How to Listen to New Opera

How to Listen to New Opera

“If I wanted my ears to bleed, I’d get them pierced.”

The biggest complaint—nay, fear—about new opera is that it is going to be inscrutable, exclusive, and all around fatiguing. And I can understand. While I love the drama of a live Lulu, Wozzeck, or Moses und Aron, I can only take 15 minutes of a recording before my ears decide to give up and leave the room.

Sure, there are plenty of new operatic works that are atonal and angular, but this is not what we are talking about with Cold Mountain, nor most any other recent American premiere. A contemporary generation of Post-Modern American composers have learned from the maverick Serialists (minimalists and experimenters of the mid-20th century), incorporating these lessons into a new language that is lyrical, singable, and, more than anything, moving.

Like me, I am sure you are excited for Cold Mountain. From all reports, and from the sparkling works I know of Ms. Higdon’s oeuvre, it is going to be a thrilling and emotional piece of Americana. With the reputation of this brilliant, Pulitzer Prize–winning composer, one-of-a-kind American company, and stellar cast and production team, I am on pins and needles to experience it for the first time this August. Here are some thoughts on how to approach Cold Mountain in order to make the experience as pleasurable as possible:

1.    PREPARE A LITTLE

You don’t need to become an expert, just familiarize yourself with the material. Read a synopsis, listen to Ms. Higdon’s previous work to become acquainted with her sonic universe, and look at preview materials on The Santa Fe Opera’s website to get a taste of what you are getting into.

2.    IF YOU ARE SO INCLINED, HAVE A GLASS OF WINE (OR 3)

My basic philosophy is that “all opera is better if you imbibe a little.” I am not suggesting getting blotto, or jumping off the wagon if your seat belt is firmly affixed. Rather, having a little wine before sitting helps one to drop inhibited preconceptions and ease into the experience.

3.    TAKE YOUR SEAT EARLY, TAKE A DEEP BREATH, AND RELAX

Nothing will make you more stressed before a performance than running to get to your seat as the doors to the auditorium are closing. Sitting down with at least 10 minutes to spare will not only give you time to leave the outside world behind, but will also help build anticipation leading up to the drop of the baton.

4.    FOR GOODNESS SAKE, DON’T GET LOST IN THE WORDS

When listening to a recording, it is great to read along with the libretto. Even the most difficult material can keep your attention when you follow each word. However, at a live opera, I find the exact opposite to be true. I am thankful for supertitles, but find it easy to get lost in them. Rather, I prefer to get lost in the staging, music, and raw emotion that only live performance can provide. Invest in the total experience; you will understand what is being said. However, if you can get your hands on it, read the libretto before arriving. This is usually pretty easy: hit the gift shop earlier in the season and pick it up, usually for under $20.

5.    STOP TRYING SO HARD 

A dear friend I once convinced to see a mid-century opera with me afterwards observed: “It was like a fancy cheese plate. At first it was all very exciting and I wanted to savor every taste, but after a while it all started to smell like feet.” I think he overwhelmed his palate; he was simply trying too hard to take in every note, word, and nuance. I find it more satisfying to give myself permission to let go and take in the performance as an entirety, rather than trying to dissect it in the moment.

6.    TALK IT OUT

Once it is all over, talk over what you experienced with your loved one, your seat mates, or even on social media. Did you love it? Did it leave you flat? Did it meet your expectations? Exceed them even? What were your favorite parts? What was unexpected? What do you want to hear again? Why? Remember that as an audience member you have an active hand in making sure opera not only survives, but flourishes for the next generation. Make sure your voice is loud. It will be heard.

Ultimately, my advice as you go into Cold Mountain, as with any other modern opera, is this: open your ears, open your eyes, open your heart, and let the experience wash over you. I promise you will be moved.