VERONA, Italy -- How do you make the long journey from being an opera hater to an opera lover? When does the shrieking of sopranos and bellowing of tenors resolve into lovely music?
For me, that journey took place on a real trip -- to Italy, where opera was born.
An Italian vacation focusing on opera festivals is as good a way as any to see the country. And for seasoned Italy-lovers who've had their fill of Rome, the Vatican, Venice and the Renaissance art of Florence, it is a whole new way to experience the country. For three enchanted evenings last summer, I watched opera in the 2,000-year-old Roman amphitheater of Verona. I topped the week off by seeing one of the operas, Puccini's "Turandot," a second time beside a lake in Tuscany where the composer lived and is buried. And I came back to the States a convert to an art that I had once viewed as haughty and unapproachable.
The idea for the opera trip came about when my former photography professor, who had never been to Italy, offered to pay for both of us to go there in July -- as long as I organized it. I had been to Italy many times before, so I knew my biggest challenge was to avoid the summer tourist crush. I decided to bypass Rome and Florence, but wasn't sure where to go instead.
As I was planning the trip, a co-worker in New York, where I live, invited me to attend an open-air performance in Central Park of "Turandot" by the Metropolitan Opera. We arrived late but in time to catch the best part -- the tenor's aria in the third act, Franco Farina singing "Nessun Dorma."
I was hooked. I floated out of the park, and my friend suggested I check out the summer opera festival at the Arena di Verona during my upcoming trip to Italy. I began booking tickets.
We flew into Milan, then spent a few days in Venice -- where we avoided the tourist frenzy by exploring the farther reaches of the city by day, and only venturing back into the Rialto and Piazza San Marco after dusk when most visitors disappear. From there, we traveled to Bologna to eat ourselves silly for a couple of days. And then our three-day opera immersion in Verona began.
The center of Verona is dominated by a massive 16,000-seat coliseum that has been the setting for everything from deadly gladiatorial spectacles to classical ballet to rock and jazz concerts. Despite its size, the acoustics are so extraordinary that no electronic amplification is needed. Even spectators on the bargain-priced stone steps -- equivalent to "nosebleed" seats in a ball park -- can hear every note. And there is something awe-inspiring about sitting on the same slab of stone that was once occupied by a bloodthirsty ancient, who no doubt marveled at how well he could hear the clash of swords, and the crushing of bone, from such a height.
Opera here is a serious art, with international stars, elaborate sets, a full orchestra and a chorus of hundreds. But it's also a form of popular entertainment that does not carry the connotations of class or wealth found in the States. Rich and poor, aristocrats and peasants have been sharing opera for centuries.
On our last night in Verona, the professor and I saw "Carmen" -- whose score is recognizable even to those unschooled in opera -- from the cheap seats. The atmosphere felt more like a Yankees game than a night at the Met; families brought children to introduce them to the joy of opera, and while some of the little ones slept, others sat rapt. We also realized that one of our fellow opera-goers was a man we had seen panhandling on nearby streets.
While the best upholstered seats will run you nearly $200 -- with champagne at intermission going for $10 -- unreserved seats on the stone steps are as little as $16. Cushion rentals are another $3. You can even make your own picnic when the vendors with overflowing baskets walk through the seats shouting, "Birra, soda, vino, pannini."
The opera in Verona starts each night at 9:15 p.m. with a tradition in which spectators light candles. The thousands of twinkling lights then slowly burn out, just as dusk turns to pitch-darkness.
The first performance we attended there was Giuseppe Verdi's "Nabucco." You don't have to understand Italian to realize that doom is inevitable in this story of a mentally deranged king, his good daughter, his bad daughter and the unfortunate man both sisters love.
The sound of the orchestra swelled to fill the arena; props several stories high towered above the massive stage, and eerie, dramatic lighting revealed hundreds of choir singers, dressed as the conquered Hebrews of Jerusalem.
As I watched and listened, a curious thing happened. I made a connection. It was clear to me that the part of the cruel daughter, Abigaille, was being sung by an artist with gifts beyond the others. The singer turned out to be Andrea Gruber, whose extraordinary voice I had heard in Central Park just six weeks earlier, singing the part of another fearsome character, Turandot.
Next, the professor and I got to witness audience reaction, Italian-style. At the end of the third act, the chorus sings, "Go, my thought, on golden wings" ("Va, pensiero..."), a lament for the memory of a lost homeland. After the last gut-wrenching note, the audience went wild with a foot-stomping frenzy that rattled the arena.
In the reserved seating area, the stone steps have been fitted with conventional seats on metal supports, which amplify the pounding feet into a thunderous cacophony. However, in the budget section, where the steps remain unadorned, fans must content themselves with clapping and shouting "bravo" and "brava." They must also obey entreaties over the loudspeakers that state, over and over, in Italian, German and English: "It is illegal to throw the rental cushions into the stalls to show your enthusiasm." P.S., we were not hit by any flying cushions.
The second night we saw "Turandot" from fine, reserved seats. This opera is a high-stakes quiz show -- the setting, Imperial Peking -- in which a mysterious hero has inexplicably declared his desire for the hand of a man-hating ice princess, Turandot. The hero, Calaf, must correctly answer three tricky questions the Principessa has posed, or suffer the fate of his unfortunate predecessors: public execution.
After a spirited and comic performance by his three advisers, Ping, Pang and Pong, Calaf was ready to sing the show's highlight: the tenor's aria in the third act, in which he says that no one will sleep that night as the townfolk try to discover, for Turandot, her suitor's true identity.
A spotlight suddenly revealed the tenor alone on stage. He began "Nessun dorma..." ("No one sleeps..."), with the audience spellbound, when a soda can began to roll and bounce noisily down the steps, amplified by those perfect acoustics. This was definitely not the Met! But tenor Ian Storey didn't miss a beat.
A few months later, back in New York, I knew my conversion was complete when I felt lucky to have snagged a standing-room ticket to a sold-out performance of a four-hour opera, "La Juive," at the Met.
And if you are troubled -- as I once was -- by the notion that you won't understand the words, consider the advice a friend gave me: "Forget the words! Just relax -- enjoy the singing! And listen to the music." If you want to become familiar with the story beforehand, you can always buy a CD for whatever opera you have tickets to, and listen to it while reading a translated libretto. But whatever you do, once you get to the opera, please -- hang onto your soda cans.
If You Go...
VERONA OPERA: The season runs from June 19 to Aug. 31, rotating thorough five operas, beginning with "Madame Butterfly" and ending with "Aida." There will also be a special recital by Placido Domingo on Aug. 1.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: To book tickets and check prices, visit www.arena.it or call the office in Verona at (011) 39-045-8005151. To find librettos on line, visit www.operainfo.org and click on the "Opera Archive" feature.