“It’s not over till the fat lady sings,” cue the orchestra music as the over-sized woman wearing a Viking helmet with spear in hand appears on stage right. It’s a popular expression that simultaneously tells us something’s ending while also evoking a brief image of an Opera singer. The reason I mention this is because last Friday I finally realized a twelve-year dream by attending a performance of George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” and is what many would call an American Folk Opera. It’s a great piece of theater with famous songs like “Summertime,” or “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’” and to my mind is distinguished in two great respects, 1) Gershwin’s music brilliantly combines Classical, Jazz, African American hymns and other musical forms into a great score, and 2) 99% of the cast and characters are played by African Americans (at the strong insistence of the show’s creators). Overall, my expectations weren’t disappointed and I went home with a poster that will shortly be framed and displayed on a wall inside my house.
I’m no expert when it comes to Opera, but there are three key points I’d be willing to bet are major storytelling mechanisms and are also big contributors to the medium’s appeal.
Most stories have some sort of point or goal to reach, but when it comes to Opera there’s often a strongly-focused storyline on a particular theme or idea such as love, war or betrayal and a large amount of drama is then constructed around that premise. For example, La Traviata focuses on the Parisian courtesan Viola and her unconditional love for Fredo, son of a middle-class merchant. Through rain or shine this is the anchor of the storyline and we witness the practical and emotional triumphs and tragedies that follow as a result.
This is my favorite one and I think I’m safe in saying many would probably agree. From Mozart’s “Overture to the Marriage of Figaro” to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” (you may not recognize the names, but I guarantee you would recognize the melodies instantly) Operatic music is embedded in our popular culture and it’s this music coupled with singing that acts as the primary mechanism for moving the storyline forward. It’s amazing what composers like Verdi, Puccini or Gershwin and their accompanying libretto writers were able to do because not only did they have to write specific songs, but also needed to move an often 3-4 hour long performance forward by replacing conventional dialogue with musical conversations. I have a feeling there’s a law written down somewhere stating that if a composer allows more than ten seconds of actual spoken, non-musical dialogue, the Opera Police will show up and toss them in jail. Maybe it’s just me.
Of course, any Opera wouldn’t be complete without singing in a language most of us don’t understand. I’ve found that if you read a synopsis of the story before the show it greatly helps with figuring out what the heck is going on. Another great device some companies like the Seattle Opera are now employing is to flash subtitles above the stage during the performance which is extremely helpful, allowing the audience to pretty much grasp every word. Trust me, it’s a real lifesaver.
Overall, I’m not trying to sound hoity-toity or anything like that by talking about Opera. It seems that if someone goes to the Opera, people assume they must be trying to be part of some group of cultural elitists, but I would argue that’s an unfair conclusion to draw. Just like television, rock concerts, movies or Broadway plays, Opera tells a story for the simple purpose of entertaining its audience. Granted I didn’t get into these sort of performances until I was an adult, but once I did, I realized it can actually be quite fun and is not something you always have to be dragged to by your parents or wife. I recommend trying it out some time, you may be pleasantly surprised.
Now the fat lady can sing.