Opera – a genre onethousandladders knows so little about. So if we were to begin devising a piece where opera forms a big influence we thought it might be an idea to get a little better acquainted! After receiving the news back in April that Lanza’s Last Word had been chosen for FierceFwd, a new artist development initiative, we immediately booked an Opera workshop with Amy Whittle. A trained Opera singer Amy had studied the art form at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. We had both previously worked with Amy and thought she would be the perfect person to ask to help us! The workshop took place on Tuesday 13th May at Birmingham Repertory Theatre and here are just some thoughts and findings from the day…
Opera: an art form originally created to entertain the elite audiences in Italy. Even today there seems a divide between Opera and it’s audiences – it is reserved for the elite, certainly for the pocket of the more wealthy punter it would seem – tickets out price the budgets of most people I know. Top price tickets to see La Boheme at the Royal Opera House will set you back £195! So it’s seems some traditions still remain?? Though companies such as Birmingham Opera Company, who recently staged Khovanskygate in a giant circus tent in Cannon Hill Park, seem set to bring Opera to the masses which is certainly indicated by the far more reasonable and realistic ticket price of £20-£30!
Is Opera for anyone, regardless of class?
One thing that has interested me from the start of the Lanza idea, was the complete juxtaposition of things – you have the Hollywood glamour and romantic notion that comes along with the association of Mario Lanza, in opposition to the working class Black Country pub. I like the idea that we can incorporate that juxtaposition in live performance through the influences of opera as an art form. The challenge is see how we can create a performance that brings that so beautifully together.
Opera in a pub is the complete juxtaposition of what that very art form was derived from and created for. I like the idea that our audience, our punters are the elite and they should be thought of as such.
Just a few of the notes I made from the workshop…
Amy begins the workshop by talking us through the different styles of Opera, from Baroque to the more contemporary Operas of Britten and Puccini. Baroque is all about showcasing the voice, so a lot of the arias will be decorated with extra trills and frills on the notes. Then you have the more romantic Operas such as Puccini and Verdi, where it becomes more about acting along with the singing rather than just showcasing the voice. The more contemporary Opera, such as Britten, become more atonal and dissonant.
We learn about the different languages that Opera is performed in – Italian is the main, original one and is the singer’s dream! But we also have iconic Operas in many languages including German, French, and English. We learn about the vowels, how in different languages, a different emphasis is placed on them and how this then changes the sound of the Opera – Italian sounds so flowing and romantic, whilst the nature of the German language dictates a very different more definitive sound. We practice speaking through a few lines of songs from different languages and this gives us a sense of how each one feels. We learn about diphthongs (refers to two adjacent vowel sounds occurring within the same syllable), how they vary depending on the language, in English there are huge diphthongs in comparison to Italian where the vowels flow more easily into each other – which can affect the sound of the song and how the listener may portray the story and words which are being sung. We think back to Lanza’s Last Word – could we play around with the huge diphthongs that occur in the Black Country accent? We see the local accent and dialect as key to this piece, the story of AJW is rooted here in the West Midlands. A region which so rich in it’s culture and heritage.
We learn that in basic terms the structure of an Opera takes the form of recitatives and arias. Recitative (or recitativo in Italian) is often used to get the story moving, it is like speech song it tells the audience what is about to happen and then the aria (sung by a solo singer) is where the singer expresses how they feel about that, it is the emotion behind the action. We listen to an aria from Italian Opera Gianni Schicchi. Here famous soprano Maria Callas sings O Mio Babbino Caro … She is pleading with her father to let her marry her true love or else she’ll throw herself off of the Ponte Vecchio into the river Arno in Florence.
So how might we apply what we’ve learnt? Prior to the workshop we’d not really thought about the possibilities of exploring Opera to devise this piece. We’d thought about Mario Lanza and how we might approach interpreting the songs he sang, but looking at the genre as a whole was something that had so far passed us by. We have started to think about how we might use the structure of an Opera. Could we create our very own recitative and aria structure to frame the piece? Can we experiment with sounds of vowels and the natural dipthongs in the Black Country accent to create a unique interpretation?
This workshop certainly gave us a few new ideas to consider playing with. We felt more informed and absolutely inspired. We are in complete awe of the wonderful art of Opera, and of the skill and artistry of Opera singers. I for one am beginning to see Mario Lanza in a whole new light, and have a deepened respect for his work, his skill and his voice! I can certainly see why AJW has so revered this man and his talents for so many years and why he continues to strive to keep the legend of Mario Lanza alive today!