A Little Bit More About Opera

Attention: for those, who is lazy to read this post, this video might be something like compensation:

A young group of  students, after their first lecture, discuss their interests and hobbies in the cafe.

_ I love Justin Timberlake, I want a baby from him, a little Justin! _ says African American Sheila.

_ Things become more jazzy when it comes to Ella Fitzgerald _ Ronald from Bosnia answers.

_ Hey, and what about Opera? _ everybody look at Gianni with surprise.

_ So… Opera it’s… it’s aaa, oh Opera it’s when people scream, yeah? And what’s the point of listening it? _ asks Leby, a fan of Rock.

Yeah, Gianni is in a deep trouble to explain that Opera has nothing to do with screaming. But how? What to compare it to make his friends believe in the magic of Opera? Maybe, sport? Why not…

Opera is a combination of acting and singing but mostly singing. That’s why the good singers, with less acting gift, sing onstage. The roots of this tradition come from ancient Greek dramatic theatres. There the actors tried to pronounce louder in order the public to hear them better. In the dark centuries nothing happened because of the Catholic Church’s ruling power. And the songs were mostly sacred and composed for choir. Almost no solo.

_Before speaking directly about Opera, let me tell you why the operatic voice sounds like that.

_Screamy?_ asks Ronald?

_OK, screamy, _ answers Gianni with a smile.

It’s because that there are different muscles in our body that are responsible to produce our sound. We have a real musical instrument inside us. It is like a pipe with its little elements and when the air is blown, the “pipe” produces a sound.

As you see, our "pipe" instrument is feeded by the air, that is exhailed from our lungs

Passing through the larynx, the air stream is transformed into a sound, a vocal sound. For this “trick” the muscles of the larynx should be positioned on a certain way. The vocal cords should be closed and the will start vibrating as soon as the air stream passes between them. Here they are:

If you saw, the space between the vocal cords is smaller in high notes rather than in lower notes. Yes, the more the pressure, the higher the sound.

The operatic sound is produced by the pressure of the diaphragm (a muscle under lungs) in a certain way. An operatic note should have its shaking called “vibrato” that makes the sound more gentle. This is achieved by the diaphragm singing when a singer presses the upper-stomach muscle. This position makes the larynx muscles free to shut and the vocal cords – to vibrate with no effort.

There are several levels of the vocal sound. Men have the lower ones and the women – highers.

Male voices are (from lower to higher):

  • Bass
  • Baritone
  • Tenor

Female voices (from lower to higher):

  • Contralto
  • Mezzo-soprano
  • Soprano

Child voice is Alto that means “high” in Italian and is close to Contralto. In some cases men might have the Contralto voice also but it is rare.

If you want to hear what a pitch a tenor voice can have, listen to this audio. Luciano Pavarotti sings 9 high C’s.

The era of Opera started in 16th century in Italy when Jacopo Peri wrote Dafne. Sooner Claudio Monteverdi started his operas and the new era in music began…

The most interesting in this art was that both sex were permitted to go on stage. As women produced high notes and men – lower, composers wrote both of them. The first period of Opera in named Baroque, as it was full of “overdosed” notes that sounded amazingly. But it was very very difficult to sing. Youngsters studied for 15 years to get the required level of vocalizing. And the result was like this. Here the Italian soprano Cecilia Bartoli sings one of the baroque aria that was written for castrato. We’ll talk about it later.

As for castrato, it’s an Italian word that means a man without his sexual organs. Yes, in baroque era many young boys used to be sacrificed to their voices. Castrats mostly were from poor families and if the boy sang good, he was castrated. The operation prevented his voice from cracking in the adolescence period when the vocal cords usually transform the voice on the lower timbre. Castrats had very powerful voice, fantastic technique, big breath and a huge vocal register. The most famous ones were Farinelli and Caffarelli who were able to produce unbelievable sounds with great technique. That’s why many of the listeners used to faint in the hall during the performance.

A picture from the film "Farinelli Il Castrato", Stefano Dionisi leading the main role.

… _ And could castrato produce a generation? _ asks Sheila with her surprised eyes wide open.

_ Of course, not. They had refused themselves for music. But, mostly, castrats were obliged to do this. They were deceived by their parents who used to make up some stories in order to state that castration was inevitable outcome, _ answers Gianni.

After the Baroque era there came a Classic period. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the world-known composer, was one of the leaders in this transformation. The music, which he proposed, was a total innovatory. Colorful melodies, quickly changing each other, made an unbelievable effect on public. One of his masterpieces is the famous aria from “The Magic Flute“. The magnificent vocal carves cover the Queen of the Night’s feelings and desires.

The Opera world was in its prime in XVIII-XIX centuries. It was for everybody: for elite and for the ordinary citizens. Opera was a big fashion of that time and Opera Houses were a sort of today’s clubs where the most people met each other. That’s why even non-opera-lovers visited it. In lots of big Opera cities each well-off family owned a box of the hall.

La Scala, the world's most famous Opera House with lots of boxes. Now all of them are available for everybody.

_ What about Verdi? Who was he? _ Sheila gives a direct question.

_ Giuseppe Verdi was an Italian Opera composer. He wrote for about 30 operas and is the leader composer of XIX century.  He is so popular that I’m sure you’ve listened at leas 2 of his melodies.

_ Yeah? And which one? _ asks Leby with surprise.

