I do not want art for a few any more than education for a few,
or freedom for a few.
Some art requires significant work from the partaker; it's important to not be afraid of this hard work. But, sometimes, particular types of art gain a more intense reputation than they necessarily deserve. Opera is one of these for me. Before I even listened to my first aria, I had developed a prejudice toward the form. I sensed that it was "hard" and "not for everyone" and "posh" and "inaccessible."
My first couple opera viewings, The Magic Flute at my university and a Wagner at the LA Opera, seemed to confirm this. The language barrier presented a major obstacle to comprehending the story, and thus I felt left out of the musical swells and confused by the acting and staging styles. My experience easily confirmed my prejudices, and so I placed opera in the "good for me but not pleasant" part of my life, my “cultural vegetables.” *
This might have continued had my spouse not habitually played contemporary classical music and specifically modern opera about the house on Saturday mornings (he’s nicer than he sounds, I promise). One morning, after several weeks of tuning out the music, I realized that they were singing in English. I heard, and comprehended. The meanings of the words and melodies intertwined, and I had a story. This was a drama, akin to the stage romances and tragedies that I loved from Shakespeare and others.
What harbour shelters peace?
Away from tidal waves, away from storm
What harbour can embrace
Terrors and tragedies?**
This was something I could begin to understand. I am neither a student nor a practitioner of opera, but it makes sense that a dramatic art is difficult to know and love when access to the story is prevented by a language barrier. It’s not impossible, as any opera lover will tell us. But, my suggestion is that the occasional contemporary English opera might be a better entry point to the art form than the story of 19th century Germanic legends sung in German.
In classrooms we start with what we know before we move to what we don’t; why should the stage be any different?
Learning can be a frightening task at the best of times; the right text at the right time can do a lot to reduce anxiety and provide a strong foundation for future success. Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes has been this for me.
Peter Grimes is the story of an ill-fated fisherman and his fishing village. On the surface it is the simple retelling of his ill-treatment of young apprentices, their semi-mysterious deaths, and his inability to escape the village gossips. Digging deeper, it questions communal culpability. How responsible is his village for their lack of action? The chorus sings, and makes us wonder:
We live and let live, and look
We keep our hands to ourselves.
Beyond this microcosm, it is also a story of fate and storms (timely for a nation often consumed by flood and torrential downpour). The four musical “Sea” interludes are often performed separately from the opera and are worth listening to on their own.
Both its lyrical and musical treatment of weather provides the space to question human choice and the possibility of redemption, as Grimes sings:
Now the Great Bear and Pleiades where earth moves
Are drawing up the clouds of human grief
Breathing solemnity in the deep night.
Who can decipher in storm or starlight the written character of a friendly fate
As the sky turns the world for us to change.
But if the horoscope’s bewildering,
Like a flashing turmoil of a shoal of herring
Who can turn skies back and begin again?
The story is simple and easy to follow, allowing one's attention to be claimed by more musically difficult stretches and profound poetry, like the selection above. I've found it to be a good introduction to the operatic style, and what is expected of me as an audience member.
As I’ve watched and listened to Peter Grimes, my confidence in being able to follow the plot and lyrics gave me the freedom to be moved by the emotion of the music and movement. The sung poetry sticks with me, doing what art should do: making me consider the universe and my place in it. I suggest listening to selections from a couple of the following operas, and then choose one to listen to in its entirety (YouTube is amazing for finding short selections). This is by no means a complete list of excellent English operas, but merely ones I have found to be an enjoyable introduction to the art form!
Peter Grimes (music by Benjamin Britten, libretto by Montagu Slater)
The Fall of the House of Usher (music by Philip Glass, libretto by Arthur Yorinks, based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe)
Porgy and Bess (music by George Gershwin, libretto by DeBose Heyward, lyrics by Heyward and Ira Gershwin)
Dido and Aeneas (music by Henry Purcell, libretto by Nahum Tate)
Handel’s oratorios (although not strictly operas, these are sometimes staged and are often shorter than full operas)
John Adams’ Nixon in China and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress are more musically stretching if you’re up for the challenge!
*I don’t particularly agree with the article I linked to, but it serves as a helpful example of the attitude it is easy to adopt toward “difficult” art. I’m arguing here that sometimes we make such art more difficult than it actually is.
**All quotations from Peter Grimes (music by Benjamin Britten, libretto by Montagu Slater).