Don't mess with a soprano  

Soprano's simple stagecraft

Move that elephant!

That’s not a sentence you normally hear, but opera is not an ordinary art form. It is an art form on steroids.

Yes, live elephants have really been used on stage along with live camels.  My voice teacher, Mary Curtis Verna, regaled new students with her stories of the grandeur and size of the Baths of Caracalla stage in Rome. 

The original theatre sat 6,000 people and the stage was the size of a football field.  What an initiation into the world of opera that was for us.

There are people who think opera is like a white elephant; an overdone, outdated art form, something not needed and to be found in a garage sale. 

I could almost understand this considering how few voice students are studying classical music these days compared to aspiring pop singers.

However, those who take the time to explore this type of performance are blown away by the beauty and complexity of the music, and the raw emotions that an evening of opera can evoke.

To be part of this type of art is heavenly. Words can’t explain the thrill of 40 people on stage, even more in the orchestra pit, the conductor co-ordinating everything and you alone  — acting and singing your heart out. That is living.

No matter how fleeting those times are, or how poorly you are paid, it is worth a lifetime of effort. I don’t regret one moment.

What makes opera so schizophrenic? You either love it or don’t. There are contributing factors — for instance, foreign languages, weird plots, and elitism.

Opera in North America is performed in the language it was written in. This is tradition makes understanding opera hard unless you speak multiple languages. 

Super titles are the translations printed above the stage in English. This helps the opera newbie to better understand what is being sung. 

In Europe, all operas are sung in the language of the land. In Germany, everything was sung in German.  I was in Cole Porter’s Anything Goes musical.  It was titled Alles Okay. They would translate English into German slang — umgangssprache. 

As long as you could learn one language, you were fine.

OK, opera plots can be odd, convoluted, and just stretch the imagination to breaking point. They can be creepy, too. 

The weirdest plot to me is Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakovs’ The Golden Cockerel. In this opera, King Dodon is pecked to death by a large chicken. Did I miss something in the translation? 

Beethoven’s Fidelio is definitely a contender for the most convoluted plot. It’s about a man imprisoned for political reasons and his wife masquerades as a man and is hired as a guard. 

The head guard’s daughter falls in love with the new guard. The wife goes to his cell, tells him who she is, but he doesn’t recognize her voice nor her. 

It goes on and on, but the redeeming grace is fantastic music and the most glorious male chorus ever written.

Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites (Dialogues of the Carmelites) is pretty creepy with all the nuns being beheaded with the sounds of the guillotine and heads falling.

Opera gets a bad rap as being elitist. Perhaps this stems from all the above and being an art form better enjoyed with some study beforehand. 

All you need to do to enjoy opera is to read the program notes about the plot, read the supertitles if possible, and sit back, listen, and watch the many things happening before your eyes

A lot of things happen or don’t happen when they should and you learn to keep your mouth shut if you want to survive.

I was performing Ariadne Auf Naxos by Richard Strauss, not the waltz king, but the contemporary German composer. The opera has a trio of women singing in the second act. 

This music is beautiful, but devilishly hard to learn. The three of us had struggled to learn this piece and it was touch and go whether it would be ready for the dress rehearsal. 

We sang the dress rehearsal, got hopelessly lost in the middle, but managed to start and end well. 

The conductor stopped the orchestra, this was not a good omen, and in a loud voice asked the three of us to step forward. 

We stood rooted in a row awaiting our fate. Mentally, I had already packed my bags.

The conductor told everyone that we had sung to perfection and no one in years had heard such beautiful singing.

I learned that day that a conductor has more to do and co-ordinate than just us and perhaps he found the music difficult, too.  

We survived and our group was in high demand to perform this trio around Germany that year.

Opera is more than 400 years old, from Italy, and has gone from obscure plots to realism to live streaming in 2009 to silence.

The Metropolitan Opera, NYC has just announced the cancellation of its 2021 season.

Please don’t let COVID take this art form from us.


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About the Author

Sue Skinner is a singer of opera and musical theatre, a choral conductor and a teacher/coach of voice. 

She has travelled the world, learned many languages, seen every little town in Alberta and supported herself with music all her life.

She has sung at weddings, funerals, musicals, operettas, opera, with symphonies, guitars, jazz groups, rock bands and at play schools. 

Skinner has taken two choirs to Carnegie Hall, sung around the world, and teaches for Wentworth Music on Zoom.

[email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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