If you’ve never been to an opera, here’s a plea: don’t say “it’s not my thing” until you’ve tried. The reputation that this art form has for being the preserve of toffs and the rich is nonsense and no longer supported by the facts.
Huge strides have been made by all the leading opera houses, and more recently formed festivals up and down the country, to make it accessible to increasingly diverse audiences. Language is no longer a barrier, thanks to almost universal use of surtitles. And cost? Yes, you could spend a small fortune if you wanted to, but you could also attend one for less than the average price of a Premier League football match.
In other words, it just comes down to perception and pre-conceived, baseless opinion. The trick, as a first-timer, is to find the right one. Then acknowledge that you are unlikely to love it all; but like your experience on a golf course, or any other sporting endeavour, you will be teased just enough by a moment of such utter perfection and beauty, that you are left with no choice but to return.
Opera combines theatre, design, orchestra, singing – all major art forms rolled into one. It might seem strange to sing stories, but to burst into song is something we’ve all done at some time; so it is, in fact, entirely natural. To assert that you won’t like opera before going, is to say you enjoy reading and refuse to go to a Shakespeare play: you are depriving yourself of an emotional response which you cannot imagine.
Obvious candidates for a first try are most of the Mozart operas (Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro) and Puccini (La Boheme). But perhaps a less obvious contender is Rigoletto, by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). Verdi wrote 29 operas, and can reasonably be heralded as one of the top three opera composers ever. Rigoletto has a lot going for it: the moving story of a father’s love for his daughter, Gilda, who is raped by his much-reviled employer, the Duke of Mantua, and with whom she then falls in love. Rigoletto seeks his revenge with disastrous consequences. First performed in 1851, it was an enormous success.
Above all, though, this is an opera where the tunes just keep coming at you from beginning to end. It is almost impossible to single out one passage, but the quartet in the final act is a glorious melody with beautiful intermingling of voices. The hunchback Rigoletto is showing his daughter, here sung by the late great Joan Sutherland (nicknamed La Stupenda) what a bounder the Duke is. He is seducing Maddalena, the sister of Sparafucile, the assassin whom Rigoletto has hired to bump off his employer. Pavarotti, who described Sutherland as having the voice of the century, made this part of the Duke his own.
Four voices. Duke proclaiming ‘love’ for Maddalena; Maddalena replying along the lines of “I bet you say that to all the girls”; Gilda observing “that’s what he said to me” (so Maddalena had a point); and Rigoletto doing his best to convince Gilda that the Duke is a wrongun.
If you can overcome a minor visual distraction, you cannot help but delight in these few minutes. There are nearly 2 minutes of applause at the end. It’s really not hard to see why they wanted it to go on. And what a last note from Sutherland!
Go to an opera. Go to Rigoletto. And see how hard it is not to go back.