An Opera Primer: Preface and Part 1


feel free to skip down to part one if you don't want to read about where I got the idea

A few weeks ago over dinner I was discussing my upcoming opera with some friends and my friend Tommy turned to me and said, Dan I have no idea what you are talking about. Tommy is a brilliant architect, educated and cultured in many areas of which I have limited knowledge. This sparked a discussion about our gaps of knowledge. Things that we should, as members of society, cultured individuals, and people of discriminating taste should all know about, but don't. From this idea the primers were born.

This is my primer for Opera. Consider it a beta version. All thoughts and ideas and takes on it are from my point of view. The goal of this is to give you enough information that you will be able to have an opinion, even if that opinion happens to mine. I am attempting to answer big basic questions about what it is and what you need to know. Hopefully after reading through the primer a few times you can enter into a talk during an intermission and be able to mingle with the conosceti of the art.

Part 1

Q: What is this ‘Opera’ anyway?
A: In Ambrose Bierce’s A Devil’s Dictionary he defined it thus

n. A play representing life in another world, whose inhabitants have no speech but song, no motions but gestures and no postures but attitudes. All acting is simulation, and the word simulation is from simia, an ape; but in opera the actor takes for his model Simia audibilis (or Pithecanthropos stentor) — the ape that howls.
The actor apes a man — at least in shape;
The opera performer apes and ape.

In a more serious manner, opera is a dramatic art form combining stage action (drama) music and words in an endeavor to tell a story and create something more than the sum of its parts.

Q: Isn’t that musical theater?
A: Yes that could also be a good definition for musical theater.  The line between what is an opera and what is a musical is often fuzzy.  Traditionally the difference was that musicals had more spoken text with music interspersed throughout, and opera had much more focus on the music to tell the drama.

There is no clear cut rule as to what the difference is today.  In new operas/musicals it is what the creative team (composer and writer) decide to call it.  So if they call it an opera, it is an opera, if they call it a musical it is a musical.  There are stylistic differences between the two which I could go on about ad nauseam but the quickest way to tell the difference, is that an opera usually doesn’t have any microphones and in musical theater everyone will have a body mic.  Although this isn't even a hard and fast rule anymore, in the recently debuted Doctor Atomic (an opera) the composer wrote for amplified singers.

coming soon Part 2, the Major Players