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Verona: Opera for beginners

Don’t know your Bizet from your Puccini? Can’t tell your Carmen from your La Traviata? Then perhaps a few open-air arias and a unique Italian setting will bring out your inner aficionado

Verona: Opera for beginners
Performance of Carmen at Arena di Verona. Image: Alamy

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“So, can you name any famous opera singers?”

“The Three Tenors.”

“Who’s the little one?”

“I think that’s Carreras.”

A pause.

“Any female opera singers?”

Another silence. A glance out the train window.

“Does Katherine Jenkins count?”

Five minutes later: “You know, I’m sure Simon Cowell has an opera group…”

It seems surreal, I know, but we really did have this conversation en route to Verona’s Arena Opera Festival, one of Europe’s most prestigious opera showcases. I’m almost embarrassed to recount our words.

It’s fair to say, where opera is concerned, I’m something of a novice. I often visit Italy, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been to Florence, where the first opera was written and performed in the late 16th century. But when I have a spare evening here, I pick Fiorentina’s football stadium, not the city’s new auditorium. In fact, I’ve never, ever been to an opera.

Not that I’m totally lacking culture. For example, I’m reasonably knowledgeable about the Sienese School of painting, which is pretty obscure. And I do enjoy hearing people sing live, but my tastes are more Foals, Jack White and Sharon van Etten. Maybe I just need enlightening? Perhaps my attention span simply shuts down after 90 minutes plus stoppage time? Either way, an escorted trip peppered with talks from a real tenor seems one possible remedy.

At the welcome drinks, ‘music host’ Paul Badley introduces himself. Spectacularly. I’m sipping a Prosecco and saying some hellos when Paul cracks into an a cappella aria, right there in the bar. I vaguely know the tune, but have no idea what it’s called. This will become a recurring theme.

My fellow travellers lie mainly in the 60-plus bracket. I think we’re the only newbies here, but everyone is friendly, enthusiastic, and sympathetic to our state of operatic ignorance. That’s one prejudice smashed already; I expected the trip to be populated by an intimidating, upper-crust group of ‘buffs’. That’s who goes to opera, isn’t it? In truth, everyone seems normal. They just share a love of the music and spectacle. But I quickly conclude that, if I’m ever to ask a question more intelligent than, ‘What happens at an outdoor performance if it rains?’ I’m going to need to do some homework.

An education

Day two, and I find myself by the pool with the Classic FM Handy Guide: Opera — downloaded hastily over breakfast. There’s no shortage of distractions at our hotel, including a golf course and organised wine-tasting excursion, but I’m staying focused. The opening chapters explain what opera actually does — uses music to bring to life the emotional content of a story. It introduces Carmen, which we’ll be seeing the following night. When it premiered in 1875, ‘audiences and critics were shocked by its violent realism and sensuality’. That sounds promising. There’s even a helpful chapter on do’s and don’ts at the opera. I make a mental note that ‘loud sobbing could distract your neighbours’ in the audience, as the guide advises.

I’ve also found Carmen on Spotify. Its three-hour running time is nothing unusual: Wagner’s Die Meistersinger clocks in at five hours, 15 minutes. But less than an hour in, I’m struggling. There’s clearly a story unfolding, and I can’t follow it. I can barely even tell it’s being sung in French. (Another discovery… they have operas in French! I thought they were all in German or Italian.)

At lunch — grilled fish from Lake Garda, washed down with a little too much white wine — I raise my worries with Paul. He reassures me: “Carmen is great for first-timers, because it has so many memorable tunes.”

I also learn a little of Paul’s own backstory. An affable, working-class lad from the Northeast — bang goes yet another stereotype — he was inspired to sing by an enthusiastic choir leader at his Teesside comprehensive. He busked his way around Europe in the 1980s, singing opera, operetta and show tunes. His career as a freelance tenor has taken him to prestigious opera stages, Hollywood soundtracks and into a teaching role at Selwyn College, Cambridge.

What if I don’t enjoy Carmen? “Don’t give up,” advises Paul. “Different composers have different strengths. Hear some Mozart, some Verdi; Rossini, Puccini. Make sure at least one is a comic opera. Then decide.”

On the big day, we gather for Paul’s presentation. Every performance on our trip is preceded by a talk from the music host, to give us a feel for what to expect and some key moments or tunes to listen out for. He leads us through characters and plot (spoilers are essential for a novice), and points out where librettists Henri Meilhac and Fromental Halévy changed Prosper Mérimée’s original novella, when they wrote the text for Carmen, the opera, to sharpen dramatic tension. They beefed up the role of Escamillo, one of the rivals for Carmen’s affections, and their lyrics create a heady mix of Andalucian passion, jealousy, violence, melodrama and bullfighting. “There’s not a lot of laughs,” Paul jokes. Still, Carmen wasn’t a hit when first performed in 1875. Its composer Georges Bizet died later that year. He never saw it become a smash.

Carmen “needs to be sex on legs,” Paul continues. We have to believe the other protagonist, José — a soldier who falls for her — is instantly smitten to the point of folly. He then sings us two of José’s arias, and explains how these propel the story towards a tragic, violent end. I feel thoroughly briefed. My great fear, until now my expectation — that I’ll hate opera — is being replaced by nervous anticipation. I can’t wait.

