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Debate: Informed performance - should we read up before attending a show?

Does reading synopses and contextual information beforehand detract or enhance an experience?

By Chris Shipman (Content Producer (Social Media and News))

26 September 2013 at 3.33pm | 18 Comments

It's a common dilemma - wanting to fully understand the intricacies of plot in a ballet or opera without spoiling a thrilling twist in the drama. There are also productions that are a complex reaction to the work, the enjoyment of which may be increased by knowing something about the work become attending a performance.

Should we read up about a piece in advance or experience the performance 'blind' and in the moment?

The Royal Opera House offers a range of contextual information through our own website, YouTube and social media channels, as well as richly detailed programme articles. These methods of enriching artistic experiences are popular, but there seems to be a question mark over how much we should reveal (and how much people should have to read or watch) before, during, and after performances.
 Ahead of two ambitious and complex Royal Opera productions Les Vêpres siciliennes and Parsifal – let us know what you think using the comments field below:

Do you like to read up before a performance, or do you think it is important to see a production fresh, with no sense of what is in store?

A selection of your comments from Twitter:

Les Vêpres siciliennes runs from 17 October – 11 November 2013. The performance on 4 November will be screened live in cinemas around the world.

Parsifal runs from 30 November - 18 December 2013. The performance on 18 December will be screened live in cinemas around the world.

By Chris Shipman (Content Producer (Social Media and News))

26 September 2013 at 3.33pm

This article has been categorised Off stage and tagged by Stephen Langridge, context, debate, informed performance, Les Vêpres siciliennes, Les Vpres siciliennes, Parsifal, plot, Production, programme, Social Media, synopsis, twitter

This article has 18 comments

  1. Chandra responded on 26 September 2013 at 8:50pm Reply

    I like to know a bit - especially for the complex ballets and operas with lots of characters and scene changes. But even children can understand ballet and opera without having everything spelled out for them, and they quickly form their own ideas and opinions. I like to do the same. If I want to know more, I can find it out later - and hopefully, see it again with a better understanding!

  2. Since it's a header picture from 'Onegin', the best Tatiana I ever saw was Alina Cojocaru, and she prepared by reading Pushkin's 'Onegin' in the original Russian. I think a healthy respect for whatever you are adding to in an artistic 'cannon' is important, particularly if you want to establish yourself as a 'great artist'. That should entail preparation beforehand, just as an actor would begin through reading the original novel or play of any part he or she acted for adaptation ... audiences look for Shakespeare's Juliet, Pushkin's Tatiana, etc. ... and there's the added challenge for dancers to marry those characteristics with music and movement. Also, I still think ROH should consider having Alina and Johan's 'Onegin' performance on DVD; it is unsurpassed and if Paris Opera can release the Stuttgart/Neumeier 'Lady of the Camellias' ... and La Scala can release the Macmillan/RB 'Romeo' ... :)

  3. ... As for audiences, I think it is good to read up. I'd read 'Onegin' and 'Romeo and Juliet', but I wish I'd read 'Manon' before seeing it. It definitely enhances an experience when you know and love the work beforehand!

  4. Peter responded on 27 September 2013 at 3:14pm Reply

    Absolutely. Sometimes the plot is so complex you wouldn't have a clue what's going on if you hadn't read up beforehand. Le Nozze di Figaro is a good example.
    I've also seen operas without subtitles in Italy and Germany. Just as well I did my swotting before the performance!!

  5. Karen responded on 27 September 2013 at 5:01pm Reply

    It helps to read a synopsis (I'll have to read A winter's Tale if I go to the RB's new production as it's a play I know next to nothing about). I'm more interested in note and insights from the choreographer/dancers though. In some cases I think, like books to film, it actually interferes with or spoils the experience. Raven Girl comes to mind.

  6. Mary MacEwen responded on 27 September 2013 at 5:28pm Reply

    An idea of the plot saves trying to read a programme over someone's shoulder in the semi dark because you tossed up whether to buy one or to have a drink during the interval!

  7. John M responded on 29 September 2013 at 11:13pm Reply

    I think some preparation can increase one's enjoyment and appreciation of a piece. I remember reading years ago that Bernard Haitink said that you needed to do your homework. If I know the plot and the characters and their motivations and something of the political/social/historical background of the work and its main themes, then my appreciation of the performance is somehow deeper. Even after 40+ years of opera-going I still listen to a recording of a work about a week before going to see something. If I had gone "untutored" to the ROH Rusalka or the Munich Il Trovatore in June/July this year I might have missed the real point of these two works. It's obviously a personal choice but I find that the more familiar I am with a work and its constituent parts, then the greater is my enjoyment. I would say, do a bit of prep.

