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How to enjoy opera without trying too hard: a simple guide for the curious

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(New Yorker cartoon)

Sometimes we get caught in a vicious circle where people are intimidated by classical music or opera and, in return, those who love it try too hard in the wrong way to find the right introduction.

I was reminded of this yesterday over the course of two hours with Canadian Opera Company music director Johannes Debus in a Q&A session for the Toronto Opera Club.

One person in the audience mentioned she had recently discovered opera, and was looking for more information about it. The conversation also glanced on the topic of which operas make for good introductions to the artform.

It occurred to me that, too often, we focus on the work rather than on the person who is going to experience it for the first time. We try to match them up with pieces that are somehow easier to take than others. But I’ve met people who were seduced by a first-time visit to an atonal, 20th century work.

How to explain that one?

We might be better served if we look at opera in exactly the same way we think of movies and theatre.

Would we invite someone who likes romantic comedies to see Die Hard Reboot? Or someone who likes horror flicks to Pitch Perfect?

We might think twice about taking someone whose only theatre experience has been Mamma Mia! to see The Cherry Orchard.

So why not apply the same logic to opera?

Someone who likes frothy entertainment is much more likely to enjoy Die Fledermaus or The Magic Flute. A person with a penchant for romantic comedy could try La Rondine or Così fan tutte. A more adventurous soul, someone interested in experimental forms, would probably like Lulu or something like last year’s production of L’Amour de loin.

The production itself is important, too — traditional versus something out-there, shocking versus conventional. Fringey people would probably get a kick out of Tapestry New Opera premieres, while history buffs might take to Opera Atelier’s aesthetic.

If a person is young, hip and sophisticated and has a home full of sleek, streamlined furniture, a re-setting of Don Giovanni in the world of 21st century sexual hookups might be just the ticket.

I think it’s not opera itself that is intimidating, but confronting a work or a sensibility that is radically outside a person’s experience. It is not technical difficulty in the music that’s daunting, it’s having to accept a point of view that is not naturally one’s own.

It’s a matter of sense and sensibility — don’t you think?

John Terauds

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