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Opera is an early form of the musical, often sung in a language that you can't understand - this won't bother most people, because the music and actors usually convey the story amicably, but should this fail, most opera houses provide subtitles1. Opera was the mass entertainment of the 18th and 19th Centuries, before the invention of cinema and Andrew Lloyd-Webber2. Many operas are taken from classic literature - La Traviata is the musicalisation of Alexander Dumas the Younger's novel The Lady of the Camelias and Otello is, of course, an operatic version of Shakespeare's Othello.
An opera tragedy generally follows a formulaic series of events:
- Wealthy young man meets girl
- They fall in love
- Something terrible happens and everybody dies, usually very painfully
The death is always lingering and usually involves some kind of lung disease. Curiously, this never seems to affect the length or quality of the singing emanating from the death bed. The following is great example of an operatic tragedy, La Traviata.
The story starts in the living room of Violetta Valéry, a much-admired courtesan in fashionable Parisian society.
A party is in progress and one of the last guests to arrive, after gambling at cards in the house of Flora Bervoix, is Viscount Gaston de Letorieres who introduces Violetta to Alfredo Germont, who is a fervent admirer of hers - to the point that when she was recently ill he came each day to enquire secretly after her health.
The party is in full-swing and Alfredo, encouraged by his friends toasts Violetta's health. The guests retire to another room, and the two stars are left alone. Violetta succumbs to a coughing fit and falls, ever so graciously, into Alfredo's arms. He declares his honorable intentions towards Violetta and she is naturally confused. She has spent most of her life in seeking temporary pleasures and she is now being offered a way out. She decides not to pursue the idea but deep down, she knows that their love is real and deep.
Scene one - A country house near Paris.
Things move quickly in opera and for the start of the second act the audience is whisked away to a life in the country, far from the Paris social scene.
Alfredo is exceptionally happy until Annina, Violetta's maid, confides in him that she has been to Paris on behalf of her mistress to sell her possessions to support the young lovers' stay in the country.
Alfredo's pride is hurt and he leaves for the city to resolve their finances. Violetta is now left on her own and receives a letter from her good friend Flora who invites our heroine to a party for that very evening. At this moment, Giorgio Germont, Alfredo's father introduces himself to Violetta with a contemptuous air, convinced that the woman is being kept by his son. But Violetta hands over receipts of her finances, proving her innocence which Germont is impressed with.
It's at this point that the archetypal opera baddie comes into play. Although thoroughly impressed by Violetta, Germont plays on her affection for Alfredo and explains that she is ruining his reputation and the family honour by consorting with his son. To add insult to injury, Germont tells Violetta that another family member's wedding and future happiness is in jeopardy because of the shame she has bought upon the Germont family name.
Violetta plays her only trump card and explains about her illness but Germont is too powerful and Violetta eventually succumbs to his request and promises that she will no longer dishonour the Germont name and will drop Alfredo like the proverbial hot potato giving the young stud no reason for her sudden departure.
She is on the point of writing him a farewell letter when Alfredo returns and, naturally, wonders why his beloved is leaving. Violetta gives him no explanation and runs away. She sends Alfredo a note explaining that she is missing her social circle and former life in the heart of Paris. Alfredo is gutted.
Germont arrives in time to offer his son some words of wisdom which fall on deaf ears. Alfredo spots the party invitation on the table and vows his revenge on Violetta.
Scene two - The House of Flora Bervoix.
A masked ball is in full swing. Violetta is accompanied by Baron Douphol, her former patron. She is upset that Alfredo is there but effectively blanks him as he heads for the cards table. With a lot of luck, he fleeces the Baron while antagonizing him with various slurs and innuendos.
As the guests file out for dinner, Alfredo receives a note from Violetta and the two lovers meet in the salon. After much pressure, Violetta admits that she has sworn never to see Alfredo again but she refuses to reveal who made her swear this oath. Being a woman of great dignity, Violetta leads Alfredo to believe it was the Baron who forced her into this current situation.
Alfredo is overwrought and exceptionally jealous, bless him, and in his moment of rage he calls the guests in to make an announcement. He tells the guests of his shame at having been a kept man and throws a pack of gold coins at Violetta's feet. Great Drama.
Alfredo's little spectacle is met with ridicule by the guests but his punishment is not yet complete. His father drags his son away, pursued by the Baron who demands reprisals for the insult to is consort.
