The ABC of opera from ‘Tales of Hoffman’ director

The ABC of opera from ‘Tales of Hoffman’ director

By Peter Tromp

Angelo Gobbato, the director of Cape Town Opera’s final production of 2012, ‘The Tales of Hoffman’, presents here an intro to the wonderful world of opera for the curious and prospective fans of the art form who would like a basic understanding before dipping their toes into the pond.

What was the first opera that made a huge impression on you?
I cannot remember a time when opera did not form an important part – if not the central focus – of my life. I began having this crazy passion to sing when I was something like three years old and apparently what I preferred to sing were operatic arias. I think ‘the clincher’ was seeing the film of ‘The Great Caruso’ with Mario Lanza somewhere back in the late 1940s – at that time the wonderful tenor Mario Lanza was doing for opera pretty much what Luciano Pavarotti did for the present and past generation. But it was not a particular opera or aria that took such a hold over my imagination. It was rather the whole idea of opera – something that created a world that was so much larger, so much more colourful, more adventurous, more emotionally gripping than ordinary ‘real’ life that I was swept into it willy nilly and have remained in its thrall ever since.

Which opera would you recommend for people who want to dip their toes into that weird and wonderful world, and why?
It really depends on the kind of person one is and what one’s subconcious is looking for in life since there are so many different forms and styles of opera. Probably the best way to experience the melodious aspects of opera coupled with an ‘exotic’ story line and strong dramatic centre is Bizet’s ‘Carmen’. For those preferring dealing with more recognizably ‘real’ people in everyday situations there is Puccini’s ‘La Bohème’. For those preferring historical grandeur and sweeping choral music I can recommend Verdi’s ‘Aida’. These three great works can really be considered the ABC of opera. But then what about Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’ for the D and Donizzetti’s ‘Elisir d’amore’ for the E?

What are the main ingredients of the art form that you think opera buffs keep on coming back more for?
Opera can appeal on so many different levels that I suppose it is its very variety that can always guarantee new experiences and new surprises that form its main attraction. But I suppose that what ‘opera buffs’ really value is the ‘group experience’ of being swept off their feet into a make-believe world so far from the drab realities of ordinary life.

What are your favourite operas at this stage in your life, and why?
Forgive the cliché, but it is the opera I am currently working on, since that is what occupies all my time and creative thinking. But if I am not actually working on anything – a normal experience in my state of retirement – the operas of Mozart for their sheer beauty, clarity and balance; the operas of Verdi for their profound humanity and compassion of human suffering; and the late operas of Wagner for their incredibly powerful creation of primal, mytholigical internal worlds.

What is your response to people who maintain that opera is purely for high art snobs?
That I am sorry that they are both misinformed and missing out on such a potentially rewarding world of experiences, but then of course, just as there are many different kinds of food to which one may not be partial, opera may not be immediately appealing to everyone’s palate. But just like some foods, given the chance, it can certainly grow on one.

Tell us about ‘The Tales of Hoffman’ and what audiences can look forward to with the show.
‘Tales of Hoffmann’ is of course a very popular opera, and I believe it to be a good choice for a first operatic experience. It contains many easily recognisable melodic gems, such as the ‘Barcarole’ and the Doll’s song. Being made up of three different stories, it surmounts one of opera’s biggest difficulties for ‘beginneers’ – the length of time it takes for a musical story to unfold as opposed to a spoken one can make some demands on concentration spans so conditioned by video clips and channel zapping.
The current production features some superlative singing and performing from the highly gifted singers form the UCT Opera School and CT Opera Studio, full blooded orchestral accompaniment by the CPO under the inspired guidance of Kamal Kahn, and a production set in a contemporary world with superbly imaginative designs by Michael Mitchell. And then too, you may well be entertained and amused by some of the references to the works of Alfred Hitchcock, Pedro Alomodovar and others in the ‘horror genre’.

* ‘The Tales of Hoffman’ will be performed at the Artscape Theatre on November 24, 27, 28 and 29 at 7.30pm and on Sunday November 25 at 6pm. Parental Guidance is advised. Tickets cost R100 to R 175, with the Sunday performance running at a special discounted price of R50. Tickets are available through Computicket or Dial-a-Seat.