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Ladyguide: Opera for N00bs

I’ve been to the opera exactly three times, so I don’t intend to hold myself out as an aficionado, or even a competent appreciator, but I do think I have something to contribute in the way of beginner opera-ing.

I have always loved musical theater, orchestral performances, elaborate costumes, and really “the arts” in general (whatever that means). Attending the opera was a logical outgrowth of those appreciations. And as someone who approaches entertainment and art with a more-or-less, “I’ll give anything a shot” approach (by the way, I won’t be seeing a modern dance performance again anytime soon, the one shot will have to suffice) it was only a matter of time before I was invited to the opera and quickly responded, “Yes! I’d love to go.”

I had mentioned to a coworker and friend that Gershwin is a favorite of mine and that I love the music from Porgy & Bess. As a teenager, my mother regularly sent me over to my grandparents’ house on Saturdays  to vacuum and dust and do other light housework that would’ve been tough for a couple of old folks with bad backs and varicose veins. While I’d clean, my grandma would usually run errands and my granddad would stay behind. He’d putter in his office upstairs but leave the door open so that I could holler my banal teenage thoughts up the stairs and he could holler granddadly replies back down. We always listened to the music from Porgy & Bess because it was something we both loved. I’d crank it so the music filled the whole house. The song “It Ain’t Necessarily So” always makes me think of my granddad, even though, as a devoutly Christian man he probably didn’t agree with the lyric, “”¦it’s ain’t necessarily so”¦the things that you’re liable to read in the Bible, it ain’t necessarily so.”

Porgy & Bess is near to my heart. So when my friend, Ryan, mentioned that the Seattle Opera was presenting Gershwin’s folk opera, I eagerly agreed to check it out. Especially since any reservations I’d had about opera in the past mostly had to do with thinking that listening to people sing in a language I don’t understand would be boring and kind of pointless. Since Porgy & Bess is in English, no such reservation existed. Adding to the fact that (if nothing else) with P&B I’d at least know what was going on, I’m a classically trained pianist (having logged well over a decade of formal piano study and another decade plus of independent study and practice), so I was confident I’d enjoy the music to the fullest.

Hence, plans were put in place!

Up until Ryan’s invitation, I didn’t realize that opera houses sell tickets to dress rehearsals and that dress rehearsals are full-scale performances with few (if any) interruptions that are widely attended by opera lovers, school groups, and members of opera appreciation/sustainment groups.

It’s this last group (opera appreciators and sustainers) that really forms the purpose of my post on how to begin appreciating opera as a n00b like me.

The performance of P&B that Ryan and I attended was actually a dress rehearsal with the Gold Cast (the primary cast of performers which includes some scene big-wigs). But for me, the opera newbie, it couldn’t have mattered less. The set was marvelous, the costumes were captivating, and the performances (if the cast held back at all, I sure couldn’t detect it) were exquisite.

And this free (yes, FREE) ticket to the Gold Cast dress rehearsal was made possible by Ryan’s membership in the Seattle Opera’s BRAVO! Club. As a BRAVO! board member, Ryan receives tickets to dress rehearsals. And non-board BRAVO! Club members enjoy discounted tickets for these performances.

BRAVO! was created with the goal of developing new generations of opera appreciators. Understanding that opera is too spendy for most young folks to just buy a ticket and attend on a whim, BRAVO! committed to offering extensive benefits (including ticket discounts) to its membership (young opera lovers between the ages of 21 and 39). Since 1996, BRAVO! has developed into a diverse, 600-member strong opera awareness organization; it’s one of the largest clubs of its kind nationwide.

As part of his $65 season membership fee (I spend more money on a Netflix subscription for the year!) Ryan gets steeply discounted tickets and access to a slew of other events and opportunities.

