What came first — the human voice in song, or instruments that made music? Professor Ray Dicks, in his recent presentation “Learning to Love Opera” in the Lecture Hall, said, “absolutely the human voice.” A Greek god may have turned a turtle shell over and strung sounding strings over it, but most likely early musical instruments were developed to accompany the human voice in song. Primates on logs may have added a rhythm section. For many, opera is the ultimate synthesis of voice, drama and instrumental sound.
Dicks pointed out with excellent laptop vignettes how opera can get one hooked. First, it may be the melody bringing out humor like Mozart in Figaro’s Marriage. Melody can portray the happiness of the heroine for her coming wedding in I Puritani, the sorrow of slaves in Nabucco, Delilah’s seduction of Sampson or the passion of Mimi and Rudolpho in Puccini’s La Boheme.
Second, opera can evoke big-time emotion. What could be more dramatic than Beverly Sills as Elizabeth the 1st? She would rather die for the Earl of Essex and not behead him or Tosca doing the police chief Scarpa in for her lover’s release papers. What the opera lover knows and Tosca doesn’t is the firing squad isn’t faking her lover’s execution but is using real bullets.
Third, the opera stars are stars because of the power and gifts of their voices, personality, and dramatic ability. Pavarotti and Rene Flemming, to name a few, are examples.
Lastly, opera has a grandness of scale if there is sufficient money to mount the production, recruit enough extras, and attract opera fans with enough time to watch. To see Wagner’s Ring Cycle takes 17 hours. My father was an extra in Aïda way back when we remembered that there were not only priests, priestesses, soldiers, Ethiopians and slave girls but elephants too.
With opera now being broadcast to theaters throughout the country, Dicks feels those watching miss the excitement of seeing the live production. Cameras and microphones focused on the singer(s) in close-ups may miss the broader scene. He emphasized there is good local opera in North Carolina. Best of all, book tickets and head for the Met at Lincoln Center in New York City.
From Dr. James Scatliff, a member of our resident Public Relations Committee