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Opera time

Where songs talk


VIJAY UPADHYAYA is the director of the Vienna Star Orchestra & Choir

What is opera? The answer is very simple - it is a play where the dialogues are not spoken but sung and the singers are the actors. Actually, the idea of singing dialogues might sound somewhat strange but, if you give it a second thought, it is not much different from Bollywood movies!

But how do we learn to appreciate an opera? It is mainly in a language we do not understand - Italian, French, German or Russian. So the first thing before listening to an opera is to go onto the net and read the synopsis of the play and the explanations to the different characters. With this preparation done, it will be easier for you to understand the different parts being sung and also follow the story. Moreover, music is a universal language and an alien tongue need not prevent you from being moved by the music and the emotion of an opera. Unfortunately, there are very few opportunities to listen to live opera in India but the internet offers a wonderful alternative.

Western music clearly defines various voices types. The female voice can be categorised as soprano (high voice range), mezzo soprano (middle voice) and alto (low voice). Male voices too have three divisions - tenor (high voice), baritone (middle voice) and bass (low voice). The natural range of the voice depends on the structure of the muscles in the larynx and a longer muscle produces a lower voice than a shorter one. Now, at first, an Indian listener might be somewhat taken aback by the quality of sound of an opera singer. This is very different from the kind of sound an Indian vocalist produces. So you have to develop a taste for this kind of singing and understand the background of Western vocal techniques and traditions. All Western classical music is performed without amplification and the opera singer trains for almost a decade so that the voice is stronger in sound than the entire orchestra! Hence, apart from the beauty of the voice, an opera singer requires an incredible amount of strength and the training often resembles sports more than arts. Good coordination is needed between the diaphragm and the pelvic muscles, which in fact is very similar to the India Chakra theory where the pelvic, throat and head chakras are directly connected;in Western classical singing they are connected through the control of breath.

Opera was born in Florence in the mid-16 th century and developed rapidly in the next hundred years across Europe. Austrian composer Mozart brought it to a new artistic dimension in the late 18th century and in the 19th century opera took four major directions in Europe: the Italian, Franco-German and Russian opera, with the Italian opera perhaps being the best known. When opera was at its peak at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, there were also some opera houses in India. One of the most important ones is in Mumbai and is owned by the former maharaja of Gondal who has been wise in resisting all efforts to tear down this building in a prime quarter of the city. He is now even having the building renovated. There is a real chance that India might see regular opera performances after more than a century. This building is one of the most significant historical structures in Asia constructed for the performance of Western music.

Class notes

Here are some links to different opera styles


Georges Bizet from the opera "Carmen"


Agnes Baltsa (Mezzo Soprano) http:// www. youtube. com/watch?v=xlGTz0pSLS8


Giacomo Puccini from the opera "La Boheme"


Luciano Pavarotti (Tenor) http:// www. youtube. com/watch?v=OkHGUaB1Bs8&feature =related


Richard Strauss from the Opera "Der Rosenkavalier"


Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Lucia Popp, Agnes Balsta http:// www. youtube. com/watch?v=a_GalgiVvBA&feature =related


Jaques Offenbach from "Contes d'Hoffmann "


Natalie Dessay (soprano) http:// www. youtube. com/watch?v=e1k5l4oiCEc


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