Hows and Whys of Opera

You Think Opera Sucks? This Lady Doesn’t


So, What Is Opera Anyway? Let’s Ask Wisława Szymborska



Photo by Mariusz Kubik. Source: Wikimedia Commons

(…) The opera world has been managed by tough personal politics. Family relationships have been established by iron relations, as in primal tribes. A soprano is bound to be the daughter of a bass, the wife of a baritone and the lover of a tenor. A tenor is prohibited from fathering an alto or having a sexual intercourse with a contralto. A baritone paramour is a true rarity and he’d better look for a mezzosoprano. For that matter, mezzosopranos should be careful with tenors, as their fate usually leads them into the role of “someone else” or an even more miserable position of a soprano’s friend. The only bearded lady (see Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress) in the history of opera is a mezzo and, naturally, she is unhappy. Basses are almost universally fathers, cardinals, infernal forces, prison officials, and there is one manager of a mental hospital. However, the above notes shouldn’t lead to any conclusion. I respect opera which is not real life and life which is sometimes a real opera.

Excerpt from Nonrequired Reading by Wisława Szymborska

Don’t blame Wisława for this excerpt’s formal shortcomings, if any. Blame the lousy translator, i.e. me.

Want some more opera quotes? Check out this article. It’s only half as boring as most of those endless lists of quotes you might find elsewhere on the internet.

10 Hateful Quotes About Opera You Can’t Help But Agree With

All of us like to swallow a piece or ten of instant wisdom every now and again. Even if it is about opera. We are just too lazy to read lengthy papers on any topic and prefer to get enlightened by short and catchy tunes known as QUOTES.

Unlike compilations of affirmative quotations that can be found on the web, this one is intended to make you think twice before you book those tickets for an opera performance. Or, if you are an exhibitionist, so-called out-of-the-box kind of person, maybe you will embrace the opportunity all the more eagerly. The latter would be even better because we are always in need of new motivational and demotivational quotes. (You’re welcome to contribute by sharing them.)

Let’s begin with one that addresses the very essence of opera.

1) If you wish to know what OPERA is, I shall tell you that it is a fantastical work of Poetry and of Music, in which the Poet and the Musician, equally embarassed the one with the other, take great pains to turn out an evil work.

Charles de Saint-Denis de Saint-Évremond

This 17th-century man of letters was apparently malevolent and did what opera hates the most – deconstructing its structure. Yes, it is usually bad poetry and loose drama. Yes, the music can sometimes be not-so-good if one would extract it for some reason. But music and poetry are interdependent when woven into an opera and therefore should be taken as a whole, just the way they were meant to be.

2) The opera is like a husband with a foreign title: expensive to support, hard to understand, and, therefore, a supreme social challenge.

Cleveland Amory

Many sexists would, no doubt, compare it to a wife rather than a husband. Hysteria, blabbering and repeating all kinds of nonsense all the time, when all a man needs while resting in his armchair and smoking a pipe is some peace and tranquility.

But does one really need a foreign-titled spouse that comes with all sorts of complications and is hard to support? Let’s see an answer to this question, provided by a famous composer and conductor.

3) I once said that the most elegant solution of the problem of opera was to blow up the opera houses, and I still think this true.

Pierre Boulez

Ok, chère Pierre. We know you were an old complainer who struggled with the very concept of opera. And refused to conduct anything Italian, because opera is, more often than not, Italian. And who hated contemporary opera too. And tried to compose one, in vain. And made a controversy out of Wagner’s “Ring” (for which you earned our eternal gratitude). Blowing up art ventures is such a modern thing to do. But we live in a postmodern era now, so we are way past that. Better than exterminate a supposedly outdated art form, let’s laugh at it. That way it will still continue to exist, as a guilty pleasure to enjoy when no one can see us.

4) I love Wagner, but the music I prefer is that of a cat hung up by its tail outside a window and trying to stick to the panes of glass with its claws.

Charles Baudelaire

Admittedly, there’s much to hate in Wagner. But instead of deciding between Wagner and a cat, we can mix them together, just like an Imgur user did.

Such a spicy comment on Wagner, however, came from a poet who was his ardent worshipper, as you can see for yourself in his fan letter.

5) The thing to do for insomnia is to get an opera score and read THAT. THAT will bore you to death.

Marylin Horne

Reading can be an awesome way to lull oneself into sleep. But reading an opera score, when you are a singer, usually means reading it out loud. Really loud. The great American mezzo-soprano left us to imagine what kind of dreams it could lead into.

6) Real life is imparted to the opera by the use of prisons, daggers, poison, the writing of letters on stage, bear and wild bull hunts, earthquakes, storms, sacrifices, the settling of accounts, and mad scenes…

Benedetto Marcello

Opera stagings in the baroque era were full of unearthly (but alas! all too earthly) effects such as these observed by Marcello, who was – guess what – a composer. In his 1720 satirical essay “The Fashionable Theater”, which you can read online if you read Italian, he mocks the burlesque he thought opera had become thanks to vainglorious divas and social machinery that was supporting it all. We can suppose he was a well-minded critic. Perhaps his rancor was directed to his contemporaries rather than the opera itself as an art form. But even if it weren’t so, it’s a nice piece of rancor.