The future is not bright for Violetta. She has taken to her bed and is in her dying days. She has received a letter form Germont who explains that the Baron was wounded in the duel and has revealed the truth to Alfredo who is now on his way to his former mistress to beg forgiveness.
At this news, Violetta starts to prepare herself for her lover and mourns the loss of her looks. Alfredo arrives and the two lovers pledge eternal love to each other once again. Germont arrives and is waited upon by the eternally servile Annina. It is at this point that Violetta wants to leave the house but she loses her strength and realises that the end is nigh. She offers Alfredo a portrait as testament to their love and tries to raise herself to her lovers lips. She dies in her lover's arms.
Drama doesn't get more tragic than that.
The plotline of a comic opera generally consists of:
- Boy meets girl
- They fall in love
- Something terrible happens
- Problems are solved and then everybody lives happily ever after
Comedy opera also usually involves the boy or girl putting on a cunning disguise (such as a hat) so that nobody will recognise them. Obviously the other characters have never seen an opera or they would see through this pathetic ploy immediately. The following is from The Marriage of Figaro, and provides a perfect template for a comedy opera.
A room in the castle of Count Almaviva near Seville, Spain, 1778.
Figaro is the servant of the Count, and Susanna is the maid of the Countess and the story starts on their wedding day. They are surveying the room that their employees have given them and, to say the least, Susanna is not pleased because the marital chamber is far too close to the Count's rooms for her liking as she fears that he has a crush on her.
Figaro, poor chap, is naturally worried and decides to scupper his boss' sinister plan. But, being opera, Figaro is in debt to another character, Marcellina, and has promised her that if he can't repay his debt he will marry her which pleases another character, Dr Bartolo. Bartolo is peeved with Figaro, because he organised the elopement of the Count and Countess whom Bartolo is in love with.
Nobody said comic opera was easy.
Enter Cherubino, the Count's page who explains that the Count discovered him with Barbarina, the daughter of the gardener Antonio, and he will be sent away. Cherubino is in love with all the women in the castle and the Countess in particular the Countess and asks Susanna to give a song to the Countess.
They hear the Count coming down the corridor and Cherubino hides. The Count believes he is alone with the lovely Susanna and makes his passes at her. However, he is rudely interrupted by Don Basilio, the music teacher. The Count hides himself in the same place as Cherubino who has fortunately moved on to another. Both men listen to Basilio who gossips about the goings on in the castle and highlights the salacious gossip that Cherubino is in love with the Countess. Cue the Count who reveals himself in his anger and also discovers Cherubino. Poor Cherubino - not only does the count know that he fancies his wife, but the poor fellow has also overheard his indiscreet wooing of Susanna. It's no surprise therefore that Cherubino is sent away to some far flung army post.
Figaro arrives, carrying Susanna's wedding accessories and proceeds to thank the Count for renouncing the wedding night custom of sleeping with the bride, and asks the Count to give Susanna the veil as a symbol of purity. The Count, dastardly fellow, states that he'd rather wait till he can celebrate the occasion properly and does not yield to the young couple's pleas to release Cherubino from his duty.
Nobody said comic opera wasn't sexy.
In the bedroom of the Countess.
Susanna and Figaro enter and tell the Countess that the Count is trying to seduce Susanna and together they devise a cunning plan. The idea is that the Count will be given a message that implies his wife is having an affair - so when the Count is trying to investigate the matter, Figaro and Susanna will be quickly and quietly married. The plot thickens when they plan to dress Cherubino as Susanna and arrange a rendezvous with the Count.
As Cherubino is getting his disguise ready, he drops his commission and the clever Countess notices that there is no official seal on it. There is no time for action on this yet as the Count comes bounding in forcing both Cherubino and Susanna to hide. The Count is in a rage because he expects his wife is having an affair and at this point he hears a noise coming from the dressing room. He asks his wife who it is and she refuses to tell and he tries to bang the door down. The Countess tells her husband that it is Susanna and as he starts attacking the door, Cherubino leaps out the window leaving Susanna alone. The Count scours the room for Cherubino and is thoroughly disappointed to find nothing.
