If you’ve heard the phrase “it’s not over until the fat lady sings,” then you’ve used a phrase influenced by opera; to be precise, influenced by Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre. Ever heard of Figaro? There are a couple of operas by Mozart and Rossini where he is a main character. Opera is a powerful cultural force that has generated some of the most expressive works throughout history. However, in a day and age of fast paced entertainment where even cable television is too inert and lackluster for us Netflix-consuming, YouTubing Americans, our society has forgotten the potent artistic force of opera.
Well, why exactly has opera fallen out of fashion? Well firstly, they are pretty long. Most operas are somewhere from two to four acts, which can take anywhere from two to four hours to perform. Sometimes, that can be too much for some people. Secondly, they aren’t always performed in English. Some operas, especially the works of Thomas Arne and Gilbert and Sullivan do indeed have English librettos, but this is certainly not the case with most other operas. German and Italian are the most common languages in opera; in fact, Mozart had both Italian and German-speakers write librettos for him in his lifetime. As a result of these two languages dominating (with some French and Spanish operas thrown in there, too), English speakers have a difficult time understanding the plots of operas. However, technology has enabled subtitles to be displayed on a screen near, but not in, the performing area to allow the audience to understand the performance of the singers. Lastly, operatic singing has no standing in today’s popular culture. Even Broadway isn’t appealing to a lot of consumers of mainstream music, and rap and pop music are more well liked by millennials and Generation Z. This is just a rudimentary fact.
It is clear opera is not widely consumed. I think this is rather unfortunate, and I hope I can persuade you to at least watch one opera when I make the following argument in favor of opera:
Opera is a highly expressive form of art. There are so many avenues of conveying a message when it comes to opera. The orchestral scores, lyrics, and the stage production of an opera all become a multisided canvas for artistic genius as opposed to the narrow limitation of other forms of art. Painting is limited to aesthetic appeal; literature appeals through written word only; however, opera has both, plus the added benefit of musical expression. The end product of a work of art with so many moving parts is often beautiful and serene, but this is no easy feat. Writing the music for operas is insanely difficult – is there any wonder why the best have been written by Mozart, Offenbach, Wagner, and other extremely talented composers? Finding a story for the music is often difficult: Wagner may have written the libretto for some of his operas, but more often than not, the librettist and the composer of operas were two different people, which means it took artistic and sometimes personal chemistry between the two people to make a viable story with functioning plot features that correspond to the music. In addition to this, the librettist then actually had to find poetic lyrics for the music that not only fit the plot, but have artistic value and fit well with the music: not enough rhyming, vacuous and simple language, and lines with too many syllables per measure make for a rather unappealing piece of art. Performing the music takes a whole orchestra and a cast of highly skilled singers. Opera singing is no easy feat. It is incredibly difficult to memorize two to four hours’ worth of lines and the corresponding music for each line. Then singers must belt out each note perfectly while moving on stage, which is, again, challenging. The stage direction and costume design require a lot of coordination and creativity as well.
In essence, the creative and performative processes of opera are Herculean in difficulty, but there are endless bounds for the beauty of the finished product. Art has always played an important role in human history because it is an apparatus of the examination of the human condition, societal practices, and powerful ideas. Opera was once a very popular form of art, and I strongly encourage everybody to repopularize it, appreciate its beauty, and acknowledge the toil of its creators and performers.
Just as you can find books, television shows, and movies online, many recordings of operas (with subtitles) can be found online. If you would like to start now, I recommend watching one of these three operas to start:
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9ivsaGTAEg&t=2269s
Gioachino Rossini – Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oSjyDH4MJCc&t=1501s
W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan – The Mikado – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fbSqOY8z_4&t=3s