Opera 101

by don westwood
Why do we speak of “opera lovers” as somehow separate from the rest of humanity? A reality check tells us that many of our friends and neighbors do not think of opera as rewarding entertainment. To these other folks, these opera lovers, opera is like chicken soup: “Eat your chicken soup, it’s good for you.” No wonder so many people cringe at the “o” word. How did this happen?
Flashback. Florence, Italy. About 400 years ago. A bunch of guys – musicians, writers, painters, singers, dancers – are sitting around a room. You can imagine the conversation. One of the musicians says, “Okay, tonight we’re introducing this new art form. What the heck do we call it? I say we call it ‘music with some singing.’” “That’s no good,” says one of the writers. “I say we call it ‘a play with some music and a little singing.’” “Hang on! This is about us!” (That was, of course, a singer chiming in.)
Finally, a painter, the voice of reason, says: “Our new art form combines all the arts. It’s not just a concert or a play or a song recital or a dance or a painting. It’s all of these. When one of us creates a work on our own, it’s called an ‘opus,’ meaning ‘work.’ What we have here is ‘opera,’ the plural of ‘opus,’ many works combined to form the greatest and most exciting entertainment medium yet devised!”
Back to the present. “Greatest?” “Most exciting?” Many people have doubts about that. It’s easy to understand why. Those guys in Italy were creating entertainment for royalty. (For the record, that ain’t us.) The popularity of opera spread quickly through the royal courts of Europe. As you might expect, it wasn’t long before regular people started to get into the act. In England, a musical play called The Beggar’s Opera popped up in protest of the “exclusivity” of opera in the courts. The Beggar’s Opera, by the way, was adapted in the 20th century by Kurt Weill as The Three Penney Opera. We’ve all heard the hit tune, “Mack the Knife.” Whoops… we’ve all been listening to opera without knowing it. The truth is: opera is all around us, most notably in classic Broadway musicals and TV commercials for expensive cars, high-end watches and the like.
During the 19th century, opera, and its lighter cousin, operetta, became Europe’s most popular form of theatre. Every country had its own national style. Popular Italian composers like Verdi and Puccini – true men of the theatre – knew how to communicate with the public in the way that top movie writers and directors do today. With Verdi and Puccini leading the charge, opera exploded throughout Europe and Latin America.
So what happened in the United States? Well, 19th century Americans were busy building a nation. Besides, the revolution we had in the 18th century was supposed to deliver us from everything European and royal. Opera in America became the music theatre of choice for the wealthy few – the folks who thought of themselves as America’s royalty. And so it remained into the 1960s.
Since then, while retaining much of its royal veneer, opera has grown in genuine popularity in the United States. Its popularity has accelerated in recent years with the introduction of SuperTitles (simultaneous translation projected above the stage). Major donors still attend “exclusive” events, and the opera remains a place to see and be seen. That said, today’s opera fans also includes its share of students, store clerks, and leather-clad bikers, along with professionals such as dentists, teachers and librarians.
Major companies, including New York’s Metropolitan Opera, run in tandem with regional companies both large and small. The Jacksonville Symphony presents one opera each year. Smaller organizations such as First Coast Opera are likely to offer several productions. Opera activity in Jacksonville now includes the Jacksonville Lyric Opera, a company that performs from Jacksonville to Key West, and Opera Jacksonville, a new organization still in the planning stages.
Even if you know nothing about opera (unless you just read the primer above) this is a great year to seek out local productions. Novice opera seekers or opera lovers have two great choices in January and February. First Coast Opera (firstcoastopera.com) presents La Boheme on January 23 and 25 at the Menendez Performing Arts Center in St. Augustine, and the Jacksonville Symphony (jaxsymphony.org) presents Turandot on February 7 at the Times-Union Center in Jacksonville. Both operas are by Puccini, the world’s favorite opera composer. Both will be fully staged, and both will feature soloists with national and international credits. Beyond these common points, the two presentations will be very different.
With a cast of thirty-two and chamber orchestra, First Coast Opera’s La Boheme will be an intimate production, allowing you to experience the action up close and personal. Samuel Clein, the production’s Music Director and Conductor, says the intimate setting “heightens our emotions as we react to Puccini’s masterful musical setting of this timeless story of young and tragic love.”
The Symphony’s Turandot, to be conducted by Music Director and Principal Conductor Fabio Mechetti, promises to be opera on an impressive scale. Maestro Mechetti notes that “Turandot is one of the most monumental operas ever written from the theatrical as well as the musical point of view. It contains some of the most poignant and memorable melodies of all time, and it combines elements of realism and fantasy to convey an intriguing and unique love story.”
This is all good news for opera lovers, since La Boheme is an intense, personal drama and Turandot is a prime example of grand opera pageantry. If you attend both productions you will experience the full range of opera as it is presented today.
The New Year is about new experiences, about broadening your horizons, so for all of you who haven’t experienced opera yet–isn’t it time to?
Don Westwood (donaldwestwood.com) is a producer and stage director who has recently relocated to Jacksonville from New York City. He is Artistic Director of the Jacksonville Lyric Opera and will direct First Coast Opera’s La Boheme in January.


april, 2022