Around the time high priestess Norma realized her man was cheating with a young gal from the sacred Druid forest and she would have to kill an entire Roman army to exact revenge, I remembered something crucial. Opera is great. Why don’t more people go to the opera?
I know what you’re thinking. Opera is elite, confusing, meant for a “certain type” of person, a person who makes “air quotes.” Nay! Opera is the monster truck rally of the arts, a bountiful sensory delight with much transcendent release to offer.
Do not let the antiquity deter you. Yes, opera can be lengthy and is not often sung in English. But opera is having a renaissance amongst experience-driven young people. The form is gloriously light on nuance, which feels more relevant than ever in Florida, where many of us feel like Figaro trying to trick a variety of bloated aristocrats into behaving.
Let’s get into it, or as the homicidal clown in “Pagliacci” says, “Turn the spasms and tears into jokes! The tears and pain into grimaces! Ah!”
On somewhat of a whim, possibly after two glasses of couch wine, I bought season tickets to Opera Tampa. The David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts’ resident company has three shows this season: “Norma,” which wrapped Sunday; sad clown rager “Pagliacci”; and “Sweeney Todd,” which is not technically an opera but has operatic energy.
I purchased the cheapest seats in a back-row curve of Ferguson Hall. Unbothered! I’ll sit anywhere for a deal. The package was $90 per person, $30 a show. Tickets to St. Pete Opera’s upcoming production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” go as low as $15. That’s almost the same as a movie ticket to “Cocaine Bear.”
You needn’t be an expert or speak French, German or Italian to enjoy opera. Our local companies translate the story in supertitles above stage, making it easy to follow recurrent themes: stabbing, fiery death, jealousy, lust, infidelity, heroism, deception, eating the rich, friend-zoning, hating your lover and much, much more.
Relatable! Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci,” for example, is told in the verismo style, which means it’s about regular folks and not kings and queens. You know, just your average, adulterous, working-class clowns. Female opera characters can be surprisingly complex; St. Pete Opera’s current season showcases the women of “Fidelio” and “L’Italiana in Algeri” using their wits to free captive lovers (always with the lovers).
It should be said that not all classical opera has aged well — some works are laced with racism and sexism. Opera companies around the world are having worthy conversations about keeping the art form alive while providing historical context, diversifying productions and even eschewing some works altogether.
Opera guests do not mess: Just get lost in the fashions on the Last Night at the Met Instagram for a glimmer. This runway is not limited to New York, though. The Sunday matinee in Tampa brought out full gowns, saris, leather dresses, pink hair, sequined purses, fur coats. When a gentleman sauntered by in a red suit with matching shoes and glasses, I professed that I aspired to be a wacky opera person of a certain age, sipping champers and saying things like, “I just knew she would be burned on the pyre!”
Spend your days with Hayes
Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
The modern world, a world in which the feds shooting down mysterious flying objects ranks strangely low on the collective alarm scale, can feel like too much. We must find small, healthy ways to metabolize crises and avoid throwing a 10-pound bag of potatoes through a window.
Opera is one small, healthy way. The whole conceit is that everything is too much. The emotions swell so large that the actors have no choice but to sing, as if a force has reached inside their bodies and retrieved the depths of human suffering, confusion, betrayal, hope and maniacal intrusive thoughts. Swap the infinite scream into a couch pillow after an hour of CNN for a dazzling soprano that twinkles to the rafters.
It is therapeutic to sit in a dark, cool theater, close your eyes and listen to a classically trained singer wail, “Blood, blood! Revenge!” in Italian. I want this feeling for you, this license to feel big feelings in a tense time. I want it as much as Norma inexplicably wanted the love of the dreaded Roman proconsul Pollione, even though he was a terrible, high-testosterone oaf who deserved the fire stick. Please, let’s discuss.
If you go
Find information and tickets for Opera Tampa and St. Pete Opera’s seasons here and here.
Get Stephanie’s newsletter
For weekly bonus content and a look inside columns by Stephanie Hayes, sign up for the free Stephinitely newsletter.