Congratulations! You made the first step into the opera world by clicking into this entry! It’s not easy to get accustomed to a complete stranger art form. Although this is valid for most of the arts or interests, you might be further dismayed when it comes to opera (or even classical music) with the false sense of an ‘elite art form’ of some sort. Similar to appreciating a painting or a sculpture deeply, you have to spend time to understand, get familiar and eventually enjoy classical music.
If you have no background at all and you even don’t know if you like it or not since you didn’t really experience it, you’re in the right place. It’s crucial to start with the right piece, you don’t start physics with quantum mechanics, so..
There are lots of different styles in opera. Here, we won’t be following a chronological order. I will just start with popular pieces, the pieces can be appreciated with less historical or musical knowledge and continue with increased dosage :)
How to follow an opera?
You like theatre? Great. It’s basically a theatre played where every line is notated.
First rule: Read the synopsis before you begin to watch. It makes it much easier to be able to follow the storyline. Once you know the story, you just follow the singers, situations and acts.
Here, we have opera cards explaining the basics of operas.
Is every opera Italian?
No. But most of them are Italian. There are also German, French, English, Russian, Czech and many more. It is born in Italy and it spread to the world in Italian. It takes until Mozart’s time that even the discussion in other languages in opera began. (You may remember the discussion scene in the movie Amadeus)
There are subtitles, so you can follow the storyline. For the majority of the operas, there is action parts where the plot is advanced and music is speech-like (called recitative) and there is sentimental parts where a character or characters express their feelings in such dramatic way with a song-like music (called aria).
Suggestion: Not a must, but if you really want to give a chance to an opera, you should listen to its famous arias before. It’s better if you’re familiar with some essential arias beforehand. Why? Two reasons. One, is that music is appreciated by repeating. You will enjoy it more if it’s your third time hearing rather than the first one. Second, in opera, usually, an idea develops from a single small melody hints to an aria of a peak moment in the story. So, if you’re familiar with arias, you can catch those hints in the beginning. The character says something but music indicates another thing. You can even tell if the character is lying.
Which opera should I watch first as a beginner?
There is no right answer to that. I would suggest starting from the Romantic Era as this was the peak era for opera.
Here is a list for the opera beginners’. Similar to listening to music, you should explore more the pieces / composers / styles you like more to understand your own taste. Also, it’s better to experience opera in the opera house. So, I would suggest following your own opera house schedule and add it to your list. Now, we’re still in quarantine due to Covid-19, you can see spectacular productions of Met Opera free, streaming from their website.
It was extremely hard to make that list. I try to include one piece from each composer, so if you like it you should follow and explore him more (no female composer on the list unfortunately, but there are definitely great female conductors like Saariaho, but it’s a contemporary composer and I wouldn’t want you to dismiss all opera genre by getting confused by it).
1) Verdi’s La Traviata
A man falls in love with a courtesan. Pretty straightforward love story. But with Verdi’s wonderful wonderful melodies. Every but every line is beautiful, every small aria.
2) Puccini’s La Boheme
No dramaticisation. Yes we fall in love, yes it’s not what we hope for, yes we die. Facing the facts of life in struggling artists’ eyes.
3) Bizet’s Carmen
Strong woman. Dance. Spanish folksongs in operatic style.
4) Mozart’s Don Giovanni
An anti-hero. Beautiful arias.
5) Rossini’s The Barber of Seville
A little bit comedy with moral purposes. Speedy arias with wonderful articulation.
6) Donizetti’s L’Elisir D’amore
19th century romantic comedy.
7) Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci
Reality. Drama. Are they acting or is this really happening? Violence.
8) Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin
Melody. A story from real life.
9) Massenet’s Manon
10) Dvorak’s Rusalka
A dark fairytale. Injustice. Magic.
These are only the suggestion for beginning to opera. It’s not a opera must-see list which would be much more comprehensive and long. But once your ears adjust to these pieces, there’s much more to explore in music dramas of Wagner, atonal pieces of Strauss, 12 tone operas of Berg, minimalist pieces of Glass and much much more. So, it is not just this, it gets much much messy :) If you wonder how much, maybe this entry is for you.
There are so many versions of each opera. Which one should I watch?
Very very hard question. First of all, you should always prefer live performances. If it’s possible, just go to your local opera house. If you have chance, you should visit the famous opera houses in the world because they have the most budget for the best singers, best settings, best conductors, best directors and usually best acoustics and experience. When I am travelling, I always check the opera houses to catch one performance there. The most famous ones are Metropolitan Opera in New York, La Scala in Milan, Wiener Staatsoper in Vienna, Royal Opera House in London, Berlin Opera House, Palais Garner in Paris, San Carlo Theatre in Naples and so on. Also, opera festivals are dos of the new productions are created such as Salzburg Festival, Bayreuth Festival (only Wagner), Glyndebourne Festival etc. If you’re streaming online, try to watch those opera house of festival productions. Of course, it depends on your choice only; so try to choose your style (modern or traditional) with your favourite singers. For free streaming, opera vision has several choices available from all around the world.
Suggestion: We don’t listen music to enjoy it once and move on. Music is a repetitive experience, we enjoy it in every repetition. Sometimes we got bored, then some time later we miss it and we feel another form of identification with it in terms of nostalgia. Opera is just like that. And on the top of that, it’s also like a cinema. Your re-watch of it, makes it deeper because now you know the character’s motives, futures etc. Imagine Hitchcock’s Vertigo and how you evaluate everything Kim Novak said in the second screen. Is it the real her or is it acting? This feeling were not there in the first time. Opera is like that. In your second time, certain melody, certain rhythm may change your whole impression of that scene.
Another reason for the re-watch is the different productions. Major opera houses places the most popular opera pieces in their program in each season. Not just because there are still people who didn’t see it :) It’s because it’s a new production; and you wonder the director’s different approach to the same story with different staging, timeline, storyline etc. If you wonder how much a director can make a difference, you should check our analysis of La Boheme In The Space :)