Opera 101

Four myths about opera and why they shouldn't keep you from trying it out

There are plenty of reasons not to go to an opera. Nobody's obligated to commit themselves to a centuries-old art form that's usually presented in a foreign language. Even in a mid-size city like Knoxville, there are other high-brow cultural alternatives that compete with opera for attention. And it can be intimidating. There are few things worse than paying to sit through something you're not particularly interested in because you—or your wife, or your parents, or your boss, or the neighbor who might be able to get you into the country club—think it's something you ought to do.

But most of the myths about opera as an exclusive and difficult art form for the rich and the initiated are just that—myths. An opera production can be surprisingly accessible; you don't need to know a story beforehand to enjoy a performance, and you'd be surprised at just how many melodies and arias you already recognize.

Here's a short guide to just how misleading opera's stuffy

image can be.


The best seats for a Knoxville Opera Company production are expensive—they top out at $88 for this weekend's staging of Pagliacci. But you can get a cheap balcony seat for $15 ($10 for students and children). Tickets for the University of Tennessee Opera Theatre performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni this weekend at the Bijou Theatre are just $5-$15. That's about the price of a movie.

Compare that to the cost of tickets for a typical rock show at the Tennessee Theatre, like next month's concert by 1970s classic rockers Heart, which start at $55 and go all the way up to $75. The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, which holds several times as many performances a year as the KOC and doesn't have to pay for elaborate stage sets and costumes, still charges up to $80 for its concerts.


Opera began as an entertainment for European nobility, but for most of its history its been a popular form, performed in rowdy, packed theaters. Italian opera, like Pagliacci, isn't exactly subtle—the characters (and sometimes the actors) are bigger than life, the plots melodramatic, the music huge, lyrical, and memorable. Pagliacci has adultery, poison, knifeplay, and clowns; Don Giovanni has even more adultery, multiple oaths of vengeance, a cemetery monument come to life, and a famous descent into Hell.

Just think about the most common pop-culture image of opera, used in everything from Loony Tunes cartoons to classic-rock radio ads: Vikings! In armor! With spears and horned helmets! It's more like a heavy metal concert than a chamber recital.


Most of the classic opera repertoire is sung in either Italian or German. There's not much you can do to get around that. But singing's only one element of opera. The musical score counts for a lot—composers get the credit, not the librettists, after all— and so do the acting, the costumes, and the stage sets. It's possible to follow the plots, as broad and over-the-top as they tend to be, just by watching the action on stage and paying attention to the emotional currents of the music. But most contemporary opera companies, including KOC and UT, also provide easy-to-see supertitles in English above the stage. It's about as difficult as reading subtitles for a foreign film.


Most of the operas you'll see in Knoxville are old and are sung in Italian. As noted above, however, opera is intended as a mass entertainment. A significant part of its appeal is the spectacle of a production: big, dynamic voices; large-scale acting that projects into the back of the balcony; lush, grand orchestration; and time-tested, passionate stories about true love and revenge. Classic Italian opera is gigantic, in both form and content. It aims for the gut instead of the brain, and it still hits its target, more than 100 years after its peak.