There are very real reasons that people our age don’t like operas. When we think of operas we picture pretentious suit-wearing elder citizens losing their monocles in champagne glasses. We think of drama-free stories that last for hours, implausible emotional reactions to contrived plot developments, fat Italian men and fatter German women wearing Viking helmets standing in one spot intoning some witless monologue in a lugubrious monotone. Basically everything in Ariadne auf Naxos, in other words.
But to think that this covers everything is, at best, foolishness; 80% of any genre is terrible. You need to find the good ones, and the good operas really are very good. This should not be a surprise but there are still sceptics. Yes, the more ambitious you get with art forms, the more you’re inviting trouble. Music + theatre is always a risk, but when it works you really notice it. And let me tell you with no exaggeration (and minimal haughtiness) that some operas are good candidates for ‘best art ever’, while others are just goddamned excellent entertainment.
The easiest way in is perhaps via the comedies, and of the comedies there are few that are quite as accessible as Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (Marriage of Figaro). It is hard not to like the characters, all of which are much fuller than the Commedia dell’Arte archetypes they begin as. A lecherous Count! Scheming butlers and servants! A sexually overactive youth (played by a woman)! The story is basically about adultery, hare-brained schemes and sudden shifts in priorities, so already it’s winning as a comedy. Musically, it is continually baffling how Mozart managed to sound so good with the same several cadences in everything (and I mean everything). But beyond the energetic melodies, the farcical situations and the genuine warmth and emotion of the characters, opera is a medium where it can all come together and this is a great example of that happening really well.
Perhaps the worst thing about opera is that it’s been made into an isotropic ‘high art’ form when in actual fact many operas were just the nightly entertainment of the time. That is why doors are now closed for overtures (despite overtures originally being written so that people had music while finding their seats), and part of the reason behind the obscene prices. Look into student rush tickets, around $50 each and available an hour before each performance, to ease the pain. Aside from the prices, two of the most alienating things about good operas are that they are in foreign languages and that there’s no drum beat underneath them. After you get over these two things (idiots), check out Don Giovanni, Il Trovatore, The Barber of Seville, Carmen and Tales of Hoffman. Do not be fooled by the elderly socialites who clog up the aisles; these shows are bloodthirsty, hilarious, surreal and sexually charged. BLAM.