Ask the Expert: Pamela Gilmore, Opera

Pamela Gilmore, Director of OperaOpera, beloved by many, also has its share of detractors, those who are intimidated or bewildered by the plots and the perceived language barrier. Pamela Gilmore, director of opera here at the Mason Gross School, dispels those myths.

Why do you think opera can make people nervous?

Opera is frequently perceived as being hopelessly “high brow,” intellectually challenging and belonging to a specific age demographic or particular class. While it can be challenging, it can also be bawdy, slapstick, fantastical, realistic, aspirational, or just plain entertaining. It holds a mirror to all of human experience, and just like literature and music, comes in many varieties and flavors. After all, it was the popular art form of its day for many centuries, and no different from the way we think of musical theater today.

Some people find the sound of the operatically trained voice to be artificial and foreign. If you don’t like the way that classically trained voices sound on recordings, you owe it to yourself to come see some live opera; nothing can truly replicate the glory of the human voice live. I have seen people completely turned around after experiencing live opera—they did not realize the power of the un-amplified, acoustic experience, or understand the visceral power of live singing until they experienced it first hand.

What can an operagoer do to make the experience more accessible and enjoyable?       

This depends on how much time you have to devote to the endeavor. If you have 10 minutes you can read a plot synopsis, so that you understand the rudiments of the story. If you have an hour, I recommend reading the entire libretto; most synopses and librettos are readily available online. If you have more time, try listening to a recording, or better yet, watch a DVD. If the libretto is derived from a great work of literature, read the original. The more time you are able to spend preparing for the experience, the more you will get out of it.

Which opera do you recommend to a first-time opera goer and why?

 I don’t think you can go wrong with Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème. It has a wealth of voluptuous melody that is very accessible, even to those who are not big classical music fans. The plot is a heart-wrenching love story, set in Paris, and most productions are full of the spectacle that opera addicts adore. If you don’t believe me, rent the movie Moonstruck and see how Cher’s character is deeply moved by her introduction to opera through La Bohème at the Met.                                                                             

The fact that operas are often performed in languages other than English can be seen as a hindrance. What can the viewer do to overcome this?

 The advent of supertitles has made this a non-issue. Even in English-language productions, and with a cast that has superb diction, comprehension of sung language can sometimes be difficult. Supertitles allow the audience to keep up with the action of the story, and to comprehend the unfolding drama. Even small companies and houses now use supertitles with translations. So, a modicum of preparation, and the wonder of technology has eradicated these excuses for avoiding opera!

Take a peek at our opera program in From Bel Canto to Verdi, 2 p.m. Sunday, April 28, at Schare Recital Hall in Marryott Music Building, 81 George St. on Douglass Campus. The performance is free.