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Do We Have to Stay 'Til the Fat Lady Sings?

by Clifford E. Haines

Summer 2000, Vol. 63, No. 2

There's a real danger in writing about opera.
People either hate it or love it. Those who hate it think that it's all about an overweight man and a fat woman doing a lot of shrieking. Conversely, opera buffs believe everything about opera is wonderful and opine that those who hate it are uninformed. But, just as stereotyping people and their views on a particular subject can be a mistake, judgments about what opera is and who enjoys it is a similar faux pas, especially now.

The face of opera is changing and so too is the audience. No longer is the opera the last place people want to go on a Friday night. For many, when there is a performance, it is the hottest ticket in town. Performances are routinely sold out, not just on a performance-by-performance basis, but on a season-ticket basis as well.

I will confess a "late-in-life" rather than "reared-on-it-as-a-child" attraction to the opera. I've always liked the arts but was never satisfied with most theater performances until I saw how an opera blended music and theater together. It was a rather traditional production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin that sold me on opera. Not only did I find the story a great one (written by Russia's most famous poet, Alexander Pushkin) and the music hauntingly beautiful, but the grandeur of some of the scenes was unforgettable. While not necessarily my favorite opera, it whet my curiosity for opera and sparked a passion to explore the genre further.

I also believe that opera is peculiarly a lawyer's art form. As a trial lawyer, I like to think that what I do in the courtroom is present drama. I paint pictures with words; I tell a story to evoke a strong response from the listeners/viewers; I never overlook the visual part of any presentation from my costume to the scene the jury sees, and, if I can possibly do it, I make every word spoken a song that will not only be pleasing but will touch the listener's heart or head. And I don't think that any of these principals should be limited simply to what trial lawyers do. The attorney who misses the opportunity to engage a client with the right amount of drama or entertainment may lose that client. Being a wordsmith should never be limited to a courtroom since the ability to tell the story the right way will get you through a tough negotiating session over a commercial transaction in far better shape than a dry, uninspiring prevention will. Opera gives you a chance to see how to put together the many elements of communication skills and to appreciate the effect when it works.

Flourishing in Philadelphia
Philadelphia is a hotbed of the opera revolution occurring across the country. Many international singers have been trained either at the Curtis Institute or the Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA), both Philadelphia institutions. In addition, not only is the Opera Company of Philadelphia a driving force in the community, but as a major opera house on the east coast, it is responsible for the majority of productions in the city and is a showcase for new international starts. Robert Driver, the inexhaustible director of the Company, has generated enormous enthusiasm for opera throughout the city. He has been a stalwart of the belief that Philadelphia can produce great opera by finding young singers around the world who have great promise and will gladly work for opportunity as much as for fees. The results of his efforts have been richly rewarding for willing opera audiences.

The Opera Company of Philadelphia is rapidly achieving a national reputation as its audience grows, and, as the demand for opera increases, the company is expanding its offerings. The Opera Company, which will become the principal tenant of the Academy of Music when the Regional Performing Arts Center opens, is launching an aggressive financial growth campaign to allow it to become larger and finer. While it won't replace the Metropolitan Opera in New York as the major opera center in the United States, the likelihood is that soon Philadelphia will be a major competitor with New York in terms of opera offerings, and the performances will provide high quality at economical prices. Philadelphia is not unique in this regard. This explosive growth in opera is happening across the country, in places like San Francisco, Kansas City and Baltimore.

Why all this extraordinary growth? It's not as if a wave of new operas has splashed onto the scene. Most of the offerings in opera houses are traditional Italian and German operas written in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Verdi, Puccini and Wagner are the mainstay of opera companies everywhere.

Two major changes have happened in the last ten years that have opened up the world of opera to more people than ever before.

First, opera has undergone a major public relations blitz, the result of the desire of a few performers to garner a larger audience. Take Luciano Pavarotti, for example. While probably not as many people know who he is as know who Michael Jordan is, Pavarotti is still well recognized because of the promotion of his recordings. Millions who have never been to an opera have heard-or heard of-the Three Tenors, [Pavarotti, Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo] and Pavarotti in particular. But as Pavarotti's career reaches an end, Cecilia Bartolli and Andrea Bocelli have begun to dominate classical as well as more popular record charts. The attempt to generate a market for individual performers has produced an enormous interest in opera. And people seem to like what they see when they go to an opera. Audiences are getting younger and the interest seems to be growing performance by performance.

