Thursday, 10 December 2009

Getting to know you...

Hand on heart my first ever single I bought was Stu Francis' classic rendition of "Ooh, I could crush a grape!" and the first LP I bought was Shakin Stevens' "Green Door" – not exactly the natural way into opera, nor were doses of The Cure, Tori Amos, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Blake Babies, BB King, Robert Cray…you get what I'm trying to say, right?

There are countless ways of coming to the world of opera – or any other music genre for that matter, but getting to know who, and what's what, can be a daunting prospect with something that's been around a bit longer than electricity. But you needn't gulp loudly and think you're in for a lot of brow furrowing times reading tomes and listening to talks given in libraries.

First and foremost opera is music, with acting thrown into the bargain. Even if you've never sat through an opera, or even half a one odds are you'll have come across it in some way. Television, films and advertising are full of the stuff – and with the World Cup on the horizon you can bet that there'll be the odd montage used.

So if you're harbouring an interest in it getting into opera what should you do? As with most things the answer is – anything. For some people jumping in head-first and going along to a staged opera will be ideal while for others buying a recording of an opera with a libretto will be more their thing (in case you're wondering a libretto is a chunky booklet with the low down on the plot and all the words / lyrics that are sung – especially handy if you don't speak too many languages and haven't got the hearing abilities of a bat). Whatever you do just remember to enjoy it, and not feel overawed, and especially don't feel you have to prostrate yourself in honour to the music. Enjoy it.

Okay, so if you've decided to take option a and go along to see one in the flesh you're thinking, "Where should I go?" The answer to this question can be found closer to home than you think. Most people will have heard of The Royal Opera and Covent Garden – and quite rightly so – but for many people a trip to London can be too expensive to see something they're not sure of. But help is at hand in the form of several smaller opera companies dotted throughout this humpbacked pig shaped island of ours. Starting off with the pig head there is WNO that though based in Cardiff tours throughout Wales with extensive forays across the border. Opera North represents the lower part of the hump, while the upper part of the hump can be found with Scottish Opera. The beauty of these smaller companies is that they travel around enough to reach most parts of Pig Island while not charging a lot for their efforts.

Okay, the bit that everyone worries about their first time. Dress code. Unless you've got a thing for Superman / Naughty Nurse costumes pretty anything else goes. Some people like to go the whole hog and bow tie / ball gown the evening while others prefer a suit, which is fine by me. Personally, I'm a jeans man myself (though I do like the odd ball gown now and again) and have turned up to the opera houses of London, Vienna, Budapest and of course Cardiff in varying degrees of colour and bagginess of the blue stuff without an ounce of embarrassment. Wear what you like – if someone does a raising of their nose to you just shrug your shoulders and remember the line from Ferris Bueller's Day Off – "It's understanding that makes it possible for people like us to tolerate a person like yourself."

Once you're sat and the curtain comes up it can help if you know a bit about what happens in the opera beforehand, but on the other hand going with the flow can be a bit of an adventure. To help things along surtitles are shown above the stage giving an idea of what's being sung on stage. Don't worry if you get lost now and then – it'll have happened to everyone at some point. Okay, one slightly important thingage. Clapping. To be on the safe side wait until everyone else claps during the performance – but only if you feel like it. But come the end of the night, which can be between two and three hours plus it is the done thing to applaud the performers even if they didn't rock your boat – they've tried their best after all.

If you've gone for option b – buying a recording – there are several ways to go about this. You can splash some serious(ish) cash on the more expensive recordings out there, or you can buy recordings from smaller labels like Naxos. Increasingly though the larger labels are re-releasing their catalogues without libretti at affordable prices. A good source for libretti on the internet is the EMI Classics website that has a fair few free libretti on offer, or you can buy single libtretti for a few quid. But hang on! Aren't we in the age of DVD? Yep. And you can buy pretty much any opera on DVD – but prices do vary so shop around to get the best for your wallet. If you like your opera big sized you can catch The Met Live in HD in cinemas, But for the freebie lovers keep an eye on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday evenings.

So there you are – a brief introduction into introducing yourself to opera. I won't give a list of what you should see / listen / watch as my tastes aren't yours. If you try it and it isn't for you then don't worry. If you try it and you love it then great! But at least give it a try. And okay, I will drop one name into the ring of an opera that is very much a firm favourite with audiences the world over, and it will include a couple of ditties you're bound to know...Carmen.

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