Everything You've Always Wondered About Opera (But Were Too Afraid To Ask) Part Deux!

Kelli Butler 

  • OnStage Opera Columnist
  • @KelliSoprano

...And we are BACK! I received enough questions (and always welcome more!) that I definitely needed to make this a two-parter! Without further ado, down the rabbit hole we go!

Norma asked : “My daughter wants to know why she can't understand opera, and does your throat ever get sore?”

Good questions! Opera comes in a variety of languages, with the most famous being Italian. I understand that there can be a bit of a language barrier! However, with the advent of newer and newer technology, we can easily compensate with sub-or-super titles. In some cases, the translation will be above the stage; other places, like the Metropolitan Opera, actually have it on the seat back in front of you!

As for your second question, singing shouldn't hurt! You can get tired, of course, and overuse your voice; but it shouldn't hurt to perform if you are singing properly and with a well grounded technique. That is why a good voice teacher is an absolute necessity for ANYONE wanting to sing, even if it isn't opera – vocal chords are delicate, and you can hurt them if you don't know what you are doing! Vocalizing is important too; just like you wouldn't run a marathon without stretching, you shouldn't sing a three hour opera without warming up!

Linda asked: “I don't always understand the story line in opera. How do I learn to better follow that?”

Just like the language barrier, the story barrier can be a bit overwhelming. Some operas rival the soaps with convoluted story lines and relationships! A great resource if you want to learn more before you attend is the Naxos Opera Synopses website. It gives a comprehensive list of operas from A-Z to help you look up and understand what you are about to experience. Also, more and more new operas are being commissioned in English, so that helps! Sometimes they even use familiar material, like Minnesota Opera's new The Shining. Yeah, that one. Creepy.

Don't worry though – if you can follow Game of Thrones, opera is a walk in the park.

Wendilyn asked: “Which is more difficult to sing, something from Wagner like Ride of the Valkyries or something from Mozart from Figaro or Flute?”

Aha! Now we get into one of the BIG differences that sets opera aside from other vocal art forms – the fach system (Yes, we know every fach you up joke imaginable). The fach system is a method of classifying singers, primarily opera singers, according to the range, weight, and color of their voices  For instance I'm a coloratura soprano – and that can get subdivided into specific types for specific voices. For me, Mozart is my bread and butter –  Queen of the Night in Magic Flute is my jam. I also sing several other Mozart roles. For a really great example of this voice type, you can listen to Diana Damrau as the Queen.

Wagner and his Valkyries require a SPECIFIC type of soprano. For example, here is Birgit Nilsson singing the Ride live at San Francisco Opera. It is a huge sound – Wagnerian voice types have an even larger orchestra than normal to overcome!  To combat this, when he built Bayreuth (his own opera house), Wagner situated the orchestra under the stage a bit. There are very few Wagnerian types roaming the world at large (they are like rare Pokemon).

And those are just the two you asked about! If anyone is curious about this system and how it is used, you can check out the Wiki on it.

Thanks again for all the questions! If you have any that weren't covered here, feel free to tweet me or ask me on Facebook! Next time, I'm going to cover the relationship of opera to musicals – like Rent and Miss Saigon. Stay tuned!