George Bernard Shaw once said, “Opera is when a tenor and a soprano want to date but are prevented from doing so by a baritone.” He used a different verb instead of “date,” but I changed it so we could actually print his quote.
Shaw was right. Most operas feature a love story between a tenor and a soprano, with a mezzo-soprano as a lady-in-waiting, sister, friend or mother of the soprano. The baritone is in love with the soprano and has to fight for her attention, to woo her away from the tenor.
Sometimes the baritone is the father of the soprano, like in Rigoletto, and he definitely does not approve of the tenor’s character — a womanizing duke, who gets all the best melodies from Verdi, e.g. Bella figlia dell’amore.
Other times, as in La Traviata, the baritone is the father of the tenor, and he disapproves of the soprano’s character (a notorious courtesan). In another plot twist, the baritone is the brother of the soprano, as it happens in Faust. Valentin (the baritone), Marguerite’s brother, tries to protect her from Faust (the tenor), but he returns from war a bit too late. She is already pregnant.
As Shakespeare put it, the course of true love never did run smooth. In operas, the love story does not even smooth out in the end. Opera is not Disney. A woman usually ends up dead by the time the curtain falls for the last time.
Forget the story. It’s about love. That is all you need to know. Focus on the music. If you could listen to some of the most famous arias more than three times, you would start hearing a melody. The supported voice is the greatest hurdle in appreciating opera.
It took me three times to hear the melody in Tosca’s Vissi d’arte. Once I heard it, Puccini became my new favorite composer, although Verdi is still the top of the opera food chain for me.
Even if you do not know much about opera, I bet you know Brindisi from La Traviata. You probably know the tenor aria which ends with Vincero, vincero, vincero (I will win), which Pavarotti sang at the Olympic Games in Turin, back in 2006. The title is actually Nessun dorma (Nobody is sleeping), from Pucini’s Turandot.
Last year, when I wrote about Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky’s opera, some people wondered what I meant by it. Exactly what I wrote. It is a beautiful opera about unrequited love. Nothing more, nothing less.
You all have my husband to thank that I have not written about opera in more than a year. He tells me that most Sevier County residents say “shoot me now” when they hear the word opera. That’s a pity.
If you listen to La donna e mobile or Recondita armonia or E lucevan le stelle — all tenor arias — you would start hearing the beauty of the operatic melody. You can look up the synopsis of an opera if you are curious. But more often than not it is best not to know what they are saying. Some of the characters lack character and the lyrics reflect that.
The music is so pretty though. Keep it in Italian with no English subtitles. Just listen to the music. It’s about love.