Opera’s grandness is one of its best qualities — and also one of its most intimidating. The stage is crowded with singers, props, fabulous costumes and scenery. A live orchestra accompanies them as they generate a vast cascade of notes, often in a foreign language.
The opera-going experience also conjures up images of hoity-toity wealthy people, dressed to the nines, sitting in posh theater boxes and peering through opera glasses (though that cliché is less true these days than it used to be).
But opera’s rich complexity can also be a lot of fun: With multiple things happening at any given time, there’s always something to watch. And opera is a great chance to dress up and have a glamorous night out.
As they work to draw in broader audiences and throw off their stodgy reputation, opera companies stress that you get to define what a glamorous night, and even what opera itself, means to you.
For the uninitiated, here’s how to find your way into the lavish energy of opera.
Seattle Opera is one of the nation’s largest and most respected opera companies. But local opera goes far beyond McCaw Hall. Groups of all sizes and budgets produce work locally, often at low cost.
The Live Music Project website, which tracks many kinds of music, lists upcoming opera performances on its calendar. You can find everything from early opera at Pacific MusicWorks to cutting-edge modern opera at universities.
For an easy introduction, try signing up for the Groupmuse or Opera On Tap email lists. Groupmuse hosts performers in volunteers’ living rooms and other intimate spaces, while Opera On Tap brings classically trained singers into, yes, actual bars to perform for relaxed audiences.
The region’s universities, including the University of Washington, put on opera performances ranging from inexpensive to free.
UW students put on a public performance every quarter — usually individual or small-group performances, said Deanne Meek, a professional opera singer and visiting artist in the Vocal Theatre Works program. Those are usually individual or small-group performances, but they recently staged a more ambitious project: the Seattle premiere of Philip Glass’s modern “Hydrogen Jukebox,” with a social-commentary libretto by Allen Ginsberg.
Meek, a Tri-Cities native whose career has taken her around the world, said the local scene is “very vibrant and vital, and there are many committed artists out there. They’re not making a lot of money, but they’re making it happen.”
Seattle Opera occasionally puts on shorter, less expensive chamber operas. Its new building next to McCaw Hall features a glass-walled auditorium perfect for intimate performances. The bustling costume department is also visible from outside. (My favorite factoid: to ensure consistency, every singer wears a wig for every Seattle Opera performance. That’s a lot of wigs!)
But you really should go to a grand opera production at least once to give yourself the treat of a full operatic spectacle.
The next production, Georges Bizet’s “Carmen,” running May 4-19 at McCaw Hall, makes a great first opera, with familiar bold music and a story of romance amid class differences. Its sprawling cast, big orchestra and larger-than-life main character make it grand opera in the widest sense.
Enjoy the majesty
Appreciating the richness of opera goes a long way toward getting past occasionally wild plots and unintelligible lyrics. Foremost among the things that make opera special: the singers’ talent, which entails singing and acting difficult roles, usually without amplification, for a large audience.
“To do that, you need to access a deeper connection to your body and your breath,” said Meek, who compares singing an opera to running a marathon. “To do this acoustic thing that we do, without hurting ourselves — it’s almost a controlled scream sometimes.”
Unlike musical theater, opera typically includes a live orchestra playing in time with the singers. And with little or no spoken dialogue, opera is an unbroken string of musical moments.
Add in larger-than-life characters and stories, fight scenes, dancing, wooing and creative lighting and staging, and you get a lot of bang for your buck. Meek calls it “the most encompassing storytelling possible.”
To give the feel the composer sought, opera is typically sung in the language for which it was originally written. Captions in English, called supertitles, appear on a screen above the stage. A dramaturg makes sure those words match the cadence of any given production.
“The kind of live, in-the-moment teamwork you get in opera is unique,” said Seattle Opera’s in-house dramaturg, Jonathan Dean, comparing it to a movie being made in real time. Unlike movies, TV, or visual art, he says, an opera isn’t truly complete until it’s performed live.
If you take advantage of all the surrounding talks, program notes, blog posts and lobby displays, opera can be as educational as it is entertaining. Seattle Opera’s Plan Your Visit page includes a bunch of helpful information about everything from parking to post-show talks.