Marcello, you aren’t alone. Even the haters of our time either detest opera’s excessiveness and dramatic implausibility or reproach any effort to modernize it by bringing it closer to the modern theater. Both fractions are and aren’t right, because us opera lovers enjoy it for its overabundance, as well as its flexibility and power to transform and, thereby, survive.

7) Of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive.


A-ha! Here is the precursor of today’s hypocritical rants. Like all the blockbuster movies and TV series weren’t expensive. Like opera is the worst money-drainer. Like it didn’t require hundreds of persons on, below and off the stage in order to be performed. Finally, like all the kings and nobles ever haven’t been willing to support opera AND theater AND all other kinds of amusement available.

8) I hate the opera. I think I must have a tin ear. No matter how hard I concentrate it still sounds like a bunch of Italian chefs screaming risotto recipes at each other.

Aristotle Onassis

We can’t say Onassis didn’t have an opportunity to hear a good opera singer. In spite of the fact he was made of money, he apparently wasn’t too fond of this type of extravagance, not even after he captured Maria Callas’ heart. No wonder she neglected opera while enjoying their love adventure. There is no place for singing out the “Ah’s” and “Oh’s” of opera when you’re trapped with someone who can’t stand it.

9) Going to opera, like getting drunk, is a sin that carries its own punishment with it, and that a very serious one.

Hannah More

Madame More was, as Wikipedia would have us believe, a philanthropist, as well as a religious writer and a moralist. She was also a prominent opponent of female education, because women, in her opinion, had better things to do. Like taking care of their families. Of course she thought women are unfit to govern or take part in public life. That being said, we find her incompetent to judge opera which tends to be feminine, but nevertheless decided to include this quotation because it deals with sin and drinking.

This brings us to our last quote for the day.

10) Bed is the poor man’s opera.

An Italian proverb

Opera is an Italian invention. Although it was born in a narrow circle of intellectual aristocrats who fancied themselves as inheritors and restorers of the classical Greek tragedy, it apparently became an awesome thing to joke about among ordinary people. All jokes have a grain of truth. But is this one saying more about opera or poor people and their beds? I would think of it this way: opera likes beds, and beds like opera. Thanks to the miracle of internet, nowadays you can watch opera in bed. Thanks to your imagination, you can bring its lasciviousness to bed as well.

Which quote do you agree with most? Tell us in the comments section. Or share your favorite. Or invent a new one if you like.

Why was Maria Callas a prima donna (and what’s a prima donna)?

O Dio! Vorrei morir!

(Puccini, Gianni Schicchi)

Prima donna?

Seriously. That is so 20th century. Today there are no first ladies of opera (except in the so-called developing countries, such as mine). Either a singer is top class, and opera companies chase her with contracts, or she is not top class and she has to try even harder to make her way through thousands of great performers. But even the most sought-after singers are not divas, nor are considered divine in any way.

Maria Callas by Karuvits

If she weren’t a diva, would she look like this?

By Oleg Karuvits (, via Wikimedia Commons


No matter the anachronism, the terms “prima donna” and “prima donna assoluta” have been historically associated with Maria Callas.

Why do we talk about her right now? Because she died on September 16, 39 years ago. And she definitely deserves to be the subject of many an article anyway.

Because opera is unpleasant, and she sang opera

The first time I heard her voice was when I was 10 or so. I jumped into the middle of an aria that had been playing on the radio. I had no idea who was the singer. Listening to her for only a couple of minutes was quite a distressing experience for me. I didn’t know a thing about opera at the time, but that voice haunted me through the night. And not in a good way, I have to admit.

Our next encounter happened 5 or 6 years later. During that period I was introducing myself to opera. Naturally, I wanted to hear the most famous name. With the very first notes, I realized the voice sounded strangely familiar, and I tried my utmost not to turn it off. That aria was supposed to represent a lovely little song by a girl who begs her father to let her marry, for God’s sake!

What I actually heard was a naughty little monster pretending to be a sweet girl.

Exactly that was the reason why I remembered having heard her before. It was one of those few voices one can never forget (even if they wanted to). Her singing was all but beautiful. That voice could never be a voice of an angel or any other boring virtuous creature. She was a true opera witch. And witches are exciting. All it takes to fall in love with them is a little time and (im)patience to get to know the depths of their witchcraft. In Maria Callas’ case, it definitely takes more than one aria. So, back to my story, I picked one more aria. Followed by yet another.

Because she was unpleasant, and opera is (still) about her

Mind you: Maria Callas is probably the most controversial opera star who ever lived. Opera and controversy – could you imagine a juicier symbiosis? Wait, what is that sweetish smell of the diva’s perfume… Yay, it’s our loving brand Gossip.

