“I don’t like opera!” – How Opera North Proved Me Wrong

A year ago, I would never have considered going to watch an opera. I had many ingrained preconceptions about it. Being a working-class Mancunian, having grown up on a council estate, I saw opera as something that only wealthy people could enjoy. I thought I would hate the experience of going to see one.

Being introduced to it through Opera North’s current season, I have now seen four operas, and have been converted. I accept that I was blinded by my judgement, and am now kicking myself for never having watched opera before. This is how Opera North proved me wrong, dispelling the misconceptions I had about this art form.

Opera North Tosca Lowry Theatre Manchester
Opera North’s Tosca. Picture Credit – Richard H Smith.

It’s all in another language so I won’t be able to understand it.

While the majority of opera is in another language, namely Italian, there are some operas that are performed in English; Mozart’s The Magic Flute, for example. Those that are sung in a foreign language have captions that accompany the performance, and serve as translation. Making opera accessible to those who don’t speak the language, captions help make the story easier to understand.

I thought that seeing an opera would be like watching a subtitled foreign film. However, captions in opera don’t necessarily translate every word that is sung. Sometimes, during a duet, only one singer’s side of the conversation is captioned, which can initially be confusing. Nonetheless, you can understand the emotions and characterisation of the other singer, even if you can’t fully discern what they are singing. Another thing I noticed when watching Aida is that the singers tend to repeat phrases as a form of emphasis, meaning that some of the non-captioned dialogue is simply repeating what they have previously sung.

Opera is an art form that expresses emotion through voice and performance. So even if you can’t fully translate what is being said, it is easy to be moved by its power and its sentiment.

I won’t be able to keep up with the captions.

This is something that puts many people off watching opera. Although, as opera is sung rather than spoken, it naturally takes longer to sing the words, rather than speak them. This is particularly noticeable when sung in another language. Opera is an art form that naturally elongates the words, making them slower and more beautiful to listen to. As such, verse is sung much slower than the time it takes to read the caption. Even a slow reader would have enough time to read them and still be able to digest what is happening on stage.

Captions are not provided for operas sung in the English language. Although, I believe that doing so would provide better accessibility for beginners, and for any audience members with a hearing impairment, that struggle to attend a signed performance.

Opera North Aida Bridgewater Hall Manchester
Rafael Rojas and Alexandra Zabala in Opera North’s Aida. Picture Credit – Clive Barda

The captions will divert my attention away from the stage and I will miss the action.

In the three translated operas I have watched, captions were provided at both sides of the stage. In the Bridgewater Hall for Aida, they were also provided on screens, higher up, for audience members seated in the gallery. The positioning of the captions frames the stage, rather than intruding on the action. Without having to crane your neck, it doesn’t require much effort to flick between the two without missing the singer’s performance.

Opera is elitist. Only posh people can enjoy it.

Although ticket prices range up to £60 for Opera North’s productions, there are cheaper priced tickets available in the circle and gallery seats. It is worth bearing in mind that your ticket price helps pay the wages of an entire orchestra, chorus and production team, rather than just the lead performers.

I have never felt out of place watching an opera, defying my perceptions that only high-brow audiences would watch opera. When I attended Tosca, I was sat in front of members from Streetwise Opera, a fantastic charity that provides homeless people a platform to perform opera. It allows its members a chance to escape the hardships they face on a daily basis. They were more acquainted with opera than I, and they enjoyed seeing my newbie reactions to Puccini’s tense plot.

If the incredible people from Streetwise Opera prove anything, it is that opera can be enjoyed by people from all walks of life.

Samantha Hay’s Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute. Picture Credit – Alistair Muir.

The pitch of female opera singers hurts my ears.

Whenever I listened to opera in my school’s music lessons, we only ever heard arias sung by soprano opera singers like Maria Callas. The pitch that soprano singers can reach is sometimes piercing, such as the Queen of the Night’s arias in The Magic Flute.

However, high pitched coloratura notes are at the top of female singers’ vocal range, and they mainly sing in lower soprano tones. Tosca and Aida, for example, are dramatic soprano roles, which have a generally lower range. A year ago, I didn’t even know that there was such variety to an opera singer’s vocal range!

Experiencing opera live is also completely different from listening to a recording. Opera isn’t just solo arias. When a full orchestra accompanies the performance, it produces a pleasing harmony, creating an entirely unique experience. There are also scenes when the entire chorus sing. Dramatically powerful and spectacular, these chorus scenes are always breathtaking. The chorus in Aida were particularly impressive, switching from revolutionary citizens of Egypt to a priesthood.

Opera is over-dramatic. I won’t believe the singers’ performances. 

This is possibly the biggest misconception I had of opera. I am repeatedly left stunned at how much emotion opera singers can convey through their voice. I have sat in awe, fully engrossed, at every opera I have seen. Surprisingly, the singers are also accomplished actors, who can convey tenderness and vulnerability as well as power.

The operas I have enjoyed most have been the tragic romances of Tosca and Aida because of the devastating lead performances. I was moved to tears by Giselle Allen‘s Tosca pleading for her lover’s life in the most beautiful, emotional aria I have ever heard. What made it more astounding is the fact that Allen delivered it lying down. Equally heartrending was the fate of Alexandra Zabala‘s Aida, who is torn between duty to her homeland and being in love with the captain of the enemy’s army.

In these two ill-fated romances, tenor Rafael Rojas played the male hero. Both of his performances were astonishing. Brutally tortured in Tosca and sentenced to death in Aida, he perfectly portrays vulnerability and desolation, reduced to a broken man. Rojas is an incredibly talented actor and singer, repeatedly delivering devastating, tragic performances that pierced my heart.

Obviously, as every opera I have seen has been produced by Opera North, these singers will be at the top of their game, so they won’t represent the entire art form.

I don’t like opera.

Opera North proved me wrong. They have converted me into an opera fan. I have really enjoyed exploring this art form as a newbie. I refuse to read the plot in the programme, instead choosing to be swept up in opera’s beautiful music, spectacular production design, and incredible stories. Transforming my preconceptions, opera has now become an addiction, as I yearn to make up for all the years that I was too blinded by prejudice to watch one.

Gianni Schicchi. Photo credit – Tristram Kenton.

4 thoughts on ““I don’t like opera!” – How Opera North Proved Me Wrong

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      1. I actually saw a small production of Tosca a couple of years ago but I didn’t really follow it – it was an open air show and it was really hard to hear which wasn’t a great start. I actually didn’t realise until an hour in that it was in English 😅 But I’ve always been keen to see a different production of it

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