September 13, 2006

My new job as opera reviewer

Posted in Austria, Music, Opera at 11:35 pm by billdawson

No, I’ll stick to programming computers. But I am pleased to say that I have now attended an opera at least (and exactly) one time in my life. Last week my wife and I saw La bohème at the Vienna State Opera, surely one of the world’s most famous opera houses. Amazingly and embarrassingly enough, I’ve lived here for 6 years and never previously attended an opera at the Staatsoper (or anywhere else, for that matter.)

Well, the experience was absolutely fabulous. I was actually overwhelmed. And of course now I’m thinking, “I’m going to start going to the opera frequently!” In truth, don’t be surprised if it’s another six years until the next one — you know how it is, you get begeistert over something, make big plans, and then your day-to-day routine kicks-in and your good intentions are suddenly not so important anymore. But I’d sure like to try to make it a more common occurrence.

Here are some of my impressions about the whole opera-going experience.

First, if you’re thinking about attending an opera for the first time, I can’t recommend enough that you buy a CD recording of a performance of the opera and follow along with the libretto once or twice. If I had not “studied” before going, I think I still would have been very impressed by the atmosphere (particularly because it was inside a gem like the Staatsoper), the music, the stage and the performers, but the novelty of all that would have worn off long before the performance ended. To be able to follow along — and to anticipate — is really a big plus and makes it much easier to hold your interest. In fact, our seats did have the little screens that show the libretto (in either English or German), which means I could have followed along fairly well even if I had not studied. But still, the ability to anticipate what was coming up next made it much more rewarding. I studied enough beforehand that I was actually able to think, at points, things like “Oh, I like the part that is coming up — it’s humorous” (such as when I knew the dancing around and goofing off in the garrett in Act 4 were coming up soon.)

Another important thing is to dress comfortably. I was thinking about wearing my suit (something which I don’t need to do at my job and which I hate to do in general), since many people do indeed dress formally for the opera (particularly on this night, since it was the opening of the season), but my wife convinced me to dress “nice” yet more comfortably. That meant, for me, some dark slacks and a button-down shirt — no tie, no jacket (it was a warm night.) Thankfully, I took her advice. I was very comfortable during the 2.5 hours, and yet I did not feel self-consciously under-dressed. We sat in the second row (the tickets were a gift), which upped the ante a bit on the dress code, but still I didn’t feel weird at all. In fact, I noticed that two tourist-looking guys at the end of our row were in jeans. (Funny how “we” humans often feel better as long as we can spot at least one nearby person who offers a more extreme example of something about which we might be self-conscious. Or am I the only one? Should I not have admitted that?)

Finally, though the second row was truly fabulous — I enjoyed looking into the pit and watching the orchestra — I think I would be more likely to recommend sitting at least several more rows back, because the nearness of the orchestra actually overwhelmed the singing a few times from our perspective. I think had we been sitting back a bit, those strong voices would have won out over the pitted orchestra. But where we were, it wasn’t too difficult for the orchestra to drown out the singing now and again. It wasn’t such a big deal, but I think next time I’d rather sit back a bit.