  8. Opera as an art form is principally driven by the music: that is the drama is communicated primarily through the score and the emotional realities the score makes possible - Wagner did this perfectly. This means that reading up before an opera helps to ground the music in relation to the staging. Opera is also considerably more expensive than film and so a sense of "ownership" tends to be important before attending e.g. nobody would or should attend Wagner's Parsifal "just for the fun of watching". Opera also lends itself to interpretation in ways that film tends not to and so it's difficult to "ruin the plot" of an opera whereas film which is linear, visual, and narrative driven (most Hollywood films at least) make it easier to ruin plot points.

    • Peter Erdos responded on 4 October 2013 at 12:04pm

      I am sorry to disagree with your last paragraph. You obviously did not see the ROH recent productions of TRISTAN, ONEGIN (the opera not the ballet) LA DONNA DEL LAGO AND RUSALKA, I am afraid to me all these productions killed the plot in every instance. I know I have very conservative views as far as opera is concerned, but if you have read the plot beforehand, you have a preconceived idea about the work and if it has not been fulfilled, you will be disappointed. If you don't read about it you will not understand the composers original idea..
      I am afraid the first alternative is the valid answer. I infinitely more enjoy productions of the Metropolitan Opera which are ALWAYS easily understandable and clear.

  9. German playwright Friedrich Schiller insisted on a prepared audience. His exact word I cannot quote now, but it is something like this: If the audience is not prepared for the scene, the scene cannot prepare the audience.

  10. IAN HERBERT responded on 4 October 2013 at 8:01pm Reply

    I think that it helps to know the plot of an Opera rather than just letting it wash over you.You are then in a better position to compare different performances.of that Opera.

  11. E Johnston responded on 7 October 2013 at 5:33pm Reply

    I think that regarding the plot if the director has done his job correctly it should be clear enough without the 'pass notes'. Personally I like the extra contextual information. I enjoyed the Royal Opera House Live in January of this year when the scenery and costumes were presented and would love to see more of this. As an aside to an earlier comment on the timeline about opera being expensive. I have frequently paid more to go to a movie in Leicester Square than see an opera at the Royal Opera House, and it is with great regret that I remember the £120 spent on a ticket to a Madonna concert.

  12. Ruth Elleson responded on 8 October 2013 at 1:43pm Reply

    I agree that a production has failed if it doesn't tell you the story. How it does that is up to the individual director.

    I take various approaches to preparation. I was specifically advised prior to seeing Mayerling for the first time that I should read up on who the characters all were, as other ballet fans had told me that in the opening scene everybody is dressed very similarly and it has the potential to be confusing. This was excellent advice, and being able to apply the context and family tree to my other available information (cast list, and knowledge of the faces in the RB) meant that I suffered no confusion at all!

    I used to prepare meticulously for every new-to-me piece I saw. However, I still remember the first time I saw "The Rape of Lucretia" (at British Youth Opera in 2000) whose programme synopsis conveniently omitted to mention the fact that Lucretia kills herself at the end. I didn't know, and it was a genuine shock. For this reason, I now rather like NOT reading the synopsis before seeing something for the first time.

  13. I always read Kobbe for operas new to me and many others. It means I am often disappointed with the production, even though the singing may be excellent often the scenery is poor and the acting also, a pathetic fight in The Minotaur.
    Do what the composer wrote.

  14. As a ballet enthusest,it is always best to be prepared beforehand particularly with the dramtic story ballets such as Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake and so on. It helps me to understand and follow the ballet with a much clearer understanding,to follow the ballet as it progresses throughout the performance.

  15. I like a bit of context beforehand but no plot details. I have yet to see an opera with a clever enough story that I couldn't follow along in the moment, and trying to guess at what twists might be coming is part of the fun. If I can't follow it because the message isn't clear or it is intentionally vague, I am happy to read up about it afterwards. I feel like opera massively benefits from repeat viewings, but you only get one first time, so why not let yourself be surprised? You can always study it and get the more enriched experience next time.

  16. Why do opera and ballet require this? Did audiences attending the original performances need to swot up beforehand? It is no wonder that these art forms have an "exclusive" label. Shakespeare plays used to have a similar mystique but productions over the last two decades have been made much more accessible by directors who have wished to make their work available to a larger audience. I remain in two minds. Opera is undoubtedly a complex art form and the more one digs the more one finds but I think there should be an immediate appeal and understanding, from which audiences can go as deep as they may wish in subsequent research and performances.

  17. Mary responded on 24 November 2013 at 3:01pm Reply

    An idea of the plot/storyline is helpful

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