Second, opera is now presented in a way that makes it more understandable to those not fluent in a foreign tongue. Most of the traditional operas performed today-referred to as grand opera-are still sung in Italian, German, Russian or French. Only a select few-typically not the favorites of most people-are usually sung in English. La Boheme, Puccini's classic love story in the grand opera style and probably the most popular opera in the world, is always presented in Italian. Opera devotees have had a hard time understanding the words even when they know the story, and the novice or first-time opera-goer is lost if not familiar with the story or the language. But there isn't a credible opera house in America today that doesn't provide a solution to this problem for its audience. The majority of opera companies project an English version of what is being sung on a screen above or below the stage-called "supertitles"-so that the audience can follow the story and the words as the opera is being sung. At the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the text is projected onto the back of the seat in front of you so you don't even have to crane your neck to read.

Appreciating the Art
But even with these changes, isn't opera still opera? Sure, now it's easier to attend and understand, and, if you give it a chance, it provides an evening of fabulous entertainment. Even the seemingly stiff atmosphere is gone, as opening night at the opera now sees the audience in casual clothes where tuxedos were once required. Yes, the fat lady still sings and there still is shrieking, but there is so much more if you are willing to learn to appreciate what opera is about.

For me, it is the combination of many art forms that has made opera so attractive. Rich in beauty, often moving and frequently intense, opera affords the chance to have many "arts" experiences at once. An opera is a play, poem or piece of literature that has been set to music and then produced with visually spectacular images. It's like hearing the symphony, seeing a play and looking at a painting all at once.

Each opera not only provides a chance to get caught up in the music, it also offers an opportunity to appreciate the drama of a story and marvel at a beautiful or intriguing scene. It is not uncommon to see everything from ballet dancers to horses and elephants on an opera stage. If you don't like the story, you can still like the music. If you don't like the music, you can get caught up in the story. And in either event, there are a whole host of extraordinary performers to follow.

Opera performers are usually considered singers, and even though it's tough to be successful at opera when they can't sing, today it's not enough for performers simply to have a good voice. If singers can't act, their success in opera will be limited. If they can act, they can mask some vocal inadequacies through their stage performance. Ask any aficionado of opera who the greatest artist of the twentieth century was and most will tell you Maria Callas. They may engage in a raging debate about her voice, but no one can doubt her ability to master the stage. She was, simply, a presence. She commanded an opera with the power of her presentation and lured thousands to opera with the combination of her singing, acting and appearance.

Multimedia, Multinational
The realm of opera also offers a wealth of opportunity to study, learn, analyze, critique and be challenged without going to the theater or buying a ticket. Not only can you read about the operas themselves, but you can also learn about all the people who have performed in them, from Caruso to Domingo, or listen to the Metropolitan Opera on a radio almost anywhere in the world on Saturday afternoons from December to April.

You can make travel a part of your opera experience too. The opera season runs from October to early spring in most cities worldwide, but during the summer months, there are opera festivals around the world. Some, like Glyndebourne in England, Vienna in Austria and Bayreuth in Northern Bavaria, attract audiences who love to travel to continental Europe and buy tickets years in advance. Others, like the Santa Fe Opera or Glimmerglass in Cooperstown, New York, are doing avant garde as well as grand opera in spectacular settings much closer to home.

Opera in part returned to the Mann Music Center last month with a very special production of Pagliacci presented by the Houston Opera. Opera houses like Covent Garden in London, the Paris Opera and, of course, La Scala are great places to see even if you don't hear a performance. If you are not sure that you are ready for a commitment to a season subscription to the opera (even though it is a great investment for your entertainment dollar), you can always get a dose of operatic arias from the young students at AVA or Curtis during a meal at The Victor Cafe in South Philadelphia. Whether a veteran or novice of opera, if you haven't tried this restaurant, you've missed a special part of the Philadelphia scene.

Philadelphia's opera season begins next fall with Rigoletto, an opera by Giuseppe Verdi that is the dramatically volatile tale of the deformed court jester's daughter who is dishonored by a lecherous nobleman. Whether you are an opera lover who has not seen a performance in Philadelphia lately or someone whose curiosity has been aroused through this article, you don't have to wait for the fat lady to sing-because there isn't one in this opera.