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Thread: Show me the way

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    Junior Member googlebordello's Avatar
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    Default Show me the way

    I'm sure this comes up in here relatively often, so if there's a good thread I should just refer to, feel free to point me there.

    So: I know a little about Wagner (from an intellectual rather than musical perspective) and I once saw Le nozze di Figaro in Berlin (had a great time), but essentially I know nothing about opera. After years of being intrigued, I was recently inspired to start listening forreal, but instead of wondering what to listen to, I find myself not knowing how to listen. I don't speak any of the languages, I doubt it would do much good if I did, & I have no basis for knowing what makes a great operatic vocal performance. Is it all just a matter of taste? Do you prefer listening or watching? Is it blasphemous to do one and not the other? Can I fully appreciate the intensity of the music if I'm not following the narrative? Do you usually listen to a single opera all the way through, or pick and choose your favorite pieces? (I find myself preferring the former). I feel like I need an approach.

    tl;dr: Ignorant ******* references Peter Frampton and possibly overthinks opera. Tell me how to listen to a thing, you wonderful humans!
    Last edited by googlebordello; Oct-31-2013 at 02:18.

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    So yeah, for sure opera can be intimidating! Don't worry, everyone feels that way at first! But we all overcame that, so it's definitely doable

    2nd, opera is one word that covers a huuuuuuuge range of music, so recommending a place to start can be tricky. Monteverdi is completely different from Mozart who is vastly different from Wagner who is worlds away from Philip Glass.

    So, I got into opera about 4 years ago. What did it for me was stumbling onto one individual performance that blew me away, despite knowing virtually nothing about the opera, the role featured, or the aria itself. (I also want to add that this is not the only way to discover opera: I know people who fell in love with the form by watching a Wagner opera as their first experience. This to me seems insane but it just shows the vast range of tastes). Anyway, I had been rewatching the movie Amadeus and had always loved all the music in it, even the opera bits, except for the one where some lady was sitting in a cloud squeaking. So I decided to look it up to see if there was something I was missing or if it was just a dumb piece of music. This is the first video I found when I looked it up:

    Watch this first, then I'll continue.
    So it's an astonishing performance for sure. Even without subtitles, it's an amazing, awe-inspiring display of the human voice. But not only that, there is spoken words at the beginning!? I had thought opera was non-stop singing, with plenty of fat ladies in viking hats. But this video ... this is opera??

    So from there, I explored more of that singer's work (her name is Diana Damrau, a great German soprano) and from there found arias I liked and listened to other singers' versions of them, as well as other famous opera pieces that I had known about through cultural osmosis -- ones that I thought were equally as silly as a woman squeaking, like that male aria where he sings Figaro, Figaro, Figaro ... I found out it was incredible too, and not silly! It's basically a long tongue-twister of a song that displays technical prowess while the eponymous Figaro sings about what an incredible guy he is.
    A version with English subtitles:


    Not only are the songs catchy, but also just the incredible vocal command, the strong and secure tone, just captivated me.
    I worked my way up from various arias to a full opera. My #1 recommendation for a first opera (technically an operetta but the difference is negligible for our purposes) is Orphee aux Enfers, convenientally available on Youtube, complete and with subtitles: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s_efSJqyhLA
    I recommend waiting until you've gotten a taste for individual arias before jumping into a full opera, but as I said above everyone's different. The first half of this operetta can drag a bit at times, but the opening number is cute, the duet that follows is hilarious and fantastic, and the second half of the piece is one whiz-bang number after another, with one duet that is sure to please no matter how much one resists, and another number that will be familiar to even the most opera-sheltered person.

    As to your more general questions, I tend to watch operas on dvd, particularly new pieces, with subtitles on so I can follow the story. It does divide your attention a bit, and after I become familiar with the opera and know the story well enough, the subtitles become unnecessary and one can concentrate on the music. And to be honest, the stories are usually fairly slight. As George Bernard Shaw said, ‘(Opera is when) a tenor and soprano want to make love, but are prevented from doing so by a baritone.’ That's the general outline of a majority of operas.

    I'd say try to listen to a range of arias and if there are any you particularly like, report back. There's such a huge range of musical styles and vocal classes that just saying "start with Maria Callas" might not be ideal. My personal favorite -- colortura soprano pieces from Mozart and the Bel Canto composers -- might do nothing for you.

    Some singers to look up on Youtube and listen to a few of their pieces:

    Maria Callas
    Natalie Dessay
    Joyce DiDonato
    Birgit Nilsson
    Anna Netrebko
    Ewa Podles
    Luciano Pavarotti
    Placido Domingo
    Thomas Hampson
    Bryn Terfel
    Siegfried Jersualem
    Kurt Moll

    That's a mix of various vocal types and eras, with an emphasis on current singers as they are more likely to have subtitles.

