opera for beginners

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Although I’m loathe to admit it, I have terrible taste in music. It’s a lifelong affliction that started in the 80s when I made myself learn all the words to ‘Believe It Or Not’ – AKA the theme song from The Greatest American Heroto impress the boy next door. In High School, I bought New Kids On The Block’s ‘Hangin’ Tough’ on vinyl and listened to Chess (the musical) on repeat while the cools kids were humming Nirvana elegies in our not-so-hallowed halls. These days, I recognise my bad behaviour before clicking BUY. Just last week, I considered downloading the Nashville soundtrack following a spate of 4oD catch-up TV, but stepped away from my computer in the nick of time.

I’m not, however, a complete lost cause. Thanks to a clutch of oh-so-benevolent friends, which include music critics, drum and base DJs, folk singers, songwriters, classical choristers and such, I’ve been introduced to some amazing sounds and experiences over the last few years, the most enduring of which has been opera.

Not that my new-found obsession didn’t get off to a faltering start. First, there was the time I was stuck in the Gods of London’s Colosseum for three-and-a-half hours straining to understand John Adams’ retelling of Nixon In China while a narrow bench attempted to halt circulation to my big toes. What happened in New York a few years later, while stowing away on a tour with the London Symphony, didn’t help either.

It was the last days of our trip and outside the sky was a brilliant blue and I was craving a final walk through the Upper West Side and a visit to Luke’s Lobster. My desires, however, fell on deaf ears as my cultured co-travellers crammed around someone’s iPhone and a borrowed WiFi signal trying to book a bunch of so-called Ring Cycle tickets at London’s Royal Opera House that wasn’t to be staged for ANOTHER TWELVE MONTHS. Really, who wanted to watch opera that much?

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At the time, I’d only vaguely heard of Wagner and had no idea that The Ring of the Nibelung was a work of gargantuan proportions that took over your life for four nights and totalled 17 hours of chest-pounding, pulse-racing, voice-tearing, marathon-rivalling singing. If I’d asked what I was getting myself into, instead of dreaming of crustacea-addled buttery brioche, perhaps I wouldn’t have agreed to a standing ticket.

Not to worry, I had lots of practice before the big event arrived. To be able to book the tickets at all, my friends had to befriend the Royal Opera House – yes, the popularity of this Teutonic masterpiece rivals Beyoncé – and to take full of advantage of this new relationship status they booked tickets to see everything else that was being staged during the season. Falstaff. La Bohème. Robert de Diablo. Rigoletto. Salome. I’m sure that’s not all. Our trips extended further afield too: I happily sat through 5-hours of Philip Glass’ Einstein On The Beach at The Barbican and fell in love with Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes when it was semi-staged during last year’s Proms.

By the time The Ring rolled around, my tune had changed and I had more than an inkling of what to expect, though nothing could’ve fully prepared me for the spine-stabbing music, finger-bending voices, masterful staging, enormous emotions, ludicrous drama and an audience brimming with eccentricities, class and costumes that on occasion rivalled those on stage. As I mentioned before, I was standing for the duration, and apart from a 15 minute disco nap halfway through the opening opera – Das Rheingold – due to post-Japan jetlag rather than boredom, the rest of the experience was so immersive that any gripes my feet may have had were drowned out by Bryn Terfel’s Wotan, the Flight Of The Valkyries and, you know, the end of the world.

The Ring is an opera-goers rite of passage and, even though I stumbled into by chance, I’m so grateful that I did. I’m also thankful for Opera di Peroni – who are currently staging a modern retelling of Puccini’s ‘La Rondine’ (pronounced ‘La Rondinay’). Produced by Kwes and Go Opera, the singing is first rate (particularly Anna Jeruc-Kopec as Magda pictured above), the event is all about kicking the perceived elitism of regular opera to the curb and encouraging a new crowd to access the medium. The London run has finished but you’re in luck if you’re in Bristol – or can travel there – on 27-28 March. You can find all the details at the Opera di Peroni website.

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Oh, and one last thing, I know that traditional opera has a reputation for being a little snobbish, but if you’re really interested in the art form, you should come along to the Royal Opera House anyway. Most standing tickets cost less than a visit to the cinema and who knows, you might be pleasantly surprised. And if that doesn’t work for you, tune in to Radio 3 on a Saturday evening for Opera On 3, live from the Met in New York. They’re my favourite opera broadcasts because everything gets broken down before and between acts, including the story, interviews with the performers and its history. It’s a great taster. Trust me.

Useful links: Opera Di Peroni // Royal Opera House // BBC Radio 3

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Images © Peroni

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