Opera is often portrayed as an elite, rarefied art form, making people think it isn’t for them.
This autumn we’re staging a special event that investigates how opera works, live on stage, to challenge the idea that opera is complicated or inaccessible.
In the meantime here are five useful things to know if you’re new to the art form.
1. Things may not look quite as you expect
When thinking of opera, lots of people imagine horned helmets. You know what we’re talking about.
But in fact modern opera embraces a range of aesthetics, depending on the vision of the creative team behind a production, led by the director. This means that one production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, for example, is not like any other.
Compare and contrast director Michael Grandage’s 2012 production, which relocated the action to the 1960s, with Graham Vick’s elegant 2000 staging, which featured a stripped-down period style.
Michael Grandage’s 2012 production of Le nozze di Figaro. Photo: Alastair Muir.
Graham Vick’s 2000 production of Le nozze di Figaro. Photo: Mike Hoban.
2. Opera singers are amazing
Gone are the days when a singer could simply stand in one spot on the stage and belt out an aria.
Today opera is as much about the dramatic experience as the music, and opera singers need to be able to sing, act and move – the triple threat.
Combining all that at the same time as delivering a controlled and polished vocal performance is no small feat of endurance and concentration.
That’s probably why international soprano Danielle de Niese has often said: ‘What I do demands the same kind of expertise as a professional athlete.’
3. The conductor is key
You may wonder how the musicians, tucked away just out of sight in the orchestra pit, know what the singers are doing and vice versa.
That’s where the conductor comes in – they’re the link between the orchestra pit and the stage, guiding the singers as well as the musicians and making sure everyone is in perfect harmony.
But that’s just one part of their role. Much of the work of a conductor takes place long before performances begin.
Opera is a marriage of music and theatre. That means that every production is the result of close collaboration between the conductor and the director – the conductor leads on the music while the director is responsible for the theatrics.
Through careful study of the score and aided by their vast musical knowledge, the conductor guides the orchestra and the singers through rehearsals to shape the musical performance of an opera, including phrasing, dynamics and tempo.
They’ll be looking to elicit the best possible performances from all involved and deliver a performance they feel best conveys the intentions of the composer.
Conductor Antonello Manacorda in rehearsals for Béatrice et Bénédict (Festival 2016). Photo: Sam Stephenson.
4. You won’t need to dig out your foreign language textbooks
Opera originated in Italy and spread quickly across Europe so much of the core repertoire is in languages other than English. But if your Italian/French/German/Russian is a little rusty, fear not – there will be supertitles, which are subtitles located above the stage.
And if you don’t want to spend the whole time reading, expect lots of clues about what’s happening in the story and what the characters are feeling from the music.
Supertitles in use during a production of Eugene Onegin (Festival 2014). Photo: David Illman
5. It takes an army…
We’ve already highlighted some of the key people involved in bringing an opera to the stage – director, conductor, singers, musicians – but this is far from the full picture.
Behind the scenes an army of talented people play their parts, including wig-makers, set builders, lighting technicians and stage crew, to name but a few.
Opera is packed full of immense technical skill because it unites many individual art forms: music, movement, drama and design. It’s this quality that makes it so unique and ensures opera is such a powerful live experience.
Photo: Sam Stephenson
To find out more about the creation of an opera, join us on the Glyndebourne Tour this autumn for Don Giovanni: Behind the Curtain.