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Opera: Inside the Music—An Unintimidating Guide to the Art

All-Day Program with Performance

Saturday, February 24, 2018 - 9:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.
Code: 1M2947

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Production of La Traviata at Hamburg State Opera

For the past 500 years, opera has been offering audiences spectacle, drama, astonishing vocal feats, and a marriage of words and music that makes both more powerful. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop and pianist Ken Weiss explore the musical and theatrical building blocks of the form in a fascinating day equally suited to those who want an introduction to the art and to fans looking to deepen their understanding of opera’s nuts and bolts.

Examine works by composers from Mozart to Verdi and Wagner to Puccini to discover common forms and traditions that underlie all of operatic history, and learn how the influences of singers, librettists, and composers have combined to shape the art’s evolution. Look at historical accounts to learn what the creators of classic operas were aiming at with their works, and what audiences throughout opera history expected when they came to the theater.

Performance videos and musical recordings are combined with live performances by singers of the Potomac Vocal Institute.

9:30–10:45 a.m.  Words and Music

Which comes first? Truth be told, either can lead, and each shapes the other. Explore how the sounds of words can create the music, in recitative and patter; how musical gestures are used for “word-painting"; and how composers manipulate a text to heighten its impact or take it in unexpected directions.

11 a.m.–12:15 p.m.  Death-defying Feats

High notes, delicate trills, blazing runs: Virtuoso singing has always given opera the thrill of an athletic event. Hear the ways operatic music has evolved to showcase power and agility, and how virtuoso feats have been turned to dramatic ends.

12:15­–1:30 p.m.  Lunch (participants provide their own)

1:30–2:45 p.m.  All Together

The opera composer has a unique advantage over other dramatists in ensembles scenes: If each character has distinct music, they can all sing simultaneously without the audience ever losing track of their individual thoughts and emotions. Examine some of the ways composers through the ages have exploited this tool to create ensembles of both sweet harmony and bitter conflict.

3–4:15 p.m.  Why Opera?

Great opera composers knew the tastes of their audiences, and always wrote with them in mind. If you want to know what a given opera can do for you, it’s worth investigating what its composer intended, what the audience at the premiere expected, and what theater-goers through the years have gotten out of it. Historic letters, diaries, and reviews reveal what artists and audiences of the past looked for in opera, and provide new perspectives on what it can offer us today. 

Bishop has sung leading roles with companies around the world, including the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, and the Washington National Opera. She is the founder of the Potomac Vocal Institute and is active as a teacher and guest lecturer with leading young artist programs. Weiss is principal coach of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program at Washington National Opera.


S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Dr SW
Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)