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Felix Grünschloß / Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe

Opera for Beginners

Articles

You’ve heard of sopranos singing at La Scala and the Met. Maybe you know the story of Carmen, Bizet’s tragically flawed and powerful heroine who captures the hearts of all men. Perhaps you have heard the vocal acrobatics of the mysterious Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. But you’ve never been inside an opera house, and now you’re here, on a website devoted to opera. Where to begin? 

Opera is drama set to music

There is a whole set of layers rounding out that basic concept: vocal production, voice types, dramaturgy, direction, stage design, composition.

Someone finds a text they love and a librettist adapts it into opera-friendly form, or they write an original libretto. Then, a composer sets this text to music.

 

An opera begins long before the curtain goes up and ends long after it has come down. It starts in my imagination, it becomes my life, and it stays part of my life long after I've left the opera house.
 - Maria Callas, Greek soprano

Once the opera is written, there is still much left to do. A director comes up with a staging. A musical director conducts an orchestra of musicians that play not only the overture (the orchestral introduction to an opera), but also accompany the singers throughout the work. Singers are cast, as well as a chorus and sometimes dancers, actors, and extras. Costumes are made and fitted. In contemporary operas, new elements, such as projections, videos, or electronic sounds, may be added by sound designers.

A number of professionals help an opera production come together in all sorts of ways. There might be stage fight, for example, and a fencing instructor might come in to instruct the singers on their swordplay. Some of the singers might need to dance along with the ballet corps, or they may waltz in a ballroom scene. Depending on the staging, there might be the need for instruction in techniques as widely ranging as circus acrobatics to martial arts.

 

Behind the scenes, we have technicians taking care of lighting and visual effects. Maybe there is a fog machine for a terrifying scene in the woods. Perhaps we need lightning and thunder.

But that is not all. Entire departments plan opera seasons, take care of performing rights, musicians’ contracts, funding. Someone designs the posters you see around your city and the ads you find online. At the opera house proper, ticket sellers, ushers, and other personnel help you to smoothly transition from daily reality into a world in another dimension, one where music dominates. And, of course, the most beautiful among these operas are streamed, live or on demand, here on OperaVision.