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How to enjoy a night at the opera

Operatic performance is only boring if it's done thoughtlessly; it's impossible to be bored if you know what to listen for

Ekaterina Sadovnikova and Quinn Kelsey star in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Rigoletto in 2011.

B e honest: If we played a little game of word association and I said, "opera," wouldn't some of the first adjectives to pop in your head be "long," or even "boring"?

In opera circles, we have a saying, "park and bark." Its meaning is fairly self-explanatory: The practice of parking oneself in the middle of the stage and barking out an aria (a stand-alone section of solo singing). It's an unforgiving, accurate term for something that happens a lot on the opera stage; it has negative connotations, suggesting that if we're watching a "park and bark" production, we're about to hear some great singing coming from a static, unchanging stage.

The rumour that opera is boring isn't entirely unfounded, and it's part of what can intimidate people who are curious about opera from buying a ticket and trying it out.

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Fortunately, I'm about to offer you some tools to not only help you enjoy your night at the opera, but to send you confidently into the polarizing intermission conversation that seems to pair so well with a bevvie.

Our exemplary subject is Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto, written in 1851 to a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. Rigoletto was almost censored into silence when it was first written; it's based on Victor Hugo's Le roi s'amuse, an 1832 play that depicts a king (Francis I of France) as a lying, debaucherous womanizer. If that sounds like a good story, you're right – and we're lucky that Rigoletto underwent enough alterations to escape the censors and become one of opera's staples in the repertoire.

It's full of famous tunes, and it's got the makings of a great story: an underdog protagonist, an assassination plot and a tragic ending.

Even better: Rigoletto is an opera that makes exceptional demands on its cast of singers, and to hear it sung well in live performance is a special experience.

Rigoletto belongs to an operatic style called bel canto, Italian for "beautiful singing."

The most notable trait of bel canto operas is that the voice is thrust to the very top of the aesthetic hierarchy – composers of this style clear away anything that overshadows or distracts from the singer. Among professional singers, tackling bel canto opera really is to separate the men from the boys.

With such a reverence for the voice, it makes sense that bel canto operas are often synonymous with "parking and barking." It happens in Bellini's Norma, when the title character sings her famous number, Casta diva ("Chaste goddess"); the aria is essentially a prayer, and the soprano playing Norma traditionally sings in a stand-and-deliver style. It happens in Donizetti's The Elixir of Love, when Nemorino sings his aria Una furtiva lagrima ("A furtive tear"); he has pined for Adina throughout the opera and, when we get to this moment of hope ("She loves me!" he exclaims), there's nothing to do but stop the action and simply emote.

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The "park and bark" aesthetic goes quite well with this kind of opera; if the voice is to be the primary focus, what better way than for the singer to do nothing but sing? Yet considering that watching one of these operas will have you in your seat for roughly three hours, that can get dull, quickly.

In reality, it's only boring if it's done thoughtlessly. It's impossible to be bored by excellent singers singing a well-crafted opera; all you need are some tips on what to listen for.

Most importantly: These bel canto arias warrant a little stillness on the stage. In the same way that a Shakespearean soliloquy encourages an actor to pause the plot and focus on a singular crisis or emotional state, so function the arias in a bel canto opera. They're a moment of feeling, where the story slows down and the whole experience – voice, text and orchestra – is your chance to become this character and feel what they feel. In the first minutes of Rigoletto, the Duke of Mantua sings Questa o quella ("This woman or that woman"), about his non-discriminatory pursuit of the female sex, and you can hear in the music everything you need to know about the Duke: He's overconfident, oversexed and rarely hears the word "no."

There's one more reason you may go to the opera and notice an unmoving stage: The orchestra plays a role of its own. Great opera composers write their orchestra parts to stand for all that is unsaid, or unsung, onstage. From the music in the orchestra pit, you hear raised eyebrows, lying pickup artists, fear, humiliation, lingering curses and, in the case of Verdi's Rigoletto, an entire thunderstorm, from the first flickers of lightning to the insistent howls of rain and wind. The great conductors relish the chance to let you hear all of this.

Rigoletto is a later example of bel canto opera, and these arias call for a little respect (and applause) for the singers who pull them off. The music written for the main characters – the court jester, Rigoletto, his daughter, Gilda, and his boss, the Duke of Mantua – are extraordinarily difficult and demanding; singers train for decades in order to simply begin to learn these roles, and it can take years more to sing them consistently well. The Duke's part is written quite high – even for a tenor – and arguably grows more difficult as the opera progresses. In the case of Gilda, Verdi's writing asks the soprano to hold her own over a large orchestra and singing duets with the formidable voices of the Duke and Rigoletto; she also has to sing extremely high, and it takes technical prowess to be able to deliver those stratospheric notes without sounding like a chipmunk next to her castmates.

The opera is full of opportunities for the singers to show off and push the limits of what Verdi's music demands; in most cases, it's the decision to sing optional notes, usually higher than what's originally written. Opera singers are the classiest of exhibitionists.

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Rigoletto is an opera that makes exceptional demands on its cast of singers, and it’s a special experience to hear it sung well.

