What Is Opera?

Many people, when they hear the word "opera," immediately think of overweight singers in Viking costumes belting out arias in German. With such a Wagnerian prototype, many see themselves as turned off to operas because they believe them all to be long, pretentious, based on uninteresting stories, and sung in a foreign language by people with loud voices and too much vibrato. Some operas are all these things, but an opera need not be any of them. Jesus Christ, Superstar and Les Miserables are also operas. Opera is simply the art of conveying a story though singing, acting and dancing, without any significant spoken dialog or narration. It is the absence of spoken book scenes that distinguishes operas from operettas and musicals, and while it may seem like a minor distinction, it dramatically changes the audience experience. In part, this is because the flow of the music is more continuous, but also because singing takes much longer than spoken drama, and so the story unfolds in slow motion, pulling you to the edge of your seat for the duration of the show

Phantom of the Musical cartoon

In musicals, the plot mostly unfolds efficiently through the spoken dialog. The songs are generally mere punctuation which can be omitted without loss to the story line, or for that matter, sung out of context without loss to the song. More happens in less time. A musical can be very effective and moving theater, but it is a very different experience from an opera, both to witness and to create.  The North Cambridge Family Opera performs exclusively operas, rather than musicals or operettas. Showing children (and their parents) that operas can be exciting, musically accessible, based on interesting stories, and fun to sing and listen to will help to remove the stigma which is tied to anything called an "opera." Once minds have been so opened, they are then free to explore the enormous wealth of the world's 400-year operatic legacy, from Monteverdi to Mozart, from Puccini to Previn. Who knows, maybe they'll even start to like Wagner.

(cartoon used with permission of Speed Bump artist Dave Coverly)