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

Kelli Butler

  • OnStage Opera Columnist
  • @KelliSoprano

Hi there! I'm Kelli, the new resident opera floozy here at On Stage. I'm a professional working opera singer, with experience also in musicals, community theatre, and even a theme park (shhh.). I'm an avowed nerd of the sci-fi/fantasy and game variety, and can often be found playing my Gameboy in full costume backstage.

As my inaugural piece for this fantastic corner of the internet, I thought I'd do a bit of the old question-and-answer format to clear up some long-held questions about opera and what it is we do. I opened up the floor to questions on my Facebook and my Twitter to see what people were secretly wondering about my art form.

Stephanie asked : “Is opera ever sung in English?”

Why yes! In fact, there have been many stellar operas written in the last century IN English, by English-speaking composers and librettists. These include (but are not limited to!) The Ballad of Baby Doe, Nixon in China, The Ghosts of Versailles, and Dead Man Walking, as well as a much-lauded world premiere recently of The Scarlet Letter.

There are even some older operettas that – in America at least – are often performed in English, even if it is not their original language. These include works such as The Merry Widow and Die Fledermaus. Opera company outreach and educational programs also often put together shortened, English-language versions of operas such as The Magic Flute, to present to kids and entry-level opera audiences who find the language to be a barrier.

Cari asked: “What is the most difficult language to sing opera in?”

Good question – and it is also subjective. Opera covers a wide variety of languages, including many most people don't associate with the art form, and each singer is comfortable at different levels. For me, I find some of the French vowels to be not so much hard as annoying to sing – a mis-spoken or sung vowel can change a word's meaning entirely. I also find German delightful to sing in, whereas some of my colleagues differ.

Brian asked: “What about a production makes it an opera vs a musical?”

An opera on the grand scale is almost ALWAYS completely sung through, with the 'dialogue' being in the form of what are called recitatives. Some operas, like Mozart's The Magic Flute, are what we call 'singspiel', or sung play. These are closer to what a modern idea of a musical would be – spoken dialogue, with set sung pieces. Many of the operettas I mentioned in Stephanie's question fall into this pattern as well. There are of course musicals that border the line, such as Candide, Sweeney Todd, and Threepenny Opera, all of which require a lot of training you usually find in a classical singer. The type of voices used also is a big factor in the difference between the genres, and each has its own specialties and subcategories.

Sara Jean asked: “At what age did you know this was your passion?”

 Oooh, it just got personal. 

Actually, I originally longed to be in musicals. However, my height rules me out for a lot of the shows (I'm tall for a woman, and the costumes are very expensive to alter) and my voice leaned towards the classical. I have done several musicals though, and loved every minute.

As far as music itself being my passion to pursue as a career, about, oh, 13. 

Michael asked: “Why do you think the opera and/or more traditional classical music is lost on today's youth? Is it the lack of music/arts education with more focus on a more traditional job career path? More spent on sports and less on arts?”

This is a very touchy subject, for both myself, my colleagues in opera, and all of my friends at On Stage and in the theatre world. All across America, we are watching arts funding be slashed and music and theatre programs being removed from schools, while money is somehow found for new sports stadiums, team uniforms, and funding for new sports initiatives. It frustrates me to the extreme to think about how many children are being denied the opportunity to learn and express themselves through music and the arts. I can't help but feel that the overwhelming 'opera is boring' sentiment comes from no longer being exposed to the genre via school and even public television. The themes in opera are humanist; they apply across generations. If more young people were exposed to it, I honestly feel we could turn around the decline in ticket sales at opera houses across the country.


Well, I've only covered about a third of the questions here – so expect a part 2 coming soon! Thank you to everyone who is participating online – initiating a dialogue about the differences and similarities in the arts is the best way to spread the love we all have for them!

Also, thank you for not asking about breaking glass. THANK YOU.