Have you ever seen an opera?



Have you ever seen an opera?  I can thoroughly recommend it.  It’s like a good play but with great music too.  The music helps to bring out the emotional highs and lows of each character.  You can sit back and enjoy the scenery and the oh so clever props and costumes.


You may think that it’s highbrow but the plots tend to be more straightforward than many modern plays and still deal with the essential themes of life, such as love, fidelity, hope, despair, selfishness and revenge.  So, it’s not that you won’t be able to follow the plot.  In any case, the programme always has a little precis.


Opera is often sung in the language it was composed in, frequently Italian or German, which again, may make you think it’s too complicated if you are not a fluent linguist.  But in every modern opera house there are supertitles above the stage, which translate the words being sung into English, phrase by phrase.  No problem there then.


Tickets can be rather pricey but if you are prepared to sit further back, to stand or lean for the performance, then a seat can be yours for a mere £20 or so.  So what’s not to like?


Last week we went to an opera experience which was memorable on all fronts.  We arrived early and this is what we found.  Picnic hamper; check.  Table laid with white cloth; check.  Beautiful landscaped gardens with lake and bridge; check.  Husband, brother-in-law and his wife; check.  We had gathered to celebrate the birthdays of the two brothers, conveniently only 10 days apart.  The gardens were filling up with chaps dressed in black tie and women in fancy dresses long and short.  Glyndebourne has a reputation for being a very individual, quintessentially English venue for opera.  And it lives up to its reputation.


What do you think we did first having found our allotted table in the grounds?  We found a cup of tea that’s what!  How much more English can you get?  Although my American sister-in-law did have coffee…  We raided the picnic hamper for plates and cutlery and cut into the birthday cake I had brought along.  We sat in the sunshine, watching the procession of different dresses and evening wear parade through the gardens.  There were all sorts, from a short velvet dress, a halter neck long dress with a train, loose dresses,  fitted dresses or even trousers, with a jacket, wrap or stole for extra warmth.  The men rang the changes from a straight dinner suit by wearing a kilt, adding a cummerbund, white jacket or coloured bow tie.  In view of the warm weather there were quite a few panama type hats in circulation too.


The tradition at Glyndebourne is to have one long interval between the acts and give everyone time to eat at one of the restaurants or picnic in the grounds.  You can buy their picnic or take your own.  It’s all super-organised, there’s lots of information on line to help you plan what to do.  Now I love going to the opera but you do usually have to eat really early beforehand and then you’re a bit hungry again afterwards.  So an opera which stops especially so that you can have some supper, is right up my street.


We had ordered a picnic and after the first act, it was waiting for us in a cool bag beside our table on the lawn.  We toasted the birthday chaps and then enjoyed our quiche and salad.     The description was more flowery than that but you get what I mean.  We were so lucky to have good weather and it was magical to eat outside in such beautiful surroundings as the sun went down.  Mmmm, I had been wondering what else I might like.  But the picnic providers had already anticipated my every need and provided coffee and a chocolate before we went back in to enjoy the second half.


Which opera did we see?  It was The Barber of Seville by Rossini, full of misunderstandings  which are resolved, so that the course of love runs true, in time-honoured fashion.  The cast and splendid orchestra were top quality.  The scenery was carefully chosen to evoke southern Spain and Rossini’s music was lively and demanded my attention from the first to the last note.


If you decide to try out an opera, not all come with picnic facilities.   But don’t let that put you off.  I dare you to try one.






Pants on fire!


“Liar, liar etc..” says the chorus chanted in the playground.  We are careful to teach our children the difference between truth and lies.  I can remember saying to my children, “I won’t be cross as long as you just tell the truth.”  The deal suggested was sometimes hard to stick to and many times led to a long explanation about rights and wrongs which was probably so boring as to be punishment enough for both my offspring and myself!  It might have been more effective to have a good rant and tell him/her off, for pushing the other child or snatching a favourite toy but of course that would have made a liar out of me and my promise.


Great store is laid in keeping our word, trusting people, “cross my heart and hope to die” is one of the more common, if drastic promises.  “I swear on my mother’s grave” is another oft-quoted pledge.


It is against this background of telling the truth at all costs, that we seem to love storytelling.  Our appetite for fiction has been apparent since stories were exchanged around the campfire and now we have a plethora of choice from modern novels, crime fiction and historical fiction to romance.  These can be enjoyed as a paper book, on our e-readers, on TV real time or on catch up and we can choose to watch films at the cinema or at home via a download. Such a wide variety of content and media!!  I can’t get enough of the various Scandi noir series on TV, whether the original language is Swedish, Danish or Icelandic. I love the glowering landscapes and the sophisticated (if rather violent!) societies reflected in them.


At my book group we have the monthly treat of being issued with a library book to read. Sometimes an old classic to read for the first time or re-discover, such as Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; a popular writer such as Margaret Atwood with yet another best seller; or an unknown author such as Kawakami and her ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’.  In my head at any one time I have the plot of a couple of books I have on the go, as well as the story of any TV series I’m watching week by week.  No wonder I breathe a sigh of relief as the next episode starts with a precis of the key points so far.


Our suspension of disbelief allows us to forget about truth-telling for once.  Stories give us permission to leave the truth behind and be carried along on a cloud of lies, many times not even set in the real world (soaps being the exception to this rule) but with enough emotional truth in them to make the story believable.  I love the feeling of disappearing into a fictional world, losing track of time and forgetting the real world for a while.  I’ve just finished reading The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks, yes I know it’s been out for years, how did I miss it…?  It’s an absolutely gripping book in full gothic horror mode and although I can’t tolerate horror films, this novel had me firmly sucked into its awful fantasy world from the very first chapter.


This weekend, I was reminded of this contradiction between telling the truth and welcoming a world of storytelling.  I was lucky enough to go and see the ENO’s production of The Magic Flute.  It tells the story…well the plot is pretty far fetched.  Our invaluable opera guide called the plot a ‘splendid muddle’ and indeed it is a mixture of a man on a quest for love, a captured maiden, a scheming mother and the powerful leader of a cult.  This was played out on a fairly bare stage, with the minimum of scenery and a large platform used variously as a sloping hill, a roof and a floor.  It even opened a trapdoor at one time, for the happy couple to go through as they rose above the torments intended for them.  So far, so conventional.  What stood out was the addition of certain realistic detail in order to modernise the staging.


The orchestra was not hidden away in a pit but raised up to stage level and celebrated by being seen and being part of the opera.  One of the flautists even came out of the orchestra onto the stage to play some of the key themes.


On the right hand side of the stage was a sound effects booth, not hidden away as usual. The operator was fully visible and an interesting addition to the action on stage.  I saw her blow into bottles to make a melody as the actor on stage mimed doing the same.  She moved her feet to make scrunching steps and her hands to tip a box back and forth for particular effect.  Key announcements of acts, scenes and pointers to particular characters were made via a chalk board, also visible, this time on the left hand side of the stage.  One man drew the words or arrows in chalk and these were then magnified and projected onto the stage.  It’s simple, child-like quality contrasted well with the fancy surroundings of The Coliseum.


The overall effect of performing on a stage which proclaimed that we should all be aware of the artifice of storytelling, gave a sense of irony and self awareness which was not lost on the mainly adult audience.  My husband, son and I were all impressed with how clever it was. Although I usually prefer to enter wholeheartedly into the illusion of story telling, in this case the addition of a reminder of the real world, enhanced the magic and made the evening all the more special and memorable.

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