    One more to speed you on your way. $10 says you fall in love with the singer after watching this:
    -Ian

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    Senior Member Couac Addict's Avatar
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    You say that you enjoyed Le Nozze... It's a sequel to the Barber of Seville so you may want to look into that one as well.
    The previous post has already covered a lot and I'll try not to repeat too much of it.
    The story in an opera is usually very basic and the audience is often very familiar with it anyway - but you still need those subtitles when you're new to it.
    Unlike a musical, where the story is told through the libretto - an opera's story is told through the music. That can be a problem for new ears because you can't pick up the little subtleties. We've all been there.
    So don't worry about the subtitles too much. It's just a brief outline of the story. Quite often singers are just repeating the thing same over and over with different variations.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aspect_of_music This gives very general overview of what experienced ears are picking up but you might not be. New listeners can usually identify things like melody,rhythm,tempo etc easily enough but may not understand timbre/structure/counterpoint.

    When newcomers ask me to recommenced an opera, I always say Carmen. Very melodic. Very catchy from start to finish. It doesn't demand too much from new listeners - so it's easier for them to enjoy. It's also one of the few operas that stage directors don't fiddle with too much. Unlike Wagner, which seems to attract the craziest costumes/settings.

    You mentioned that you can't tell a good vocal performance from a poor one. Don't worry, it takes a while. Familiarity will certainly help in the long-run.
    Many moons ago, I managed to learn by listening to examples of good/bad performances and found that useful. I'd start with obviously poor recordings and then work up to recordings with singing/playing that is only slightly poorer.

    Examples are much easier, so we need an example of poor singing. Here's an easy target...

    The last 2mins of Jenkins should be enough for this example.
    To 'pop music' ears - Jenkins is an opera singer.
    To 'opera' ears - she's an opera student who pulled out years before her training was complete.

    When she does those quick runs, you can't hear the individual notes. they're all mushed together. Some notes just go AWOL.
    She gulps like a fish out of water. Her breathing technique is all over the place as she gasps during phrases that require silence.
    She's very tired during the final minutes and really struggles to find the upper register. Those screams at the end aren't supposed to sound like she's being attacked.
    She'd probably make a fine pop singer but she has neither the voice/stamina/technique for opera.

    So what's it supposed to sound like.
    Try this and hear the difference.

    The two examples are very exaggerated (Callas was one of the best ever) but it may help towards "what to listen for".
    Unfortunately, it's not something that can be summed up in a single post
    Last edited by Couac Addict; Oct-31-2013 at 05:37.

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    Great post by Cuoac Addict and, as said, it can be difficult at first to tell bad singing from good. When I first started getting into opera, I was blown away by this:

    It's ... pretty embarrassing to admit that now
    I mean, it's cleanly sung for the most part and her voice is pretty when singing a simple line, but it's certainly not an operatic voice and definitely not secure enough in tone or technique.
    The gold standard would be Joan Sutherland but every youtube vid I can find of her in this aria is of a version with a ridiculous tempo. So for a better comparison, with someone of close to equal vocal weight to Carla Maffioletti in the first video:


    Note how her voice just seems to have much more depth to it, the individual notes never waver or break -- every sound is made just as she intends. Though to be fair, Ms. Serra doesn't seem to have a trill while Ms. Maffioletti does, even if a very poor one that often breaks.

    For another version, and my personal favorite, we have Natalie Dessay.

    Not safe for work.
    Though she tends to get ahead of the music quite often, at one point quite badly, she has phenomenal control of her coloratura (the rapid and usually high pitched notes), rock solid support, incredible upper extension, and flexibility that Ms. Maffioletti can't aspire to.

    It would be interesting if the OP can hear differences between such singers -- I definitely couldn't for my first several weeks or months of opera listening.
    Last edited by rgz; Oct-31-2013 at 06:03.
    -Ian

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    I have no basis for knowing what makes a great operatic vocal performance. Is it all just a matter of taste?
    No, of experience. It's not any rare to be impressed by mediocre, don't recognize and dislike the greatness at the beginning. Whatever. Just keep as open as possible, listen, watch, listen, watch and then learn. Learn and understand. No special effort is required - you will likely find yourself much more perceptive of vocal issues naturally, without reading any professional stuff. Vocal terminology will become familiar too, just read a review or opera forum from time to time.

    So get yourself a opera newbie kit with classic performances/movie versions of great operas (there are many threads with recommendations, just look around) and get going.

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    Senior Member deggial's Avatar
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    if you've already been to the opera and had a great time you're on the right track. All you need now is motivation so find something that inspires you, whether it is a heroic wall of sound a la Wagner, trills (of joy or desperation), silly and light-hearted comedy, dark (melo)drama or contemporary stuff.

    after all the good advice others gave you, what I have to impart is this: listen, listen, listen. Individual arias is the best way to start. Don't overwhelm yourself with an entire opera unless one really catches your ear and you can't stop. So that means sure you can start listening to an entire one, but if your attention flags don't feel bad about stopping and doing other things.

    others have said this but I feel it needs to be repeated: listen to different voice types and see if you have a preference. Then look up singers old and new in that fach and see who are your favourites. Don't worry initially whether the singers you like are not considered the best - tastes differ and tastes also change. Just get started, that's the important thing.

    another thing that helped me was looking up roles. There's the damsel in distress, the scheming woman, the vamp, the envious male villain, the naive male hero, put-upon men/women, virtuous men/women, heroic men, enterprising women and the whole array of comedy characters etc. See what interests you and look them up for individual arias or operas where they are featured.

    sometimes it's also useful to go random - click on the link to an aria you've never heard of/were never interested in before. You might like it. Like this. It's not all coloratura, yanno, in spite of what this thread might lead you to believe

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    Poor Katherine Jenkins sounds like being chased by some hyenas. I can't understand why she did that. She has a nice voice, but has no school in how to use it for opera. A few times she also gets out of tune. In the second part she struggles with her breath and the voice deteriorates. She is no soprano, but yes Rossina is for mezzos. She could do it much better with the condition of enrolling in years of study. Comparing her wit Maria Callas is a bit too harsh. Compare Anna Netrebko with Maria Callas, Angela Gheorghiu, Anna Moffo, or Virginia Zeani, all in Traviata. Pick an aria and find the difference...A.N is wonderful but not good in coloratura operas.

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    If I were to wildly speculate, I'd say that Katherine Jenkins was told by some instructors that it was unlikely she'd ever have a secure top and by media-savvy agent types that she was too damn gorgeous to be "wasted" in opera, so a middle-ground of opera-lite ala Andrea Bocelli seemed a likely pathway to fame and fortune.
    -Ian

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    Sorry for still focusing on K. Jenkins. Honestly I did not know her, and assumed she is a pop singer. But, reading about her is more disturbing. She has musical training and worked as a voice teacher. But her Una voce poco fa is too bad to be true. For me, she may be the worst crossover singer, and I would not compare her even to Bocelli, though I know he is not an operatic tenor either.

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    Senior Member DavidA's Avatar
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    Kate is a crossover singer not a serious opera singer. In attempting the Barber aria is is woefully out of her depth, like David Helfgott attempting the Rach 3. But it's not about ability but looks, personality and publicity. Kate became the 'forces sweetheart' by entertaining troops in Iraq (a risky undertaking) so her audience is not particularly discerning. What does bug me more than Kate's success is people who criticise her for it. If someone has success with limited vocal talent then I say good luck to her. Criticism of such people is usually based on envy by people who would have not had success themselves. No doubt there are much better opera singers who look at her and wonder why it could not happen to them. But that success she enjoys in her field is hardly likely to deter success of really talented singers.
    Last edited by DavidA; Oct-31-2013 at 20:46.

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    I like how we started to go all about Jenkins in the "show me the way" thread. There is nothing more important to transmit into opera newcomer's mind than contempt for crossover singers. He may never get to hear good Traviata, but if he knows that Katherine Jenkins blows, he's all fine.
    Last edited by Aramis; Oct-31-2013 at 21:05.

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    Senior Member Dongiovanni's Avatar
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    This thread started of really well... until Jenkis was mentioned. So let's forget about that.

    I have some experience at introducing novices to opera, and classical music in general. The challenge in opera is the length and the shear overkill on music. For newbies this can be just too much. So start with the famous arias. There are lists on Youtube.

    Here's something I posted earlier:

    Here's an approach. Find an opera that you think is most suitable, many candidates have been mentioned here. And if you feel it's Wagner, just go for it. But, you should try some others before you decide. Find the typical highlights of this opera, sometimes seperate cd's are dedicated to highlights of a certain opera. If this appeals to you, get acquainted with it. Now you now the "soundspace" of the opera. To me this is very important.

    Next step, check the libretto, the plot and the characters. Wikipedia is a good source. Now you now what ties together those highlights. There are also some good docu's available on youtube about certain opera's. Often, special editions of opera dvd's also have this. Watch them, it's a great intro to the opera.

    Now go for the whole thing. The best is to get the whole experience, so DVD or youtube. If you want, you can do it in parts. You can watch the acts 1 by 1. I expect that at a certain point you will "connect" with the opera. This is when the magic starts. Look for the interaction of the characters, the acting, the staging.

    Finally, watch the whole thing, preferably in a theater. Prepare for your soul to be touched.

    Take the time you need. You can't force or rush this. If you take the time, say a year, chances are high you'll be hangin out in this part of the forum most of the time :-)

    it's in this thread: Intro to Opera...HELP!!!

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    Just to say opera highlights discs are often amazingly cheap second hand on Amazon.

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    Senior Member Dongiovanni's Avatar
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    Hit the reply button too early...

    You mentioned you enjoyed a Nozze during a live performance. So why not start from that ? Spend an evening on youtube. There you can find the famous arias, a synopsis, and even some in depth documentary.

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    Senior Member sharik's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by googlebordello View Post
    Show me the way
    start with Carmen and the rest will come of itself.

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