Tuning in to Opera 2021

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A course exploring, enjoying and discussing opera at U3A Nillumbik, Melbourne, conducted by Lyn and Tom Richards

Welcome to Tuning in to Opera. Our group meets on Fridays in U3A terms in the Girl Guide Hall, Eltham. This blog offers information about the operas and composers we study - and links to lots more materials about them including live performances. Contact U3A Nillumbik to join the course.

This course has run since 2016: see this website for its first years and this blog for 2019-20.


Last arrivals push past your knees, there's chatter behind (will they keep talking?) in the pit, musician arrive. (You probably can't see them - why is there a pit?) As we wait for the conductor, have you ever wondered about the view from the pit? Here it is at Covent Garden.

The conductor arrives, you join the compulsory applause, and they turn their back on the audience ( an initiative introduced, along with that pit, by Wagner).

James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera on opening night in 1997.

Lights dim (where's your water bottle?) Chatter is quietened (as people glare at chatterers). It's the overture.

Have you ever wondered about the function of an overture for the composer, the orchestra, the audience? Here's some starter questions, taking us to our start to the term.

Apart from its other meaning about (usually unwanted) advances, 'overture' just means opening. But how to open an opera has changed radically over the years and is as varied today as ever. There's a good summary here with sound clips. And Wikipedia, as always, has more detail. A nice illustrated piece on the overture here.

Is it for getting attention? In baroque music, the overture was just music whilst an event began, but often heralding the experience to come with an orchestral flourish (as in Monteverdi's Orfeo. (L'Orfeo instructs the musicians to play the piece three times, to settle the audience). And many of the overtures we know well are clearly attention-getters. Try to keep talking as the overture begins for the Flying Dutchman!

But then came the French Overture. Led by Lully, composers provided fixed form overtures with a pompous beginning that signalled that the King was arriving, then once guests were reseated, more lively music and a dance. (The Sun King would often join in.) English composers followed the French in this approach. There's a wonderful collection of Handel overtures on Youtube here to spark your morning! But the overtures most familiar to us are those of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Does it have to have anything to do with the opera? Some overtures are completely independent pieces of music, often written for another purpose by the composer, as was the famous overture to 'Il Barbiere di Siviglia'. Not to mention that most famous of all opera overtures, William Tell. No horses or cavalry in the opera - and the gallop isn't in it either, but it has a fine history of uses!

Most of Mozart's overtures have some recycled material, though they also move us to overtures that take us into the story of the opera. Recordings of several here. the overture to Don Giovanni was reputedly written the night before opening night - but it starts with the confrontation of the Don by his fate; that was already written! The Marriage of Figaro Overture however has no mention of the music in the opera - but does it lead us there?

Do you want a preview of the opera you're about to see? The idea of overtures containing music from the opera, to whet our appetite, began in Italy. Rossini did this in the overtures to other operas - there's a good collection here for an afternoon's listening.

Later, Gilbert and Sullivan made a career of it. Here's the overture to HMS Pinafore - sing along if you know the opera!!

Ralph Vaughan Williams is reputed to have said, 'The audience is requested not to refrain from talking during the overture. Otherwise they will know all the tunes before the opera begins.'

Does an opera have to have an overture? Puccini said no - listen to the breathless beginning of Tosca, – the orchestra tells the fleeing of a terrified Angelotti and we see and hear him immediately - "Ah... Finalmente!". There's a Solti conducted recording here. (Now that you recognise the music talking, check out the action in this small production. )

Is it a prelude? Leonard Bernstein explained the difference between an overture and a prelude with typical humour in his Carnegie Hall series for young people here. 'A prelude is also an opening piece, a thing to be played first, before the main event— like a preliminary boxing-match at a prize fight.'

An overture may tell us what's happened before the curtain goes up? Wagner did this superbly with The Flying Dutchman. This overture tells of a formidable storm, and of a strange presence out of it - introducing the leitmotifs of the Dutchman and Senta and her longing as well as the village she lives and waits in.

So when he came to his cycle telling the story of the Ring, he wrote for the first one what must be one of the most spine tingling of overtures - it merely tells the birth of the world. There's a brief description of its brilliance here . Listen here to Solti's recording with the Vienna Philharmonic- with good screen shots of the planet. and then - curtain up and ....

Wagner drops us in the Rhine with those ditsy Rhine Maidens splashing around.

Or can it be just an orchestral lead-in? Shorter overtures, usually referred to as 'preludes', typically lasting around 3-4 minutes, can function either way. The prelude to 'La Traviata' is very short, hardly over 4 minutes, yet it takes us to the longing and the sadness of the end of the opera via the slow dance. introduces a key theme to the opera. Here's John Elliot Gardner's version. Then Verdi drops us shockingly into the gay social life the courtesan. Wagner somewhat similarly takes 10 minutes in the Vorspiel to Lohengrin to set up the music of the Grail and that spectral swan - and then drops us in to the small-town politics and nasty squabbling of Eva's world.

As they say in the exams: Discuss!