Storytelling Through Music: Opera for the People

Posted on November 3, 2012

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Opera Singer Lauren Drasler continues our series looking at rock-opera and the mental health complexities of our current mainstage production, Next to Normal. She gives us a perspective on the history and current state of Opera and what efforts there are to keep it accessible.

Being an opera lover and singer myself, I *clearly* have no bias whatsoever, but opera is potentially the ultimate art form. It can be an incredible synthesis of singing, acting and orchestration heightening the emotional content beyond what one of these elements could accomplish alone.

Live opera can be awesome. Not always is it- many note that opera singers tend not to act- but it is an art form with a large amount of potential energy inside. Read on to find out the wonders of opera!

What is Opera?

Opera is an all-sung affair, with an orchestra and highly-trained singers performing without microphones or amplification. Opera singers can seriously project their voices to an audience of 6,000 people. But really, it is a means of telling a story through music.
ImageOpera does NOT require that the singers be fat or wear horns (although if you see Wagner….they will be), nor is it an art form only for rich, old people (though current stigma says differently). People generally know and like more about opera than they think they do, and I only have to hum a few bars of The Barber of Seville (“Fiiiiigaro, Figaro, Figaroooooo”) or some Carmen (“Toreador, en Garde”) to prove it.  Opera is ingrained in our culture- and is a really cool means of expression that we don’t want to lose.

A Bit of History

Monteverdi was our man when it came to the beginnings of opera in the early 1600s with his opera L’Orfeo (Orpheus). This “serious opera” or opera seriawas the style produced for years, until the advent of Opera Buffas or comedic operas. Musical and theatrical genius, Mozart, was able to write both drama and comedy into beautiful music, which is maybe why his music is still regularly performed today.
Bellini and Donizetti came along and made the DIVA the most important part of the puzzle, but eventually Verdi and Puccini brought back the importance of theatricality and acting to opera. With Wagner, the tides shifted in the opposite direction and the singer was just like any other instrument. I like to think that since then we are striving to strike a balance between all collaborative aspects in opera to serve the dramatic intent.

Making Opera More Accessible

Opera originated as an art form of the people, and I want to see it come back to those roots.  It is moving in that direction, but like any art form, in order to stay a means of artistic expression it has to evolve to fit new demands. I love seeing opera done in in a new way, or better yet, new opera. It warms my heart to see contemporary stories being told in the opera house, like Anna Nicole Smith: The Opera, which premiered at the Royal Opera House last year. Opera has to stay a living, breathing entity if it is to remain in our cultural milieu.
The Picnic Operetta is a project that I’ve worked on for the past three years with Mixed Precipitation. I think it does an amazing job of bringing opera to people in an accessible, fun way that still preserves the integrity of the art form.  We take an opera- this year, Mozart’s Idomeneo– cut it down from it’s three-hour version, mash it with another genre of music- this year, 50’s Doo-wop- and add some dialogue to help tell the story. Then the collaborating CHEF prepares small food samples which are integrated into the plot!  This is an extreme example of what opera can be, but sometimes people need a way to ease themselves into something new- they may like it.  After performances, I had people tell me, “it’s like opera for people who hate opera!”
Click HERE to see Drasler in the Picnic Operetta
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The operatic genre can lend itself well to intensely dramatic material as the instrumentalists can provide the emotional landscape that the singers/actors build on. Next to Normaldoes this very well, telling a heart-wrenching story almost entirely through music. Even though it is not a traditional “opera,” it uses some of the unique features of the art form in an accessible way.
Music is just a kick-butt way to tell a story and I want everyone to experience it!
Lauren Drasler is a graduate of St. Olaf College and singer/actor in the Twin Cities area.  She has performed with theaters including: Nautilus Music-Theater, Mixed Precipitation, Skylark Opera, Minneapolis Musical Theater, Bloomington Civic Theater, The Schubert Club, The Guthrie Theater and Gilbert and Sullivan Very Light Opera Company.  She can be caught smiling and singing at most times of the day!
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