An Ode to Opera 🎶

I saw my first opera in the Czech Republic when I was seventeen years old. My high school madrigal choir was traveling to compete in an international competition, and our tour took us to the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Austria. (We took home the top prize!) After a long day of rehearsals in the city of Olomouc, we slunk into the red velvet seats of the 1830 MoravskĂ© divadlo Olomouc opera house to see Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco. The surtitles were in Czech. I didn’t quite follow the plot, but I marveled at the elaborate set pieces and the heavy, ornamented costumes. I watched in amazement as the tiers of Solomon’s temple flew above the stage, and as fire ignited along the footlights to illuminate a battle scene. It was all so grandiose—the opera house, the music, the drama. Much to my surprise, the audience burst into song in the Third Act. The crowd of well-dressed patrons joined in on the famous chorus “Va, Pensiero," and it was kind of magical.

I didn’t return to the opera for seven years, and now I’m on a roll seeing contemporary operas. Many luminaries in the theatre world develop and direct operas, and in my recent trips to the opera I have found that the form mirrors contemporary musicals in surprising ways. Arias in operas are much like the "I Want" songs in musicals—characters step aside to reveal their innermost feelings. The songs can be indulgent, emotional, and don't have to drive the plot. This emotional storytelling can also teach the audience how to listen to subsequent recitative songs. 

In December, I went to the Metropolitan Opera for the premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s L'Amour de loin. It was opening night, and women ascended the stairs of the Met with their gowns trailing behind. Men were dressed to the nines in tuxedos. And there was such excitement bubbling about the premiere—it was the first staging of an opera by a female composer at the Met since 1903. (Which was staggering to me and didn't seem like cause for celebration, but I happily attended the celebratory post-show soirée anyway.) Surtitles for the French-language libretto by Amin Maalouf were neatly displayed on the seat in front of me, but my eyes were transfixed on director Robert Lepage’s staging. The sea separating the opera’s long distance lovers—the Prince of Blaye and the Countess of Tripoli—was brought to life with rows of twinkling, tubular LED lights. They seemed to stretch upstage forever, rising and falling with the billow of the baritone’s voice. It was mesmerizing, and so beautiful.

In September I saw the world premiere of the “hiphopera” We Shall Not Be Moved, by Daniel Bernard Roumain and Marc Bamuthi Joseph, at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia as part of the Opera Philadelphia’s O Festival. The performers soared through spoken word, hip hop, and opera singing—all directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones. The opera follows a group of displaced North Philly teenagers who find refuge in the exact location of the MOVE organization, the black liberation group that was bombed by the Philadelphia police in 1985. It was a dark slice of history, folded into the harrowing present, and told through beautiful projections and words. 

Earlier this month, I ventured to BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House in Brooklyn for the first time to see Crossing as part of the Next Wave Festival. The opera was composed, written, and conducted by 27-year-old Matthew Aucoin, and directed by Diane Paulus. The English libretto was inspired by excerpts from a diary that Walt Whitman kept while volunteering as a Civil War nurse. It explores the line “What is it, then, between us?” in Whitman’s poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” taking it so far as to imagine a relationship between the author and a patient at a Washington, D.C.-based Union hospital. The set was a one-room ward filled with varying shades of Prussian blue, the color of the Union Army uniforms. Projections of the outside world fluttered across the shiplap walls, and soldiers moved about the space dancing as waves and shifting as wind, all while the lines between good and evil, and life and death, criss-crossed and blurred. It brought forth a divisive period of U.S. history, all while shedding light on the discordance in our country today.

I’m struck by how the images from the operas I have seen—a towering wall, strings of lights, fires blazing—have cemented in my brain. Opera is as much a visual form as an aural experience. It offers the perfect mold for over-the-top, operatic spirited characters, and gives virtuosic artists freedom to explore. I'm excited to see hip-hop dance moves and diverse casts and current events finding a place in opera houses.

While at the Philly Fringe, I happened upon an outdoor screening of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and was unable to find a seat on the three-block long Independence Mall. Hundreds of people of all ages watched and sang along. It was another magical moment. I'll happily add more trips to the opera to my calendar of regular theatre outings.