Washington Magazine: A Night at the Opera

Washington Magazine, Fall 2008

For those who have never been to the opera, an invitation to attend might elicit worries about how to dress, how in the world you’re going to understand it, and how you might get out of the whole thing – isn’t opera supposed to be, well, boring? The truth though, is that opera has something for people of all ages and you don’t have to be an aficionado to enjoy its charms. Opera is a union of all the arts – drama, poetry, music, dance, costumes, sets, and lighting design – into one big wonderful spectacle of voice, music, and emotion.

Washington State is home to several opera companies from Tacoma to Spokane – with Seattle Opera as its most recognized, both critically and by audience attendance. Founded in 1963 by Glynn Ross, the company’s first general director through 1983, Seattle Opera boasts the highest per capita attendance of any major opera company in the United States. The company’s production of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle draws audiences from around the world, pulling visitors from 49 states and 19 countries. For the last twenty-five years, former music critic and lecturer Speight Jenkins has led Seattle Opera as general director and he celebrates his anniversary during the 2008-09 season.

Though you won’t find the opera singers jumping across the stage in Matrix-esque stunts and hi-speed car chases – you will witness stories filled with intrigue, mistaken identity, murder, lovers (often of the star-crossed variety), tragedy, betrayal, magic, and even pyrotechnics. In fact, at Seattle Opera’s home at McCaw Hall, there is a “room” from which a gas pipe leads to the stage, used for all productions that feature live flames. Seattle OperaSeattle Opera’s own fire designer, Tim Buck designs the fire effects and oversees the execution and safety for all of the productions where fire is used. Buck’s fire design projects include the celebratory fireworks for Ariadne auf Naxos as well as the protective ring of fire around one of the lead characters in Wagner’s Ring, Brünnhilde. Buck also does dual duty as Seattle Opera’s flight technical director and is responsible for the flight, harness design, and safety of the singers who are flown across the stage including the Rhine Daughters in Seattle Opera’s current production of Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Did you know that opera is almost always sung without amplification? Though it would certainly make the singing easier, opera by tradition has never utilized microphones or any other method of amplification (with the exception of some outdoor productions). For a singer, using a microphone is akin to an athlete using steroids – a quick fix and ultimately, cheating. Singers must be heard over full orchestras (anywhere from 30 to 70 players) and rely on years of physical training to project their voices – with the help of venues engineered with perfect acoustics – to the farthest seats in the topmost tiers.

The women in opera are generally categorized by their singing range – from highest to lowest are soprano, mezzo-soprano, and alto. Sopranos are the often the heroines, and the mezzo-sopranos and altos are frequently the mothers, elders, and witches. For the men, the same standard applies to their singing voices – from tenor, baritone, to the lowest, bass. The tenors are the famous singers (the most familiar, collectively known as “The Three Tenors,” are José Carreras, Plácido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti) and are often the hero and dashing love interest while baritones and basses play the father, the evil arch nemesis, and of the up-to-no-good criminal.

Though it’s true that most operas were written in Europe and performed in their original Italian, German or French – you will still be able to understand every word. Thanks to the invention of supertitles or English captions in the mid-1980s – and Jonathan Dean, English captions writer for Seattle Opera – you don’t need to be fluent in a foreign language to follow the story. Supertitles are English translations of what is being sung, projected above the stage. Despite the early controversy amongst opera companies, critics, producers, and patrons, Seattle Opera was among the early-adopters of this new technology. Prior to the advent of supertitles, performances would often be done twice at Seattle Opera – one version in its original language and another in English. Even operas sung in English are usually captioned, as singers hold vowels longer which makes it difficult to understand every word.

Thinking of taking your kids or grandkids to see an opera performance? According to a recent audience survey, a significant percentage of Seattle Opera patrons said they began a lifelong love of opera after being exposed to it at a young age. Kids and young adults are able to engage with the story, music, emotion, drama, and visuals of the productions. Through more than 400 education events and activities per season, Seattle Opera’s Education department endeavors to capture the imagination of the future generation of opera-goers. Over 10,000 students each academic year take part in Opera Goes to School and Experience Opera, programs designed to engage students from grade school to high school. The Education department also provides an intensive training ground for young professional singers through the Young Artists Program, a 20-week production-based curriculum, now in its eleventh year.

