Arts & Culture

Sarasota Opera caters to connoisseurs and opera-phobes

A few months ago, I read a review of an opera in a major newspaper. It was a very positive review, but the writer's basic idea was "Wow, who knew that opera could be fun?"

It was a rhetorical question, but the answer, I suspect, is "almost anyone who has ever been to an opera." Or at least "anyone who has ever been to a good opera."

If you're not an opera fan, your image of the art form is probably shaped by the stereotypes from TV sitcoms or movies. People in tuxedoes sitting in balcony boxes. A large woman in a Viking helmet and pigtails over-emoting as she sings foreign words with an annoying voice. Men who have been forced to attend by their wives falling asleep as the opera stretches into it sixth hour.

Or maybe you've just heard opera on the radio and you think it's unintelligible.

Those perceptions are wrong.

Opera's fun. Opera's accessible. Opera has great stories that are easy to understand. Opera's gorgeous to look at and emotionally involving to listen to. Opera is far from being dry, intellectual and elitist. Indeed, opera is perhaps the most visceral of any performing art form.

Opera-curious people in the Bradenton-Sarasota area are more fortunate than most. Not only do we have a very good opera company -- which a lot of metropolitan areas of our size do not -- but it's one that makes a lot of effort to appeal to first-time opera-goers.

One way the Sarasota Opera does that is with a lecture series called "Understanding Opera." There's one every Thursday morning for the next four weeks. Artists and officials of the Sarasota Opera discuss "Five Operas You Should Know" (Oct. 16), "Twenty Singers You Should Know" (Oct. 23), "Getting Opera on Stage" (Oct. 30) and "From the Singers' Point of View" (Nov. 6).

Lectures like those can enhance the opera experience for novices and connoisseurs. So can the notes and the story synopses that the Sarasota Opera includes in its program.

But you don't really need preparation. Opera isn't as inapproachable as a lot of people think.

You can go in knowing nothing about the art form, the composer or the specific opera you're seeing, and still have great time.

"Every time I give a talk or a tour, there are one or two people who are surprised when I say that we project the English-language lyrics in surtitles," said Sam Lowry, the Sarasota Opera's director of audience development.

Almost every opera everywhere, at least in this country, comes with translations. That's been true for decades. At the Sarasota Opera, even the English-language opera have surtitles. They're not as distracting as subtitles in movies, because the sung lyrics take so much longer to deliver than spoken dialogue.

Opera's also not as formal as a lot of people think. There's no need to rent a tux, or even wear a tie.

"You'll see some people in formal attire, especially on opening night," Lowry said. "But that's because they like to dress that way. You'll see everything from tuxedoes to khakis and jeans."

The Sarasota Opera fall season gets underway Oct. 31 with an ideal opera for first-timers. "Pagliacci" is packed with familiar music -- you'll know the melodies because they've been used in films and transformed into pop songs -- and it's only 90 minutes long.

If you think you won't like opera because you don't like what you've heard on the radio, you may be denying yourself a great experience unnecessarily. When you immerse yourself in the story lines, you discover there's lots of laughter and even silliness -- it's not all overblown melodrama. Besides, grand opera is a visual art form every bit as much as it's an auditory one, and the energy in an opera house during a performance can be electric.

The difference between listening to an opera and attending one is at least as great as the difference between listening to a football game on the radio and going to the stadium. And you might enjoy opera on deeper level if you learn about it, just as you would with a spectator sport, it can be immensely fun even without any preparation.

Details: Understanding Opera series is 10:30 a.m. Oct. 16, 23, 30 and Nov. 6 at the Sarasota Opera House, 61 N. Pineapple Ave. Tickets: $25 apiece, or $75 for all four. Fall Opera Series: "Pagliacci," various times Oct. 31-Nov. 15. Tickets: $19-$125. Call 941-328-1300 or go to

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow