In an earlier installment, I assayed to “clear the field” for the beginner. Now I will answer some of the standard “objections” to opera that are floating around out there.
The fat lady
At first blush, there is something ridiculous about, say, a bunch of chubby 40-somethings trying to act like 19-year-olds (as in: La Boheme). However, two things need to be pointed out:
First, many of the modern opera singers are quite svelt.
Second, one learns to abstract from these accidental features. What opera delivers is something that transcends sheer realism.
The stories are ridiculous
This is actually not usually the case. Think about it: so much effort is involved in writing an opera, not to mention producing it, that it is not likely that anything but the best plays available were picked, at least from the perspective of the composer and producers at the time.
Having said that, Mortimer Adler has correctly observed that writing an enduring play is a very rare thing. After the Greeks, the really enduring playwrites can just about be counted with the fingers of one hand.
Granted, some of the plots are ridiculous. But the thing the opera is tilting at is (usually) not ridiculous. That must become your focus.
Opera stories include adaptations of the Greek tragedies, Nordic myth, Victor Hugo, and Shakespeare. Others have proven to be lesser lights. But just about all the survivors have a good deal of merit.
The story is told too slowly
I should have mentioned this up front as an advantage. What opera does is slow down the action to dwell on the eternal moment. Or, to resume my earlier analogy, think of it not so much as swimming, as soaking in a Jacuzzi. Learn to dwell; it will pay off.
The stories are immoral
Opera has the reputation of wallowing in seduction, adultery, murder, and even incest.
There is some truth to this. But it is not quite what it seems superficially. These settings are taken up to highlight something important. Often, the apparent muck is taken up into something that greatly transcends it.
It’s in a foreign language: I don’t understand it.
Operas used to be performed in translation, in the native tongue of the audience. It is to be lamented that in recent decades, snobbery has dominated most opera houses, such that most operas today are performed in their original languages.
While the original language yields extra beauties to those aficianados that by luck or conscious effort know the language, it is a 3% type of bonus.
After all, when the Italians set a Shakespeare play to music, they did it in Italian translation. The idea that a poetic dramatic work cannot be translated is greatly overstated.
And watching an opera without comprehension is absurd. It might as well be ballet.
That said, I think all American opera houses project the English translation in some form or other. The Met has little text boxes set in front of each seat. DVDs offer subtitling.
So it is an annoyance, but not a fatal objection.