Midway through Dr Gavan Ring's impassioned Beginner’s Guide to Opera on Today with Claire Byrne, a listener texted in, "I’m converted". It could have been the smooth, soaring soprano voice of the legendary Veronica Dunne that had them sold, but it could just as easily have been Gavan’s impressive introduction that sealed the deal for the listener.
"Throughout its 420-year history, opera, in my experience anyway, has exalted the human experience beyond anything that any other art form has done, and has given us, and continues to give the world, some of the most joyous, most touching and most profound expressions of the human condition that one could ever imagine."
Mic drop. And as if that wasn’t enough:
"[…] the soaring lyricism of the music driving the drama just intensifies the emotion to a point where it hits you with such a powerful effect that you cannot but be moved by it."
While that all sounds fantastic, what about the accusations levelled at opera that it’s hard to follow?
"The music is so powerful, the music is so on point as far as the emotion is concerned, that it almost transports you […] and it almost communicates to you in a way that language cannot."
Well, that, and the subtitling when watching recordings or the surtitles that are now so commonly projected on the proscenium arch during live performances.
And what about the big operatic money-moments? The moments that’ll hook you whether you’re a neophyte or seasoned opera lover? Gavan’s first suggestion was the goosepimple-inducing Di Quella Pira from Verdi’s Il Trovatore, sung by the great tenor Luciano Pavarotti. Male opera singers, Gavan explained, are broken into 3 categories: base, baritone and tenor, and typifying the bone-trembling resonance of a base voice, he chose Kurt Moll and his performance of In Diesen Heil’gen Hallen from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. A sound that Gavan would struggle to replicate:
"If I’ve had a couple of pints, and I get up the following morning, [and] the voice is […] in very, very supple condition down below, I could possibly manage it […] that comes with a fairly hefty health warning, as they’d say."
Flying the flag for baritones was Swedish singer Peter Mattei, with the legendary baritone aria Largo al Factotum from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, followed by Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez, as he tackled the notorious '9 High Cs’ aria, Ah! Mes Amis from Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment. But what’s all the fuss about a high C?
"A high C for a tenor is what we call a money note, and they can be notoriously difficult to produce, and your voice has to be in top condition to sing them. Actually, a friend of mine, […] he says in order to achieve the high C correctly and efficiently, the time that you sing it has to be coincided with an entire convent of nuns lighting a candle for you at that particular moment."
The conversation went on to cover opera singers’ strict training regime, Gavan’s favourite sopranos and opera in contemporary culture, and you can listen back to the full chat here and you’ll know your Marias from your Kiris from your Jussis in no time.
- Gemma Craddock