August 9, 2015

Why I'm "meh" about opera highlight concerts

I really like the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day. It's one of those movies that I can't turn away from when I find it on cable, regardless of how many times I've seen it in the past. Remember Ned Ryerson? He's the dorky insurance salesman who assails Murray's character over and over with obnoxiously inappropriate familiarity and frantic shtick. Finally, Murray can't stand it any more and sucker-punches Ned with a cold-cock right roundhouse, sending him pirouetting into the street.

Now, suppose you have a friend who has never seen Groundhog Day and let's also suppose that the sucker-punch scene is your favorite bit in the film and makes you laugh every time. You don't have the time to show your friend the entire movie, so you fast-forward to the scene in the GIF above. 

"Isn't that a riot?" you ask, barely suppressing snorts of laughter. "Uh, yeah, I guess", offers your friend, "why did he punch him? Is he mad at him? I don't get it."

After a few moments of exasperated impatience with your friend (who never DID appreciate real comedy), a profound truth occurs to you:

It's just not as funny out of context.

We only really find it funny when the punch-moment is a payoff set up by all the previous meetings with Ned during which we came to dread seeing him confronting Murray yet AGAIN. It's not a "joke", it's a "funny moment in a comedy in which humor results from character".  Like that.

This - THIS! is my issue with recitals of opera arias.

I hesitate to mention this, because such recitals constitute a portion of my responsibilities with Virginia Opera. We call our young professional apprentices the "Emerging Artists" or EA's for short. Each season, besides touring the children's operas written by *cough cough* Your Humble Blogger, they present concerts we call "An Evening of Arias and Broadway" at retirement communities, concert halls and other venues around the region. The EA's trot out their audition repertoire, throw in some duets or trios, top it off with four or five tunes from music theater and Bob's your uncle. I often serve as Master of Ceremonies for these, introducing each number with a bit of snappy patter.

People love this. They LOVE it. 

And why wouldn't they? It's all the luscious ear-candy without the boring recitative and dialogue. No soybean meal of plot exposition, just the juicy red meat of Musetta's Waltz, the Toreador Song, and other "Gems of the Opera". There really are people out there who would rather hear such a recital than actually attend a full production.

And it's just not my thing. Why? It's "Ned Ryerson Syndrome":.

Opera is NOT A CONCERT. It's not a collection of nice tunes. It's THEATER.


If you've only heard Musetta's Waltz sung in the curve of the piano, YOU DON"T GET IT. You miss the irony of the situation; namely, that it's being sung by a woman pretending to ignore her former boyfriend when she's actually hoping to drive him insane with desire because she wants him to take her back. You also miss the amused and amusing commentary of the ex-boyfriend's pals as they watch the situation develop. 

If you only know the Toreador Song from seeing some baritone flounce around a concert stage by himself while the pianist pounds away on the keyboard, you miss more irony. See, Carmen is waiting for Don Jose to arrive at the tavern because she's agreed to be his lover in consideration for his having gone to jail for her. But even before he gets there, we see the electric chemistry between the Toreador and the Gypsy woman and we in the audience realize that whatever happens between Carmen and Jose cannot and will not end happily. It's not in her to be a one-woman man, at least not with THAT man, her impending seduction of that man notwithstanding.

And those are fairly upbeat numbers, not moments of high drama like the Miserere from "Trovatore" or Violetta's "Sempre libera". It's even more vital with tragic moments that we know what has happened to these people to cause them to emote so intensely. THAT'S what makes the music masterful, not how pretty the soprano looks in her gown, or how memorable the melody. I want LUMPS IN YOUR THROATS, people, not tapping toes. Sheesh.

Exactly 0% of any of that comes through in the context of a recital with voice and piano, leaving us with merely the memory of a high note nailed or a melody crooned. Big deal. 

Any opera aria suffers when it's heard without the build-up of characters and their interactions that brings us to the moment of that aria. That makes it different from any pop song you hear on the radio.

This even holds true for opera arias that are heard right at the start of an opera, like Radames' "Celeste Aida", the aria heard just as the opera begins. Context doesn't matter there, right? After all, there haven't BEEN any interactions yet; there IS no context. The curtain goes up, and BANG - the tenor is singing away on this pretty tune. So that's the exception, right?


Context can be retroactive, my friend. Once we see everything that Aida is going to put Radames through in the drama that follows, our perception of "Celeste Aida" changes; we see how ironic it was all along. Radames of the final scene isn't as tragic without the sunny innocence and optimism of Radames in the opening moments. The value of his opening aria is not solely its beauty; it's how it serves as a point of reference we'll look back upon later to realize the journey we've taken.

I acknowledge that for many people, arias in and of themselves, and the beauty of the voices singing them, are indeed a portal of entry into the world of opera appreciation. But I also know that for many of those same people, their appreciation never goes any deeper. And they will never truly, really understand the emotional roller coaster of a brilliant - and COMPLETE - operatic production.


  1. Absolutely, yes. This is definitely the case, and this is the reason we put so much effort into having full, fully-staged operas at Opera in Williamsburg (see Doing concerts is far easier -- you fit the concert to the singers you have, rather than having to find the singers that are right for the opera you are doing. And you don't need to put any effort into the theater side of the equation -- concept, character development, staging, sets and costumes, a much longer rehearsal period. And of course for a concert you pick the arias that your singers already have prepared, rather than preparing a single opera from beginning to end. I like opera concerts and go to them, but they don't compare at all to the effect of a full opera. I also find that opera novices are much more likely to be captivated by a full fully-staged opera (as long as it is at a very high level and as long as it has supertitles) than by opera highlights, which depend for some of their effect on the familiarity of the audience with the full opera and thus are more likely to be enjoyed by people who know their context well. Of course, doing a full opera requires significantly more resources...

  2. Glenn,

    A brief question.

    Have you ever met anyone who greatly prefers to experience opera by listening to complete audio recordings at home as opposed to seeing the whole theatrical event in an opera house ?


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