Bite-sized arts and culture: Opera!

By Eleanor O’Hagan

Alrighty folks! Are we ready for the epic world of opera? 

No one ever is. We’ll start small.  

But wait! Before we begin, there are some things we need to clear up. 

Opera is not large women in historically inaccurate Viking helmet singing with obnoxious vibrato.  

Opera takes time, like a good conversation or making a tasty meal. It takes time and cannot be rushed when you’re preparing or sitting in the middle of an opera. 

You can easily look up the plot and characters and the popular pieces from an opera before going. You could listen to it before as well.  

You can never overprepare for an outing at the opera! The more you know before going into it, the better you can enjoy and understand the music and the story it tells. 

Our example is a little one act opera called “Sour Angelica” by Puccini. This opera takes place in a convent from morning prayer until evening prayer.  

It follows the day of a young sister, Angelica, as the other nuns discuss her past life and how she came to the convent. Once a noble princess, Sister Angelica had a child out of wedlock as a young woman and was thus forced to take the veil while her son was taken from her to be raised by her aunt.  

As the sisters go about their day, we learn of Sour Angleica’s talent for gardening and knowing the properties of many herbs to cure ills and aches.  

It just so happens that there is a visitor on this particular day. After the sisters excitedly wonder if their family has come to visit, we find that it is Sour Angelica’s noble aunt.  

The aunt has come to force Sour Angelica to sign over her inheritance to her younger sister who is about to marry another nobleman.  

Happy for her little sister, Sour Angelica agrees but asks her aunt to first tell her about the son that she – Sour Angelica – had several years prior.  Reluctantly, her aunt reveals to Angelica that her son died a few years before from an illness.  

Sour Angelica naturally becomes upset and laments her son’s death as she signs away her inheritance and her aunt takes leave. 

Sour Angelica is left alone as she sings an “aria,” a longer solo in the middle of an operatic work. This aria is called “Senzza Mama” and is Sour Anglica mourning over the loss of her son, apologizing for his cruel separation from her, for his short life and her absence in it. 

Sour Angelica comes into the garden as night falls and the sisters begin to sing evening prayer. She collects an herb that will put her into eternal sleep. 

As she drinks her potion, Sour Angelica promises her son that she will see him soon.  

But as soon as she drinks the poisonous plant, Sour Angelica realizes her mistake and acknowledges her sin of committing suicide. Desperate, she begs the Virgin Mother to spare her and provide a miracle! 

As Sour Angelica takes her final breaths, the sisters, inside the chapel and unaware of their dying sister, sing a hymn to the Blessed Virgin Mary and a miracle is provided.  

Sour Angelica sees her son appear in the garden. As he reaches out to his mother, he takes three steps towards her, signifying the Holy Trinity and the forgiveness given to Sour Angelica. 

The curtains close on this scene as the sisters quietly conclude their prayers.  

So, that was a trip! Now there are two reasons why it is necessary to educate yourself before going to an opera.  

One, the opera is in a different language. While most opera houses have the opera translated on a small screen above the stage, they aren’t always on time, and it can be distracting to bounce from the stage to the words. 

It is nicer to let the music take you with the story.  

Secondly, having a sense of what the story is allows you to better understand the musicality of the piece and better enjoy the story.  

If you went to “Sour Angelica” and had no idea what the story was about, you would be very confused as to why a bunch of women in habits are running around singing and screaming as a little boy walks on stage.  

Knowing the basic plot of an opera doesn’t take away the surprise and suspense of the piece – that’s the power of music, especially Puccini’s operas!  

Don’t believe me? Go experiment with it! 

If you’re looking for an opportunity to go see an opera, the Catholic University of America will be performing “The Elixir of Love” from March 21st to the 24th at their campus in Washington, D.C.  

Tickets for students are 10 dollars, and it’s a perfect way to start venturing into the world of watching performances of music. 

Unfortunately, we do not have an opera program here at Franciscan. The Pittsburgh Opera in the fall of 2024 will be performing several operas if you want to plan ahead.  

Other events happening in Pittsburgh soon include the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra performing Beethoven’s 9th symphony in late April. Dates and times to come! 

Now go listen to Puccini!