I’d never been to an opera before this week.
In fact, I had an active desire not to go to an opera if it could be avoided.
In my head it was all ludicrous women in Viking hats and plaited pigtails running around some daft set wailing their heads off while toffs with furs and monocles high-fived themselves on their higher understanding of culture and general betterness.
And the issue of class seemed to me to be part of opera’s DNA. If someone went to a play or a film or a sporting event, I’d want to know what happened and how they enjoyed it. If someone went to the opera I’d want to know about the posh people in the audience and how weird it was.
I thought people used it as an accessory, a symbol of status, or a way to show off how cultured they were. Somehow I just couldn’t believe that anyone could actually like opera.
So when Opera North and Culture Vulture offered me the chance to go to Otello for a bloggers event, naturally I jumped at it.
And I know it sounds obvious, but the thing that struck me most? It is all about the singing.
Speaking to Hannah Stockton, press assistant at Opera North, before the show, I asked what the biggest difference was between opera and theatre. The singing, she said, and the amount that the rehearsals are focussed on the vocal.
I can’t say I wasn’t warned.
You could actually see it. You could see the men’s belts moving up and down with their stomachs when they sang and the women’s clothing vibrating with the force of the sound they were making. Their whole bodies were engaged, pushing out those enormous voices across the room. I had no idea a human being could even make that kind of noise.
It was mightily impressive, yes, but also kind of distracting. I didn’t really feel like I could lose myself in it because I could tell that the performers weren’t. They were thinking about their diaphragms and I knew it.
Maybe if it hadn’t been the story of Shakespeare’s Othello. It’s such a fantastic story with such great characters, and as a first opera it’s a good one because it’s so accessible.
But I love the play. The subtle character traits that make it what it is were completely stifled. It was too wham bam, hilariously so at times.
Saying that though, Ronald Samm did an amazing job of Otello’s descent into despair. His character was the only one I could properly engage with – he felt real, the emotion from him felt real, and I may or may not have had a little tear in my eye at the end.
As to the class thing, I didn’t see anyone turn their nose up at my Doc Martens.
There was one noticeable moment of snobbery though, after a particularly long and important solo from Desdemona. There was a long silence, and everybody knows that silences are there to be filled. I would say that literally about four people on the other side of the room plucked up the courage to go for some very tentative applause and suddenly:
“SHUSH! Tut tut tut. Shhhhh. If you don’t know how to behave, please don’t come here and spoil my appreciation of culture. Tut.” (A slight exaggeration, perhaps.)
As a person more used to theatre, musicals, stand up, and the odd panto, I love a bit of a clap and a whoop and generally a bit of a show of appreciation. But that is not the opera way, darling.
The final applause was long, sustained, and never changing. There was no whooping. There was no cheering. But there was a little bit of ‘hurrah’.
It’s impressive, opera. But it’s not for me. To enjoy opera, you’ve got to like the music and I just don’t, really. The men’s voices were nice, even soothing at times, but the women’s were way too high and stabby in my ears, and the orchestra sometimes reminded me of the scores from Disney films. Alice in Wonderland in particular.
And it’s definitely more for appreciating than enjoying. More art than entertainment.
I’m glad I’ve been to the opera now. It wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting. But you won’t catch me rushing out to spend 60 quid on tickets next time.