A scene from the NCPA production of Cavalleria rusticana | Courtesy: NCPA Archives

The Art of Opera

And why people love it to distraction. A series of personal recollections by Zane Dalal

There is something absolutely riveting about the world of opera. Even if your connection with Western classical opera is limited, you might immediately notice that friends and acquaintances who profess to loving it, don’t love it – they adore it. You will see music divided into two parts – opera and the rest, and marriages divided into opera and the rest, and dinner parties divided into opera and the rest. The list goes on. It is a completely self-immersing art form, and has been for quite some time. It is my hope that after reading this, you will dive into the waters and acquire a love for it, if you haven’t already. A quick history is important – confined to a single paragraph below.

A quick history

The opera format began in 1573 in Florence, with Giovanni de’ Bardi. Formal evening entertainment at the time was a mishmash of non sequiturs. A bit of poetry, followed by dance, followed by a bit of singing, then dance, then a scene from a play, then a trio of players, then more ballet – a complete mess. Bardi and his group of friends – intellectuals and philosophers, the cream of Florentine society – became tired of going to entertainment so disjointed, so shabbily performed, so unconnected with the audience and so long-winded and boring. They sought to introduce a format that would have a cohesive plot. The style, known as recitative, was introduced, in which a singer would deliver a line of text, in the vernacular, but sing instead of speaking. Opera in its early dramatic form was born. It would then develop through the decades that followed, from a Gluck/Mozart model to the bel canto style of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, through the verismo (true to life) style of Verdi and Puccini, to Wagner and Strauss – each generation adding several layers of richness and tradition. It’s the verismo period that really created a sensation. The plots were taken from everyday human experiences, providing all the pathos and drama of Hollywood or Bollywood. Opera was as integral a part of entertainment for the masses as film is today.

A bit of nostalgia

My own experience with opera, like anyone else’s, has been a unique and personal journey. It has been made all the more substantive by the fact that I have been privileged to be an audience member; been involved in all stages of a production, including stage direction and singing; and even borne the responsibility of conducting performances. I hope ON Stage readers will enjoy this reminiscent and anecdotal journey.

Like many, I heard opera on LPs from an early age. The first thing you fall in love with is the voluminous sound, usually of the large choruses, so expertly sung and so expertly played by the orchestra. There is no other sound on earth that matches it for sheer power and thrust. Imagine the triumphal scene from Verdi’s Aida, with armies, priests, slaves, royals and solo voices shattering the ceiling at the top of the chord. We have all been lucky to live in an era that provided amazing recording techniques for the stellar performances of the 1950s and 1960s. So in this case, Karajan, Tebaldi, Simionato, Bergonzi, and MacNeil with the Vienna Philharmonic. Who would not be bowled over by that sound, much less at an impressionable age? The same was true of Carmen, with the thundering choruses of the Callas, Gedda, George Prêtre recording. If you have young children, I urge you to enrich their lives with this extraordinary sonic experience – the earlier the better.

Then came the live performances, mostly in London in the 1980s. Whether at Covent Garden or the English National Opera (ENO), the performances were sumptuous and created the magic portal to another dimension, which opera – when done right – always provides. I remember a marvellous Eugene Onegin with Nicolai Gedda as Lensky, and Shostakovich’s ground-breaking opera The Nose at Royal Opera House (ROH). I remember a grand Die Meistersinger at the ENO, which I must admit – and we all have done this at times – I slept through partly. These operas allowed an introduction to the drama of the voice, and the different colours that singers can employ to deliver their dramatic message. This is true not only of different singers, but also of great singers who use different capabilities of their voice to deliver timbre and colour depending not on their technique, but on the requirements of the drama. This brings us to a completely specialised conversation among the cognoscenti, who are driven mad by failing to persuade their friends to their cause. “Callas is the greatest dramatist of all time”; “Then you haven’t heard Martinelli”; “No one sings like Gigli”; “Well, then, you haven’t heard McCormack on 78rpm”; “No one today can sing the way they used to”, and on and on. All we know for sure is that whether it’s a conversation about Jussi Björling or Jonas Kaufmann – these fanatics are like soccer hooligans supporting their team, who have single malt whisky instead of beer and foie gras instead of fish and chips. Dive into these waters as well. There is no right answer, just a lot of close friendship.