Just as things were starting to seem simple, Antonio the Gardener bursts in complaining that someone has just jumped out of the window and destroyed his prize blooms. To save Cherubino's skin, Figaro takes the blame and at this moment Antonio produces the papers that Figaro claims were given him by Cherubino to have officially sealed.
To bring the act to a rip-roaring and all-consuming conclusion, Marcellina enters with Dr Bartolo and Basilio to demand justice. Figaro must marry Marcellina or repay his debt and the Count must investigate.
A hall in the castle.
While the Count is deliberating the situation, Susanna approaches him and arranges a rendezvous to sort out her dowry. She desperately needs the dowry to pay off Figaro's debts and thus save him from marrying Marcellina. While Susanna is preparing for the rendezvous, she shares an indiscrete moment with her betrothed which the Count overhears and sends the latter into a complete rage because he can't bear to think that his servants are happier than him.
Everybody congregates to hear the verdict on Figaro's debt at which point our hero tells the court that he needs the permission of his parents to pay his debts - the only trouble being is that he has no idea who his parents are as he was kidnapped as a child. It is at this precise moment that Marcellina realises that the man who owes her money, the man to whom she is to be married, is in fact her son by Dr Bartolo.
As Marcellina and Figaro embrace, the general consensus is that the wedding will be a double one; Marcellina will marry Dr Bartolo and Figaro will marry Susanna.
Not everyone is overjoyed - the Countess is still whimpering over her husband's attitude towards her and at this point Susanna enters. She tells the Countess of the verdict of Figaro's case and writes a note for the Count to wait in the pine grove. They seal the letter with a pin. Cherubino, who is still in disguise, along with some village girls, arrives with flowers for the Countess. The Count enters with Antonio, who discloses that Cherubino was the rascal who deflowered his prize blooms when he jumped from the Countess' window. Barbarina, the Count's daughter and a savvy little vixen, pleads that instead of being punished by the Count, Cherubino be made her husband. The Count agrees.
Figaro enters and the wedding festivities begin and during the celebration, Susanna gives the letter with her pin to the Count who duly pricks his finger on it - to the merriment of his entourage.
The garden of the castle.
Whilst walking with Marcellina, Figaro is approached by Barbarina who is trying to find Susanna to return the pin. Figaro, jealous fellow that he is, is enraged as he believes that Susanna is cheating on him and vows revenge and leaves.
Barbarina returns as she has a clandestine meeting with Cherubino but she hides because she has heard a noise. The noise-maker is Figaro who has brought along two people to witness his new wife's infidelity. He tells them to hide and that's exactly what they do.
Marcellina, Susanna, and the Countess enter - the latter two having switched clothing. The ladies know that Figaro is watching them and start to prophesise about her impending happiness with her lover. While the Countess (now disguised as Susanna) is waiting for the Count, Cherubino enters and starts flirting with her at which point The Count enters and begins seducing 'Susanna' who is in fact the Countess in disguise. The real Susanna (disguised as the Countess) is confronted by Figaro, who tells her that the Count is with his Susanna. She asks Figaro to be quiet, but forgets to disguise her voice. The truth begins to dawn on Figaro, who then pleads passionate love to the 'Countess' who is in fact Susanna. A furious Susanna slaps Figaro who tells her that he knew she was in disguise all along. At this point the Count comes running over, naturally furious that someone is wooing his wife. Enter all the other characters who are asked to bear witness to the Countess' infidelity. Everyone rushes to the defence of the Countess, but the Count is having none of it and refuses to acknowledge his wife - until his real wife discloses herself. The story ends with everyone living happily ever after.
Opera doesn't get more comic or complicated than this.
The script (libretto to the cognoscenti) of most operas would take about half an hour to read but due to the singers' astonishing ability to drag out notes and repeat themselves, they tend to pad out to a couple of hours3.
Opera goers tend to fall into three general categories: luvvies, fanatics and gawpers. Luvvies go to be seen and show that they don't live in a cultural vacuum. They tend to abbreviate the titles of operas (Cavalleria Rusticana becomes Cav Rus) and make strange braying noises in the bar during the interval. Fanatics bring the music with them and study it furiously while listening, annotating it as necessary. They never actually watch what is going on on the stage. Gawpers are renowned for saying at the end of a superlative aria, when the rest of the audience is sitting in awestruck silence, 'That's the music from the British Airways advert, isn't it 4?'.