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The ABCs of opera with UD music prof Sam Dorf

Verdi’s Rigoletto kicks off the season for the Dayton Opera.

A SUNDAY CHAT: November 4, 2018

In this periodic series, arts writer Meredith Moss chats with folks who are making arts news in our region.

Contact Meredith at 937-225-2440 or email

Once upon a time, Sam Dorf thought opera was “ridiculous.”

“It was a bunch of people screaming loudly and it bored the heck out of me,” admits the University of Dayton music professor, recalling his youthful impressions.

But a graduate school professor changed all that.

“I remember watching operas in a class with her and she made opera seem cool,” he says now. “We would settle down for six hour opera marathons with a bottle of wine and talk about the staging, the costumes, the set design, the drama. I fell in love with the genre.”

Dorf is a musicologist and dance historian whose book, Performing Antiquity: Ancient Greek Music and Dance from Paris to Delphi, 1890–1930, will be published by Oxford University Press in December. Over the the past seven years, he’s been sharing his passion for opera with Dayton Opera audiences. An hour before each performance, he talks about the production and what they can expect to see. “I approach opera as drama primarily and secondarily as music,” he explains. We asked Dorf to share some of the basics for those who would like to learn more:

What makes an opera different from a musical or play?

Operas, musicals and plays are all drama. The difference is partly in how much music is involved.

In plays, characters in the drama talk about their problems and sometimes they give monologues. In musicals, characters talk, but when they have something really important to get across, they sing. In opera, characters do not speak at all, they only sing. This makes dramatic plots even more dramatic and comedies even funnier.

Why do they sing in foreign languages? How will I know what’s going on?

Well, there are English language operas, too, but yes, opera as a genre began in Italy and so many of the greatest operas are in languages other than English. Don’t worry, they project an English translation of the words above the proscenium of the stage so audiences can follow along, laugh at the jokes, and be heartbroken along with the characters on stage.

The good thing about watching an opera in another language is that it makes it easier for the audience to pay attention to how the composer and the singers communicate the drama through the music alone. As Tom Bankston, artistic director of the Dayton Opera, always tells audiences, that’s the job of the singer, to let the audience know what is going on in the drama even when they don’t know the words.

Isn’t an opera really long?

Listen, most operas staged by the Dayton Opera are not any longer than any of your favorite films you see at the local movie theater. The only difference is that there is no intermission during the 154-minute run time of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, whereas Dayton Opera’s upcoming production of Salome in May will be 45 minutes shorter and you’ll have an opportunity to drink wine during intermission. Sounds like a good deal to me. If you’ve sat through Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (161 minutes) or Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (201 minutes), you will have no problem enjoying a Dayton Opera production.

Why do they sing so high?

Not all the singers sing very high, there are a number of operatic voice types used in opera. The highest female voices are the sopranos: these women often play the heroines, the love interests, the virtuous characters in opera, as their high voices can float over the rest of the orchestra and other singers. Male heroes have been traditionally sung by tenors (the highest male voice type). Strong, high, piercing voices (male or female) tend to communicate power and strength to listeners (think Axl Rose, Robert Plant, Mariah Carey, or Ariana Grande). Composers of operas tend to use the lower voice types (for women it is the mezzo soprano or contralto and men the baritone or bass) for the evil characters.

What should I do before or after?

There aren’t really spoilers in opera: let’s be honest, in most of the operas written between 1810 and 1950, the woman dies at the end. So, we go into the theater knowing that it is going to be a tragedy or a comedy. Go ahead and read a synopsis of the opera before you come (there are great resources on the websites of the Dayton Opera as well as the Metropolitan Opera of New York). You can also attend the free pre-performance talk to get a plot overview and to get some historical, dramatic, or musical context for the work. Personally, I like a glass of wine before I attend (for sale in the lobby before and during the show).

Can I bring my kids?

Just like movies, not all operas are for all ages. To be honest, that’s one of the reasons I love opera so much: operas deal with real life problems. Rigoletto, for example deals with sex, murder, and sexual violence. It might not be suitable for really young kids.

Is opera only for the wealthy?

Absolutely not! Some people think the opera is only for the super rich and the super fancy. That’s just not true. There are all sorts of operas for all sorts of tastes and tickets are really reasonably priced (if you ask me). Average ticket price for two tickets to a Dayton Dragons game costs just as much as two tickets to the Dayton Opera, and you get a lot more live singing at the opera than the ballgame! You’ll spend a lot more money (don’t forget the cost of parking and concessions) at a Cincinnati Reds game than you would with an outing to the Dayton Opera.

What are opera companies doing to make it more accessible and more diverse?

The Dayton Opera offers a variety of ticket prices as well as discounts for seniors, military, educators and students which increases accessibility. They also offer hearing amplification devices and accessible seating for disabled individuals. Opera companies across the country are also trying out new initiatives to expand their audience and react to national trends. Opera companies, like Dayton Opera, are trying to correct the long overlooked contributions of female composers to the operatic repertoire. In 2016, Dayton opera commissioned a new work by composer Stella Sung and this year the Metropolitan opera announced that it will be commissioning works by two women for the first time: Jeanine Tesori and Missy Mazzoli, who had an opera performed by Cincinnati Opera two summers ago.

Is Rigoletto a good first opera?

Rigoletto is one of my favorite operas. It has everything you want in an HBO series, or an opera: lust, murder, assassins, curses, a storm, envy, and vengeance. Oh, and some great tunes, for sure.

What operas would you recommend for first timers?

There are some great operas available on DVD or streaming in  addition to the live operas available locally at Dayton Opera and Cincinnati Opera. Oliver Knussen’s Where the Wild Things Are is fantastical, funny, great for kids and adults alike. Rachel Portman’s The Little Prince is another children’s opera, but like the book on which it is based is poignant yet uplifting. Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites is about faith, and the fear of fear. This is probably one of my all time favorite operas. Not for kids at all.

What operas would you like to see before you die?

I’d love to see a staging of William Grant Still’s Troubled Island, a grand opera about the Haitian revolution in 1791 with a story by Langston Hughes, and I’d like to see Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, one of the long ones. Over four hours of pain, love and death. I’ve seen numerous DVDs, but never experienced it live.

What: Dayton Opera’s production of Verdi’s Rigoletto 
When: 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 9 and 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 11
Where: Mead Theatre of the Benjamin and Marian Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St., Dayton
Tickets: Range from $29 to $95 and are available here or by calling Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630. Senior, student, and military discounts are available. For more information on tickets or how to subscribe to the 2018–2019 Vistas Season, visit here.
More: Come one hour prior to both performances to hear free pre-performance talks presented by UD Music Professor Sam Dorf inside the Mead Theatre.
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