The nuts and bolts of opera

Then came my exposure to the nuts and bolts of opera. First assigned to work the slide supertitles of Madama Butterfly in 1987, I realised that the relationship between a good libretto and the music is a thing of beauty. Through the ages, composers have had the fortune or misfortune of being paired with the right or the wrong poets. So much of the success of the opera relies on the right wording, which then, in turn, is set to the right words. We are often misled by the title of Salieri’s opera Prima la musica e poi le parole, but that was a parody to prove a point against Mozart. The truth of it is, whether Verdi with Boito, Puccini with Illica or Strauss with Hofmannsthal, there has to be a symbiotic relationship between composer and librettist. Where this partnership is not present, there can be huge consequences. In the case of Wagner who wrote the libretto, the music and stage-directed everything, it presupposes that he was brilliant at all three. Unfortunately, he was not. This relationship between text and music is another great joy to watch unfold. It is also nnother reason why fans are driven to distraction.

The nuts and bolts continued

I stage-directed scenes from Lucia di Lammermoor; did lighting for a performance of Don Pasquale; conducted staging rehearsals for La Rondine, Otello, Gianni Schicchi and others; and finally conducted my first opera in performance, Hansel and Gretel, in 1989. I sang in Bernstein’s Candide, and took the part of the Grand Inquisitor in the auto da fe scenes. I learnt that for things to look real to an audience, they must look unreal and exaggerated close-up, including the application of ‘opera make-up’, larger than life, and accentuating form as much as colour. The sets, costumes and jewellery also need to be fake and large up close, so that with the right lighting, they can look sumptuous and perfect to a full opera house audience. This close immersion in all things opera brings a different understanding. Opera is an imperfect art, which all performers strive to perfect. There is too much going on to get a perfect performance each time. This is almost certainly why so many great conductors have preferred to record their musical vision, rather than subject it to the vagueness of live staged performances. How long is a held pause if the soprano’s dress zipper won’t close? How long is the pause if the door that reveals the singer is stuck? How long is the phrase if the tenor has run out of steam before the climactic high note? These things that plague performers are out of sight to a critical audience, but make the field fascinating for those who have jumped in feet first. If there is an opportunity to get this close to opera, I would strongly urge it.

1989 marked a six-week stint in Bayreuth, watching at this vantage point, the Barenboim/Kupfer Ring cycle. Not only did I sit in staging rehearsals, and some private coaching, but managed to sit in the famous pit several times during rehearsal. There are several wonderful memories. The orchestra, when not in the pit of the famous Festspielhaus, rehearse on the far side of the cafeteria kitchen on a parquet wooden floor, usually reserved for tables. Above them is a mezzanine floor utilised by the singers so that they can approximate the distance between the pit and the stage. The Bayreuth Festspiel Orchestra is one of the finest in the world, drawing its members by a different custom – those who live and breathe Wagner, dyed-in-the-wool, diehard fans and who happen to sit first and second chair in their home orchestra. Here, this orchestra of world leaders and seconds know the piece better than the conductor who stands before them, and often times better than the singers. I remember a moment when the tenor singing from the mezzanine lost his place, and a spattering of 12 people from violas to celli, sang his line. I remember sitting with Tony Pappano, then a member of the Barenboim regie, now the exalted Sir Antonio Pappano of the ROH. In the descent into Nibelheim, a scene where anvils are suddenly heard in the distance getting louder, he turned to me and asked, “Do you have any keys?” I was perplexed – what did he mean? He took out his bunch of keys, and I took out mine, and we chose the right sound on the metal piping and began to create the anvil taps that Wagner has in his score. Both Barenboim and the whole orchestra looked up at us with great approval. Wagner with all the layers, however you can come by them. Pappano’s piano-playing, along with that of Legge (the younger) and the late Richard Amner, was astounding. Their knowledge of the work made their playing in rehearsal go far beyond their piano scores, and playing for Daniel Barenboim, though in the most collegial and friendly atmosphere one could imagine, must have been a daunting business.

It was a heady experience. Not only did I meet with Wolfgang Wagner, Richard Wagner’s fierce and stormy grandson, but also saw Peter Schneider’s Lohengrin, Levine’s Parsifal and Sinopoli’s closed rehearsals of Tannhäuser. There was much to learn and much to come to grips with. Things that could go wrong frequently did. Measures taken to prevent them going wrong sometimes worked, and sometimes didn’t. However, there was no one on either side of the house, audience or performer, who wasn’t transfixed by the idea of making the imperfect perfect. This is where I really understood that even at the summit of world opera, there is a whole realm of the unattainable, and that is as it should be.

With Zubin Mehta 

My connection with Zubin Mehta – perhaps the foremost interpreter of Puccini and Strauss (also Wagner and Mahler) of any generation – has looped in and out of opera, though there have been countless symphonic rehearsals to which I have been, at which I was able to discuss some point or phrase or moment. I will never forget the 1987 Zubin Mehta-David Hockney Tristan und Isolde in Los Angeles. I went backstage before the performance, unable to get seats for the sold-out house. I was not expecting the generosity of spirit that followed. “Find him a seat before down beat… and wait, hold on, somewhere where he can see me closely.” I found myself four seats behind Zubin, able to see his every move. It allowed me to understand the special power of persuasion an artiste, conductor or set designer has on the impact of the opera. Hockney’s impressionist, lollipop trees and landscape allowed one to drift into the music in a deep and surreal way. Those attending opera for the last 60 years wait with bated breath for the gasp from the audience as the curtain rises. A spell-binding tableaux, as if to say, “You came here to dream, we hope you are not disappointed.” Another reason why those who adore opera to distraction realise that it is seven different disciplines all combined into one glorious undertaking. Later in Florence, I attended the opening of the Maggio Musicale in 1989 with Maestro Mehta’s late parents. On those three days of music-making, in which I managed to sing in the choir during a rehearsal for Verdi’s Requiem, Yiri Kout conducted a marvellous Der Rosenkavalier with Anna Tomowa-Sintow as the Marschallin. I was introduced to her backstage by Zubin as Maestro Dalal, for which honour I have ever been grateful.

Which brings me to our very own efforts here at the NCPA, with the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI). The reason I have written in the way I have is to try and coax those who have yet to dip their toes in the water to come and enjoy live opera, the way it was meant to be, right here at home in Mumbai. The NCPA has the scope and the excellence to put on these productions, and we would not have the collaboration of stellar visiting singers and conductors if this reputation was not true. Come and hear a deliberately weighted operatic season, as the SOI closes its tenth anniversary celebrations. The main focus will be three performances of La Bohème Revisited, an innovative new production of Puccini’s masterpiece.

La Bohème could not be a more involving operatic plot. True verismo, the opera traces the lives of several friends living la vie bohème in 1840s Paris. A poet, a painter, a musician, a singer, a philosopher, a seamstress and other incidental parts cross and retrace paths, sharing their joys and sorrows in the manner that a modern soap opera might unfold on television. There is a huge palette of emotion accompanied by a score so adept at changing mood that the audience is transported through every stage with ease and surety. It is, above all, rapturously beautiful music that has become synonymous with any love story. Having to see a staged version of this opera, right here at the NCPA, is a chance not to be missed. In addition, the SOI also performs an opera gala, a symphonic concert and excerpts from Verdi’s Otello and Giordano’s Andrea Chénier with an international cast of singers, conducted by Maestro Carlo Rizzi. I have the privilege of conducting two performances of La Bohème Revisited. We urge you to take the leap, and bring your friends with you.


The SOI Spring 2017 Season commences on 30th January 2017 at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre. Zane Dalal serves as Associate Music Director of the SOI and is a frequent contributor to ON Stage. He blogs at www.zanedalal.com/blog.

This article was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the January 2017 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.