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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

OPERA FIRSTS: How I Became an Opera Fan



With the new year in swing, we are excited here at Boston Lyric Opera (BLO) to be in the midst of preparations for our upcoming spring productions, Verdi’s Rigoletto and Bellini’s I Puritani. With each of these productions, BLO is pleased to offer free dress rehearsal passes to high school and college student groups. If you haven’t taken advantage of this opportunity before, it is a wonderful way to experience opera for the first time. 

BLO Community Engagement Intern, Melanie O’Neil, writes here about the first time she fell in love with opera.  We invite you to take a moment to read her story and think about your own opera firsts.  What was the first opera production you ever attended?  When did you first fall in love with opera?  If you haven’t had these firsts yet or hope to share them with your students, we invite you to create those moments with BLO.  

If you would like to attend a final dress rehearsal with your students at no charge, fill out a request form online. To supplement and enhance the opera going experience, we are also offering study guides to provide some background information and lesson plans for each of BLO’s spring productions.  Click here to view the Rigoletto Study Guide.

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Those who know me find it difficult to imagine “Melanie before opera,” but six years ago I knew so little about opera that I couldn’t tell Wagner from Gl├╝ck.

I don’t come from a particularly musical family, and the closest contact I’d ever had with opera was through the orchestral excerpts and overtures I played in my high school orchestra growing up. We were in the habit of playing the overture to The Barber of Seville with such frequency that any of us could have played it in our sleep. One day, the title caught my eye in a newspaper ad for a performance at the local theater. I attended more to escape the boredom of an utterly eventless city than because I expected some kind of cultural awakening, but I was surprised to find that the humor was not at all outdated, but quite witty and the singing fantastically agile. The performance was enjoyable, but I was by no means an overnight fanatic. 

By some twist of fate, the language institute I had registered at for the summer of that same year was in none other than Giacomo Puccini’s hometown, Lucca, Italy. I had only a vague idea of who the composer was, but that changed very soon after my arrival in Lucca. Like a patron saint of the city, iconic images of the beloved composer were plastered above shop doorways, and his unrivaled tenor arias were common knowledge among the locals. About 15 miles outside of Lucca, at Torre del Lago, there is an annual festival that celebrates the composer and his ever-beloved operas. Being a guest in his hometown, I decided a trip to the Festival Pucciniano was definitely in order. 

With a ticket to Tosca in my hand, I arrived at the bustling station, Piazzale Verdi, and looked on in horror…I hadn’t the slightest idea which bus I was supposed to be on. I tried to explain my predicament, but it only seemed to confuse rather than help. The bus driver looked at me and seemed to say, “I’m not sure what you’re trying to do. Just get on the bus.” My skepticism did not move him to reconsider my question and begrudgingly I took a seat. For all I knew I was being shuttled to some distant corner of the country, never to be seen or heard from again, but after some time I could see that we were, indeed, headed for Torre del Lago. When we arrived at my destination, I catapulted myself out of the seat and nearly sprinted off the bus. Then I began my walk up the long road leading, at last, to the Festival Pucciniano. 

The city was in bloom and the smell of the sea made me glad I had not let my apprehension get the best of me at the bus station. Yet, what I hadn’t taken into consideration, and fortunately realized too late, was that for all my trouble,  I would not be able to understand a word of the opera. As Angelotti scampered onstage and belted the first words of the opera, "Ah, finalmente! Nel terror mio stolto vedea ceffi di birro in ogni volto!" a light bulb went off in my head: no supertitles. Whether this was because the theater was open-air or because the majority of the audience knew the libretto by heart I will never know, but I swallowed my disappointment and continued watching. As impossible as it sounds, the language barrier seemed to slip my mind and I realized afterwards that, not only were the supertitles unnecessary, but they would actually have been distracting to the total experience.

By the end of Act I there was no question that I had been affected by the irrepressible contagion that I call “opera mania.” The Act I finale was the real turning point for me. It had all the complexities and irony of a great work of literature, the visual splendor of a painted masterpiece, and, of course, the unparalleled passion of Puccini's musical idiom. I was sold!

The biggest mistake people make with opera is thinking that they’re all the same. It’s true that some operas are not for everyone, but I strongly believe there is an opera for everybody. “Seen one, seen them all” simply doesn’t work when there are centuries-worth of musical styles to delve into. Just as with films, books, or albums, the trouble is simply finding your niche.

Melanie O'Neil
Community Engagement Intern

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