Mad Skillz: Andrew on appreciating opera

My friend Andrew is a fully sick opera singer. He’s not going to teach you how to be a fully sick opera singer – instead, he wants to foster a greater appreciation of the arts in the readers of this relatively low brow blog.

Andrew and I were part of the world’s most inappropriately named “beach mission” on the Tweed River. He has the honour of having a cafe in Toowoomba named after him. That’s inspirational and aspirational stuff. Here’s what Andrew has to say about appreciating opera.

I think opera is the greatest art-form. To be fair, when it’s not sogreat, it can be awful, but when it’s good, there’s nothing like it. (As far as I can tell, the voice is the only the instrument created before the fall, which explains a lot).

Thankfully I moved on from a childhood love of Andrew Lloyd Webber after beginning singing lessons during high-school, and discovered Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, and then the operas of Mozart. I spent 9 years as a uni student studying singing, in Toowoomba, Sydney and London, before landing my first gig, in the Opera Studio of the Staatstheater Nürnberg.

The stereotypes of opera and opera singers are generally not true, and they should not put you off exploring opera. So here are my five tips for the uninitiated:

  1. Go and see some live opera (I mean a staged one, not some wanna-be popera singer) – and as Rollando Villazon said, you don’t just read one poem and decide you don’t like poetry, so try a few.
  2. If you’ve not really seen any opera before, try some of the more popular ones to get started – to get your ear ‘in’, my suggestions would be: ‘The Magic Flute’ or ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ both by Mozart, ‘La Bohéme’ by Puccini, ‘La Traviata’ by Verdi or Bizet’s ‘Carmen’.
  3. Most places will either sing in English or have the surtitles (personally I prefer original language with surtitles) so understanding should not be a problem, but you might want to read upon the story on Wikipedia before you go.
  4. There’s no need to dress up, though you can if you want to. I went to the Royal Opera House in sneakers and jeans all the time (though Germany is a little more conservative).
  5. If you’re a student, or under 30, there are some really great deals on tickets to be found. Some theatres, like the ROH do day tickets which you can line up for, and if you get in early enough, havetickets from 7GBP. While there are expensive seats, it’s a myth that opera is only for the rich. Don’t forget to keep an eye on the student productions at the conservatories, where excellent young singers and fresh, energetic productions can often be seen for about the price of a movie ticket. Many of the major opera houses also do free performances in the park or big-screen relays in the summer.

So I why not dip your toes in the water of opera – it’s good once you’re in!


queen stuss says:

Hi Andrew! I'm more of a symphony fan myself, though I am more interested in Baroque keyboard works and concerto grossi these days. Sadly, my whole time studying I just couldn't get a taste for opera. I regret that now that I find myself with limited opportunity to enjoy live music, and less opportunity for listening to music in general. But right this minute I find myself inclined to go and pop in some Verdi.

I love where you describe yourself as thankful for moving on from Andrew Lloyd Webber. I think that's the mark of a maturing musical taste, when you start to find Lloyd Webber really boring and really repetitious. I'm thankful to have moved on from Lloyd Webber, but I don't think I will ever move on from Gilbert & Sullivan!

Leah says:

The veilled dig at AL Webber turned me off. Repetitive or whatever else aside, I think he makes music fun. I think that's the most important aspect in getting people to enjoy music. I also don't think he even tries to pretend his productions are operatic.

Amy says:

Going to see some live opera is now on my 'do before I'm 30' list. Would love to have a time machine and go back and see Luhrmann's La Boheme staging (but the album will have to do).

I am interested to know if you grew up listening to opera at home as a child or just through music lessons?

I don't think you need to apologise for your opinion of ALW (or popera, which I'll admit to a shameful addiction to). They're the artists who pave the way for people to get deeper into the genre and experience all of it – in the same way reading Harry Potter can lead to a love of the classics.

AndrewFinden says:

Luhrmann's Boheme is on DVD (the one he did early on for Opera Australia, not the more recent Broadway one) through ABC, and chances are your library would have it.

No, I didn't grow up listening to opera – my Mum used to love George Beverley Shea, and my first exposure was from my singing teacher, who asked me to play the 'third boy' in The Magic Flute for a production at the University of Southern Queensland.

Oh, and ALW is one thing.. but popera? Now that I will bag out! hehe..
I'm not so sure popera does lead people to real opera – I'm yet to see it do that, but I could be wrong.

AndrewFinden says:

I'll admit to a dig at Lord Lloyd Webber… though I don't hate his music either. I think Joseph is a fantastic musical, and if I was ever offered the chance to sing Phantom, I would seriously consider it. I have a lot of respect for my friends who perform musical theatre – they can all dance way better than me, and in general, work a lot more for a lot less, and I don't have to worry about TV celebrities stealing my job. But it is true that the admiration I have for ALW is not what it was when I was growing up. I enjoy drinking fanta too, but I'm not going to pretend it's a Lehman's shiraz. I agree that ALW doesn't pretend his musicals are operatic (though he was influenced by the operatic voice in writing Phantom), and certainly, compared to say Rogers and Hammerstein, they're not, but I meant only to show that the depth of music moved on for me. Mozart makes music fun too. There is of course always a danger in reacting too far – one can enjoy both serious opera and musicals… it's just that I'm trying to help people get into opera, and I apologise if my comment was in poor taste.

AndrewFinden says:

I probably should have done some real self-promotion in there somewhere with some listening examples:

Amy says:

I content myself with the album of La Boheme (even if David Hobson has since sold out in a major way).

To clarify – not all popera (I really, really don't get what the fuss is with Andrea Bocelli is), really only Josh Groban. Embarrassing I suspect but I don't care – the boy can sing.

AndrewFinden says:

I don't think Hobbo has sold out – though his voice is not huge, and he's great in the repertoire he does for OA. And I wouldn't call Josh Groban popera.. that's just pop.
The thing about popera is that it was really invented by Pavarotti, in many ways, but he had the real opera credentials to do it. The same with the three tenors – people have tried to replicate that magic thinking it had something to do with the number 3, but the real success was that all three were internationally renowned and charismatic performers on the great operatic stages already.

Amy says:

But Dancing with the Stars…? I suppose even opera singers need to eat :)
Josh Groban started out as that manufactured 'opera lite' but went off in his own direction once he had the clout.
Agree with the three tenors comment. I miss the Pav.

AndrewFinden says:

I'm clearly not up-to-date with Australian television! Anyone who can forge a sustainable career predominantly in Australia has my respect, even if they do a bit of light TV entertainment on the side. I find it interesting that there is such a dichotomy these days between 'serious' singing and 'crooning' or the fluffier stuff – in the mid C20th there wasn't really any such thing. Nathan Gunn, a baritone at the Met recently brought out an album of these kinds of songs, in the spirit of the 20's: