Ahead of tonight where we will be inviting members of the press who have never seen opera to experience their ‘first time fledermaus’, writer Heather Kincaid tells us about her first time at the opera back when she was one of our First Night bloggers…
Back in 2013, I started reviewing Birmingham Hippodrome shows as part of the theatre’s First Night Blogging scheme. As a lover of the arts in general, opera was always something I’d been curious about, but I’d never quite had the guts to take the plunge and give it a go before, particularly given my lack of knowledge about classical music.
Had I been simply buying my own ticket, the worst my first time could have meant was a potentially unenjoyable night out at the theatre – nothing much to complain about, in the scheme of things. But attending as a reviewer made me nervous. What if I didn’t get what was going on or couldn’t get to grips with the conventions of the form? What if not enjoying it was my fault rather than the show’s? What if, even if I did enjoy it, I then found myself without the technical insight or vocabulary to effectively describe and analyse the experience?
As I’d learned already, however, sometimes the best experiences come out of the situations you’re most unsure about. As a student, I’d actually inadvertently ended up appearing in light, comic opera, tempted by pirate costumes and chocolate money to sign up to my university’s G&S Society without the faintest idea of who or what Gilbert & Sullivan were. In that instance, I’d ended up loving every minute of it and staying for the full three years, despite the fact I still can’t really read music. So in the end, I figured just writing about a show you didn’t know much about couldn’t be half as scary as performing in one!
And boy was I glad I went along! In a way, I guess I got lucky in that Wagner’s Lohengrin was my first. I’ve since learned that, while they’re enjoyable enough in their way, the sort of stereotypical stories of tragic romance and fallen women of the ilk of La Traviata aren’t quite so much to my tastes as Wagner’s epic tales of angels, gods and ghost ships – and I have the confidence in the validity of my own opinions to say so.
Musically, nothing could have prepared me for the scale and scope of hearing an opera performed live – if you’ve only ever listened to recordings, you won’t have the faintest sense of how the sound just washes over you and envelops you. As a friend later said to me when I was lucky enough to experience Mariinsky Opera’s Ring Cycle in full, it “does something to your soul”.
Another thing I’ve learned is not to worry too much about the technical jargon. There is definitely room for experts who specialise in that – but to the average reader of a more general blog or publication, it’s as like as not to be intimidating and off-putting. The job is more to capture a flavour of the show overall: if your audience is people more or less like you, you need to describe what you experienced, and not what you feel as though you should have picked up on. I’m not the first to have said all this, of course – Armando Iannucci is an opera lover, and a passionate advocate of getting more people engaged in conversations around classical music.
Don’t forget there are other aspects to talk about as well. Opera is a dramatic form, specifically designed to bring together all the arts, so don’t feel as though it’s somehow sacrilegious to talk about the acting and the design as well as the orchestra and singing, particularly when it comes to WNO shows. In years gone by, it’s been more fashionable for operas to be performed more stiffly, with all the emphasis on vocal performance. These days, however, you can expect to see actors as accomplished as any you’d see in a play – they just happen to be able to sing sublimely too! With WNO, there’s a clear emphasis on directorial vision, inventive set design and coherent, accessible productions. In much the same way as the RSC approaches Shakespeare, they’re not afraid to radically reimagine things in ways that appeal to contemporary audiences, rather than being painstakingly purist. This means their shows always feel fresh and vital, and moreover, everyone has to come in with an open mind: if you’re a newcomer, you’re not the only one who doesn’t quite know what to expect!
Don’t be afraid to trust your instincts – things you’ve already encountered will offer you an in, and it’s interesting to explore how opera has influenced later developments. Wagner’s style is pretty cinematic, while something like The Marriage of Figaro is farcical, a kind of domestic sitcom, and Bizet’s Carmen is almost proto-musical theatre. WNO embraces the connections too, often staging musicals like Sweeney Todd or Kiss Me Kate as part of operatic seasons.
As with anything, of course, the more you see, the more confident you become, and the better equipped you are to explain your thoughts and opinions. Yet more than four years later, as a professional arts journalist, my first opera still holds a special place in my heart, remaining one of my favourites that I’ve seen to this day.