Two weeks ago I had never been to the opera. Honestly, I had never wanted to. I “love all music” (don’t we all nowadays), but the classical stuff never tickled my earbuds. But when a friend won two tickets to a dress rehearsal at the Des Moines Metro Opera, I had to check it out. We saw Dialogues of the Carmelites, which is about nuns during the French Revolution. It’s not really about their lives as much as their deaths, which is pretty heavy stuff. They all die onstage, which is why people come to this opera, said our New Friend Dan. To see the dying. (New Friend Dan controls the guillotine noise button, so he is really cool. He kills 20 nuns every night with nothing but a space bar.) Anyway, I went the opera with some ideas that were totally wrong. Here are five Opera Myths dispelled, in order of revelation:
1. You don’t need to dress up. At least if you’re going to a dress rehearsal. Kels and I were sporting cute (semi-formal) summer dresses and kitten heels, which we quickly found was too much. “Aww, you guys got all dressed up to go to the opera,” said New Friend Dan. We felt silly, especially since he wore jeans and a polo, and the usher was in sweatpants.
2. You CAN understand what they’re saying. Cross my heart, this is true. Unless of course, the opera is not in English, in which case you’ve got a different problem. But the singers enunciate well, even while screeching in octaves above normal aural capacity. There are hard-to-follow moments, but the DMMO (and I assume other opera houses) has a superscript screen, which flashes the lyrics above the stage. So even if your ears get lost, you can read what’s happening — or read ahead, if that’s your style. And the words are unobtrusive, unlike subtitles on a movie. All in all, I found the words very considerate. Like a “Thank you for coming to the opera. We will ensure that you understand what we do here.” Aww, thanks, opera. “No, thank YOU, Riane.”
3. There are no songs in the opera. There is a lot of singing in the opera, but it’s one continuous song. It’s not like a musical, where people burst out into musical numbers. Our favorite “song” went something like, “You slapped me in the FAAAAAACE.” It was one line long, with a last note that flew to the rafters and shattered the brains of whatever poor birds lived there. Powerful stuff. But don’t expect any “How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria” bits (that joke comes from Kels. Thanks for letting me use it, girrrl).
4. The fat lady does not sing at the end. In fact, there’s not many fat people in the Des Moines Metro Opera (weird, because Iowa tends to have a porky population). But if you want to be an opera singer, you gotta be in shape. Those core muscles are key, and bellowing for hours at above a high C will make you sweat.
5. Opera is not boring. I was pleasantly surprised not to be out-of-my-mind-bored at intermission. I cared about the nuns. I cared about Revolutionary France. I cared about how they would all die. It was both entertaining and soothing to hear great musicians sing for three hours. I was inspired by their craft and their beautiful voices. I enjoyed the plot, the costumes, and the experience of watching art happen and knowing that soon this piece would be gone forever. They’ll perform it again, but the music is ephemeral — just like that silly bird who had his brain thrashed by a high C.
So rock on, opera. Maestro. I’ll be back.
[photos: Des Moines Metro Opera]