With one of the oldest surviving opera houses in New Zealand, it is perhaps no surprise that Wanganui hosts an opera week for the New Zealand Opera School every January. Having no experience with opera, this year I decided their Great Opera Moments concert would be an excellent opportunity to introduce myself to it.I have to admit, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I have a vague recollection of going to an opera with my French class in high school, but apart from that my ideas about opera were based on a vague idea that it was something dry, intellectual, and more or less incomprehensible.
Still, Donald Brook’s Companion to Opera (1947) had at least made it sound like something manageable, and as tickets were only $35 I went ahead and gave it a go.
And I loved it! Now, bear in mind that I really am a complete opera novice, so purists will probably cringe when I expand on that, but the sheer emotional intensity of it engaged me virtually from the beginning. I work with five and six year old children, and it was like watching them, with the added bonus of not in any way needing to try and control the carnage. Whatever the characters felt, they felt absolutely: they weren’t just happy, they were ecstatic; they weren’t just a bit down, they were distraught; they didn’t just quite fancy someone, they were consumed with passion; they weren’t just a tad miffed, they were enraged… added to this, while it was obvious what they were feeling, it wasn’t particularly obvious why: again, much like small children, I really didn’t have much idea what they were babbling about most of the time, and probably would have thought they were being ridiculous if I did.
The actual music was fantastic as well. I guess that’s what keeps opera popular, but I really enjoyed it, and I thought the singers were excellent. Yes, they were students, but they’d still spent years studying and practising, and it showed. I couldn’t sing like that, especially in a foreign language, but every one of them could, and with all the aforementioned passion.
I won’t go into too much detail about the programme: it was a collection of highlights, introduced where necessary and strung together with a vague sense of continuity in order to give the audience the opportunity to experience a range of opera music. It left me wanting more, and especially wanting to hear the music in context. I’ll be keeping my eyes open for operas here in the future.