_ Like this, _ answers Gianni with self confidence and turns on his player:

_ OMG, I know it of course! And I know this guy also. How is his name? Pava… _ Sheila is confused.

_ Pavarotti, the world’s most famous Opera singer _ Ronald answers.

_ He is so stout and other singers are so fat, why do they eat so much? Does it really help to sing? _ asks Leby.

_ To be a fat it’s of course bad both for your health and your voice, Gianni explains. _ It depends. Those, who sing high tessitura (repertoire written in high notes), need more power and more support from the diaphragm. Besides, singing and acting is a tired job. That’s why singers, especially tenors and sopranos eat more. But, on the other hand, to be a good singer the weight doesn’t matter.

_ And…? _ all of them say together.

_ The main thing is the singer and his/her abilities. I mean the technique of singing. If one is professional, a very very good vocalist, it doesn’t matter whether he/she is slim or stout, high or short. The best way is to be natural: don’t lose and don’t gain. If a plump singer feels uncomfortable with her voice, s/he should lose some kilos and the voice will come out more freely. Vice versa, who feels that support is needed, s/he should gain a little bit weight, _ says Gianni and looks to his friends who seem to become very interested in his music.

_ Gianni, and what about breaking glass with voice? Is it myth or true? _ asks Sheila.

_ It was thought to be a myth but it’s true. The main thing is to get the right tune of your voice and also its frequency needs to be higher to overcome the frequency of glass’ vibration. And the glass will break, _ answers Gianni with Italian smile.

A myth of the fat Opera singers was shaken by Enrico Caruso. Before him the most Opera singers just stood calmly in one position and were concentrated only on singing. They particularly didn’t act at all. Caruso had a great gift of acting as well as a great and huge voice. It is said that when he sang onstage in full voice, it was so powerful that his partners couldn’t stand close to him. And with this huge voice and impressive acting skills Caruso made a legend of himself. He was the first, whose singing voice was ever recorded.

Enrico Caruso as Canio in "Pagliacci" (Leoncavallo)

Another singer, who made a second revolution in singing, was Maria Callas. In the beginning of her career she was stout and weighted more than 90 kg. She decided to lose her weight in order to become believable onstage and she made it. In less than a year she dropped more than 30 kg-s and become a Prima Donna of the Opera. Although Callas lost her voice, because of her quick weight-drop, she founded a new era in the music.  Since then Callas’ enormous voice and fantastic dramatic acting gifts inspires the singers all over the world.

_ How much time does one need to have a good voice _ asks Sheila?

_ It depends of one’s physical abilities and the individuality of voice. But nobody can become a successful singer in 5 or 10 years. In this period you can only improve your vocal flexibility and “become a friend” of it.

_ How do one can work with his/her voice? _ Sheila asks again.

_Vocalizing. It means to produce only vowel sounds on the notes, going up and down. There are lots of variations of vocalizing depending on the type of the voice. It’s a typical exercise that keeps the voice. But vocalising must be an everyday exercise. It’s the same as shaping and fitness, but fitness for vocal muscles.

_ So, vocalizing is like a sport? _ Leby asks with surprise.

_ Exactly! An Opera singer is an Opera sportsman and every type of sport requires its muscles. Football requires well-trained and strong feet, Volleyball and Basketball require strong hand muscles and jumping skills. Vocal sport requires a very well organized breathing system, a supportive diaphragm and strong vocal muscles. Every development in sport is achievable with strong and flexible muscles.

_ Thank you, Gianni, for such an amazing story about Opera. I couldn’t ever imagine that it could have so many common with sport, _ says Ronald, drinking his coffee.

_ And that’s not all, says Gianni with laughing, to sing well it’s one thing and another one to act while singing. But it’s too complicated issue. The main thing is that if one wants to produce something unusual and amazing, s/he should sing Opera. Now let’s go or we’re late for lectures.

Opera In Georgia

Georgia has good Opera traditions. The first Opera House was built in Tbilisi in middle of 19th century but it burned. Then in 1887 another Opera House was opened.

The building is made in Arabic style. All the carves and shapes remember the palaces of Alhambra in Spain

Tbilisi Opera House had lots of world famous guests like Feodor Chaliapin, Montserrat Caballe and Jose Carreras. Lots of Georgian Opera singer are well known in the world’s leading Opera Houses. Paata Burchuladze (bass), Lado Ataneli (baritone), Nino Surguladze (mezzo-soprano) and Nino Machaidze (soprano) are among them. Today Tbilisi Opera House is closed for repair works and performances are scheduled in other theatres. One of them is Railway Culture House.

Although the interior is in a bad condition, this doesn’t prevent Gianluca Marciano, the Italian conductor, to guide Verdi’s Atilla. All tickets are sold.

When he came the orchestra soon started to sound differently. So happens when an Italian music is under the control of an Italian musician. Gianluca Marciano has a 2-year contract with Georgian Opera so we’ll be able to see more of his performances. Here is the gallery of that magnificent performance. In one piece the public encored the orchestra and the singers to perform it again.

That was all that I wanted to say. It’s a bit more than a post but, as I think, quite useful for everybody who loves, likes and enjoys the Opera. Of course this music is a huge theme but I wanted somehow to show how it works, how it appeared and why it is valuable. And if you are now reading this sentence, it means that the post was useful.

Thank you :)

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