For $65 you can also hobnob with interesting people that you might not otherwise run into. Since P&B, I’ve also attended Carmen and Attila at McCaw Hall (home of the Seattle Opera) and have been seated next to family members of performers, supernumeraries enjoying some time off, even local celebrities”¦I think. Tom Skerrit is hard to pick out of a line up. Seattle is the kind of chill city where people who might be showboaters in cities keener on pretension willingly attend a dress rehearsal rather than opening night because it’s more relaxed.

And relaxed is a great way for a newbie to experience the opera.

Some benefits of attending dress rehearsals, other than the previously stated it’s free or cheap reason, include: comfortable clothes, great seats, and convenient performance times and dates. Now you can’t dress like a hobo on a dress rehearsal night, mind you, but you don’t have to wear a gown and glove, or a borrowed Julia Roberts necklace that comes in a box that will try to bite your fingers. Professional work attire works well. I usually wear a skirt and tights and style my hair conservatively. “Church dress” is what my mom would have said when I was little. As for the seats, with BRAVO! membership, they’re great, no nose bleeds. Performances are generally mid-week and start at about 7. What’s not to love? Plus, you don’t have to make a big deal about it, you can eat dinner at Burgermaster beforehand instead of booking a reservation at Canlis two months out.

So, in case I’ve sold you on the idea that opera is fun and possible for any old rube, let me present a little research on clubs similar to BRAVO! in a few other major US cities:

Atlanta: The Atlanta Opera has volunteer opportunities and hosts special performances through Opera in the Community days. Low cost student tickets are available too.

Boston: Through Opera Boston, you can become a Friends Circle member for $100, which entitles you to two tickets to a dress rehearsal and behind the scenes info and education (plus your name will appear in the program, if you’re into that sort of thing). Or you can apply to volunteer, which could offer the chance to view and/or learn about shows for free.

Chicago: Chicago Magazine has already done some research on ways to experience opera in the windy city, so I offer Chicago Mag’s article as your guide: .

Dallas: Flex Subscriptions start for as low as $75!

Los Angeles: The LA Opera has a club very similar to BRAVO! Check out Aria.

Minneapolis: Minnesota Opera’s Tempo Club also provides benefits for young opera appreciators. And discounts are available for senior citizens, groups, and students too.

Washington, DC: Washington National Opera’s Generation O looks like a great program! And they have events for patrons who fall outside the 18-35 Gen O age range as well.

Oh and, one more tidbit to put you over the edge and set you on your way to an entertaining future of opera-ing, my friend Ryan and I once saw a woman exiting McCaw Hall wearing ankle socks with fuzzy balls on the back with stilettos, she was walking very chicly. Because Ryan and I can be kind of bitchy, this tickled us. See, that’s the kind of fun stuff that happens at the opera!

7 replies on “Ladyguide: Opera for N00bs”

Hi, my name is Aubrey and I work for Seattle Opera and help manage the BRAVO! Club.  THANK YOU for writing this!  Your experience at the opera is exactly what we are hoping to achieve through BRAVO! as we are working to make opera affordable, unintimidating, and easy to explore.  I feel like I should clarify one of the benefits: BRAVO! members do not receive free dress rehearsal passes.  The passes are given to anyone who volunteers for Seattle Opera, which several club members do as they donate their time to the organization by staffing and planning events.  Everything you said about the steep ticket discount and parties and events is 100% accurate though!  Again, thank you for writing about your time at Seattle Opera and for helping to spread the opera love!

Aubrey, thank you so much for your clarification! Ryan set me straight as well and I’ve updated the article to include the accurate info. I apologize for the errors! In my operatic excitement I got carried away :)

Viva BRAVO! It’s a wonderful group, keep up your good work!

Disclaimer: I effin’ love opera.