Maria Callas 1958

Callas in 1958 CBS talk show “Small World” (Wikimedia Commons)


It’s hard to stay out of controversy when a singer loses 80 pounds in less than a year in order to improve their dramatic expressivity on stage. (It seems Callas was well aware of a common conception that opera singers are fat.) It’s even harder when they are fond of hookups with extravagant, yachts-loving, tone deaf zillionaires. One thing is for sure: not everyone could be dumped for Jackie Kennedy. Audiences got so obsessed with Callas that they even developed a habit of throwing vegetables at her, according to Terrence McNally.

And when this passionate, dark Little Mermaid lost her voice early (either because of the weight-loss, or because she didn’t build her repertoire wisely, or whatever the reason) and died in solitude, which many could deem quite romantic, there it was – a perfect recipe for a delicious meal to be devoured by the masses. Hard work, professionalism and meticulousness were also her thing, but they don’t make the news.

She was a diva in her time because there is something very operatic in a sublime talent that gets tarnished by different sorts of miseries. But she stayed a diva to this day – because history will remember her as the first 20th-century singer who showed that the dramatic aspects of opera had to be resuscitated in order for opera to survive. She acted the drama (which we are still able to see in the 2nd act of Covent Garden’s “Tosca”), but she also sang the drama. Which is a legacy every opera singer of our time has to live up to.

The diva doth scream too much, methinks

(Scarpia) Soccorso, aiuto! (Help, help!)

(Tosca) Ti soffoca il sangue? Muori dannato! Muori, muori, muori!!! (Is your blood choking you? Die accursed! Die, die, die!!!)

Giacomo Puccini, “Tosca”, 2nd act

There’s got to be more to opera than just sighing, crying and dying.

There’s also screaming. A part which I really, really like. One of the practical reasons is neighbors’ noise which eventually leads to retaliation. If neighbors in some lower-class district bother you as they bother me, with their quarrels and babies crying, turn the volume up and give ’em this.

Another reason why I enjoy the screaming is that it’s usually the only part of opera that I can perform convincingly, in the shower or anywhere else.

There’s a man in Amsterdam who also likes to do it. Can you imagine his surprise when the police broke into his apartment to check on domestic violence? They had received a report from a worried neighbor. It happened this year in January.

Enough with the neighborhood issues. (Although I suppose all of us would be satisfied if everyone loved opera. Police officers too. Let’s sensitize, people!)

Did they always scream?


For centuries opera has been associated with agitated divas and earsplitting sounds they make. Here is what Jean-Jacques Rousseau had to say about it, back in the 18th century:

What you could not possibly imagine are the frightful cries, the long-drawn-out groans which fill the theatre throughout the performance… One sees the actresses, almost in convulsions, violently extracting this screeching from their lungs, their fists clenched against their breasts, their heads held back, their faces inflamed, their blood vessels swoolen, their stomachs quivering… The most difficult thing to understand is that these screeches are almost the only things the spectators applaud.

The thing is, he was an opera composer himself. In this fragment, he was campaigning against the contemporary fad of tragic operas and their abundance of artificiality. Hundreds and thousands of those operas were to be seen in that age, defining – and reflecting – the taste of the establishment. They were sponsored by the court and attended mostly by wealthy aristocrats. (In fact, Rousseau’s only opera, “The Village Soothsayer”, was itself very popular – and appreciated and loved by king Louis XV. Which apparently troubled the great philosopher, who refused an honorary life pension offered by the king himself.) So this unflattering impression came from a critic of opera who, as so many critics of opera, worshipped it. He was just being somewhat malicious for the occasion. And wanted the best for his darling, as we all do.


They scream because we want them to

There was once a perfect reader (alongside Don Quixote), the one with a twisted, self-centered imagination, who wanted everything to be about her. It was Flaubert’s (anti-)heroine, Madame Emma Bovary. Let’s see how she professed her literary taste.

I detest commonplace heroes and moderate sentiments, such as there are in nature.

Isn’t she a perfect opera spectator as well? Living a little, ordinary life, but craving thrill that escapes her, lusting after splendor which is all but decent and true-to-life. Searching for stories that are utterly useless, but they are dramatic and beautiful because she doesn’t live them every day.

Opera has always dealt with topics of love, hate, sex, jealousy, power, murder, treachery, magic, witchcraft, curses, maledictions and other mundane matters. And it has an aspiration for overdoing it, both in terms of plot and expression. Even the most simple, down-to-earth stories (and opera likes to use them as well) tend to become unnatural when sung. Especially when you sing while dying. Or sing “I’m dying” while dying.

However, it has never pretended to be realistic. The psychological base of art is the depiction of human experiences just for the sake of us getting to see/hear the heroes suffer and rejoice in our stead. We’ve suffered long enough, after all. But we’ve never rejoiced enough. Art is there to make the balance. Through reception, it converts suffering to delight. That’s what the ancient Greeks called catharsis. And I bet you can feel it in opera more than in any other art.

Let the divas scream, then. When the performance is over, I want to scream too.