Did You Know? Opera Performance Practice

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Experience Central City Opera with an inside look at the festival’s history, performances, and people.


Opera is an art form with a long and storied past, dating back to the beginning of the seventeenth century. Over the years, various traditions have established themselves on the opera stage, along with performance practice procedures that are still observed to this day. Let’s explore some of those traditions and practices that are commonplace in opera houses worldwide.

Opera singers do not use microphones.
When opera was initially being performed centuries ago, microphones and other sound amplification technologies did not exist. Singers had to learn singing techniques that allowed for a single unamplified voice to carry through a theater over the sound of a full orchestral accompaniment. One way that singers were able to accomplish this was by using more vibrato, which is the “wobble” in pitch that you might hear when an opera singer performs. A singer typically produces much more vibrato and slower vibrato than orchestral instruments, which makes his or her sound stand out to the ears of audience members.

Even though microphones are readily available nowadays in the theatre, opera is still performed as it was in the 1600s – with pure human voices unaided by amplification technology. Classical singing technique still teaches singers to carry their voices healthily over the sounds of a full orchestra, allowing for opera lovers to be constantly impressed with the sheer power of the human voice.

Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Studio Artist Ethan Greene performs an aria during the Death by Aria recital.

Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Studio Artist Ethan Greene performs an aria during the Death by Aria recital.

Opera singers say “Toi Toi Toi” instead of “Good Luck” or “Break a Leg”.
The opera version of wishing a performer good luck on stage derives from a tradition of warding off the devil. “Toi” comes from the German word “Teufel”, meaning devil, and according to legend, saying the devil’s name while spitting over one’s shoulder is a means of keeping away evil spirits and bad luck. It is not uncommon to see opera singers backstage before a performance spitting over their shoulders and “toi toi toi”-ing their fellow perfomers.

Opera can still have spoken dialogue.
In fact, Bizet’s Carmen utilizes spoken dialogue, and Central City Opera’s 2017 production of Carmen presents that dialogue in its original French. Many other famous operas experiment with the use of dialogue, including  classic works such as Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus, and Beethoven’s Fidelio, along with modern works such as Benjamin Britten’s The Beggar’s Opera and Phillip Glass’ Hydrogen Jukebox. While the majority of opera is sung through, spoken dialogue can be used to connect musical numbers, add realism, or make a moment stand out in contrast to what is normally sung.

CARMEN – Children’s Chorus and Ensemble Central City Opera’s CARMEN (2017). Pictured: Members of the Colorado Children’s Chorale and Ensemble. Photography by Amanda Tipton.

CARMEN – Children’s Chorus and Ensemble Central City Opera’s CARMEN (2017). Pictured: Members of the Colorado Children’s Chorale and Ensemble. Photography by Amanda Tipton.

Opera typically does not follow the “8 shows a week” structure.
Operas are often longer than a play or musical, and often very technically challenging for both the stars and for the ensemble. Additionally, opera singers do not have the support of microphones, which means that even though performers utilize healthy singing techniques, each performance is vocally exhausting. Therefore, operas do not typically follow the Broadway “8 shows a week” performance schedule, and opera productions usually have limited runs as opposed to Broadway productions that can run until the show can no longer sustain being open.

This does not mean that opera is not readily available nightly at major opera companies. The Metropolitan Opera in New York City runs productions in repertory, meaning that rather than running one production for a prolonged period of time, they run multiple productions on alternating nights. The Met schedules up to seven performances of up to four different works every week during its season. Central City Opera runs the mainstage operas in repertory as well, switching back and forth this season between Carmen and Cosí fan tutte. The repertory schedule allows for an opera company to present a variety of shows on a nightly basis while allowing the performers in each show to take time to rest physically, mentally, and vocally.

This summer, Central City Opera features Bizet's CARMEN and Mozart's COSÍ FAN TUTTE performed in repertory.

This summer, Central City Opera features Bizet’s CARMEN and Mozart’s COSÍ FAN TUTTE performed in repertory.

There are many different types of opera.
Just like with musical theatre, operas can differ wildly in their musical styles, stories, themes, and settings. Georges Bizet’s Carmen, for example, is an opera from the Romantic era, featuring sweeping themes that play with musical dissonances, expansive orchestration, and a dramatic storyline. Mozart’s Cosí fan tutte is very different, predating Carmen by 85 years. Cosí fan tutte is from the Classical era in the style of opera buffa, a genre of comic opera that tends to focus on pairs of lovers and their antics. Musically, Cosí fan tutte has much fewer dissonances and a more rigid structure in the development of its musical numbers. Even in cast sizes the two operas differ; while Carmen features many large ensemble pieces, the music of Cosí fan tutte replaces many of those large ensemble pieces with smaller duets/trios/quartets that focus on the six main characters.

Of course, these comparisons only skin the surface when it comes to variety in operatic repertoire. This season’s one act operas, The Burning Fiery Furnace, Gallantry, and Cabildo, are all twentieth century operas that draw on a variety of modern musical techniques and themes.

Opera may be rooted in tradition, but as any art form, it is constantly evolving and changing to reflect the world around us. With a little bit of exploration, it’s not hard to find an opera that speaks to you and that draws you into this grand operatic legacy.

To explore Central City Opera’s 2017 festival offerings, please visit https://centralcityopera.org/events/2017-summer-festival-events-home.

Central City Opera’s COSÌ FAN TUTTE (2017). Pictured L to R: Megan Marino (Despina), Patrick Carfizzi (Don Alfonso), Matthew Plenk (Ferrando), Tamara Gura (Dorabella), and David Adam Moore (Guglielmo). Photography by Amanda Tipton.

Central City Opera’s COSÌ FAN TUTTE (2017). Pictured L to R: Megan Marino (Despina), Patrick Carfizzi (Don Alfonso), Matthew Plenk (Ferrando), Tamara Gura (Dorabella), and David Adam Moore (Guglielmo). Photography by Amanda Tipton.

References:

Encyclopedia Britannica
https://www.britannica.com/art/instrumentation-music/The-Classical-period

The New York Times
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/30/arts/music/wearing-a-wire-at-the-opera-secretly-of-course.html
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/10/theater/musical-or-opera-the-fine-line-that-divides-them.html?module=ArrowsNav&contentCollection=Theater&action=keypress&region=FixedLeft&pgtype=article

The Washington Post
https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/music/opera-and-broadway-have-a-fruitful-relationship-if-only-opera-fans-understood-it/2017/05/26/2e78d944-3fd1-11e7-adba-394ee67a7582_story.html?utm_term=.f2179a2ee213

NPR
http://www.npr.org/2014/08/11/339611011/for-a-bit-of-luck-opera-singers-say-a-melange-o-tois

Scientific American
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/expert-opera-singer/

The Royal Opera House
http://www.roh.org.uk/news/some-things-are-better-left-unsung-why-composers-use-speech-in-opera

The Metropolitan Opera
http://www.metopera.org/

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