BOSTON — There is perhaps no one more passionate and committed - even obsessive - than the opera afficionado. Such enthusiasm can often be intimidating to others, leading many to assume that opera is beyond their understanding and appreciation.
Not so. Over the years, opera has become increasingly accessible, with an impressive proliferation of books, CDs, and videos dedicated to helping the uninitiated. Opera companies around the world now work hard to attract new audiences. Translations projected over or beside the stage, called supertitles, make storylines in nearly any language easily understood. The result: Surveys have shown that over the past two decades audiences for opera have grown by more than 30 percent.
No longer only the domain of the rich and well-educated, opera is quite approachable, given a little brushing up on the fundamentals and an open mind. It can also be extremely moving and highly entertaining.
After all, what other art form so expertly combines instrumental music, the human voice in its highest achievement, drama, sometimes dance (which is often left out today for budgetary reasons), often elaborate stage design, and storylines that can make you laugh with delight or sob with empathy?
In its most simplified definition, opera is a play in which most of the words are sung rather than spoken (unlike musicals, in which the ratio is reversed). It is a tremendously varied art form that ranges from side-splittingly funny to unbearably tragic, from 16th-century spectacles to 20th-century minimalism. However, most people's range of general opera knowledge begins with the Mozart operas of the late 1700s and extends through Puccini, who wrote into the 20th century.
Most of these classical and romantic operas evolve through a series of arias (songs) and recitatives (a kind of speech-singing that imparts a lot of text quickly). Arias can feature any number of people, but when a large ensemble gathers to sing the same thing, it's (as you might guess) a chorus.
When an aria gets to a crucial point, eliciting from the singer a free-form sounding virtuoso display of technique or emotional catharsis, it's called a cadenza.
In some late 19th-century and 20th-century operas, (especially the mammoth works of Richard Wagner, who used musical themes called leitmotifs to distinguish characters and ideas), there is little differentiation between arias and recitatives, and they are woven together with sections by the orchestra alone called interludes.
In contrast, some German operas and the lighter operettas (such as those by the 19th-century British team of Gilbert and Sullivan) stop the music between songs and feature spoken dialogue, more like a musical.
Opera voices are broken down into six categories.
From high to low, the women's voices are soprano, mezzo-soprano, and contralto. The men's voices are tenor, baritone, and bass.
A coloratura is a soprano with an extremely high, light voice capable of great agility. A countertenor is a male who trains his falsetto or high voice to be his primary vocal instrument.
A prima donna can refer to the heroine or main female character in an opera or, derogatorily, to anyone who fancies herself the center of the universe (similar in nature to a diva.)
A trouser role is one in which a male character is played by a female (think of Gwenyth Paltrow as "Romeo" in the movie "Shakespeare in Love").
Each opera is based on a libretto or "little book," often written by someone other than the composer, that provides the story and the specific text to be set to music.
This is the starting point for all great operas, and the contribution of a great librettist, such as Lorenzo da Ponte, who collaborated with Mozart, to an opera's success is without measure.
The composer's music, however, further amplifies, deepens and complements the storyline, adding resonance or perhaps even irony to the actual words being sung.
Having a good concept of the libretto (even simply reading the plot synopsis in the program before the curtain goes up) is essential to appreciating an opera, especially those in an unfamiliar language.
Keep in mind, however, that opera is not about realism as we think of it.
Opera plots can range from simple love stories to convoluted tales of complex mythology, from the ridiculous to the poetically sublime.
Like poetry, opera represents a different kind of language for expressing both our loftiest ideas and our common humanity.
It is a language rich not only with words, but also with concepts, imagery, and above all, with music, making opera the most glorious synthesis of the arts in all of Western civilization.
As the German poet-essayist Heinrich Heine said, "Where words leave off, music begins."