A Beginner’s Guide to the Opera

Manitoba Opera presents Werther, May 2 and 5.

I have been to dozens of productions of musicals. I have been to “operas” (like how I describe Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812 or Les Mis as an “opera” because there isn’t any talking in it) a handful of times. But I have only been to “the opera” (as in the “where’s the Met?”-Moonstruck-type opera) exactly one time: a year and a half ago, for Manitoba Opera’s production of The Marriage of Figaro.

I’m heading back (finally!) tomorrow, for MO’s production of Werther (which is pronounced “vair-tare,” by the way, don’t make an ass of yourself like I almost did). I’m here to tell you that the opera is not scary! But it does take some preparing. It’s not the kind of lean-back-in-your-chair entertainment you might get from a movie or a jukebox musical. It requires you to be engaged and involved – but that makes it even more fun.

Here are some tips for your first (or second!) time at the opera.

Watch adaptations first
RENT is based on La BohemeMiss Saigon is based on Madam Butterfly. The story is always easier to follow when you have some frame of reference in mind, and since some operas are so influential and classic, lots of other artists have taken inspiration from them. Check out if the opera you’re going to see has any adaptations that you can enjoy first. It’s also fun to see if you can guess which character in the original turned into which character in the adaptation.

Read up
In the program of the opera, there’ll be a synopsis of the whole show. Read it. Characters usually introduce themselves when they come on stage, but it won’t necessarily happen. Even if you don’t want to “ruin it” for yourself, it’s better to know what’s going to happen, because you may not be able to follow along, especially if the show is in another language (which it usually is).

Follow the opera company on social media
Last summer, I won a free pair of opera glasses from Manitoba Opera for correctly identifying what a “libretto” is. They have contests and promos all the time, so connect with them on Twitter or Facebook to make the most of your experience (and your wallet!).

Stay hydrated
This isn’t some 90-minute one-act-and-done show. I’m not going to lie to you – operas are long. Three or four hours. Two intermissions. Get some water at concession beforehand and make sure you eat dinner before you come. It’s worth it, but you won’t be able to enjoy the show if you’re hungry!

Follow me on Twitter as I live-tweet Manitoba Opera’s Werther tomorrow, May 2, starting at 7 pm!


Review: Manitoba Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro

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Manitoba Opera presented The Marriage of Figaro on November 21, 24, and 27. Image courtesy the WFP.

I went to the opera for the first time ever last week! Please enjoy my review that I also wrote as  a part of my journalism class.

As the self-proclaimed queen of musical theatre that I am, having travelled hundreds of miles by bus to see my favourite shows in New York, it feels shameful to admit that I had never been to the opera before. After I heard that one of Manitoba Opera’s productions this season would be The Marriage of Figaro, the overture of which I played in high school band, I decided that this would be the year. On Friday, November 27, the day of the final performance, I walked into the Centennial Concert Hall and prepared myself for a new experience.

The company, led by Gordon Bintner as Figaro and Andriana Chuchman as Susanna, his fiancée, were outstanding in Mozart’s opera. I quickly learned that one of the differences between musicals and operas is that the actors in opera do not wear microphones, which makes the feat of projecting their voices all the more impressive. Though they belted with all their might, there was the occasional time where the sound from the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra won out, most notably during the times when the bass singers hit the low notes.

The Marriage of Figaro was first performed in 1786 and is commonly performed, last by Manitoba Opera in 2006. Although the comedy and music of the show remains timeless, it was difficult to suspend my disbelief for three and a half hours when the plot revolves around fear of non-consensual sex. The show begins with Figaro and Susanna planning out their bedroom for once they get married. Susanna tells Figaro that she’s afraid their room is too close to Count Almaviva’s, who is attracted to, and that one night, when Figaro is working, the Count will enter the room and have his way with her. Figaro brushes this off and tells his future wife that she’s being silly. Perhaps the show is simply dated, but I think it’s time for an update.

The set featured revolving frosted glass mirrors, one on each corner of the stage. Throughout the four acts, these mirrors served as cornerstones of the production as each actor entered and exited through them. A few other simple set pieces, like dressers and shrubbery, completed the simple scenery.

Those who are wary of opera, fear not: there are English subtitles projected on a screen above the stage. They are, however, only projected at certain times, which left me lost. Why is Figaro throwing lemons offstage? I wish I had subtitles to explain that to me.

Though it was The Marriage of Figaro, I left singing the song of Susanna. Chuchman, who has performed with the Metropolitan Opera, was the final performer to take her place during curtain call, and she earned it. The soprano’s arias rung perfectly throughout the hall and she carried the show on her back throughout four acts. To paraphrase the late Howard Ashman, we always cheer for the heroine to get what she desires.

Although the story is dated, the brilliant all-Canadian cast believed in the characters and refused to compromise acting for belting the Italian libretto. Even from my second balcony seat, I was easily able to see facial expressions and actions.

Manitoba Opera is presenting Of Mice and Men, based on Steinbeck’s classic novella, on April 23, 26, and 27, 2016.