The interesting thing about having new people in your life is you get to explore new stuff that you’ve always been curious about but just didn’t have enough pull on you at that particular moment, so you move on and promise yourself to check it out some other time.
For me, that ‘other time’ came last Tuesday, and the ‘new stuff’ was attending an opera.
Still fresh from popping my orchestra concert cherry just barely two weeks ago—thanks to an invitation from a new dear friend, who’s a big fan of classical music—I was convinced by the same friend to get set for my first encounter with the opera.
The show: composer Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde; the conductor: Sir Simon Rattle (a very big name in the industry since the ‘80s); the venue: Greenbelt 3 Cinemas, Makati; the real venue: the Metropolitan Opera House, or just The Met, in New York via their official HD recording of the show last October 8, 2016; running time: 6:30 to 11:30 PM.
No, it wasn’t exactly a live opera that we saw. Yes, the stage where it was performed was thousands of miles away. No, the show did not really occur the other night but seven months ago. So how come Cinema 3 was packed with attendees at 6:30 sharp?
Equipped with inexperienced classical music ears, a tumbler of buttered popcorn (and before you say “What? EATING WHILE WATCHING THE OPERA?” let me stop you ‘cause I’ll explain later), and a general openness to what laid ahead of me the entire evening, I braved the opera and came out with several unexpected realizations that made the whole experience well worth a repeat (or ten) in the near future.
- Physical preparation is a must
An opera usually lasts 3-4 hours. Tristan und Isolde played for a solid five hours, with two intervals that lasted about 15 minutes each. So unlike seeing an average film would require these days, the opera would likely take up more time in your evening date, so prepare your butt for the numbing stretch of time sitting down. That is if you don’t chance upon a few shorter operas that go on for less than an hour or two. Trivia: the shortest opera, Sands of Time, runs for only 3 minutes and 34 seconds!
- Have that break
It has come to my knowledge that lengthy operas are usually divided into a few acts. Tristan und Isolde had three that run for about 80 minutes at a time. So if you got a little worried about my trips to the bathroom when I mentioned that it was a 5-hour matinee, the two breaks, or interludes, in between its three acts were very important to my survival. The intermissions were also the time to get food and drinks, which now brings me back to my buttered popcorn-eating self while watching the opera. To answer it simply: even though it defied standard theater etiquette, no, eating during wasn’t prohibited in this particular case since we were seeing the opera on a movie screen, so cinema rules naturally applied.
- Don’t stress on the dress
Dress codes are a thing of the past for many (not all) opera shows/venues. Although a bunch of goers—usually those that have the more expensive seats—still dress to the nines to keep the tradition, unless a specific show or venue implements a strict attire guideline, you can supposedly come in your everyday shirt and jeans for all they care. It makes sense, though. I mean, it usually lasts for hours so comfort is key to truly enjoying these performances.
- Know what you’re getting yourself into
There won’t be a test at the end but it won’t hurt to do diligence prior the opera, especially if you’re a newbie like me. Research a little. It helps to appreciate the art more. Learn the basic terms. I started with knowing the parts and sub-parts first: the overture, the acts, and interludes; then move along to the various roles that make up the grand spectacle: the conductor, director, musicians, soloists, and even the audience. These will not only allow you to follow every show easier, but it will also get you into the culture much quicker if you’re susceptible to it anyway.
- It’s the company you keep
As a beginner, having someone you know with you, who’s as eager as you about opera, is not an absolute must (because independence), but again it helps you appreciate something easier when you’re in good company. I, for one, found my friend not only feeding me vital tidbits about this Tristan und Isolde run, including how much of a big deal Sir Rattle was in the classical music world, but he also helped me stay awake all throughout the show—fine, ninety-percent of it.
- Nobody gets it completely right the first time
Speaking of staying awake, it’s advisable to take a power nap at least hours before a long opera, as the soothing music and enthralling solos are bound to hit you so hard, even the best concert goers admit to dozing off momentarily, especially when they’re so focused on the show and already had a long day to start with. Caffeine definitely helps, too, yes.
Getting to the point, I neither napped nor had my shot of espresso prior my experience so obviously I had an extremely hard time staying awake approaching the fifth and final hour. It sucks because you tried your best and read the English subtitles (all the songs were in German), and nothing could’ve salvaged the situation. Not even switching sitting position and eye exercises.
So, despite the later mishap, will I still go to another opera? Yes, of course. I guess if you really are an open-minded individual that loves various forms of art and likes to immerse him/herself in new cultures, it’s not difficult to love opera, let alone classical music. It definitely is a time travel of sorts, making you think Mozart and 18th–Century social events in ball gowns and tuxedos.
Lastly, it also brings me to the realization of how amateur all our singing voices are compared to these vocal Olympians on stage. It makes you realize why opera has not been accessible in the last century, especially with the proliferation of other genres of music. Nonetheless, this mortal is darn fortunate to be born at a time when advocates and scholars are still determined to keep this timeless total art form alive.