Opera Goes to School, another long-time favorite of the Education Department, introduces opera to grade-schoolers through a week-long residency at each participating grade-school. Using an original kid-friendly interactive adaptation of Richard Wagner’s Rheingold called Theft of the Gold: The Ring Begins, staff and singers from the Young Artists Program work with grade-school students and teachers to learn and perform their very own opera. At the end of the residency, students and singers perform the production they’ve created for their classmates and parents.

Middle- and high-school students have an opportunity to get an insider’s perspective through backstage tours of McCaw Hall that culminate with a short recital by members of the Young Artists Program. Students learn about the jobs done by stage management, costumes, wigs and make-up, props, sets and lighting while exploring all that takes place behind the curtain.

Experience Opera gives teachers custom-created study guides that allow them to integrate opera into their classroom curricula. In addition, more than 5,000 high school students yearly attend the dress rehearsals of main stage productions so they can experience a fully-staged opera production first-hand.

Seattle Opera’s nationally recognized Young Artists Program (YAP) provides career guidance and training for young professional singers, typically between 22 and 32 years old. Auditions were held throughout the country and from an extremely competitive pool of over 600 applicants, ten singers were accepted for the 2008/09 season. YAP Artistic Director Peter Kazaras, Education Director Perry Lorenzo, and YAP Music Director Brian Garman lead the program, which includes acting training, master classes with professionals in the industry, auditions, and networking opportunities. The season culminates in a fully produced opera with orchestra. The 2008/09 Young Artists Program participants will perform scenes from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin in communities across Washington and in the spring they will stage a full production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The Young Artists for the 2008/09 program are Eugene Chan, Thomas Forde, Margaret Gawrysiak, Megan Hart, Michael Krzankowski, Alex Mansoori, Elizabeth Pojanowski, Vira Slywotzky, Michelle Trovato, and Bray Wilkins. Four artists—Eugene Chan, Margaret Gawrysiak, Megan Hart, and Elizabeth Pojanowski—are returning for their second season with the Young Artists Program.

With an eye towards developing new generations of opera lovers, Seattle Opera’s affiliate group – BRAVO! offers members between the ages of 21 and 39 the opportunity to mingle with other young opera patrons. Founded in 1996, BRAVO! is one of the industry’s largest young patrons groups in the arts with 600+ members and growing. Membership benefits include discounted tickets, access to private receptions during intermission, and a plethora of behind the scenes educational events and parties throughout the year (including the always sold-out Laser Opera).

Whether you are a longtime opera fan, a recent convert, or a curious neophyte, there are a wide range of outreach and education programs available both in Seattle and around the state. Sitting in on a seminar led by one of the opera’s education staff, a pre- or post-show lecture at McCaw Hall, or even an afternoon at the public library will deepen and enrich your opera-going experience.

Free, one-hour opera preview lectures are held around the Puget Sound that focus specifically on each upcoming opera and help attendees learn more about the story, composer, and the cultural and musical context of each work. These lectures are typically held in cafés, bookstores, libraries, and museums around the Seattle area. In addition to Seattle Opera’s own lectures and educational events, both the Seattle and King County Library Systems offer free opera lectures throughout the year led by educator and opera expert Norm Hollingshead. The venerable Elliott Bay Book Company in historic Pioneer Square also hosts General Director Speight Jenkins and Education Director Perry Lorenzo for Aspects of the Opera, an informal discussion about each opera, on the Friday night before each production opens.

If you’ve decided to attend an evening at Seattle Opera, be sure to include one of the pre-performance lectures called Overtures to the Opera, in your plans. The hour-long lecture discusses each opera’s composer, story, and cultural context. This ticketed event takes place 90 minutes before curtain time and tickets can be purchased at the box office the night of the performance.

Learning about opera doesn’t need to be an overwhelming experience. Like anything worthwhile in life, it’s a gradual process that builds in layers over time. Take advantage of the internationally-acclaimed opera in Washington and perhaps it will be the beginning of a lifelong appreciation, even passion.

Up next in Seattle Opera’s 2008/09 Season is Sophocles’ ancient tragedy, Elektra, by Richard Strauss. Elektra runs from October 18 – November 1, 2008. Rounding out the rest of the season are The Pearl Fishers (January 10 – 24, 2009), Bluebeard’s Castle & Erwartung (February 21 – March 7, 2009), and a new production of The Marriage of Figaro (May 2 – 16, 2009).


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