Few things I’d like to add: first, you don’t have to live in a major city to attend excellent opera. The incestuous nature of the arts is very evident in American regional opera, where full set & costume packages may be built for one company’s production and rented out to another, and the singing & production talent hop from state to state mounting and remounting shows in different markets, sometimes piecemeal, sometimes with the entire original artistic staff (including singers if they’re lucky. Boy, scheduling. What are you gonna do?) Building operas is expensive, especially when done well, so you can expect to see San Francisco’s La Bohème set have a new life on the road with new (or some of the same) singers in other markets, multiple times. And performers likewise develop relationships with productions and directors to where they may follow a particular role around, or a particular director, with local talents forming the opera chorus (a by no means easy job.) So if you’re not actually in Chicago or New York, you can still catch tremendously experienced performers as well as newer rising stars.

Thus, Madison Opera, Portland Opera, Dayton Opera, and Opera Omaha can still put on a seriously stellar show without having to find someone local who can whip out “nessun dorma” once a year & support himself selling insurance the other 49 weeks. All the four above-named also have discounted ticket programs and/or attended final dress options for younger/newer audience members.

Secondly, I notice you didn’t say much about the actual music, BB: if it hadn’t been Porgy and Bess, what would have changed about your experience? For people who are worried about being trapped in a chair in public, unable to politely escape, turned off by a repetitive story sung in a foreign language, no matter how beautiful the music: dip your toes into the pool before launching yourself at the full Ring Cycle and (justly) hating it. Start with the crowd faves, the chestnuts, that keep being produced because they keep being awesome and audiences have great affection for them, and we cry like babies and cheer like Red Sox fans and boo the bad guys during curtain call: La Bohème, Carmen, Le Nozze di Figaro. Hell, rent Moonstruck again and see if younger, real-hair, less-crazy Nic Cage can convince you to sit through some fragments while they play pop arrangements of Bohème in the background.

Try starting with a short one. Watch ’em on DVD at home in your jammies with a bowl of snacks and a Wikipedia synopsis in your lap, if you want to: in fact, here’s my gateway drug, first taste is free: Franco Zeffirelli did a La traviata in 1982 that is only 109 minutes long because he edited out some repetition. It is frickin’ gorgeous and will knock your socks off. 3 acts, ish, fast-moving, simple plot, beautiful music.  The young, streamlined, surprisingly hot powerhouse Placido Domingo plays Alfredo, who falls in love with the courtesan Violeta (Teresa Stratas, nails it). Young love, sexist douchebaggery, tragic secrets hither and yon, Zeffirelli’s absolutely striking production design, music that will freeze your hand on the way to the popcorn. Pretty Woman it ain’t.

Like it despite the patriarchy? try another one, Carmen if you want a little more feminism, (sadly not LOTS more.) If you find a favorite aria, nab a translation and try singing along sometime–that right there will give you a great understanding of operatic vocals without listening to someone blather on about tessitura and other bullshit extremely important and interesting technical details. You’ll enjoy a well-sung “Vissi d’arte” waaaay more if you’ve ever tried to sing it yourself in the shower. You know, not that I have. Or anything.

And the more you go, the less weirded out you’ll be by the fundamental oddness of having someone sing at you in a language you probably don’t speak. In fact, IMO, operas translated to English from their original language usually sound dumb, because they’re trying to fit translation into the musical structure and come up with plausible rhymes and whatnot—so keep ’em in their original language & look to the surtitles for help. (Operas composed in English, of course, don’t have this problem.)

Also, unrelated: I have the TV on, and I just want to say that I am super freaked out by Jennifer Hudson’s leggings in the current Weight Watchers spot. Are they leather? Are they pleather? They are very snug, and I feel like a longer top would have been a plus. Everything I see is very beautiful, I’m just uncomfortable seeing it. All.

 

I definitely second your suggestions of reading about the story on wikipedia and/or renting it first.

Also, I’d like to add, that even if it’s in another language, it isn’t that hard to follow because the performers act very expressively to convey illness/sadness/love/anger/etc.

I haven’t been to an opera in ages, but they really are quite fun. Even college productions of operas can be surprisingly good if you live near a university with a good music program. I got to work backstage on a few in college; I wouldn’t have guessed that I’d like them but I did!

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