Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Your First Opera? Tosca's a Good Bet

Last week, Stuart Malina and I were talking about this weekend’s concert – a complete performance of Puccini’s opera, Tosca – and recording a ‘podcast’ which you can hear here. And I began thinking what it might be like for someone who has never seen (or heard) an opera before.

After all, opera (at least, a complete one) isn’t something you often find on a symphony orchestra’s program: the guest artists’ roster could include singers performing arias and of course it’s easy to do a whole concert program of orchestral excerpts – overtures, ballet music from an opera (like the music from Gounod’s setting of Faust which the Harrisburg Youth Symphony is performing on their own concert next week) or instrumental excerpts like “Dawn & Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, the Metropolitan Opera’s matinee radio broadcast this Saturday.

If this is the first time you’ve ever heard an opera live, you should know this weekend’s performance is a “concert performance” which means it’s not staged like you’d see it at an opera house. There won’t be any costumes or staging (not that the singers won’t interact with each other) but you will hear all the music. Ideally, an opera is a “total art experience,” without going all Wagnerian on you, and that means it’s (usually) a story told through words and music with singers in costume acting on a stage with sets and lighting. But many people hear recordings or a radio broadcast of an opera without ever seeing the singers, the costumes or the staging or, for that matter, understanding the words (since most operas are sung in foreign languages; even when sung in English, they're not always easily distinguishable in a performance).

Unfortunately, the Forum stage is not designed for theater. Putting the orchestra on stage precludes having space for the singers to move around and physically interact. While there used to be a pit, you still can’t nail anything down on the floor of the Forum stage. That means you won’t SEE the cathedral where the choir sings the Te Deum at the end of Act One, you won’t SEE Tosca murder Scarpia (photo, left), then place two candelabra on either side of his corpse at the end of Act Two and you won’t SEE the supposedly mock execution of Cavaradossi and then Tosca’s final leap off the roof of the prison that brings the opera to a close. But you will hear them.

More interestingly, you’ll be able to follow the words. In Italian this is called “the libretto” (or little book, basically the script) and this used to be something you’d either have to read before hand or try to figure out where you are while watching the opera (very distracting since you’re there to see an opera and not read a book).

Usually, you should probably read a “plot synopsis” of the story so you know what you’re going to be hearing, and maybe a little background material about the composer and the opera itself. You can do that by checking out my earlier post, by the way.

But a fairly recent technical innovation that makes this less of a “before-you-go” kind-of-thing is something called “Supertitles” which is like close-captioning on TV or “subtitles” that translates the dialogue in a foreign language film. They’re called “super” titles because they’re “above” the stage, not across the bottom (“sub”) of the screen. And while it may still seem distracting, you can look up to read the exact words that are being sung at that moment, and not have the singers very far from your field of vision.

The Metropolitan Opera has a different set-up which is fine for an opera house like the Met but impractical for the Forum. The Met’s “titles” are in a little screen across the back of the seat in front of you. That way it doesn’t distract from the visual aspect of the performance and if you find it annoying, you can turn it off. I found, for once, a benefit to wearing bifocals – I can read the Met’s titles through the lower, reading part of the lenses, then glance up to see the action on the stage without ever having to move my head.

The first time I had a chance to see something like this live, it was an opera I didn’t know anything about. I decided not to prepare myself. And it was in Russian. I’ll tell you now, Sergei Prokofiev’s Betrothal in a Monastery has become one of my favorite operas! I sat there entranced by the music and the production, but even found myself laughing at the jokes because the lines were so well timed, you were reading them as they were singing them. When I went back later to see operas I had seen before, even had recordings of, there were times I’m sitting there following along and realizing “Wow, so THAT’S what’s happening here!?”

Puccini is one of the most popular opera composers around and though no fuss was made over this being his 150th Anniversary Year (born in December, 1858), there is little to fear when facing one of his best known operas. If somebody who likes gorgeous melodies and lush harmonies would ask me for a recommendation, you can’t go wrong with La Boheme, Madame Butterfly or Tosca.

The emotions of the story are, in one sense, very realistic – well, if you watch television. Maybe not everybody experiences their emotions on quite the scale characters in opera do, but then usually everything is blown up to match the proportions of the staging and the music. Let’s face it, when people fall in love, have a fight, or break up, they don’t break into song. Once you understand that, it’s not difficult to imagine what’s going on behind the music: Tosca’s jealousy or Scarpia’s lecherous villainy.

Another factor that I should point out is one of time: symphonies or concertos move in segments called movements and may be a half-hour to, on the longer end of the scale, an hour or more (think Mahler). Opera can be the same way – instead of movements, it would be Acts, further subdivided into scenes, arias, duets, ensembles and so forth, all depending on how the story is being unfolded. Some one-act operas, complete, can be as long as one act of a three-act opera. It’s not uncommon for a whole opera to be 2-3 hours long (counting an intermission between each act) though Wagner takes the prize with operas that can be almost 6 hours from opening to final curtain. Then there’s the Ring of the Nibelung which takes four nights to perform, three of them clocking in between 5 and 6 hours each...

In my recording of Tosca, the 1st Act is 43 minutes long; the 2nd Act is 40 minutes and the 3rd Act is 26 minutes (sometimes in concert performances, the 2nd and 3rd Acts might be done together). So throw in an intermission or two, I figure Act I will end about 8:45 or so, and the final “curtain” could be around 10:15 – in other words, not much longer than a regular concert with an overture, a concerto and a large-scale symphony on it.

The performances are at the Forum, Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm. Timothy Dixon will be giving the pre-concert talks an hour before both performances.

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One quick story.

Puccini wrote in a style called “Verismo” which prefered stories with real-life people and emotions rather than historical tales involving kings and aristocrats, much less ancient gods, either. It is often considered “over the top,” as I mentioned, everything on a much grander scale when you add heart-throbbing music to the heart-throbbing story.

In Tosca, you have one of the great villains of opera, Scarpia (the opening chords are his chords). At the end of Act 1, he is lusting after Tosca, a famous opera singer of the day (a true diva), and he is plotting how he’s going to “have” her in his power while, in the background, the cathedral is celebrating a glorious “Te Deum” in praise of God. In Act 2, Scarpia has Tosca in his clutches metaphorically and would have her in them literally except she stabs him to death (the chords at the end of this act are his, too, but a chilling shadow of them). In Act 3, the presumed “mock” execution of Tosca’s lover, Cavaradossi, goes terribly wrong and he’s actually killed. When the police arrive to arrest Tosca for the murder of Scarpia, she throws herself off the prison’s roof to her death below. Okay?

So the actor Tony Randall, a great opera lover, was telling the story how one opera company had offered a special matinee performance of Cherubini’s opera Medea as a Family Performance with special discounts for children. Now, some people thought an opera about a mother who murders her children was hardly an appropriate choice for family entertainment and protested to the management. So the company substituted Tosca instead and everybody was fine with that!

- Dr. Dick

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