetsf | September 10, 2009 7:01 PM | Report abuse

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