Rigoletto tells one of the most substantial, most human plots in the operatic canon. In his arias, duets and (infamous) quartets, Verdi certainly places the singers front and centre; yet in a more modernist approach to the style, the composer helps the story advance through these stand-alone numbers. A character may begin an aria in one emotional state and finish it in another. It's why often in those moments, the journey made in the music and text is the only movement you'll see onstage.

In Act I, you'll hear Caro nome ("Dear name"), one of the opera's many famous numbers. It's sung by Gilda, Rigoletto's overprotected daughter, who has just fallen for a man whose name she thinks is Gualtier Maldè (it's not). Gilda begins from the place of a young woman, properly flustered and blushing after being swept off her feet by this man; by the end of her aria, she's in full mating-cry mode. It's as though Verdi has written a musical version of a woman's sexual awakening.

A great soprano will seem to pant with anticipation in the first few minutes of Caro nome; Verdi writes stuttering, broken lines for Gilda as she describes her "Gualtier Maldè," punctuated by sexy upward portamenti (Italian for "carrying," when the singer slides between two pitches). Listen for the ease the soprano brings to the gentle jabs up to high Bs, and the stretchy, jazzy riff she sings up to a high C-sharp about halfway through the aria. The real test comes at the end, as Gilda sings her cadenza (an unaccompanied chance for singers to show off their best tricks); often the hardest part for the soprano is to stay in tune, so that when the orchestra joins her on her last note, it sounds magical, not twangy.

In Act II, you'll hear Cortigiani, vil razza dannata ("Courtiers, vile cursed race"), sung by Rigoletto himself, who is justly upset over the kidnapping of his daughter. His aria is directed at the crowd of faces who helped abduct her, and he goes from hurling hate at the mob to begging them to return Gilda safely. It's hard not to get chills at the start of this aria, with all the rage and venom written into Rigoletto's singing; by the end of it, Verdi tugs hard at your heartstrings, giving Rigoletto a weeping, desperate melody that could only be heard in a parent who has lost a child.

Verdi's writing for the baritone voice is so coveted by the low-voiced that there's a whole category for the occasion: the so-called "Verdi baritone." These roles – of which Rigoletto is one – demand a balance of strength and beauty in the voice, a sound worthy of playing a leading character. Verdi baritones need excellent technical control over the top end of their range, which is why many of the leading Rigoletto singers opt for that unwritten high A-flat at the very end of the opera (it's fun to take bets at intermission over whether or not he'll do it). Freakish high notes aside, the art of singing beautifully in the higher end of his range – and maintaining that sound for an entire opera – is the true pinnacle of a Verdi baritone's skill.

Here's an interesting twist: The most famous tune of the show is arguably the least emotionally interesting. La donna è mobile ("Women are fickle") is immediately recognizable from its first thrusting chords; it's sung in Act III by the Duke of Mantua, Rigoletto's boss and the man who told Gilda his name was Gualtier Maldè. He's not a great human being, and it's no coincidence that Verdi writes him an aria – a fairly sexist and oversimplified description of the female population – without an emotional trajectory. Men who already think themselves great tend to evolve the least.

The role of the Duke is a Mount Everest of sorts for tenors; he has tricky parts to sing in his duet with Gilda, and in the well-known Rigoletto Quartet in Act III. On top of that, he has three arias – all of them difficult, and one of them very, very famous. There's a certain kind of pressure that is not for the faint of heart to belt out the high B's in La donna è mobile (a different beast entirely from the more common of tenor tools, the high B-flat), all the while aware that most of the audience knows the music well. Unlike most other opera arias, where a singer could make a human error and many listeners wouldn't know the difference, there's no room to hide in the famous bits.

Even though there seems plenty at which to marvel in an opera such as Rigoletto, it's true that in recent years many opera directors have tried very hard to resist a still stage (including Christopher Alden, who directs the Canadian Opera Company production of Rigoletto that opens on Jan. 20 in Toronto). Rather than having a soprano park and (beautifully) bark, she may spend her aria in motion – anything from doing her makeup to literally climbing the walls.

When a director does this – add action to the stage that the music or text may not call for – he or she is often urging an audience to spot a hidden layer of meaning in the music. Sometimes directorial choices are about asking questions: Is Rigoletto an opera about bad men who get away with their crimes? Does it suggest that women are pawns, currency in the matters of men? Is it a lesson to those who would overprotect their loved ones?

Of course, there's a simpler reason for what you might see onstage: Directors want to make theirs a memorable production of a traditional work such as Rigoletto. What director wouldn't want to leave his or her mark, be it for better or for worse?

Yet, often the most meaningful artistic choice – and the kindest to the singer – is to follow the cues in the music: Declutter the scene and draw attention to the singer who is doing incredible things with the tiny musical instrument in his or her throat. The real show is in that artistry, in the opera singers who are the Olympic athletes of acoustic music.

They've learned to breathe (better than you or I breathe, no doubt), make sound that's equal parts beautiful, resonant and efficient (in order to be heard over a 60-piece orchestra) and do it all while singing from memory in a foreign language and making it look natural.

In other words, don't the singers deserve to do a little parking and barking?

The Canadian Opera Company performs Rigoletto at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre from Jan. 20 to Feb. 23 (coc.ca).

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