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For Love of Opera

Updated on February 6, 2012

Opera, n. A dramatic composition set to music and sung on the stage, accompanied with musical instruments and enriched with magnificent dresses, machines, dancing, etc.

It's an art form that many dislike, malign, and never really take the time to try to understand. And in the world of easy access to any and all music, whatever your taste and whim may decree, who really needs it?

But opera is just as accessible as it ever was, in more ways than mere convenience. There's an old saying that anything worth having is worth working for, and even in entertainment this tends to hold true. It's much more satisfying to enjoy something that is intellectually stimulating while also keeping your mind functional.

Why, you may ask? For years, singing was a common pastime, and the opera tunes and art songs were the common means of entertainment. Imagine singing french and Italian for amusement-- it's almost inconceivable when the music industry today is msotly turning out simplistic melodies and lyrics. There's nothing inherently wrong with this, but it does make you respect the intellectual stimulation to be found in something with more complexity.

Secondly, the cultivation of the human voice is an incredible thing. Years and years go into the perfection of the technique, the flawless, apparent ease of performance. But trust me, that art is far from easy and leaves the performer extremely vulnerable-- after all, the singer is the instrument, with nothing to blame any problems on but themselves. A very simple understanding of what the trained voice is capable of should command some amount of respect, no matter what your opinion of the performer may be.

And last but not least, there is your own enjoyment to consider. For most people it's cool, it's fun, it's not at all intellectually tiring to simply dismiss opera as overblown stage productions full of ridiculousness. But forget it for a minute. Ignore the friends who snicker and blare it. Sing along to La Traviata, and discover your inner Pavoratti. Cry if you want when Violetta dies of consumption while belting a heart-wrenching aria. Discover the irony, the beauty, the sheer madness and revel therein.

So here are a few pointers for learning to enjoy this beautiful music, and not go crazy in the process. Or maybe, it will just make you the right kind of crazy.

1. Get Past the Language Barrier

Most opera is written in a foreign language, usually French, Italian, or German. Most people find this completely frustrating and don't even give it a chance because they can't understand what's being said. But English subtitles are available for most videos, or a simple google search can find you a translation.

There's another option though, and don't roll your eyes. Try listening to something without having to know what every word being uttered is. I bet you didn't understand everything the first time you listened to your favorite Kenny Chesney or Spice Girls song and it's possible that you still don't. But that didn't mean you hit the power button then, so give Verdi and Puccini a chance.

Danielle de Niese
Danielle de Niese
Renee Fleming
Renee Fleming | Source
Joyce DiDonato
Joyce DiDonato | Source

2. Learn to Appreciate the Voices

Just as in any other kind of vocal music, there are good ones and there are not-so-good ones. But the technique and power of the classically trained voice is one of the most beautiful things you will ever hear. First sit back and realize that the sound you hear isn't an instrument, it's a human. So don't cringe before they even start singing, and learn to look for the beauty. It's not that hard to find once you look for it.

There are a few that seem to be palatable to most, and even if they aren't strictly classical they are good for starters. Try Andrea Bocelli, Katherine Jenkins, and and Kathleen Battle to start and then venture into realms unknown with the divas like Renee Fleming or Danielle de Niese, or opt for the manly versions with Bryn Terfel or Placido Domingo.

3. Start Slow

There are a few very famous pieces that almost anyone with eardrums and a heartbeat can appreciate, so start with those and then go a little more exotic. Ease in with beauties like O Mio Babbino Caro, Nessun Dorma, or The Flower Duet, and then go for something a bit further out like Song to the Moon and Casta Diva. If you don't fall in love with at least one of them, or maybe even just like it a little, you're possible a hopeless case unless you're really determined to stick it out.

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