Those resources can also help you figure out what’s going on up there on stage, which is helpful for those of us whose formative opera experience was seeing goofy cartoon characters in helmets (that said, if you haven’t seen Chuck Jones’ opera cartoons, do yourself a favor and watch them online).
Most opera experts recommend getting a feel for the basic plot before you go. That way, you won’t have to spend as much time trying to follow along and can devote your brain to enjoying the music.
Dean stresses understanding the characters. It also helps to know a bit about when and where the opera is set as well as when and where it was written. The strong-willed title character in “Carmen,” for instance, is perceived as a threat and an outsider in the restrictive 19th-century Spanish culture Bizet portrays, which puts her in danger.
Dominica Myers, Seattle Opera’s associate director of administration, loves the post-show talks held after each performance. “It’s so fun to bring people who’ve never been to the opera and they get to meet a performer and it’s ‘Oh, my gosh, that person who was just on stage is right here,’ ” she said.
Broadening the audience
Seattle Opera is one of many companies trying to shed opera’s image as a rich person’s art form. Its Ways to Save page outlines less expensive ticket options. Those range from student and senior rush tickets to $20 standing-room tickets for all performances.
Myers understands the perception. For much of her childhood, opera wasn’t on the radar (she went to “Porgy and Bess” only because her mother saved up to buy one ticket for her).
Now, she is helping spearhead Seattle Opera’s efforts to involve a wider range of people, not just as performers and audience members but also as administrators and production staff.
Seattle Opera’s efforts to be more inclusive have expanded into efforts to address “What are those really problematic themes that are in these blockbuster operas?” Myers said, adding that exploring those themes helps connect today’s audiences with productions that might have otherwise seemed out of touch or irrelevant in our era.
Opera companies are also trying new things, commissioning operas based on modern stories, including Seattle Opera’s recent “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.”
When you go
Be on time, and don’t leave early. Latecomers aren’t admitted until intermission, although they can watch a live feed on lobby monitors. Leaving before the final applause can also be hurtful to performers. “We absolutely read the audience’s response. We absolutely draw on what people are feeling. If you love something, applaud,” Meek said.
Plan for intermission: While intermission in other places gives you just enough time to run to the bathroom and maybe grab a quick drink, opera intermissions are typically at least 20 minutes long. Preorder a drink or snacks at one of the refreshment stands scattered through McCaw Hall or even make reservations for full-on dessert in McCaw’s on-site restaurant, Prelude.
Honor the music. Dean’s only etiquette rule for opera is “When you’re there, pay attention and get into it.” That also means vociferously applauding and even yelling “Bravo!” or “Brava!” after a particularly great aria or scene. Just be sure to wait until the singer’s done before you make noise.
Dress up, whatever that means to you. People come in casual clothes all the time. But if you like dressing up, opera is one of Seattle’s best opportunities. I’ve seen women wearing gloves, ballgowns and tiaras, as well as men (and women!) in tuxedos. “You cannot overdress” at the opera, Dean said.
Common voice types in opera
Soprano: the highest female voice, they often sing heroine roles. A coloratura soprano spans an even wider range.
Mezzo-soprano: a bit lower than other sopranos, traditionally mezzos have often been villains or supporting characters. But Bizet’s provocative Carmen is a mezzo.
Contralto or alto: the lowest female voice, quite rare (American star Marian Anderson was a contralto).
Countertenor: the highest male voice in opera, sometimes singing in falsetto.
Tenor: a male voice with a rare but historically revered combination of power and high range, often the hero.
Baritone: midrange male voice, often a villain in classic opera; less so in the U.S. (“We want our heroes to be regular types of guys,” Dean said).
Bass: the lowest male voice, often sings either villains or buffoons (or villainous buffoons, which can be lots of fun).
Seattle Opera presents “Carmen,” May 4-19; Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $59-$335; 206-389-7676, seattleopera.org
Opera on Tap – Seattle: operaontap.org/seattle
Live Music Project: livemusicproject.org