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Opera for the Culturally Illiterate

For those of you who think all the entertainment you'll ever need is on Fox TV, I offer an alternative. Welcome to another wonderful world of sex, alcohol, and profound carnage. Welcome to the wonderful world of opera.

I know I mentioned the o-word, but please don't stop reading. Opera, when well-performed, is one of the most exciting art forms available to enhance our redundant lives. You can pack a lot into two and a half hours of singing. Opera composer Richard Wagner offered his viewers a real escape. His Ring of the Nibelung was "a stage festival for three days and a preliminary evening." Pack your bags, honey...

Wagner isn't for everybody, but opera has something for everyone. And if you understand operatic characters, then sitting through a few hours of an obese person in a ridiculous costume singing in a foreign language can actually be a pleasant, enjoyable experience.

Here's a list of the most common female characters in opera.

  • The whore: Usually a mezzo-soprano, this character is exemplified by the title role in Carmen. The whore is lusted after by all the male characters, then tosses her lovers away like yesterday's newspaper. The whore is usually bumped off sometime during Act III.
  • The heroine: Brunnhilde in Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung is a good example of the heroine. This is the big-boned spear-and-Viking-helmet woman. The heroine is common in the world of opera, and she often is killed or commits suicide sometime during the opera.
  • The heroine/ho: Fairly common in opera. This character combines the redeeming qualities of the heroine with the unchained passion that usually gets somebody killed before the curtain falls. An example: Violetta in La Traviata.
  • Mom: Almost always a mezzo-soprano. She usually spends the entire opera watching other people get killed. The operatic mom is much more naive than the average mom. In Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, Momma Lucia's son stumbles in after drinking too much, blabbers an inebriated "good-bye." Lucia says, "Why do you speak like this, my son?" My mom would have said, "You're drunk. Go clean up your bedroom."
  • The helpless, powerless, extremely fragile porcelain mouse: Extremely common. Mimi in Puccini's La Boheme is a perfect example. Mimi falls in love with Rodolfo (the tenor) then gets sick and dies.

And the male characters are even more fun.

  • The suave, debonair, selfish, womanizing pig: The Duke of Mantua is Verdi's Rigoletto and the title role in Mozart's Don Giovanni are great examples. This character uses women to satisfy inherent male lust then drops their lover like a sack of rotten potatoes. Except for Don Giovanni, the selfish pig often escapes the carnage that haunts all other operatic characters. Don Giovanni actually goes straight to hell at the end of the opera.
  • The hero: Almost always a tenor. The degree of heroism is determined by the variations in the timbre of the tenor voice part:
    • Tenorino: Italian for "tenor with no testosterone" The tenorino is the Little Richard of the opera world. With practice this tenor could play badminton with his high school Computer Club, but only for a few minutes. The tenorino corresponds to the fragile porcelain mouse in the female characters. He is also referred to in Italy as the tenore di grazia, meaning "a tenor who speaks with a lisp." The tenorino is almost always given a costume which vaunts his chicken legs.
    • Lyric tenor: This tenor is tough enough to play professional baseball. Tamino in Mozart's Magic Flute is a lyric tenor, he faints at the sight of a large snake.
    • Spinto: Spinto is Italian for "big, burly tenor," this tenor could play professional hockey. Exemplified by Radames in Verdi's Aida, the Spinto almost always get the girl, but sometimes dies in the process. If this tenor doesn't get the girl, he usually kills someone.
    • Heldentenor: This is German for "baritone who stands on his testicles". The Heldentenor could play pro-football day long, then run a marathon. Also called the tenore di forza, death and destruction follow him wherever he goes. He always gets the girl, even if he has to kill her. The title role in Wagner's Siegfried is the best example of this tenor. When describing the difficulty of these roles, Heldentenor James King remarked, "Oh, the pain, the pain..."
    • Countertenor: This tenor is a throwback to olden times when people were so enraptured with the sound of a boy soprano they wanted the voice to stay that way. They are formerly called the "Castrati" (a translation is unnecessary.) Nowadays, the Countertenor is actually a Baritone who couldn't make it and decided to sing like a girl so people would go "Oooo, Aahh, tee-hee-hee". The countertenor is found in only early operas, which are not as long as Wagner operas, but are much more tedious. If the Countertenor isn't performing, he's likely to be waiting tables at a French restaurant.
  • The big, clumsy, over-weight oaf: Usually a big, clumsy, overweight or bass. He gets taken advantage of, laughed at, is often drunk and eats like an under-weight sumo wrestler. The oaf is used to bring some humor in between the carnage that occurs when a operatic characters meet.

Now that you know the basics of operatic characters, you'll find opera much more enjoyable than "Married With Children" reruns. So put the beer down, put on some nice clothes, find the nearest opera house, and go experience intense entertainment. Opera is big fun, and you'll be back in time to watch Letterman.

John Schultz 1994