For opera novices, Center for the Arts provides a guided tour through Verdi Workshop to visit Kennedy Center


November 20, 1992|By Rona Hirsch | Rona Hirsch,Contributing Writer

Watching "Operaman" on television's "Saturday Night Live" might be the closest some of us ever get to attending an opera. But for seven students at the Howard County Center for the Arts in Ellicott City, that's not nearly enough.

The students are members of the Opera Workshop, a six-week class ending today in a trip to the Kennedy Center for the Washington Opera's presentation of Verdi's "Otello."

The group will also be guests at a small reception before the performance.

The class met every Wednesday for the last four weeks to discuss "Otello," and will return next week to review the performance.

"We're kind of taking a walk through an opera," said instructor Ann Honig about her innovative workshop. "The goal is to have people prepared with all their antennae out and perceive what's going on."

The pioneer program, in its second year, rejects the standard method of teaching opera by its libretto and concentrates instead on the music.

"Just knowing the text isn't enough," said the 66-year-old Columbia resident. "We could look at the text and could see what they're saying, but by understanding the music, we could see what they're feeling.

"There are more clues, more subtle nuances in the music. Then, by enjoying the visual spectacle and listening to the gorgeous music with all the antennae operating, you can appreciate it."

Ms. Honig also stresses the study of theme and different styles of the composers, using piano and video to explain the story.

"Other classes give a synopsis and then view an act of the opera," she said. "I don't want them to just know the general story line, but know what is happening right in that minute when the character is singing."

To achieve that, Ms. Honig plays a small portion of the video for about 10 minutes, pointing out sudden changes in rhythm or tempo that indicate a change in emotion or the direction the story is taking.

"Ann might ask, 'Did you notice the smooth tempo? He's trying to woo the lady,' " said Aimo Hill, an avid opera fan from Annapolis and one of four returning students. "Then the class would see 10 more minutes of the video to see how the opera unfolds."

To illustrate how the music paints a picture, Ms. Honig would play excerpts of an aria, or solo, on the piano, pointing out melodies that are signature trademarks of a character.

She would then flip on the video to that point in the story so that even a novice, such as student Carole Heck of Baltimore, becomes adept at listening for changes in mood.

"I never realized that the soprano sings in a certain way because she's conveying something," said Ms. Heck.

"And if you don't have a musical ear, Ann will play [a few] notes [of it], so you become familiar with it. It's something you wouldn't otherwise pick up."

The soft-spoken instructor, who co-teaches the course, "Piano Perspectives," at the center, constructed the curriculum for people of average ability after attending operas and finding it difficult to keep up -- despite the several opera courses she had taken.

"No matter what, I would go to the opera and would still be lost," she said. "I found these courses had nothing to do with going to the opera and enjoying it.

"You had a full head of knowledge but couldn't go there and enjoy the music and love it.

Because operas are usually performed in the language in which they were written, English translations of the libretto have become available.

Opera has also gone high-tech -- opera houses now flash subtitles across a screen above the stage.

But Ms. Honig finds these innovations to be more of a distraction than a help.

"If you don't know what's going on, you're reading the libretto, or text, using a teeny flashlight, then looking at the screen," she said. "And sometimes, you'd look up at the stage. I thought it had nothing to do with enjoying opera."

Last year, Ms. Honig approached the Arts Center with the idea of a workshop that would prepare students for a specific opera they could attend together.

She then contacted the Kennedy Center, which was slated to present Mozart's "Don Giovanni," to see "if there would be

something special it could do for the class."

The center was enthusiastic, offering to take the class on a 45-minute backstage tour before the performance.

Approximately 15 students signed up, but their enjoyment of the show was curtailed because of a sudden musicians' strike. "There were two pianos and that was really a disappointment," Ms. Honig said. "But even so, they loved it."

For a spring workshop, Ms. Honig is turning her sights on the Baltimore Opera Company. She hopes the move will lower the course's current tuition of $125, a fee that includes the Kennedy Center's pricey $60 ticket.

She also hopes that her course will help destigmatize opera as entertainment for that high-falutin' cultural elite. "It's sad that opera has taken on this elitist aura, where everywhere else, like Italy, it's musical theater," she said.

"Here, it has this aura of being inaccessible, like certain kinds of modern art. People won't go because they don't understand it. But it is understandable -- if they take a little time to understand it."

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