Music can change and move your life. There’s a scene in Pretty Woman that shows this effect. When Edward Lewis takes Vivian Ward, a prostitute, to the opera La Traviata (about a courtesan), she is moved to tears and is transfixed in the opera she watches. After the opera is finished, Vivian is approached by an elderly opera-goer who asks her “Did you enjoy the opera, dear?”, to which Vivian replies “It was so good I nearly peed my pants.”
… I have to admit the first time I heard opera I probably wasn’t feeling exactly the same as her (Although…) but I hope you get the sentiment. One of the stigmas of going or listening to opera is that we often feel like we can’t laugh or cry openly as we may embarrass ourselves and get bullied out of showing our emotions. But if only there were more Vivian’s in the Opera House! In the hope of possibly causing another Pretty Woman moment for someone else, I want to share some of the art song and opera repertoire that have nearly made me pee my pants.
1. O Sole Mio – The Three Tenors
What do you get when you cross a neopolitan classic with The Three Tenors? Fantastic fun, that’s what. When I first became interested in opera, it just made perfect sense to start with Pavarotti. Whilst sitting on YouTube, it’s very easy to go from Pavarotti to the wonderful combination of The Three Tenors. Later on, mum admitted to me that she blasted The Three Tenors while pregnant with me, and I now don’t believe in listening to opera at any other volume than “VERY LOUD”. Here are three blokes, singing in a foreign language, having the time of their life and I watch it and can’t help but smile!
2. Final Trio – Phantom of the Opera (Andrew Lloyd Webber)
I KNOW – IT’S NOT AN OPERA! But it is a great musical based in an opera house. Remember, before you stop reading, that it is a gateway into the classical world and it was the musical that led me to opera, as it has done many students before me and many more to come. As a young 14 year old, nothing ‘classical’ had made my ears perk up like Phantom did. I had studied Marriage of Figaro and played trombone for a year in the back of a symphony orchestra, but the drama and intense music of that final trio moved me to tears. After seeing and hearing this drama develop through music, I was inspired to pursue singing further… And not understanding whether Phantom was an opera or musical theatre only led me through a two year pursuit of MT (Which I loved!). But the power, passion, urgency and drama of the final trio in Phantom was what I was drawn to…
3. Final Trio – Der Rosenkavalier (Strauss)
….and what eventually led me to opera. The Phantom trio led me to ‘harder stuff’ in the opera world. I was two years into my degree when I stumbled upon the music of Richard Strauss (Not to be confused with Johann Strauss, the great Waltz composer). A lecturer had played his Four Last Songs and I fell in love. But it was whilst watching Der Rosenkavalier that I found my “Vivian” moment. After three hours of operatic conflict and beautiful music: Nobody in this opera dies! Instead, we find two young lovers and an older woman who has given up her younger man so that he may happily and freely love this woman, much closer in age to him. The music for the final trio began and I found myself sitting forward, spine tingling and my eyes filled with tears. This is the most magical and bold music I’ve ever heard, filled with real emotions and somehow portraying all three character’s feelings all at once. I can’t hear this without wanting to cry like a little baby.
4. Frauenliebe und Leben (Robert Schumann)
As a young opera singer, 90% of the repertoire you actually get to sing is Art Song. For the first part of my time studying, I said that I had no interest in art song and was only interested in opera… Can we take a brief second to laugh at this? After attending a few recitals and spending 30 seconds in a masterclass with great accompanist and Art-Song-Extraordinaire, Graham Johnson, I realised just how wrong this was. I think if you really want to know an opera composer, sing their art song. In amongst these grand shows about historical figures and mythology, you have these songs, settings of poems written by the greats and composed with true emotion. Robert Schumann’s song cycle Frauenliebe und Leben was written for his wife, Claira. The song cycle, with eight songs, tells the story of a very ordinary life in a woman. She meets a man, they fall in love, they get married, she has a child and then he dies… But this music is so far from ‘ordinary’, which makes this entire song setting so extraordinary to listen to. I promise you, one day I will sing this entire song cycle… Until then, I’ll just have to listen to it at any chance I get.
5. Träume – Wagner
People often associate the music of Wagner with Adolf Hitler (If that’s your problem, watch Stephen Fry’s Wagner and Me), and many people find it too long. In Träume we find a beautiful four minute lied that just seems to sum up the beauty of Wagner’s music. For many who would know me, I’m quite an outgoing, energetic person who often struggles with the ability to keep still (especially on stage). I was first exposed to this great piece in a live recital by Australian dramatic soprano, Lisa Gasteen, and it taught me the beauty of stillness. Gasteen was incredibly still and poised and as a result I found myself drawn in and transfixed by the music and the text, and changed by the power of Wagner’s music. This is a must listen for anyone!!
6. Non Piu Mesta (La Cenerentola) – Rossini
It took me a long time to come to the grim fact that I’ll never be a Rossini mezzo. (It could still happen!!) Here we have ANOTHER opera where no-one dies – See? We’re not all about the grim and death! This didn’t create the same spine-tingling sensation as Der Rosenkavalier, but a closer reaction to O Sole Mio… OPERA IS FUN! La Cenerentola (Cinderella) was the first comedic opera I watched: With food fights, princes in disguise and many entanglements – this opera will make you smile, laugh and is sure to be a great night with the family… I honestly recommend this to anyone who believes opera is boring and “depressing”.
7. Farewell Auschwitz – Heggie.
After the laughs of La Cenerentola, it only made sense to talk about this upbeat song cycle, right? I found this Heggie piece last year, and before finding it made the wonderful discovery of new music. Gasp! Shock! Horror! It came to me as a bit of a revelation when I realised that opera and classical songs are still being composed to this day… I just hadn’t heard any of them or even thought about it! So when I heard the tenor Alexander Lewis performing Dear Theo, a recent work by Ben Moore about Vincent Van Gogh, I had a lightbulb moment. There are many composers out there today composing great new works for opera singers. In Western Australia, we have The Riders (by Graindage based on Tim Winton’s novel) about to hit His Majesty’s Theatre. I began looking at this new music, and found the incredible song cycle by Jake Heggie, an American composer. This is powerful music, written by composers who are STILL alive, about events that have happened in the last 100 years. I can’t help but get excited and incredibly moved by this music, knowing that these composers are still writing new music to be experienced for the first time. That is such an exciting concept as a singer!
There is so much incredible music out there that can create a powerful experience for anyone who may listen to them. I find myself overwhelmed as I write this list and listen to this incredible music as it just touches me in a special way. In the same way Vivian was touched by the music of La Traviata. So the next time you find yourself watching an opera, and feel embarrassed by the need to laugh or cry out loud….
…Don’t be. Openly laugh, cry, clap, shout. It’s all apart of the experience of music. Just be aware though… The theatre might not let you back if you DO decide to pee your pants.
Written by Katherine Goyder