Rossini Opera Festival performance. Image: Studio Amati Bacciardi

Rossini Opera Festival performance. Image: Studio Amati Bacciardi

Historic backdrop

Our venue is to be the Arena di Verona, built by the Romans around AD 30. Its modern history is intertwined with the festival. In 1913, renowned local tenor Giovanni Zenatello was giving friends a tour around the amphitheatre when he sung a few bars. He quickly realised its acoustics were something special, and so inaugurated a summer season for opera lovers. It’s been running ever since, with breaks for the two World Wars. Although long popular with travellers, the festival has always catered primarily to a Veronese audience. Clapping and cheering — ‘Bravo!’, ‘Brava!’ — is the norm, although I’m told the knowledgeable crowd will boo something they don’t like.

We arrive a few hours ahead of kick-off (is that the right word?), giving us time to explore a city that grew up in the Roman era at the junction of two important highways. It blossomed again in the late medieval period, when ruling dynasties like the della Scala and Visconti families built fortifications and embellished churches. They left a legacy of Romanesque architecture and gothic tombs that’s largely survived.

Right in the centre, the Palazzo Forti is a former residence of both Napoleon and the Austro-Hungarian marshal, for whom Strauss composed the Radetzky March. It now houses the Arena Museo Opera (aka AMO), a small gallery space dedicated to the history of Verona’s festival. There are posters and playbills and old photos of costumed performers from the last century. One room is occupied by a festival timeline stretching from 1913 to 2013. Year by year, it lists the operas, directors, tenors and sopranos. Even I can pick out Maria Callas, a soprano who sang Violetta in La Traviata in 1952, then Aïda the following year. Any opera geek would be in clover. In a small screening room, we pause to watch a couple of classic arias from recent festivals.

It’s a delightful half-hour, but does leave me wishing I was going to see Aïda. Verdi’s blockbuster was the first opera performed at the Arena in 1913, and is still the one most closely associated with Verona. Carmen wasn’t far behind, first appearing in the 1914 season.

Showtime

The orchestra begins to play, but the set remains hidden from view, behind ragged drapes seemingly torn from an Andalucian gypsy caravan. When these are drawn, I’d need a fish-eye brain to take in the visual spectacle in one go. We’re in a Seville town square in the early 1800s, at least one as imagined by director Franco Zeffirelli. It’s initially hard to pick out the protagonists among a cast of (literally) hundreds, including — at various points — two horses and four donkeys.

Then Carmen arrives. She announces herself with one of opera’s most famous arias, L’amour est un oiseau rebelle (‘Love is a rebellious bird’), popularly known as Habanera. The tune is familiar, with its tango-like staccato rhythm; I
just didn’t know its name or where it came from. The lyrics keep looping a reminder: ‘Si je t’aime, prends garde à toi’ (‘If I love you, watch out for yourself’). Clearly, José won’t be following that advice.

It’s jaw-dropping that someone could fill this enormous space with just her mezzo-soprano voice. There’s no mic amplification for singers at the opera. When José’s childhood sweetheart, Micaëla, sings soon afterwards, I immediately spot the contrast with Carmen’s voice. Not just that she’s a soprano — and so is singing in a different vocal range — but that their voices have a completely different quality. Paul had explained that this contrast — between innocence and worldliness — was critical to the plot, and I spotted it. Micaëla isn’t even in the original novella, but in the opera she serves as a foil to Carmen. I’m hearing and understanding this, yet just two days ago I was a total novice; I’d even assumed (wrongly, of course) that opera composers wrote the words as well as the music.

I occasionally glance at English-language surtitles, displayed off-stage on a large digital board, but Paul’s plot precis is holding up under pressure. Plus I understand so much by watching the acting. I hadn’t realised its importance to opera. I’m so transfixed, I hardly notice when, at one point, the stage almost empties, leaving just Carmen and José to sing a duet. “Bravi!” someone hollers from the cheap seats. The locals are on form, too.

I get sucked further into the plot, as fate, Carmen’s dedication to brutal honesty, and an undercurrent of violence drive us towards the denouement. You need stamina: the opera starts at 9pm but the short final act doesn’t begin until after midnight. By then, I’ve dispensed with the surtitles. Finer plot points are starting to matter less. José chooses violence, and Carmen ends in tragedy.

Chatting with others on the way back to the bus, I’m delighted to discover my own, uneducated assessment — that Anastasia Boldyreva and Alida Berti, as Carmen and Micaëla, respectively, stood out — was also the consensus. Quite by accident, I seem to have had a valid opinion about an opera.

Lying in bed, still pumped after the performance, I’m working out where I’ve been going wrong. I suppose I’d always encountered opera as a package of greatest hits, sometimes over-camp, always sung obscurely in a foreign language, and completely divorced from any story. But I realise now that opera has to be heard and seen. It’s a story. Context and narrative are as critical as voices and melodies. It demands a suspension of disbelief, certainly, accepting its quirky conventions and taking a story on its own terms. And in that way, it’s no different to sci-fi or a zombie movie.

I never expected to enjoy opera. But thanks to Paul’s inspiration, and the right travelling companions, that’s changed. I can’t imagine returning to Verona and not seeking out a ticket. Aïda is on again next summer. I’ve already checked the programme.

Essentials

Saga Holidays has a seven-night 2107 Arena Opera Festival package from £1,329 per person. Includes accommodation at the four-star Active Hotel Paradiso & Golf, return flights and transfers, all breakfasts, two lunches and five dinners, two operas, three concert talks by a ‘music host’, two trips, hotel porterage, and optional travel insurance.

More info
AMO
Classic FM Handy Guide: Opera, by Robert Weinberg. RRP: £9.99 (hardback).
tourism.verona.it
operabase.com

Published in the December 2016 guide issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)