A Beginner’s Guide to Opera

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Ok, before I make my list, I will put this out there – mine is by no means an “expert” opinion. I sang opera and I’m a soprano which means that I’m pretty opinionated about the productions and singers that I like. The shows that I’ll list and singers that I’ll recommend are based upon MY opinion and the feedback I’ve received from other opera newbies that I’ve “guided” into opera.

I am of the opinion that almost anybody can come to love opera, as long as they are guided by somebody that 1. truly LOVES opera and 2. takes the time to ease them into it. Wagner’s Ring Cycle is a tremendous work but even I, a seasoned opera fan, wouldn’t try and sit through it. It’s too much.

Ok, having said that, here we go. I’ll put the name of the opera and then the composer. I’ll even go so far as to recommend a specific singer, if I think that they really define the role. It would take up too much space to put a real synopsis in, but if you are interested in a specific opera there are a zillion great books and websites totally devoted to that kind of thing. My favorite book is: A Night at the Opera by Sir Denis Forman and my favorite website is http://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/discover/stories/. It lists the stories of EVERY opera ever performed at the Metropolitan Opera.

1. La Boheme – G. Puccini. This is, for your viewing dollar, the BEST value with the best story and music. All around one of the very best operas out there. It has a little bit of everything; TWO love stories, a LOT of comedy and even a bit of tragedy. You will laugh and cry. The singing is some of Puccini’s best. Dame Kiri de Kanawa is a WONDERFUL Mimi.

2. Le Nozze di Figaro (Marriage of Figaro) – A. Mozart. While this is not one of my personal favorites, it is an excellent example of Mozart’s genius. The music is beautiful and there are lots of really entertaining twists in the story. Some of the most famous arias in the world are from this opera. It is another one that has both laughter and sadness in it. Figaro makes everybody laugh and the Countess will make you cry with her beautiful and sad “Porgi Amor”. Bryn Terfel is a GREAT Figaro.

3. Il barbiere di Siviglia (Barber of Seville) – G. Rossini. Arguably, the greatest comedic opera of all time. Everybody knows it because we’ve all watched Bugs Bunny; we just didn’t realize that’s what we were watching. Everybody enjoys actually seeing somebody besides Tom & Jerry or Elmer Fudd singing “Figaro” (“Largo al factotum”). It’s LOTS of fun. Coincidentally, it has many of the same characters as Le Nozze di Figaro; isn’t that handy??

4. Turandot – G. Puccini. This is operatic spectacle at it’s best. I can only recommend this one to beginners if you can go and SEE it. What makes this opera so magical is the sheer magnitude of the story. This was the first opera that I ever attended and it was the opera that opened the door to my desire to be on stage. A FABULOUS story. Luciano Pavarotti has made “Nessun Dorma” possibly the most famous tenor aria in history. Turandot was Puccini’s last opera; he died before it was completed. On it’s premiere night, Toscanini stopped the performance after Liu’s suicide aria and supposedly said, “it was here that the Maestro laid down his pen,” and he left the building and did not complete the performance of the opera. Needless to say, there was a RIOT. Can you imagine?

5. La Traviata – G. Verdi. This is another great opera because the heroine is doomed from the get-go. There have been countless copies of this story in modern film. Take for example – Moulin Rouge; Traviata story. Camille (Greta Garbo); Traviata story. Get the picture? Incredibly powerful music and a fantastic death scene at the end. Breaks your heart. BRAVO! This was the opera that Julia Roberts and Richard Gere went to see in “Pretty Woman”.

6. Tosca – G. Puccini. This is a heavyweight in that there is VERY little comedy. It is tragic from the first curtain. For sheer drama, Tosca is a masterpiece. What makes it so great is that EVERYBODY dies. I mean EVERYBODY. When the curtain falls on Act III, there is not a single principal character alive. Not just their death makes it great but, rather, the way in which they die. AWESOME stuff. This is not family-friendly, though, folks. Even though it’s in Italian, if you plan on going to see it, be very clear that this opera contains adult topics like political corruption, murder, torture, blackmail, extortion, execution and suicide. For your viewing pleasure, I would recommend this version – Placido Domingo’s “E lucevan le stelle” is absolutely heart-breaking. He is my favorite tenor ALIVE. His Cavaradossi is magnificent. This is his best role. Pavarotti may be “THE” tenor of the century, but Domingo is the better actor. In this production (see picture), Hildegard Behrens does not have a young voice anymore. She does not look like a young woman; heck she’s NOT young. But her Tosca is THRILLING. When she stands over Scarpia, the hair WILL stand up on your neck.

That should get you started. I’ll add more as I come across them. I’ll put in a few more comedies in the second installment.

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