Feb 15, 2011

Why I love opera (and you might too)

Recently I came across an astounding story for my other blog, about a young woman who is giving free singing lessons to junior high girls. She's teaching them proper breathing and singing technique for all kinds of styles, from pop to opera. (The story also aired on Information Morning today, and you can listen to it here).

The teacher, Ann, is a classically trained singer, and she told me that the first time she demonstrated opera for the girls (who range from grade five to nine), their eyes widened in surprise. This is not a wealthy neighbourhood and most of the girls have never heard opera from a CD before, let alone live in a small classroom. Now, the girls request opera every time she visits. Some of them want to learn how to sing it.

"The thing with opera is, it’s hard to get the full effect of opera singing off a recording," Ann told me. "It’s really when you hear it live, you feel the reverberations from the sound. I only really got interested in opera once I realized I could sing it myself, because it’s really fun to sing. It feels very good inside to sing, it’s a very healthy thing."

Ann's story made me so happy I felt like singing, myself. At home in Toronto my parents have a large collection of classical music, including opera. My mother would often put on opera selections on the weekend, so I would wake up on Saturday morning to Puccini's Nessun Dorma cranked through the house. Once, an opera student visited my English class and sang Mozart's Voi Che Sapete three feet from where I was sitting. I know exactly why Ann Denny's girls' eyes go wide.

Opera is often seen as elitist or inaccessible. It is not. Cheap seats to the opera can be had for less than the price of a movie ticket. Opera recordings can be borrowed from the library for nothing at all - and unlike the more popular recordings, they are always available. And speaking of movies, if you don't have an opera house in your town, the Metropolitan Opera in New York is broadcasting some of their performances right into movie theatres all around the world.

Most importantly, if you listen closely, opera is about the inner story that you've lived and endured and had to come to terms with in your mind. Operas tend to stick to a few major themes: love, doomed love, hate, anger, revenge, ambition.

In his novel The Lyre of Orpheus, Robertson Davies elegantly expressed that opera is actually very simple: it is always about an enormous, universal, quintessentially human emotion. Not one member of the audience will go through life untouched by these ideas.

"There they all sit, all those stockbrokers and rich surgeons and insurance men," Davies wrote. "They look so solemn and quiet as if nothing would rouse them. But underneath they are raging with unhappy love, or vengeance, or some point of honour or ambition."

"They go to La Boheme or La Traviata and they remember some early affair that might have been squalid if you weren't living it yourself; or they see Rigoletto and think how the chairman humiliated them at the last board meeting; or they see Macbeth and think how they would like to murder the chairman and get his job. Only they don't think it; very deep down they feel it, and boil it, and suffer it in the primitive underworld of their souls."

When I listen to Nessun Dorma, or Che Gelada Manina, every love story is my love story; every moment of despair is my own. It could be the same way with you. I'd recommend giving it a try. Maybe opera will remind you of something so beautiful it can't be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it.

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