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Sunday 21 October 2018

The (alternative) A-Z of opera

Don't know your Tosca from your Traviata or your Pavarotti from your Placido? Ahead of the Wexford Festival Opera, Caomhan Keane has a handy guide

Waiting in the wings: Pavarotti got his big break as an understudy
Waiting in the wings: Pavarotti got his big break as an understudy

Caomhan Keane

It's generally considered a highbrow pursuit, but knowing a little about opera can take the mystery out of it. Ahead of the Wexford Festival Opera, which takes place from October 19 until November 5 , we've cast our opera glasses over the form to give you something of a bluffers' guide to the genre.

A: Alabama Song

Put off by Opera's perceived elitist and pompous reputation? Get to know this track made famous by The Doors and David Bowie as a gateway drug to Kurt Weil and Bertolt Brecht's Rise And Fall Of The City Of Mahagony, a vicious satire about a fictitious city in the American West destroyed by its capitalist yen for sex, booze and dollar worship.

B: Bregenz Festival

If spectacle is what you want, book a flight to the Bregenz Festival - or just google it - to see some of the most incredible outdoor stages ever built. During its 51-year run, it has featured giant skeletons and almost life size versions of the Statue of Liberty and the crater of a volcano.

C: Catcalling

While in theatre standing faux-vations are all the rage, in Opera there is a tradition of booing loudly, when an artist does something that displeases the audience who venomously applaud or appraise performers they love or loathe.

D: Diva/ Divo

A diva, or a divo, is a singer whose talents, gifts and essence transport the listener to sublime emotional states, but whose celestial gifts occasionally transport the artist themselves to egotistical ones, demanding treatment that could politely be called excessive.

E: Elmer Fudd

How many people got their first taste of Opera via Warner Brother's What's Opera Doc? starring Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny? A parody of The Ring Of The Nibelung, it's best known for its opening line "Kill the Wabbit" sung to the theme of 'Ride Of The Valkyries'.

F: Frank Patterson

The internationally renowned Irish tenor sent film audiences into a trance when he sang 'The Lass Of Aughrim' in John Houston's The Dead. His voice was also featured in Millers Crossing, Gangs Of New York and Michael Collins.

G: Girth

Maria Callas
Maria Callas

The saying goes "it ain't over till the fat lady sings", a reference to the false stereotype about the size of Opera sopranos. The actual saying is attributed to Al Capone.

H: Hoi-Polloi

The prohibitive cost of opera has led to a belief that it is an elitist art form. But in recent years we've seen Flatpack, an opera about Ikea and EX-hib-IT-US, where the residents of St Teresa's Gardens sang about the death of community as their homes faced demolition.

I: Irish

If you want to show a little national loyalty as you sink your teeth into opera, check out local talent Celine Byrne, Claudia Boyle, Cara O'Sullivan and Patricia Bardon on YouTube.

J: John McCormack

Ireland's first international popstar, McCormack was perhaps only second to Enrico Caruso when it comes to early opera recording artists and in 1914 became the first person to record 'It's A Long Way To Tipperary'.

K: Klingon Opera

The first authentic Klingon opera (on Earth), U, premiered in The Hague in 2010. Telling the epic legend of "Kahless the Unforgettable", after an enthusiastic reception it's been revived several times since.

L: Length

It may be advisable to bring a comfy pillow as opera is renowned for being long. Wagner's Ring Cycle, in its entirety, lasts 18 hours.

M: Maria Callas

Perhaps the world's most beloved opera singer, Callas lost weight midway through her career, which is said to have cost her her talent, while her rivalry with Renata Tibaldi, her love affair with Aristotle Onassis and her temperamental behaviour only bolstered her mystique.

N: Nixon in China

This John Adams/ Alice Goodman composition was greeted with sneers from critics of the time but it is now considered a modern American masterpiece.

O: Opera Theatre Company

Thirty years young in 2016, OTC are Ireland's National Touring Company. At the forthcoming Opera Festival Wexford they have teamed up with Andrew Synnott and Arthur Riordan to adapt two stories from Joyce's Dubliners.

P: Pop Stars

Several stars have switched genres, including Katherine Jenkins, Charlotte Church and Russell Watson.

Q: Queens

Before you could spot a gay man by the Barbara Sreisand records, you could spot them at the stage door, fanning themselves into a frenzy over the opera divas of the day - hence the origin of the term 'opera queen'.

R: Read

While you don't need to know an opera inside out before checking it out, it's always nice to have a little foreknowledge. The New Penguin Opera Guide is good for the studious, Hugo Shirley's 30-Second Opera for the last minute crammer.

S: Sur-titles

For years people feared the opera as they weren't fluent in German, Italian or French and thought they wouldn't be able to follow what was going on. Nowadays most performances come with sur-titles, basically subtitles that scroll across a sign hanging above the stage.

T: (La) Traviata

Perhaps the most performed opera today, this tragic tale of lovers separated by class and tuberculosis is best known for 'Brindisi' - opera's version of a drinking song a la '500 Miles' or 'Wonderwall'.

U: Understudy

Given the physical and vocal demands of the job, understudies are just one tickly cough away from their big break, like Pavarotti and Renata Scotto, who both found fame this way.

V: Vide Cor Meum

First used in the film Hannibal, this Irish-composed aria (Mayo's Patrick Cassidy), is arguably the greatest piece of art to ever come out of this country.

W: Wagner

If you want to start a debate, ask whether this notorious anti-Semite should be performed in Israel. Several attempts have been made, ending in protests and, more often than not, cancellation.

X: X-rated

But if you really want to put the cat among the pigeons, come out as a Philip Glass fan. The minimalist composer is operatic Marmite ­- Niles of Frasier once heralded the genius of one conductor by saying, "He once staged a Philip Glass opera… and no one left!"

Y: Yum Yum & Naki Poo

Gilbert & Sullivan facilitated many a first toe into the world of opera with The Mikado, which is popular with school and amateur production companies. Check out Mile Leigh's brilliant Topsy-Turvy to see how it came to be.


Chances are, when you first go to the opera, you are going to be bored. But don't call for the fat lady until you've really given it a chance.

See www.wexfordopera.com

Irish Independent

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