The fall opera season begins when Opera Colorado presents Verdi's Aida at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House on Saturday, November 7, and if you aren't waiting with bated breath, you should be. There’s lots of freakiness just waiting to be savored, and even those of us who dwell in the squalid village below the castle can dig it. Sure, opera can be overproduced and incomprehensible — but so are Presidential debates. Compared to them, opera’s a piece of cake. Here are some tips for the beginner:
1) The performers will not throw your Frisbee back.
2) Drinking is encouraged, but not too much – you want to waft out in a cloud of reverie, not strapped to a gurney.
3) Dress up? If you like. The stereotypical tux and gown set will always be out in force, and there have been serious outbreaks of sequins reported. But you should be fine as long as you don't look like you just came from Red Tag Day at Goodwill. Hell, in Santa Fe, everybody dresses as they please and they all tailgate together – it’s a hoot. In fact, why not go Rocky Horror and dress up like the opera characters? Cultural cosplay.
4) Bone up beforehand. Everybody knows how it ends: It’s in the program, and there are no spoiler alerts. Listen to it, watch it, read the libretto (aka the script) before you go. Watch Kim Thompson’s great 1992 animation, All the Great Operas in 10 Minutes (posted above). Since most opera is in a foreign language, it really helps to know going in who’s stabbing whom, and why.
5) Subtitles are your friend. Common now, they’re a play-by-play crawl of dialogue in time with what’s being sung onstage. In some places, they are still shone above the stage; the hip theaters — like the Ellie — have them stashed in little seatback monitors you can scan more discreetly.
6) Opera is dark. Fratricide, matricide, patricide, treason, adultery, lies, curses, insanity, vengeance, torture, tuberculosis and a distinct atmosphere of incivility pervade opera, all set to the most exquisite music. The far-fetched extremes the plot takes the characters to provide a context for the intensity of operatic expression (see #10).
7) An opera is not compelled in any way, shape or form to make a lick of sense. In Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable, the hero is at one point attacked by a troupe of dead nun-whores, whom he fends off with a magic branch. And this show made money.
8) Even with no prep, you can usually keep the players straight. The heroines are played by sopranos (high voice), the heroes are tenors (same). Bad guys and kings are the province of basses and baritones (low), and mezzo-sopranos (same) play the crazy old gypsies, who always seem to crop up in opera – they must have had a union. (DON'T call mezzo-sopranos altos — though that is what they are. For some reason, it angers them, and if you slip up, one will knock you clear from here to the middle of Kiowa County.)
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9) Why is everyone clapping? Worse: why am I the only one clapping? Sometimes after a singer has really nailed an aria (aka song), the audience will stop the show with a spontaneous round of applause. These plaudits usually come after a famous aria; just go along with it. If you think somebody did a great job, don’t start clapping all by yourself, though: That never works out well.
10) Opera was invented as an imitation of ancient Greek drama; it seeks to fuse all the arts into one. That’s why opera seems so big and intense – it goes for broke, every time. Though patently nonsensical, opera’s magnificent, showy attack hits at a visceral, emotional level. Why else would fans come back to shows they’ve seen dozens of times before? Love and rage, despair and triumph flood the stage and spill out into the audience. Opera kicks ass.
Opera Colorado presents Aida at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, 1101 13th Street, at 7:30 p.m. November 7, 10 and 13, and at 2 p.m. November 15. For tickets, go to operacolorado.org.