Why are people frightened by opera?

Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti provided the inspiration for a song selection at a recent karaoke night. Online USA/Getty Images

January 13, 2022

What is it about opera that makes us believe or feel it’s not accessible or enjoyable for us all?

I sang “Nessun Dorma” (from Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, as performed by Luciano Pavarotti, taken up ⅞ of an octave) the other night at a sparsely populated karaoke night at a bar in Tampa Bay, Florida. At first, people were thrown off by opera and by my voice singing it. They gesticulated and mimed their interpretation of operatic singing as I sang, even though they didn’t know the song. But they eventually settled into listening and watching.

Rebecca Garrett
Rebecca Garrett

I stopped paying attention to them so I could adjust the microphone distance and control my nervousness. I finished the aria in full operatic voice.

People had come in from outside to see who was singing and what was going on. When I was done, many came up to me and asked if I would come back every week because they’d love to hear more opera. Some of the bar workers were persistent about it.

I asked them if they’d go to an actual opera. They asked, “Where?” I said, “Opera Tampa.” One said, “At the Straz?” I said, yes. They said no way.

They acted like that was for other people, not them.

I told them they clearly enjoy opera, but they insisted they’d never go.

They acted as if opera were for other people, not them. I told them that they clearly enjoyed opera, but they insisted they’d never go.

So, again, what is it about opera that makes us believe or feel it’s not accessible or enjoyable for everyone?

I have to admit that even though I’ve always appreciated the art form, I also have struggled with seeing myself as part of “that crowd.” Opera was only something I watched on Great Performances on PBS or listened to, either in music class in elementary school or on my dad’s massive sound system, but so many people don’t have that exposure.

I want to encourage everyone who is seeing this to go to an opera performance this year (if it’s safe enough to do so). I want us to see ourselves in these spaces and figure out the relatable content in the dramatic stories and beautiful music, even though many operas are from generations long past.

Opera is for us all.

Rebecca Garrett is scheduled to perform in two upcoming Opera Tampa productions this season, The Tales of Hoffman and Cavalleria Rusticana, at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa. She has performed as a singer with One Voice Mixed Chorus and OVation in Minnesota, and with the Tampa Oratorio Society, Master Chorale of Tampa Bay and the Sarasota Medieval Faire in Florida; and as a brass player with Minnesota Brass and Crown Brass, and in freelance gigs.