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THE BELOVED ARIA: Explaining Opera’s Joys for Americans

August 14, 2013

By its shortest definition, an aria is an “elaborate song for solo voice. “ More recently among performers and fans, it has evolved into a snapshot of a character, a reminder of the general tone of the piece, or the greatest-hits moment when we as an audience collectively mouth the words and smile.

Degas: Cafe Singer

Edgar Degas: “Chanteuse de Café,” 1878.

But what is it that makes an aria great? Opera 101 class informs us of its most basic functions: while recitatives push the dramatic action, arias convey the emotional reactions to the drama, or a change in response to the action. Whether a character’s feeling happiness, hatred, horror, or humor, arias are the time when we settle into a story and experience a true content of a character…and in most cases, it’s under 8 minutes.

Opera arias are a bit like covers of Lynyrd Skynrd’s Freebird. Stay with me; they’re requested and revered for a reason. They’re recognized by even the most fair-weather fans. Everyone has their “Oh my god it’s my favorite part!” moment,  typically including the highest note, which coerces some to sing along and almost lobotomizes others. When the right fan comes across the perfect recording, they become instantly attached, playing it over and over until each line of text and melodic turn is committed to memory. If the piece provided ample shelter and a stocked refrigerator, the fan could probably just live inside of it forever. And deep in the heart of the mater, no matter how much you try to be a highbrow about it, there’s one version out there that reduced you to tears.

Aria-focused fanship (or, for that matter, Freebird) is largely an American concept. Countries other than ours tend to find more joy in the other dramatic textures of opera or, dare I say it…art song (cue gasps). But Americans want it neat and tidy, they want it served up without too much thought or time commitment, and most of all, they want it now, all the while bobbing their head and humming along.  And arias give them just that.

Now, as a performer, what exactly do I get out of this watered-down, insta-story concept with optional guitar solo? Lots. Challenge. Inspiration. Instant gratification. And, with every pun intended, a voice.

Singing the hits can be terrifying to some, for fear of constant comparisons to ridiculously high bars set by the artists before us. If you don’t float the top like Kiri, you’re sunk; if you scoop more than Renée, you may as well book your audition for Miss Saigon.  But ultimately, I see an aria performance as my moment with my audience to let them know exactly what my girl is thinking, and to do her character justice. It’s just me and the gorgeous music, and I’ve got 3 to 8 minutes to prove my point.  Sure, I may bobble a bit on my way to the B-flat, but if I’ve let them know my side of the story, then I’ve succeeded.  Most true fans are just as excited about the journey, wanting me to nail the melisma as much as I do, and that energy can carry me through. If I get comparisons or comments that mention Beverly, Renata or Maria, that’s just a bonus. If I’m reminded by an audience member of exactly how much I bombed the first passage, then it’s time for more practice so that next time I give Marietta the presentation she deserves.

So come on, lazy Americans, break out your lighters. Come along with me and learn why Baby Doe loves silver, why Musetta can’t walk down the street without being ogled, and why poor little Fiordigligi pulls a Tammy Wynette and stands by her man.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. August 16, 2013 11:58 am

    Maybe it’s because so few Americans have actually seen an entire opera, as opposed to hearing/seeing a “greatest hit” on WTTW or WFMT or elsewhere. They think that arias are what is in the whole opera.

    Have fun at rehearsal tonight, I’ll be in Grant Park for the “Rite of Spring”.

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