George Frideric Handel – A bluffers guide

Giulio Cesare - October 16-17

For many of us, there’s nothing quite as intimidating as a trip to the opera. Will you understand what’s happening? Will you fall asleep part-way through act 2?

It’s much less scary once you’ve actually seen one – so why not take a chance and try out English Touring Opera’s production of Giulio Cesare? Written by composer George Frideric Handel, it has been performed frequently since its debut in 1724. Don’t be put off by the title – here’s our guide to help you to get a ‘handel’ on this titan of the opera world.


Born: 1685

Died: 1759

Notable works: Water Music, the Hallelujah chorus, Giulio Cesare

You might not know: When the young Handel showed an interest in music, his father disapproved. His mother smuggled a mini piano upstairs for her son to play when his father was out.

Worth knowing: Beethoven considered Handel to be the greatest of his predecessors, reportedly saying: “I would bare my head and kneel at his grave”.

Worth hearing:



The Opera

When English Touring Opera arrive next month, they will perform the two parts of Handel’s epic opera, Giulio Cesare. It tells a story that you might recognise from Shakespeare’s plays Julius Caesar and Antony & Cleopatra, as well as TV shows like Rome (which starred Ciaran Hinds as Caesar).

Based on events during Ancient Rome’s Civil War, Giulio Cesare follows Julius Caesar – general, warrior, and Rome’s first emperor. In the year 49BC, his army is thrashing Pompey’s forces. Desperate, Pompey travels to Egypt to beg the Pharaoh, Ptolemy, for help, but is betrayed. Meanwhile, Cleopatra plots to oust her brother and rule Egypt alone…

It’s a sweeping tale of war, power, passion and revenge, as these different factions attempt to outmanoeuvre each other and seize control. Think of it as Game Of Thrones with better music!

With such a long story, the opera is split into two parts, titled ‘The Death Of Pompey’ (spoiler!) and ‘Cleopatra’s Needle’. They will be performed across two consecutive nights, telling the full story between them – but you can always come along for just the first night before committing yourself to both!


The Music

Giulio Cesare
Image by Oliver Rosser

Giulio Cesare was written in the early 1720s, which puts it firmly in the ‘baroque’ period. This was a term coined by critics of the day, and it literally means ‘oddly shaped pearl’. That might sound strange, but those critics meant it as an insult – they considered the music of Handel and his contemporaries to be overly ornate and exaggerated. These days, that negative connotation is gone, and we use the term to refer to any of the wonderful music written between 1600 and 1750.

The music for Giulio Cesare will be performed by The Old Street Band. They’re a baroque orchestra, who perform on authentic period instruments.

As orchestra manager Jim O’Toole explains:

“We are attempting to recreate the soundworld of the composer by using the type of instruments that would have been used at the time.

“We use historical evidence about how musicians played to inform our playing style. Hopefully, this creates an exciting atmosphere for the audience and one that is similar to what the composer intended.”


Opera Glossary

If you want to sound like you know what you’re talking about, commit a few of these opera phrases to heart, and just drop them into the conversation every now and then.

Aria: This is the major solo vocal piece in opera. The name comes from the Italian for ‘air’, and it’s a chance for the singer to express emotion and showcase their voice. An aria pauses the plot to focus on the emotion or thought.

Chorus: A group of singers whose job it is to support performers playing the main characters. They set the scene and the mood.

Duet: Like an aria, but between two singers, who express their feelings to one another and to the audience.

Libretto: The opera equivalent of script that you’d find in a play, a libretto (from the Italian for ‘little book) is the words, written by a librettist – in this case, Giacomo Francesco Bussani.

Recitative: A sort of speech-singing, in which the words are chanted in a way that relates to how they would actually be said. This tends to do the heavy lifting of moving the plot along, and it is sometimes seen as a precursor to modern-day hip hop.


The singers:

Bass: The deepest voice in opera

Basso Buffo: Takes the comedy roles

Baritone: A male voice, higher than a bass

Countertenor: A male singer who has trained his voice to perform the higher (falsetto) notes

Mezzo-Soprano: The mid-range female voice.

Soprano: Sings the high notes. They can be either lyric sopranos (light and airy) or dramatic sopranos (a fuller, richer voice)

Tenor: The highest voice among male opera singers


English Touring Opera perform Giulio Cesare here on the 16 & 17 October. Buy tickets now at Norwich Theatre Royal.