How to Catch an opera performance: A useful guide for beginners

Published on 17 November 2023
By Team Catch
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Opera is a form of musical theatre that combines acting, singing, and music. It is performed with singers accompanied by an orchestra. Opera stories are often based on history, real life, or literature. They can be tragic, comical, or a mix of both. And because we are in Singapore, it’s important to note that this article is about “Western opera” as opposed to Chinese opera.

If you're new to opera, it can be a bit daunting. But don't worry, there's no need to be an expert to enjoy this amazing art form. Here are a few tips for getting started:

  • Choose a beginner-friendly opera. Some good options include Carmen by Georges Bizet, The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini, and La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi. These operas have relatively straightforward plots and contain some of the most popular opera melodies.

  • Don't worry about understanding the language. Many operas are sung in their original languages, such as Italian, German, French or Russian. But don't let this stop you from enjoying the music and the story. Most performances provide surtitles, which are English translations of the lyrics projected above the stage.

  • Focus on the music and the drama. Opera is a visual and auditory feast. Sit back and enjoy the incredible singing, acting, and music.

Key elements of Western opera

Mid shot of a passionate opera singer performing live

Carmen, an opera in four acts, by Georges Bizet as staged by Singapore Lyric Opera in 2019
 
1. Singing

Opera singing is a highly specialised and demanding art form. Opera singers must have a wide vocal range, power, and stamina, projecting their voices over the orchestra and across the opera house. There is also a spectrum of opera singing styles, two of which include the categories Coloratura and non-coloratura:

2. Coloratura

Coloratura singing is characterised by its agility, flexibility, and high range. Coloratura singers are able to sing rapid-fire passages and high notes with ease. This type of singing is often used for roles that require a lot of vocal virtuosity, such as Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti and The Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

3. Non-coloratura

Wide shot of opera performers singing on stage

Opera singers and their different singing styles

 

Non-coloratura singing is a more general term that encompasses all other types of opera singing. 

Some of the types of opera singing include:

  • Soprano: The soprano is the highest female voice type. Sopranos are often cast in leading roles, such as Mimi in La bohème by Giacomo Puccini and Violetta Valéry in La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi.

  • Mezzo-soprano: The mezzo-soprano is a lower female voice type. Mezzo-sopranos are often cast in supporting roles, such as Amneris in Aida by Giuseppe Verdi and Carmen in Carmen by Georges Bizet.

  • Contralto: The contralto is the lowest female voice type. Contraltos are often cast in roles that require a deep and powerful sound, such as Azucena in Il Trovatore by Giuseppe Verdi and Erda in Das Rheingold by Richard Wagner.

  • Tenor: The tenor is the highest male voice type. Tenors are often cast in leading roles, such as Rodolfo in La bohème by Giacomo Puccini and Alfredo Germont in La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi.

  • Baritone: The baritone is a lower male voice type. Baritones are often cast in supporting roles, such as Figaro in The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini and Scarpia in Tosca by Giacomo Puccini.

  • Bass: The bass is the lowest male voice type. Basses are often cast in roles that require a deep and powerful sound, such as Sarastro in The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Wotan in Die Walküre by Richard Wagner.

It is important to note that these are just general categories, and there is a lot of overlap between them. For example, some mezzo-sopranos have a vocal range that extends into the soprano range, and some baritones have a vocal range that extends into the tenor range.

4. Acting

Wide shot of performers acting on stage

Hold on tight as opera singers Martin Ng, Raymond Lee and Peter Ong – playing the roles of Ping, Pang and Pong in the opera Turandot – take you on a journey through their stories, using their voices and bodies as their instruments

Opera singers are also actors. They must embody their characters and convey the story through their acting and singing. Opera productions often involve elaborate sets, costumes, and lighting, which help to create a believable and immersive world for the audience.

 

5. Music and Orchestra

 

Hold on tight as opera singers Martin Ng, Raymond Lee and Peter Ong – playing the roles of Ping, Pang and Pong in the opera Turandot – take you on a journey through their stories, using their voices and bodies as their instruments

 

Wide shot of an opera orchestra

Witness a tapestry of emotions weaved together by the opera orchestras

Operas are some of the most beautiful and complex music ever written. It can be lyrical, dramatic, and even experimental. Opera composers often use their music to create a specific mood or atmosphere. For example, the music in a tragic opera will be much different than the music in a comic opera.

The orchestra is an essential part of opera. It accompanies the singers and provides the musical backdrop for the story. Opera orchestras are typically large and include a variety of instruments, such as strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion.

Popular Western operas

Here are a few of the most popular Western operas:

  • Carmen by Georges Bizet

  • La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi

  • La bohème by Giacomo Puccini

  • The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini

  • The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

  • Aida by Giuseppe Verdi

  • Tosca by Giacomo Puccini

  • Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini

  • Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni

  • Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo

Opera in Popular Culture

Elements of famous operas have been used in popular culture:

  • The aria Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s Turandot became the de facto theme song for the 1982 Football World Cup - because the title means “no man shall sleep”

  • The final scene of the movie Pretty Woman featured the aria Dammi tu Forza, O Cielo from La Traviata

  • British Airways used the Flower Duet from Léo Delibes' opera Lakmé in the ad campaign

  • The intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana was used in the Robert De Niro movie Raging Bull and in the Martin Scorsese film Godfather III.

Where to Catch opera in Singapore

Wide shot of Victoria Concert Hall
Close your eyes and let your senses be overwhelmed by the richness of opera

There is a neighbourhood in Singapore called Opera Estate, where streets are named after famous operas like Fidelio, Lakme, Aida, Tosca and Carmen. But if you are seriously interested in watching an opera in Singapore:

  • The Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay regularly hosts opera performances.

  • The Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts' School of Music also produces operas from time to time.

  • The New Opera was founded in 2011 and recently staged Dvorak’s Rusalka at the Victoria Theatre

And of course, there’s the Singapore Lyric Opera, which is Singapore’s oldest opera company that produces several operas each year, including their upcoming semi-staged (without a full stage or set) double-bill (two shows in one) of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci.

Our talented opera singers from Singapore

Portraits of Jonathan Charles Tay and Martin Ng
Catch Tay and Ng at the SOTA Concert Hall, 8pm from 23rd to 24th November 2023

We spoke to two of the opera cast members – Jonathan Charles Tay, who plays the character Beppe in Pagliacci, and Martin Ng, who plays Tonio in Pagliacci and Alfio in Cavalleria Rusticana. Tay is a tenor, and Ng is a baritone.

Both Singaporean opera singers fell in love with opera as an art form from an early age. Tay was exposed to a recital organised by the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), an event that inspired him to pursue his musical studies in Italy. Ng, in his own words, was “completely mesmerised” by a performance of Charles Gounod’s Romeo et Juliet at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

They agree that there is a certain magic of experiencing opera ‘live’ in a theatre. Powerful singing voices that can be projected over a live playing orchestra is something that is hard to replicate in a recording. The human emotions that are conveyed through the singing is enough to transcend linguistic differences. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand the language an opera is written in, you will feel the story. In any case, most opera performances have surtitles translating the libretto into English.

Tay and Ng also feel that the double-bill is an accessible entry point to the world of opera as well – so come Catch Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci right on our shores - at the SOTA Concert Hall at 8pm from 23 to 24 November 2023.

Catch the Semi-staged Double Bill at the School of the Arts Singapore (SOTA) Concert Hall, happening at 8pm from 23 to 24 November 2023. Tickets are priced from $20.

All images are credited to the Singapore Lyric Opera.




 

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